If you want to test a man’s character, give him power…

Greek philosopher Plato said that “the measure of a man [woman] is what he does with power”.

Abraham Lincoln would later re-echo Plato, saying: “Nearly all men [women] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

On such a subject, I understand that the minds of many will immediately run to our political leaders, especially the president. Mine would do the same. And that is quite understandable given all that this beautiful country has gone through as a consequence of fighting for and exercising state power.

Each leader seems to enter State House like a gentleman into a bar. But you only need to give them time at the bottle of power; and by the time they are thrown out onto the bar verandah as a nuisance, their pants would be dripping wet.

You may not believe that it’s the man that entered the bar smartly dressed and spoken. Look at Mugabe seated in his susu now!

However, we need not to always look up to understand how the power liquor changes and often stupefies us. Just look around, probably at the one you call ‘boss’ at your workplace or at an office bearer near you whose position comes with some authority over others.

Certainly, there are exceptions, but chances are high that you will find many of them to be drunkenly obsessed with showing that they are in charge and powerful. Someone climbs onto a considerably small position in an organization and swells like a freshly inflated bouncing castle!

Their actions scream out in unmistakable self-announcement: ‘I am in charge’.

Interactions I have had and testimonies I have heard sometimes make me wonder what would happen if these people had higher powers, say presidential. It’s such everyday sobering moments that make one appreciate the relative tolerance of President Museveni, although not to justify his perennial presidency.

You enter someone’s office and find the secretary/receptionist who looks at you like you are a pig that has strayed into a mosque. She (he?) gives you one glance and then returns to her computer, as she swings in a chair bought from your sweat.

Because you are not even welcomed with a mere ‘how may I help you’, you attend to yourself and ask if you can be helped.

Without even looking at you, she indifferently tells you to ‘come back tomorrow’ – as if she is giving you transport! You might be lucky to get an explanation. Or, if you ask for it, then her well-kept rudeness reports to duty. What if this one was the commander of land forces!

Much of the authoritarianism we bash of our leaders is personified in how we treat the less-powerful in our charge.

Observe how some of us exercise our power over maids. For working from 5 am to midnight, a maid is paid an equivalent of a pair of China shoes. This amidst barking and all sorts of inhumane restrictions on movement, speech, dress code, food, phone calls, etc.

Nevertheless, we rise to furiously condemn government for paying its workers peanuts! This is not to fallaciously suggest that two wrongs make a right. Rather, that with such misuse of power being widely prevalent in our society, it is unrealistic to expect a difference above. 

For many of the leaders, on top and their excesses are creatures of these everyday forms of abuse of power, only that they happen to be more visible and have more power at their disposal.

In different ways, many of us are typical of Jesus’ characterization of the Pharisees – whitewashed tombs that shine on top yet full of bones of the dead.

An Askari at a hospital gate pumps himself up unnecessarily, denying you a service you deserve simply because you didn’t do enough in acknowledging his importance. ‘Do you know who I am’, he roars! Hmm, do I have to know you, sir?

Some ‘bosses’ literary want to be worshipped if one is to get anything from them. You can’t greet them while seated, and you have to shower them with a litany of praises. Imagine if such had titles like ‘your excellency’! Wouldn’t we have to clean their shoes with our tongues?

And because many of us are aware of this desire amongst our people, we have learnt to serve accordingly. So, in the market, everyone who wants you to buy from them will address you as boss, mzee, mugagga (rich man/woman).

And then our traditional teacher with his cane – an authority not to be opposed, always right before those with less power! If with a mere bamboo stick they would put the whole school on tension, what if they had guns?

Taxi touts will plead with you to board but, once inside, they will show you who controls the space. Have you ever boarded Kenyan Matatus that are more of mobile discos? Dare ask them to reduce the volume! 

Even in ours, if you complain about being squeezed; ‘taata vaamu ogeende ogule eyiyo’ (get out and go buy yours), the conductor bluntly retorts! Could it be about the exhausting nature of their job or our inclination to abuse power?

A person arriving at office an hour late when people have already queued up at their door enters like nothing is wrong, surrounded by a thick air of importance. When they step out ‘shortly’, they find no fault with joining the ‘hot gossip’ next door, while people stand in wait!

Sometimes the gossip is in complaint about doctors that hardly sit at public hospitals!

What about the husband/father that is feared like a lion in a home? A domestic terrorist that sees no wrong with their unquestionability and barking! It is always easier to squeeze another’s [email protected]The author heads the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

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Written by Jimmy Spire Ssentongo (1)

The author is a teacher of philosophy

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