In this interview with MARCEL MBAMALU and KABIRAT AZEEZ, professor of Political Economy, Pat Utomi, says it is not too late to save Nigeria
•‘Leaders must be evaluated in character, track records of service’
•‘Nigerians need to own their change’
•‘NCF can awaken social transformation, liberation politics’
You’re co-chair with Former House of Representatives Speaker, Ghali Umar Na’aba, of National Consultative Front (NCF), pledging to save Nigeria. Why is that? Why now?
I guess an appropriate and short answer would be to adopt the title of my last book, ‘Why Not and Why Not Now.’
Yes, indeed, why not. The book was serialised in two newspapers; so, I guess people are familiar with why Why Not is appropriate answer. But if you should desire further explanation, all you should do is look around. Nigeria is in multiple rolling civil wars. In the North East, it is called Boko Haram insurgency. In Benue and North Central, it is called herdsmen. In the North West, they call it banditry. The economy, no thanks to depreciating confidence in how it is managed, COVID-19, etc, is not in the best of shape, and unemployment is our signature tune. The political class is wrapped in self-love and celebrating corruption instead of looking for solutions.
Many of your contemporaries have given up on Nigeria, but you persist. Where do you draw the strength and conviction?
As I look back with the benefit of hindsight, three things define the essence of my life and the work of God’s grace in my time of being. In some ways, the ‘essences’, as I call them, were fore-planned and in another way, they were quite providential. They were fore-planned, thanks to early exposure as an undergraduate to the treasure of the Library and my volunteering to serve in manning one, which exposed me to books that taught me to set out a personal vision, purpose, and mission, and in Soyinka-speak “to set forth at dawn”.
For example, the principles I learnt early have helped me stay consistent no matter the temptations. They have helped me with values of perseverance, the skills of networking, and nuggets of emotional intelligence, plus a deep love of neighbour and community. Divine providence has allowed me to step into opportunities to find fulfillment.
Being part of helping Nigeria rise from the present darkness, apologies to Steven Ellis for the steal of the title of his book, which was a scathing comment on Nigeria, seems to be the last of many such privileges. What are these essences? The first is what I call the apostolate of example and disregard for the idea of the impossible. The second is the courage to move on with little care for material gain and the third is an obsessive quest for the erection of altars of legacy and immortality, while being unaffected by it such that I still passionately seek the simple life and remain honestly awed by what is accomplished.
I am fortunate that I can be completely detached from it. This is why I am able to be part of building something of value and move on even before the ovation. For some, that is not finishing things. For me, it is an opportunity to start another one. But where it seems to count the most, showing example in how to give honest service as a citizen in public life, it seems the system has managed a lockout. So, I am propelled by this sense of not accepting that it is impossible to change Nigeria for good.
The more important one for the subject at hand is the desire, for example, where they say it is impossible. With pioneer work at Lagos Business School (LBS) at a time when people who loved me thought my plan to go and teach was foolhardy, rewards came much later. Only people who think service and legacy can build a phenomenal institution like LBS in the time it was built.
Sometimes, I wish people like Oba Oladele Olashore, who tried so hard to get me to take up an executive position in the bank he founded, with some help from some of us, lived a little longer to see the impact of LBS, even though he was around long enough to admit from seeing his son there that there was redemption value in my refusing all that money to be just a simple teacher. What’s more, providence ensured that in being just a simple teacher, I lived a quality of life many bank executives can only hope for, circling the world on other people’s money as they invite me.
Unfortunately, the example of our politicians is horrendous. When I watch the corruption reality shows from the National Assembly, all I say is, Nigeria must rise up again. That is what it is all about. The one arena I had hoped, for a quick example, to affect culture, attract different kinds of actors than the presently dominant and then move on, has been politics. Some say it is a mark of the level of evil there and the state of the desperation of political actors, that the opportunity to do same was repeatedly blocked, but I have refused to be dissuaded.
I am still haunted by my visit to Gombe during the 2007 presidential campaign and the emir’s remark: “Please, do not give up if you do not win this election for, until someone like you becomes president, this country will not know progress”. The response of the former MD of Afribank, who was chairman of the Gombe Elder Council, when I expressed surprise at the emir’s remark, in reminding me that the emir was a retired federal permanent secretary, and knew what he was talking about, has made it a duty to see what role I can play to create the atmosphere for people of the profile the emir was pointing to, to define public life in Nigeria. It does not have to be me. Someone like me would do. But, like the emir said, people like me ought to take back this country for the people’s sake.
There are those who think the horse has bolted. That NCF is coming too late.
In the life of a nation, it is never too late. Look at the history of China or even Japan after the Tokugawa Shogunates and Meiji Restoration. The real trouble with Nigeria is that the educated middle class has for long abdicated its historic mission. In the classic Franz Fanon sense, it must discover it and make the choice either to rise to it or betray it. Unfortunately, it often opts for puerile self-preservation and ends up unwittingly complicit in the deepening of their serfdom.
I see the mission of NCF in the Aminu Kano sense of awakening this latent potential for social transformation and liberation politics. In this mission, my experience suggests we will meet four or five kinds of Nigerians. They include those who profit from the current unjust order, which leaves most of our compatriots in poverty, stirs up widespread violence, and keeps us underdeveloped.
There are those profiting from the current mess who will do anything to prevent change. They are quick to turn to emotional blackmail and fake news to diminish those who seek change. Many of them currently hold positions in government. Then there are those who are out of government, but are working and praying for their turn to continue the legal and illegal plunder. They want only the change that will weaken those there now but not change things. The third kind wants real change but await a messiah who will deliver it to them while they are in their comfort zones saying and doing nothing. The fourth group covers a spectrum of those willing to put their money where their mouth is and goes up to those who say ‘we die if we die’!
From this fourth group, we must draw change agents, especially young people whose future is being damaged by the poor governance of today’s potentates of power. With them, this land can be redeemed.
You frequently quote Machiavelli that nothing is more difficult to bring about than a new order of things because those who profit from the old order will do anything to prevent a new one from coming about. Do you not think the current order will use every power they have to resist the change you seek and even harm those who seek such?
I, long ago, learnt not to fear those who can kill the body but can do nothing to the soul. So long as the path we pursue is legal and the cause just we must forge on. If we die, we die. Stephen R. Covey makes the point that the most important habit of the 21st century will be helping people find their voice. Fulfillment will come from helping Nigerians muttering and complaining in beer parlors and their bedrooms to find their voice and become citizens. This is what the NCF initiative is all about. The only thing to fear is fear itself. I have faced state terror before. History’s verdict is ultimately what matters. We have not been left the spirit of timidity. The famous last word of Pope John Paul II as he flew out of Abuja in 1987, as many despaired over Abacha’s tyranny.
Nigerians have become skeptical about leaders. They have seen people promise heaven and earth and deliver nothing. Why should they trust the NCF leadership?
Nigerians have a right to feel that way but it will not solve the problem, which is rushing forward and looking ready to consume us all. Something must be done. So they need to develop new criteria for evaluating people, who make promises to ensure they will be promise-keepers. Antecedents are usually a good starting point. Character is like smoke; it will always come out.
So, ask to find out from their classmates in primary school, secondary school, and university. What were the records of these people? What is their track record of service? How did they treat public property in their care? How much compassion did they show to their neighbours? How did they fight for the rights of others? How sacrificial have their deeds been? Are they ‘I, myself, and I’ kind of people? These things matter. As Montesquieu said, “public life has to be about public virtue.”
Beyond challenging people, what concrete plans do you have for engineering change where trust is so low?
You have to make the people own this change. They have to clearly see their interests in the path forward. Our goal is to construct a beneficial alliance and partnerships between classes of people in Nigeria across ethnic and religious lines with which politicians exploit them and keep them in servitude. Our strategy builds a development model in which value chains based on factor endowments create mutual benefit for the artisan class, the middle-class professionals, rural farmers and a new enterprise-class of young people in a people’s capitalism of SMEs working with aggregators to achieve the production output of big corporations.
At a personal level, I have long related well with Northern intellectuals and we can together construct this alliance to build a thriving country. The key is in the glue we can fashion to hold together these communities of interest we are convinced share a history for good. On their backs we can erect a prosperous and harmonious nation. This is why I struggle still. I owe such a future to my children.