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Making of the civil and political activist

…the need for Nigerian civil society and media to wake up

YESTERDAY…
Prof Pat Utomi narrated his experiences in 2007 when he traversed the land consulting political leaders who gave him their words of support which he later summed up as “assumptions of support that amounted to nothing, and of his encounters with prospective electorate who saw politics as an opportunity to milk the candidate. Here, he reveals the conditions that shaped his political and civil activism:

THE activist in me came alive as soon as I got into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN. As a precocious 17-year old, I lived that adage that if at 18 you were not communist, something was wrong with your heart but if at 40 you still are, something was wrong with your head. I refused to be a Marxist even at 17, thanks to the impact of those Dominican priests, but I was a passionate fighter against injustice. Such was the commitment that I missed celebrating my 18th birthday.

It is a story I have told many times. Shortly before I entered the university, student protest at the University of Ibadan resulted in the police killing one of the students, Kunle Adepeju. Continuing protests for justice to be served resulted in the closure of four of the five universities in the country at the time. Most of the students at UNN who had lost three years as a result of the civil war wanted to be left out of the matter. So normal activities continued in Nsukka. Some of us saw that as poor display of solidarity and chose to challenge the Student Union leadership.

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Under the leadership of Bassey Ekpo Bassey, we founded the Student Democratic Society, SDS, and engaged in planning meetings to provoke protests. At 6a.m. one quiet harmattan morning in February of 1974, we began marching round the campus calling out other students to join us. Many called us names and asked us to go and prepare for class. We ended up in front of the home of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Herbert Kodilinye, instead of the gate that we planned to block.

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The vice-chancellor met us and conceded we hold a rally/town hall meeting for the whole student community. That town hall meeting is much remembered by the rousing speech given by a student activist then reputed to be Nigeria’s first professional undergraduate because he had spent up to a decade in the university. Pinnick, or Chairman P, as he was fondly known, began his speech by saying “Today, February 6, 1974, will be remembered as a day when a people who were physically demobilised, after the civil war, were finally mentally demobilised.” This was about 8:30p.m. and that was when I realised that it was my 18 birthday. All of my life, from that early age, has been about a struggle for justice, a democratic society and prosperity for all through a democratisation of entrepreneurship.

During my protest days as a student leader at the age of 19, I first attracted national attention by forcing a broader engagement on foreign policy during the liberation struggle in southern Africa. I would next put on my protest gloves as a youth corper. Drawing from the acclaim from being able to get the then Foreign Minister, Joseph Nanven Garba, to come to Nsukka to be challenged by students on foreign policy, in my role as an executive of the student union, I made a quick transition to investigative journalism as the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, secretariat posted me to the Newbreed Organisation, publishers of Newbreed Magazine. It was the leading magazine publishing company of that era and it championed speaking truth to those in power.

I fit the bill early at Newbreed. By December of 1977, my research report that was a cover story on the Radio Kaduna controversy was said to have hastened Chief Ayo Ogunlade’s departure from the cabinet of General Olusegun Obasanjo who was head of state at the time. The publisher of Newbreed, Chris Maduaburochukwu Okolie, gave me much credit, as signing me to big stories and using me as yardstick for evaluating the older and more experienced correspondents and editors. That would put me in the pathway of trouble.

Just before my one-year NYSC assignment ran out, I had been part of a cover report on the Obasanjo government titled, The Drift Begins. That report led to the Obasanjo government proscribing Newbreed Magazine. The proscription came shortly after I left Lagos for graduate study in United States, literally the day after my service year ended.

But I had also completed work for the front page of the maiden edition of the business magazine of the Newbreed stable, The President magazine. It  was an interview I had conducted with a banker, Otunba Subomi Balogun. The setting for what could be called ‘the dual mandate of fighting for good government and proselytising the spirit of enterprise’ had come into place.

From graduate school in the US, I could tell a future for Nigeria that did not seem so wholesome. And I spent so much time thinking about what form of intervention would be best to claim the promise of independence. In 1980 my father, at the age of 52, succumbed to cancer and I had to return to Nigeria for the funeral. That year, the revolution in Iran which resulted in the ouster of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had pushed oil prices past $40 a barrel, a number hard to imagine in those days.

Appropriately, two of the leading international weekly news magazines had exactly the same words on their cover, ‘The world over a barrel.’ That was unprecedented. The revolution in Iran had created oil supply scarcity and prices had gone through the roof. Nigeria was making a fortune from crude oil sales.

When I arrived Lagos (in 1980), I found a country inside a barrel. It was hard to navigate the neighbourhoods of Lagos because there were parties everywhere and the more you could cordon off your street and use it for the party the more successful your show of wealth was.

Lagos had become the biggest dustbin I had ever seen, as cans of beer imported from just about everywhere were littered everywhere with some being tossed out of moving buses. The chaos and looming challenge of misuse of the windfall from oil was setting Nigeria up for a structural crisis.

I tried to raise my voice, but it obviously was not loud enough. It was not long before the chicken came home to roost. The importance of my voice being loud and helping others find their voice became a major part of the cross I cut myself to carry.

When in 1984 Nigerians began to get on the queue to buy basics like sugar, milk, vegetable oil and similar consumer items which came to be referred to essential commodities, I could have celebrated being vindicated but I was concerned that we had learnt nothing. I would raise my voice again and again in the coming years and became a target of state terror, surviving two assassination attempts. The fight was for democracy so that the people could find their voice and government would be for the people and by the people.

As it has turned out, the democracy we fought for has set life up to imitate art as it mirrored Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s mockery of the experience as ‘Dem-all-crazy.’ Across the country, governors were raping their States and then deciding who will continue the rape, often on their behalf, when term limits stop their direct romp. What we must not shy away from admitting is that most Nigerian political parties are in the firm grip of criminal elements who see access to public office either as a business from which to reap big returns, a path to totally dominate others (the new fascism), or as an arena of transactions for fully personal trading objectives.

The common good features very little in their thinking except as rationalisation of purpose even when goal displacement is so palpable. That Nigerian civil society and media are yet to fully comprehend the depths to which their politics have fallen and to fashion a fight back to rescue the Nigerian people is probably the big question for now in Nigeria. Part of the personal validation of my decision to respond to the call to engage is to find an optimal track to wake the Nigerian people up to what they are confronted with.

It is a task I feel some responsibility for because of the sacrifices I have made in the quest for the democracy that has already been rendered meaningless in Nigeria. That sense of responsibility has come with a price, the price comes largely from personal danger I have faced, the exclusion from rightful economic opportunity, and the actual cost of propping up institutions of democracy from out of my own pocket. None does more to highlight that than the history of Patito’s Gang.

Within six months of the return to democracy in 1999 it was clear that quite a few things were not going right. The president was hardly in town and many challenges were showing up.

Many murmured that President Obasanjo was chasing the Nobel Peace Prize rather than running the country. The economy seemed to be tottering even though oil prices were rising and bringing much comfort to Nigeria’s foreign reserves.

I got a bit of a testimonial on this when the Chief of Staff to the President reached out to me with an invitation to a private dinner with President Obasanojo.

I was not sure what I owed for the invitation, but I showed up.

True to the criticism of a traveling president chasing the peace prize, he came back that same evening from a foreign trip. The dinner turned out not to be as private as I thought.

Also, present were the Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Ufot Ekaette, Finance Minister, Adamu Cironia, Chief Economic Adviser Philip Asiodu, Professors Dotun Phillips and Ibrahim Ayagi

When the President turned from small talk to the purpose of the meeting, he said the government was under fire for having no economic strategy. He turned to me and wondered why that should be so when he and I and a small team spent a lot of time working on policy when he was a candidate. I was taken aback because the feedback I had received from those close to him was that he constantly complained that I was a member of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, and was working with Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu. I got that from Waziri Mohammed and Oby Ezekwesili.

I had told Oby that I was not a member of AD and that I had a citizen’s duty to assist any governor that asked for my input into their work. I had assumed that perhaps those policy prescriptions from our policy team in daily meetings with candidate Obasanjo in December of 1998 had been discarded.

President Obasanjo finished the meeting with the request that I join the Chief Economic Adviser and the two professors to produce an economic road map and capture it in a document similar to Muammar Gaddafi’s Green book.

I went away from that night’s meeting convinced that there was a problem with policy implementation and the practice of democracy in general. I began to think of a platform that could grow the marketplace with ideas and enable the speaking of constructive truth to those in power.

Patito’s Gang was designed for social engineering. It aimed to create a new tribe. Nigeria was in the middle of many tribal wars. The tribes that were not able to find cooperation to sustain the tribe within a frame of values often retreated to the tribe of language, kinship, affiliation, and geography. The primordial tribe, those were the oldest tribes, the ethnic tribes.

But new tribes had surely crystallized, even if they generally had a crisis of identity. As I quietly processed the nature of the group gathered for dinner at the residential residence, I could not but keep probing into the interests assembled, and how or why those interests could serve the common good of Nigerians.

The tribe gathered there was the tribe of capture, state capture; and their agents incorporated to ensure enough acceptance of the authority of the kingpins of  capture, for the legitimacy to continue to play the self-claimed Guardian Class role.

The Guardian Class had grown from among a group of young military men into whose laps fell power during the Civil War of 1967-1970. I have dubbed them the class of 1966 because that was the year of their break in to share in the legal plunder that the nascent Nigerian State was, six years after Independence from Britain in 1966.

The group I was having dinner with at the instance of President Obasanjo did not share ethnic linkages. They neither spoke a common language, except the legacy of the English language left by the British, nor did the geography of their origination fit the North, South, East or West tag.

But they were a tribe; a tribe that professed the indivisibility of “One Nigeria” and concentration of power in the central Federal Government, the deployment of discretion for the prosperity of themselves and their friends.

But they were people smart enough to understand legitimacy. So, they were anxious the economy at the time was perceived as not working for the people. That dinner seemed to me scurrying for legitimating attributes.

A buoyant economy was important for retaining legitimacy. True love of the people would require more.

Over dinner was the tribe gathering to review an existential threat a wobbly oil economy not producing growth in 1999. I could see the essential difference between the politicians of l959 and the politicians of  l999. The 40 years may not be wilderness years as such, but in that generation, much had changed, especially with the ascendancy of state capture and the class of 1966 as the class of capture.

The politician of 1959 was a modest person greatly ambitious for his people, typically an ethnic tribe. They were often self-sacrificing but enormously aggressive, for the development of their ethno-language regional group. Michael Okpara, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello epitomized this breed.

That tendency was well captured by Robert Nelson and Howard Wolpe in their idea of “competing ethnic nationality groups seeking who would bring the most progress to their people” the so called Competitive Communalism.

The politician of 1999 was far from modest and enormously ambitious for himself with only legitimizing self-serving concern for the constituents. The evidence was all over the map, but one of the most obvious pieces of evidence was the most frequently repeated statement in the budget speech: “to diversify the economy away from a mono-economy with over-reliance on Crude Oil.”

Every year pretty little was done to achieve that often stated goal.

The Oil-dependent economy is more suited for state capture and politicians more interested in self than in service, and the common good.

I conceived of Patito’s gang to reverse the trend and create new tribes in which mass education and mass entrepreneurship or people’s capitalism help escape serfdom and hold power accountable to the point that those who lead, are the modest who are ambitious for the Common Good.

The engineering of a new tribe is not easy business. To build a coalition of stakeholders to bring about such a new order, especially when very powerful groups profited from the old order, is an even taller order.

Having Machiavelli, and that powerful remark from ‘The Prince’ in mind, I knew that nothing was more difficult than to bring about a new order; because those who profit from the old order would, do everything to prevent the new order from coming about and that those who could profit from the new order do not do enough to make it come about, because man is incredulous by nature, not wanting to try new things until they have witnessed experience of it.

But have faith shall travel and Patito’s Gang’s journey of faith resumed, not anticipating that the influence of Television would wane within a decade, especially for the generation next whose entrepreneurial and social consciousness/civic instincts we hoped to sharpen.

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