By Ambassador Usman Sarki
Being a civil servant, an imperial censor and a magistrate in the turbulent period of the Song Dynasty in eleventh century China was not an enviable position. It is therefore; impossible not to write about Justice Lord Bao Zheng in relation to the many desirables about good governance, upholding of justice, faithfulness to one’s sworn commitment to duty and protecting the dignity of the law. Being essentially incorruptible and standing aloof from the common prejudices of the time, make a person entrusted with high offices of state a particularly remarkable man or woman.
Justice Lord Bao Zheng was such a man among many others in China’s long history. He was born in Hefei in 999 AD and died in Keifeng in 1062 AD at the age of sixty-two. He held high offices of state including in the judiciary and became ultimately the Prefect of Keifeng, capital of the Song Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Renzong. Bao was a severe disciplinarian and fearless official. In his many years as censor, he was said to have impeached sixty-one high state officials that included members of the royal family and a prime minister who was married to a princess of royal blood.
He had thirty high officials demoted or dismissed for corruption and nepotism. He dealt severely with Zhang Yaozuo, the powerful but mediocre uncle of the senior concubine of the Emperor. Bao impeached Zhang seven times and in the end had him removed from office. Bao Zheng’s memorials to the Emperor in this instance still retain their vigour and freshness of sincerity and devotion to the cause of his country. Indeed Bao was so strict in his sense of duty and justice that he had his own uncle disciplined for breach of etiquette and the law, by having him publicly flogged it was reported.
For these and many other unforgettable achievements, Justice Bao is remembered to this day with the deepest respect and affection not only in China and Taiwan, but also in many countries in South Asia because of his intrepid and remarkable character and unparalleled devotion to the calls of duty. It is the thesis of this essay that if Africa at the present time had personalities possessing the statures and characters like Bao Zheng’s today, perhaps our fortunes as a race and a people would be different from what they are now.
Unfortunately, conjunctures no matter how strong or brilliant cannot be substitutes for hard facts in life. We may yearn for people of weight and substance to be at the helm of affairs in our countries, but where such persons are not readily found in our institutions, we may be forced to look for them in history in other times and climes, in order to revive our hopes of one day soon having the good fortune to be blessed with such people in our lifetimes. It may therefore seem a remarkable leap back into history or a retrogression even, to seek for examples of probity and good governance in 11th century AD in China, and apply them to the conditions of Nigeria and Africa today at the tail end of 2021 AD.
Since human history is a continuum and a chain linked to each other by precepts and examples of different experiences, there is wisdom in going back into antiquity to draw lessons for today. The fact that we are more sophisticated in our outlooks and technological advances today than in former times does not mean that we are actually superior or more enlightened than those who lived before us. It is simply a matter of perspectives and which values we decide or agree to stand on. Indeed enlightenment is the act of going back into history to draw useful lessons for our correct guidance in the present and future.
We are, therefore, not constrained or prevented by any act of superiority to look back to draw some useful lessons from the experiences of the past. This is particularly relevant and indeed essential in the realm of government and manning of state institutions. It is often stated that strong institutions make for a better country. It is consequently argued that what Nigeria and Africa need today more than anything else to make governance more effective and purpose-driven are strong institutions.
Many of the ills in our countries in Africa are therefore; attributed to weakness or fragility of our state institutions and the often tenuous nature of our approaches to the discharge of public responsibilities. One cannot but agree with these self-evident assertions which are demonstrated every day in the lapses in governance and the dismaying improvisations that we are experiencing in the day-to-day administration of our countries in Africa. Beyond these valid observations however, one critical factor that is often overlooked in discussing governance and the role of public institutions in transcendental civilizational progress, is the role of individuals in government.
Institutions in themselves however strong or well-conceived do not render countries become what they are supposed to be by the mere fact of their existence or creation. Its is the character, moral strength and vision of those at the helm of such institutions that ultimately make the difference whether such offices of state succeed or fail. In this connection, two factors that make for effective governance anywhere that seem to be often overlooked in the African dispensation are ministerial responsibilities and magisterial prerogatives.
These are the two critical and indispensable pillars of effective governance since ancient times. Where they are less reliable or manifestly left unrealised, almost all institutions of government will inevitably fail or become compromised in their abilities to function as the primary levers of the state. Lord Bao Zheng is remembered for epitomising these two desirable functions that made him stand out over the centuries as a functionary worthy of emulation by generations of devoted public servants and officials. He combined the strength of character, depth and breadth of vision, selfless approach to service and fearless determination to uphold the civilizational values that defined his epoch and generation.
The realisation that institutions are the mere contraptions erected for the purposes and conveniences of advancing the principles, precepts and objectives of good governance and effective administration should make us look into history to discover examples of where the combination of strong personalities and good institutions have worked to elevate human society and entrench the foundations of civilizations. When all is said and done, civilization is the ultimate goal of governance without which all human affairs become merely existential in nature without any higher purposes.
Bao Zheng’s severe discipline and selfless devotion to his country meant that when the occasion demanded it, he did not spare members of his own family from the severity of the law. Family ties were strong in ancient China as they are indeed today. However, they were made subservient to the law in order for harmony to prevail in state affairs and the administration of justice. Herein lies the essential difference between the Chinese approach to governance and what could be said to exist generally in Africa.
It is this ability to create conditions that apply to one and all uniformly in society without filial of family distinctions that made China to have strong institutions that are the fulcrum of the country’s advancement. It was Bao Zheng’s dictum that the law was the essence of the nation and should never be violated under any circumstances. It was this ability to discern the essence of the law and uphold it under all circumstances that made the institutions manned by personalities like Bao Zheng to thrive and succeed in driving the Chinese civilization over centuries of struggles.
China’s emergence as the first country in wealth and prosperity today therefore; did not come by accident or chance. It happened precisely because of the upholding of the tradition, precepts and vision of men like Bao Zheng. Let Africa look for its intrepid men and women of courage and vision, and perhaps from there on rise above its common mediocrity and achieve its unfulfilled destiny.
The author is a former Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, New York