BY FEYI BANKOLE
He is popular for his proclamation, “Nigeria has no business being poor!”. Christened Patrick Okedinachi Utomi but largely known as Pat Utomi, our inspirational guest is a passionate entrepreneur and social activist. After a brief career in journalism, Patrick was appointed a Special Assistant on Political Affairs in Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s administration which was later aborted. He moved to Volkswagen of Nigeria where he became the first Nigerian to hold the post of Deputy Managing Director in 1989, and, at 35, he became the acting Managing Director until he voluntarily left at 38 to join the teaching profession. He soon became a Director at the Centre for Applied Economics at the Lagos Business School of Pan African University. A former presidential candidate, Utomi presently sits on the board of several multinational companies.
His ambition was to become a pilot, but because he had finished secondary school three years earlier than the stipulated age of 18, Patrick’s father advised him to go and study at the university while he matured a bit. Again, the entry age for university education was 17, so, he first enrolled at the Federal School of Arts and Science before finally gaining admission in 1973 into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to study Mass Communication.
“My going to the University of Nsukka, to me, was simply to have one year of partying, making friends and then go off to aviation school. In fact, a great story was how I chose the course of study; I just closed my eyes, put down the pencil and it turned out to be Mass Communication!”, he recalled.
An historical event however set the tone for the phenomenal ‘Prof.Pat Utomi’ who we now know. It was after the civil war and lots of books were being donated to the university from around the world. Patrick’s department was given the responsibility of creating a management team for the school library but no student was willing to work voluntarily. The library was, therefore, closed. Eventually, he volunteered to man the library and in the course of his duty, he indulged in reading until he read every single book on the shelves.
“As a result of that, at age 26, I had two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. As a veritable witness that once upon a time in Nigeria knowledge mattered, at age 27, I held a presidential advisory position in the country”, he said.
Youths and political leadership
“Did you just mention 27?”, I probed, aligning such political feat with the cry of contemporary Nigerian youths who query why society wouldn’t give them leadership opportunity, but he quickly added that “nothing is ever freely given to anyone”.
“You take it! You take it by how responsible you show yourself to be. Let me give you an example of something that happened when I was 19. Lest I forget, I eventually finished my Mass Communication programme because my father kept cajoling me into spending more years at the university. Like I was saying, because I wasn’t really sure of what I was doing in the university, I engaged in university politics and contested for the seat of the Student Union Government Director of Socials. But because my encounter with the library was already rubbing off on me, instead of organising parties, I opted for creating an environment and platform for thinking. I thought Nigeria wasn’t taking its student population into account when formulating major policies, and I wanted to get students to play a critical role in determining the foreign policies of the country which were the most important at that time; being the days of crisis and wars in different African countries.
Experience with Foreign Minister at age 19
I wrote to the then Foreign Minister, Colonel Joe Garba, but there was no response. So, I went down to Lagos and to his office. I met his secretary, but she looked at me from head to toe and told me to go back to my school and direct my letter to the Dean of Student Affairs who will direct it to the Vice-Chancellor who will then, and I mischievously quipped, ‘who will then send it to God?’ When I got outside with the intention of waiting for the minister to resume work, his vehicle drove in. As he stepped out, I shouted: ‘Colonel Garba, I disagree with your position on Angola!’, and he asked, ‘Who said that?’ I showed up and we started discussing and walking to his office. That was how I walked past the secretary, straight into the minister’s office! That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted the rest of his life. He agreed to come to Nsukka to debate our position on the matter, and, like a joke, he came amidst doubts from different quarters- including the Vice-Chancellor who didn’t prepare in any way until he heard on radio that the minister had landed at the airport and was on his way to Nsukka. The point is: young people are too willing to accept just anything; everything is taken! Had I listened to the secretary who said I should go back and write through this and that, that event might never have happened! You don’t have to be rude about it! Like it is said, if you wash your hands well, you will eat with old men”, he stressed.
Digesting John Kennedy mystic
Patrick also remembered how he was indoctrinated with the mystic of America’s first Catholic president, John F.Kennedy. That apparently inspired his famous gospel of individual responsibility to national development.
His parents lived in northern Nigeria, Kaduna precisely, during the first ten years of his life. He later grew up in Jos, Maiduguri and Kano because his father who was working for the British Petroleum was transferred quite often.
“In Gusau where I spent my most formative years, I was significantly affected by a group of American Catholic priests of the Dominican Order, who ran the church and school of Our Lady of Fatima. At age seven, I would ride a bicycle about five miles at 5.30am to prepare the church for mass every day. Coincidentally, the President of the United States of America was John F.Kennedy who happened to be the first Catholic to be president of the US. So, you could imagine the excitements of the Catholic priests! Therefore, between ages 7-9, I was fed the Kennedy mystic: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’. I read virtually everything the American president said at that time and they’ve had great effects on me”, Patrick said.
Gratitude to Nsukka library
A thankful Pat Utomi couldn’t stop paying tribute to his library encounter as he recalled his graduate school experience at the Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.
He explained: “Obviously, the encounter with the library at Nsukka did me a lasting favour in the sense that I continued to develop myself. While in graduate school, my father passed away. Being the oldest of seven children, I needed to return home as soon as possible, so, I had to take on extra loads. Typical graduate load was nine credit hours a semester and strong guys would carry 12, but I carried 15 credit hours! Fortunately, my performance earned me so many grants and I didn’t need to take up jobs to foot my bills. After my first semester, every other semester was on one grant or the other. Till date, when you enter my car, it’s impossible not to find a book.”