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ABSENCE OF PRESIDENT YAR’ADUA : Why Nigeria is an unserious nation, by Pat Utomi

*Professor Pat Utomi.

* Says the enlightened world has forgotten about Nigeria
*Insists a clique is just holding Nigeria down

Professor Pat Utomi is a rare individual and many would agree. But he is also a concerned Nigerian. His shot at the presidency in 2007 was considered a fool’s errand in some quarters – a wasted effort – but the man believes and, therefore, insists that it was one wonderful experience which has touched and continues to touch many lives. How?  It is about changing the mind set of the leaders of tomorrow, making them realize that Nigeria can not get anywhere with the present template on which it is governed.

But Utomi, in this interview says he attempted once, to rally a group of young Nigerians in different fields of endeavour, and got the shock of his life.  He had called a meeting of some successful professionals and business men, while not leaving out the politicians too. And hear him:  “Half way through the meeting I discovered that I was in a lot of trouble because one of the governors in attendance just chipped in – it was supposed to be a joke but it also showed how the mind was working: “see as we full here no babes”. And I just said “Oh! God, it can’t be this bad”. “In any case, another meeting was scheduled for Benin and I said to myself that I was not going to be part of this babe business. (laughs)

“I didn’t show up at Benin and it was at Benin that the name Under 50 came in. Aliko and Donald then called me and I told them what my reservations were and they said it would not be like that again and another meeting was scheduled for Jos, Governor Joshua Dariye at that time was supposed to host it. “I quickly set to work, for three weeks, on all kinds of subject matter, writing position papers and all that and all that, preparing for this important meeting. “So, I went to Jos and everybody showed up including governors in their sixties, whether you were 60 or 20 years old people just showed up in Jos.

“It was seen as a political movement and after Jos, I just forgot about everything.” How fast dreams die in Nigeria. But he says he’s not about to give up. He speaks on the controversy generated by the President’s long absence from home and confesses that “You know I found the matter to be a very simple one in the beginning; very simple.  But it also just tells us that the people who are running Nigeria are just running Nigeria for themselves and not for us the people.  It is about the inordinate manifestation of a patrimonial state.  Even a semblance of their not being in control of power says to them that their opportunity of not being in charge is about to be eroded or possible reduced.  Look, I’ve worked in so many places in my life and I’ve not even ever thought of it like this.  I take it for granted that when I’m going off for just even one day, my deputy continues the job”
Excerpts:

By Jide Ajani, Deputy Editor & Anthonia Onwuka

As part of the group which met in Lagos to respond to the present situation of a president in absentia, what informed the meeting?  You spoke on behalf of the group?
I’ve been meeting with quite a number of people long ago on various issues that raise the consciousness of Nigerians and how to make the society a better place.  I have children and I would want them to live in a country that is far better than what we have an unfortunate situation where the elite class is not so interested any more; just one that wants to make a little money, send the children abroad for education and if possible never to come back to this country.

My children go to school away from here because of the conditions in Nigerian universities.  My son who finished in May is back in the country doing youth service.  Another one who finished in January will be back in the country by tomorrow and would also serve here. I believe in Nigeria.  You know I don’t have a room, not a house, a room, outside of Nigeria.  I would even like Mrs. Waziri to investigate me.

Somebody who came to this Lagos Business School, LBS, the wife of a former managing director of the Nigeria Ports Authority, wanted to know and was wondering about Opus Dei, and the connection it has with the LBS and how it was founded by members of Opus Dei got together to form the LBS and the women expressed amazement and said ‘ha! I thought it was the money you made from Volkswagen that you have brought back to the country to open LBS’ and I just laughed.

Pat Utomi.

You know, many years ago, just the week after I left Volkswagen, I couldn’t afford to buy a 17KVA generator, all the money I had I couldn’t afford it. But in Nigeria it is difficult for people to believe that when you’ve occupied such a position you wouldn’t have stashed away money.  Just after I left Volkswagen, I read in one of the soft sell magazines about Nigerians who must have stashed money abroad and I saw my name I laughed.  The truth then was that as at that time of the publication, all I had to my name anywhere in the world was just $2,800. In good conscience I am a committed Nigerian.  So my children deserve to live in a better society and that is why I fight so that we can create a better society.

Some people say you are a restless person?
Well, maybe.  I have this capacity to associate with the lowest of the lows and the mightiest of the mighty; and even the good, the bad and the ugly – it is just my nature. I belong to a number of groups and most of which I’ve founded and some I associate with fully.

Okay, back to this Yar’Adua business, how did you come about speaking for the group?
You know I found the matter to be a very simple one in the beginning; very simple. But it also just tells us that the people who are running Nigeria are running Nigeria for themselves and not for us the people.  It is about the inordinate manifestation of a patrimonial state.  Even a semblance of their not being in control of power says to them that their opportunity of not being in charge is about to be eroded or possibly reduced. Look, I’ve worked in so many places in my life and I’ve not even ever thought of it like this.  I take it for granted that when I’m going off for just even one day, my deputy continues the job.

So, when this thing started, I just didn’t think much of it as constituting any problem at all, I just thought it is a routine thing and I even said to some of my friends who were trying to organize things that this is nothing at all, until I really found out that these guys were just interested in holding on to power for as long as they wanted and nothing else really mattered to them any longer.

For them, it is just all about who would sign oil contracts, who would do this or that and it killed my spirit because this is a country that has failed to live up to something and now, this.  Instead of all of us being obsessed on how we can revive it, we are here messing up.

There was a time when the global survey began to write off Nigeria as a nation of consequence and at that time, things were not really this bad?
This global survey thing, when they said it some years ago that Nigeria was beginning to lose it and that Nigeria was on the path to being a failed state, instead, we started abusing the people.  The best thing we could have done or started doing to demonstrate that we were a serious people would have been to brace up, meet as a people and begin to find ways of getting out of that situation and avert it, but we just carried on as usual and abused them.

The next survey that they did, I was one of those invited to come and do the review in Sweden, to review the document, and by then they had discountenanced Nigeria as a country of any strategic influence or consequence.  They had already moved on and beyond the point of even thinking about Nigeria again.  They had adjusted to the fact that Nigeria was no more part of it, a country of no significance on the continent of Africa, they had adjusted to that and were moving on and yet, we are here where a few people are more concerned about who would sign oil contracts or who would approve this or that.  That is our own concern now.

That was then?
That was then; not now that we have this situation on our hands.

One of your engagements then was this ‘Under 50’ group that you attempted to midwife sometime ago.  Wouldn’t you, too, be accused of abandoning a project?  What became of it?
I started the whole bloody nonsense

Yes!  I know.  I think the first meeting took place in the residence of Alhaji Aliko Dangote?
Yes!  In Aliko Dangote’s house over there.

My question is, why did it fail and how does that failure fall into that paradigm of Nigerians not being serious enough to do any good, even for themselves?  I have an idea of what happened and my source told me, while preparing for this interview to get the real truth why it failed?
You know, that was for me the ultimate signal of our being unserious and the sign that we were in grave danger.

This was what happened some 10 years ago – at least things were not as terrible as they are now?
Yes!  This was then so you can imagine how bad things have become now. The idea wasn’t age as such because people tried to call it under 50. What happened was that I was attending a summit, it was called a Euro-Africa Summit; it was hosted in France by one of the country’s Prime Ministers (who is now late).  He showed personal concern for Africa so I was invited.

*Professor Pat Utomi.

There were so many African heads of state there; I was actually seated next to Blaise Campaore then and those meetings are usually confidential, this was some 12 years ago. There was a remark made by the former Ugandan Foreign Minister, Olara Otunnu, who said all this noise and excitement about South Africa; that he doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  He said once we get Nigeria right, we’ll get Africa right.  He spoke so passionately about the state of affairs in Nigeria in achieving the African dream.

He got me thinking that if a foreigner could talk so passionately about Nigeria, then we Nigerians owe it to ourselves to get things right.

When I got back to Nigeria, I started talking to a lot of people, after writing a list of bright Nigerian guys from different endeavours – from business, the likes of Fola Adeola, human rights, Olisa Agbakoba and so on and even from the military.

The idea was to get at least 72 Nigerians who were young and who could begin to re-engineer the process of nation building from their different spheres.  Even identify a few people in politics without holding office, and even politicians who were office holders, like Donald Duke, the late Waziri Mohammed, in business, Aliko Dangote.

So, I began to share my vision and goal with them one by one and we’ll all go for a retreat and we’ll invite Olara Otunnu to give the kick off talk, so that people will know what burden history will place on us as a people and nation.

So, one day I was in a meeting in one of those committees I was serving on when Waziri called me and said there was a Southern Governors’ Forum meeting going on in Akodo, in Lagos.  He said we could take advantage of that and meet with the governors; that Aliko had agreed that we could hold it in his house. I moved straight from the meeting venue, I didn’t go to my hotel room, I just moved straight to the airport and I landed in Lagos. So, we met in Aliko’s house and some of the governors were there – James Ibori, Donald Duke, Orji Kalu and a number of them were around.

Half way through the meeting I discovered that I was in a lot of trouble because one of the governors in attendance just chipped in – it was supposed to be a joke but it also showed how the mind was working: “see as we full here no babes”.

And I just said “Oh! God, it can’t be this bad”. In any case, another meeting was scheduled for Benin and I said to myself that I was not going to be part of this babe business. (laughs) I didn’t show up at Benin and it was at Benin that the name Under 50 came in.

Aliko and Donald then called me and I told them what my reservations were and they said it would not be like that again and another meeting was scheduled for Jos, Governor Joshua Dariye at that time was supposed to host it. I quickly set to work, for three weeks, on all kinds of subject matter, writing position papers and all that and all that, preparing for this important meeting.

So, I went to Jos and everybody showed up including governors in their 60s, whether you were 60 or 20 years old people just showed up in Jos. It was seen as a political movement and after Jos, I just forgot about everything.

Some people look at you and wonder what you’ve been up to since the 2007 elections which you contested on the platform of the ADC?
Of all the people who ran for office in 2007 and who are not in office, I probably would be the most active of all and I set out to do certain things, specific goals were set.

*Professor Pat Utomi.

Which type of goals did you go about setting for yourself?
The goal of institution building, the type of thing our country desperately needs at a time like this – the need to build institutions that would endure. Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, our institutions are very weak and this has had terrible impact and the Nigerian economy has been referred to as a recursive economy – two steps forward four steps backwards over the years.

The reason that happens is because the institutions of the market are very weak in Nigerian because when you start a reform and it looks like there is some progress, weak institutions lead you to begin to retrogress in no time.

In my view, although subconsciously, SAP was more or less sabotaged by weak institutions that did not allow then policy choices that were made to have long term sustainable fruitfulness. So, I committed myself to institution building in different ways.  At one of the dinners I held to try and mobilize young people, I said as we spoke that night, President Barrack Obama of the United States of America was airborne on his way to Ghana and not Nigeria and the reason is because our institutions are not strong enough and Nigeria believes in strong men over strong institution – it was an evidence of how our weak institutions have reduced Nigeria to nothing in the comity of nations.

The following morning in Ghana, Obama used almost exactly the same words I used in saying that Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men. And in the months immediately after the 2007 elections I started harping on this and doing specific things rather than just talk, I did specific things.  I tried to support the pro-democracy movement to strengthen its resolve but most importantly, part of my work that is often understated is the amount of time I spend with groups, youth groups all over the country, trying to fill them with words of inspiration on nation building and the need not to give up but on the need to transform this country – it is by the Grace of God and the gift of a particular kind of family that they have not been complaining loudly.  I’ve been all around from Kano to Yenegoa, continuously dealing with the issues of the day and the need to let them realize that what we have today can not get us anywhere at all.

As you move round and talk to this young people, there must be one common denominator you would have found?
Yes.  At times on the one hand you observe this sense of exhaustion in them, of frustration by the system, but there are a lot of them who do realize it too, that these people also know that the system as it is now can not get us anywhere.
One of the interesting feedbacks I’ve been getting is, for instance, from LEAP Africa, an NGO interested in building the young and building entrepreneurship; the NGO has been moving round the country too and when they get to some places and ask the youths who one of their role models is or what their idea of leadership mean, they mention my name and for me that gives me hope that gradually, we’re getting somewhere with what we’ve been trying to do.  Ndidi Onwuneli is the founder of LEAP Africa and she tells me that she wonders where such young people have come in contact with me.

I myself I’m not sure how that has happened but we must understand that public life is not about yourself or acquisition of wealth, it is about service to others.

For somebody like you, why has it been very difficult for you to find good space in the polity?  Even before you eventually got the presidential ticket of the African Democratic Party, ADC, you’d tried some other platforms but you could still not get good space.  Why is it that people like you don’t find that needed space to do good?
What has happened and I keep making this point to middle class people and professionals is that a lot of people have played the ostrich and we have all abandoned the need to do the right thing; we leave the space to the politicians and say let us go and mind our four wheel drives and mind our houses and let’s leave these funny characters who are in politics to keep doing their thing.

*Professor Pat Utomi.

There’s a story of a friend I always like to tell, a Liberian with whom I was in school in the United States, a friend of mind who became Liberia’s ambassador at some point, his name is Seyranius Fore, Fy, as we call him, rushed back to Liberia in 1979 or 1980.

When he became ambassador to Nigeria, I had just returned after my PhD but by that time Liberia was almost gone.  He used to tell me that ‘you Nigerians amaze me, you’re spending a lot of money and losing a lot of lives trying to save our people but it appears as if you people are not learning anything from what we’re going through’. He said in those days, they would ignore and refuse to pay attention to what the politicians and the soldiers were doing, that they were more interested in protecting their individual comfort zones until it got to a point when someone would just stop them on the way and dispossess them of the car and they would start thanking God that at least ‘we’re not dead’.

Then even the house, it was taken away and they found themselves in refugee camps, struggling for food with beggars and yet, they would thank God that as bad as it is, they are still alive.  He said we ought to move out of our comfort zones and be part of the process.

Societies that make progress, it is the middle class that populate the polity and engage in politics.  Obama was a constitutional lawyer, same goes for Bill Clinton. Ambassador Joe Keshi, Nigeria’s Counsel General in Georgia gave a remarkable example of a man who sought the governorship of a state but lost and by the following week he was right back at his desk working in his law chambers, within one week.

But these fellows who have nothing else to do, they just populate the polity and look for what to grab.  To them that’s what makes them big men, so we have this type of polarized state.

So, for me, part of what I’ve been doing is to work my talk, and not just talking alone.  Except we get involved in this thing we may not get anywhere. I mean, look at Nigeria of today, we no longer have intelligent discussions on matters again.  You get gullible people who respond to any populist comment by somebody in power and the next day people are in their comfort zones or bedrooms complaining about what that gullible fellow said but the truth of the matter is that that gullible fellow, people had always known him to be gullible and people are also aware that he couldn’t have made any other better statement than that and that this was going to be the consequence.

We have petrol queues now and people are saying ‘ha! We have petrol queues’. But I said in August last year that by this time we were going to have petrol queues, at least judging from how government was being run then. Until we can manage to create think-tanks and people who know and who have evidence are ready to discuss and engage people and chart the way forward.

In the last 20 years, Nigeria has not grown at all – we have grown at 0.00% in the last 20 years and this is a consequence of the types of choices that our central bank has been making and I’m not just talking about yesterday or recently, I’m talking about 20 years back.

CBN sabotaged SAP, not because they meant to but because the institution was not strong enough to make the right choices for us as a people and as a nation.  So, until we build institutions and grow them, we may never get there; that is the truth of the matter.

Do you see hope in this country?

Yes!  If there’s no hope then you’re dead


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