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Nigeria may collapse unless politics is about service, says Prof Utomi

By Hugo Odiogor, Deputy Political Editor
Prof. Pat Utomi remains one of the best cerebral minds to emerge from this part of the world and his contributions to public discourse are always illuminating as can be seen in this interview with the Vanguard newspaper on issues ranging from Niger Delta crisis to power struggle in the presidency and poverty in Nigeria. Excerpts:

You were part of those that mobilised Nigerians to that “Enough is Enough” protest march over uncertainty surrounding president Umaru Yar’Adua’s health .How do you react to the politicization of his health issue ?

Well, I think that to talk about challenges we have been having on and on  for more than twenty years, is the absence of functional institutions that hold the country. It is not about how many oil wells an individual has or about what goes into his or bank account. The state of the nation is in the institutions in the country.
Importantly , is the mythology of what is shared by all that then drives people to act in a particular manner.  Exactly for Nigeria a lot in our recent history, the last 30 years particularly, a lot has led to a breakdown of both our institutions and the mythology of nationhood, leaving an environment where arbitrariness pervades our politics.

What it means is that progress will continue to elude us until we overcome these problems. But what is going on in the last few weeks regarding presidency is really the ultimate manifestation of the nature of the patrimonial state, where merit does not matter, law does not matter, it does not matter that we say rule of law, we really know that laws does not matter.

Prof. Pat Utomi

What matters is power, how you can get it and  use it to dispense favours.  This nature of  patrimonous state has driven people into acts of desperation on matters of routine that we should have had no difficulty with. That has left us in this awkward situation.  When this crisis started, I thought to myself, what is the big deal about the president being away and his vice president acting for him.

If I worked for Shell or UAC, and it just happened as a matter of course, because there are shared goals that we are pursuing and additional goals are clear.  But we in political parties really does not have share goals, they don’t believe in the same thing, it is just a contraption for people to go and seek power, then you have the kind of crisis that we have.   This crisis is a failure of the political party system, and a personalization of the state in Africa.

These are really heart of the nature of the patrimonial state, a personalization for material favour so it is not where is Nigeria going?  What are the problems?  I am more worried about the almajiri situation in Kano and I find that most of the people who are supposed to be in power, they don’t even think of it at all, and that is a time bomb that is waiting to blow in our face, that we have several million young people who don’t go to school, who beg for a living and pass on what they get to some teachers.  If they are hungry they just go to sleep because they are children . In 10-15 years from now and they would become  adults, those kids, unable to cope with life and they are in a society where they are looking at some people driving around with four wheel drive.

That is what we are doing in Nigeria right now and it is a dangerous time bomb.  Instead of dealing with those problems  we are consumed over whether or not somebody is acting for another person, whether he is or not ill?

It is irresponsibility to function like this, the Nigerian elite is irresponsible that is why we are dealing with these kinds of issues, rather than focusing on the burning issues that are time bombs before us.  We are struggling to contain the Niger Delta, 10 years ago we were telling them that this Niger Delta would be like this, everybody ignored it; then you could award contract, they could get money they could share. Suddenly, all we predicted 15, 10 years ago happened.  So,  we have an amnesty programme, we are running from one end to another .

I am saying that just the way I predicted the Niger Delta years ago and it became a reality, so have I predicted the Almajiri situation as the next time bomb blowing Nigeria up and if our irresponsible politicians don’t realize that  this is what they should be facing, rather than who  grabs power, then really should something   happen, we should call them to give account.

The issue of acquisition of power and dispensation of patronage appear to be central to what we have today in Aso Rock. W here will it take this country to if the Federal Executive Council doesn’t  say we have had enough of this?

This people should ask themselves where they  would take this money to, anyway.  Few moments and bang its all over, that reminds me of the story of a mad man whom people did not think he had any sense until his very rich brother died.  He came to the house where they were digging the grave.  He asked them, ‘how can you be digging such a small grave for my brother? Do you know what he has, you have to dig a much bigger grave because you have to put all that he had on the ground, and everybody laughed.  This obsession in Nigeria for material acquisition is for people who are of such low culture, who don’t even know how to enjoy money; it is a tragedy.  But that is just part one of it.  The most substantive issue is that it is not sustainable.

This patrimonial state arrangement is not sustainable, because it is only going to take us down the road to Somalia.  It is only a matter of time before the whole thing come crashing down. Unless politics can be about serving the people so that we reduce poverty, we create conditions of life that, essentially provides opportunity for all, this place is going to come crashing down like a pack of cards in a very a short time.

People say Nigerians are docile, I think that they are foolish when they say that because they have not studied history.  It takes the smallest of things to get this otherwise docile people to rise and be moved. We all remember the story of Louis XIV, the wife could not understand why they were rioting because there was no bread.  She said, “Ah, give them cake now”. And even closer home are much better example.

Again there is a  sad thing that comes from the fact that we don’t have a reading culture.  This nonsense we are going through in Nigeria was foretold by an American called Robert Capland in a book entitled: The Coming Anarchy, looking at West Africa.  And he opened this book with the story of Sierra Leone.  He talks about  this minister in Sierra Leone.

The setting is on this country called Zinsun where he had these poor relatives. He kept them, fed them, help them.  And then, one day this uprising started and these men came, the young people that we thought that “we fed them, raised them and thought that we did a favour led others to come and cut off our hands and our feet.

We thought we were doing them a favour but we did not realize that they resented us all along” and what simply happened in Sierra Leon was finally, as I like to quote  “a revenge of the poor”.  Nigeria will see a revenge of the poor of cataclysmic proportions if the idea of politics is not turned around to be the service of the common good that raises the quality of life of everybody. Then all these things you have accumulated whether abroad or at home would become meaningless because those Sierra Leonean politicians who were busy accumulating ended up in refugee camps if they had their arms and legs intact.

You talked about the collapse of the patrimonial state.  Now the National Intelligence Committee in the United States about 7 years ago predicted that by 2015 Nigeria would fail completely as a state and would come down to this Somalia that you talked about, and yet we are walking towards it?

(Cuts in) Absolutely, that is why I say Nigeria  elite is an unthinking elite.  When the report was, actually about 7 years ago, published, I listened to the Senate abusing the Americans.  I said to myself, how can God allow people who don’t think to come together and say they are ruling the country? Because the first thing to say is what is the interest of the Americans in saying Nigeria would fail?

It is of no strategic value to them if Nigeria  fails.  It is just an objective assessment by independent  thinkers  whether we like it or not. Whether they are right or wrong, it is their view, which they expressed about some trends they see. They are very smart people but they can also be wrong.  What happens is that when you see that kind of view you all come together and say my goodness what are we doing?  Well I can tell you that a subsequent report was published last year, and this report is Global Trends.

Every 5 years they release such report. Before these reports are released to tell you that it is not some careless thing that U.S continues to put out; before the publication, think tanks around the world are given an advance draft; to reflect on it and give them feedback before they publish their final copy.  The successive report to this one we are talking about, came out last year.

I had the good fortune of being invited by the Swedish Think Tank, Cypril to the discussion, before it was published. By the time the next report came out, Nigeria had been ignored completely, because technically, people are moving past Nigeria as being of little strategic value.  Few years ago, Nigeria was thought of as significant strategic value.  Today, Nigeria is thought of only as a nuisance value. The possibility that if the anarchy comes as Capland predicted, the refugee consequences from Nigeria  going down the road to Somalia would be a major burden on the global community.  That is the way Nigeria is talked of today,
not in terms of its strategic significance, because we have an unthinking elite that have held on to power for some time in Nigeria.

We have concentrated so much on the ill health of President Umaru Yar’ Adua to the extent that critical issues as the electoral reforms, constitutional review have been kept aside and here we are preparing  for elections 2011, are we likely to have a credible and smooth elections come 2011?

Well, since form is always important to us over substance, as 2011 date is fast approaching we are going to put together something. Something will happen, whether it is what will get Nigerians out of this mess we are in? I think that it is left to you or for God and seers. Right now, I don’t really see any significant work being done on these issues.

Well, reforms? Ownership of the process by the people, is even more important than change in laws because it is the people who can stop rigging. It is the people who can ensure that the process is correct, until the people begin to believe those they elected are in power, government will not be effective in Nigeria; legitimacy crisis will continue, and you need legitimacy for policy implementation to be effective.

That is a problem, because we don’t think through these things enough and those who think through them are said to speak grammar, you know; there is a very distinct  anti-intellectual culture that the military has foisted on Nigeria, and we have accept
ed it. When people think they say, ha, ha, grammar, eventually all those things people who think said come to happen. So, I do hope that we realize that where we are going is not a salutary location.  I hope that God will help us.

In one of your public presentations you talked about the Alaska  options in the management of oil resources.  The government of Yar’Adua has proposed 10% as a community equity fund and today we have the amnesty Programme floundering.  Do you think the 10% community equity is what the Niger Delta community requires for development and peace?

I think it is a beginning, it is a starting point.  Left to me we should deal with oil the way Texas deals with oil; if we find the thing in your land, it belongs to you and government will tax you appropriately.  It always leads back to what you call the Alaska option which is not just Alaska but states like Alvata in Canada, Cowberry.  If you go to Cowberry you will know that cheques are mailed out to citizens from excess revenues from oil and all of that.

That thesis don’t want to claim any ownership of it, that thesis offered in most aggressive and pejorative context by two economists from Colombia. There was a Spanish , a guy of Indian origin called Sala-I-Martin Javier.  Sala-1-Martin Javier and Subramanian, in a very famous paper for the IMF years ago described Nigeria as “metaphor par excellence of a failed development experience”.

And in that paper they suggested that Nigeria would even profit more from just collecting oil receipts and signing the full amounts as cheques to individual citizens and posting it to them because the government of Nigeria is so basically incompetent that Nigerians would be better served by doing that. There have been modifications obviously of that thesis in the Alaska option type and all of that.

There is a guy called Martin Sanbull, Martin is Norwegian, who has a modification of that which talks about the endowment effect that if every year Nigerians all get a cheque whether it is one dollar  or 10 dollar in the mails, this is your share of oil money.

However we have kept back 99% of it as tax, People would say oh, so this is the money I would have gotten that is kept back as tax, then they will ask how the money is used, right now because nobody is paying attention politicians are running all over the place doing all kinds of things with the resources and people are suffering mostly.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.