Pat Utomi explained the philosophy behind his creation of the erstwhile popular Patito’s Gang, a TV program on NTA which many Nigerians looked forward to. Today, he tells the challenges he encountered keeping the incisive program on air, the risks he took, and many close brushes he had with death:
HOW to create a new moral tribe of citizens with a social and political consciousness of the freeborn, in human solidarity and encouraging of the work ethic, the spirit of enterprise and the principle of subsidiarity or the decentralization of authority to levels closest to the people would be a two-decade enterprise I would persevere on.
The Delta decision was in some ways a chance to give teeth to ideas. But the trouble with the hijack of politics by people who close out the democratic process through political party control is that the issues had to be submerged below the process, which they forge and form as they go along.
Today it will be Direct Primaries, tomorrow it will be Indirect, and the third day it would be a combination of both or a Consensus decision by Party bosses.
A few months later I created a 90 minutes Television talk Show. It had seven segments from the core that gave the show its name.
There was a panel of quick-talking people passionately taking on a current subject either from politics, the economy or the society. The style of the segment borrowed some elements from Capital Gang and McLaughlin mid Co in Washington DC in the United States. A third segment was a Vox pop from the street on the subject of the episode.
The final segment took the form of a parliament in which the 20 to 30 participants who were younger people, often undergraduates, vented on the issues.
The show would capture the imagination of the nation. I was host and executive producer. We aimed for world class quality. The director was an American of long experience in major TV markets in the US who had come to Nigeria as part of a team to restructure the Nigeria Television Authority. But the commercial model for the show was challenged. Not only did we have to produce the show at very high cost, we also had to pay the television stations to air it.
That was the model in Nigeria. Absurd as it may seem, the reality was that instead of being paid by the stations for purchase of content, the producer paid the station to air the content it cost him much to produce. The logic was that he was free to attract advertising and profit from the difference between his cost and revenues.
The day after the first episode aired, the pioneer Director-General of the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, Vincent Maduka, saw me at the Hilton in Abuja. He was full of praise for the programme content and quality of production but warned that we could not sustain the programme. The level of quality, in his view, was too ambitious; it was not sustainable, he thought.
I had faith that it would attract eyeballs and that a model dependent on advertising revenues would keep it going. Besides, the object was the promotion of the common good and I could not see why it could not attract patronage on its own merit.
That expectation lasted only until after the third episode. I got a call from my old friend and banking mogul, Jim Ovia. He was calling to congratulate me on the show. I seized the opportunity to tell him we would be banking on him for advert support.
He paused for a moment and responded with candour, “You know you guys are so candid on that show. I would not want someone in government to think I am the one sponsoring you. Just let me know when the subject is sports and I will pay twice as much.” Patito’s Gang would be a financially crippling initiative, but I refused to give up and 19 years on Patito’s Gang is still on air every week.
It had gone from 90 minutes, to 60 minutes and then 30 minutes, shedding all the other segments but for the core panel borrowed from McLaughlin & Co and Capital Gang in the United States and the Vox Pop segment.
Had I invested the personal fortune I spent keeping it on air, I could have been a fairly well-off person. But I made a choice on the social purpose for the investment. This was impact investing. Better that the kitchen of ideas, was out there, in the public space, than that I fly around in a private jet.
It was a choice I made willingly at the cost I was willing to incur without it bordering on my primary commitment to giving my family a decent roof over their heads and my children a decent education.
Many times, though, that willingness to sacrifice for what I like to think is the common good, actually came close to crossing from the hen’s contribution to breakfast, to the pigs.
As the joke goes about the conversation between the hen and pig regarding their commitment: The hen who was complaining about her high-level commitment to breakfast with all those eggs men eat, was reminded by the pig that for him to supply bacon, his death was acquirement. So, she was making a partial commitment while he was making a total commitment.
The struggle for social justice in Nigeria has claimed many heroes. A good number of them perished in automobile mishaps on Nigerian roads as they ran around to rally the people. The civil rights activist, Chidi Ubani and Festus Iyayi in the University Teachers Union Movement, ASUU are some examples. I had a few close-calls in my various criss-crossings across Nigeria.
The 2018 Delta campaigns when I criss-crossed the state into remote nooks and cranny of the badly maintained roads in the State is worthy of note. They were risks I managed with faith in the goal of the reasons I accepted to run.
But I was always mindful that I had been in an accident that nearly claimed my life on one of those roads years before.
My life leading up to 2017/2018 experienced several near-death events, from a 1991 auto crash near Asaba where I arrived the operating theatre in a state of shock with no observable breathing or evident pulse, to two near-plane crashes, one of which was two burst tyres at take-off, escaping a terrorist bomb on the London Underground near Edgware Road on July 7, 2005 and escaping at least two assassination attempts as authoritarian regimes tried to silence voices of dissent, I should have had enough reasons to gently step aside and avoid the kind of troubles that come from running in a wild territory like Delta State. Instead, my desire to make a difference made me overlook all the past problems and I asked to myself: why not, who will save us if we do not risk it all?
To be fully honest, I am also driven by guilt. I feel guilty that if I had made a different choice in 1998, Nigeria may not be in the disaster zone where it is currently domiciled.
One unspoken truth about why I am motivated to fight for real change is the guilt I feel for current reality. I like to take responsibility for the mess Nigeria has become. It is guilt from omission rather than commission – it is an offence all the same.
This sin goes back to the days of euphoria when the military beat a hasty retreat following the death of Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola whose victory in the presidential election of 1993 brought out the soldier in some of us, and the maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, who held Abiola captive, showed he was ready for a fight.
In some ways my group and I could take some of the credit for the military becoming uncomfortable with staying on in power. Our campaign as concerned professionals and my own personal lead on the public lecture circuit, weekly newspaper columns and television appearances had earned me the prize of various assassination attempts and the great survivor label.
When the Abdulsalami Abubakar military council decided to withdraw, we called a meeting to discuss a way forward. At that meeting, Waziri Mohammed proposed that we found a political party and implement the ideas that we had been propagating in those advertorials that we published so frequently and which ultimately upset the Abacha government. The group chose to debate the matter.
In the end it was agreed that the traditional political class whose direction for the country was truncated when the military intervention in December 1983 took place should be preferred, lest we be seen as opportunists that came to do citizens-duty but got caught the “greed bug.”
One of those who did not agree with the position which I had supported, was Donald Duke. He quietly told me he was going to build a platform to shape Cross River State. With two others, he successfully took over.
It did not take long for many of us to realise that we had made a big mistake. First, the traditional politicians with some sense of service and compassion for the people had been reluctant to engage believing the military was just making a tactical retreat and would find some excuse to return in a not too distant future so they refused to participate. This left the room for the money-bag sponsors of the politicians just out of military uniform, cult boys who did not fear to dare, and many who had nothing to lose, to enter the political arena.
Even General Obasanjo could not run things without plenty of damage. To make things worse, oil prices went through the roof from a crash into single digits in 1998 to triple digits. The new lords of the manor simply pillaged the resources flowing in and used money to erect barriers against entry into politics.
The downhill journey since then has been a burden on my conscience so that when in the exercise of best short-term self-interest, I am better off staving away from the political arena, while leveraging my reputation to make a personal fortune in business, I have often challenged the status quo. This has been either from civil society initiative, as a so-called public intellectual, on the lecture circuit, or from the media through Patito’s Gang and my frequent op-ed pieces and columns. At times it was a lonely struggle. At other times many joined in.
When this burden came to a head, I agreed to run for President in 2007 in order to reset the agenda. One of those that reacted to that choice was Chief Ayo Adebanjo, the untiring Awolowo faithful. He was the one, who on the edge of his 90th birthday, criss-crossed the country canvassing a restructuring of the federation to return to the agreement reached by the independence fathers of the nation which had been altered under military rule. Chief Adebanjo had through the years tried to persuade me that a transition from activist to being a politician was necessary if one wanted to make significant impact and leave a lasting legacy. He seized the moment and pressed home the point.
How can we save Nigeria, I asked? His response was let’s mobilise people into a movement of progressives and with a party at the heart of that movement, find a way forward for Nigeria. In the meantime, Chief Anthony Enahoro, the veteran nationalist, had called me to a meeting during which he urged that I take active part in fashioning a movement of progressives.
Chief Enahoro died not too long after and the movement was formed. The Social Democratic mega movement would, under the guidance of Chief Olu Falae, become the Social Democratic Mega party. For reasons best known to the party elders, I was chosen to be chairman of the party whilst I was out of the country. In a similar manner, I was also picked to be the presidential candidate whilst away from the country. My choice, I was informed by Wale Okunniyi, the chief foot soldier, was because it was thought that I was the least divisive of the potential candidates and one most likely to put self aside in forgoing the choice of a consensus candidate amongst all the presidential candidates.
The lasting lesson, for me, was the motives behind my inability to bring together the original Yoruba leaders, Awo champions, with the former Governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. I had tried to encourage Chief Falae and Tinubu to cooperate and work together and then create a new Pan Nigerian Coalition.
In the end, I argued that size mattered and that since Tinubu had more of the leaders in the south-west with him, I would continue to water my relationship with his group while deepening the effort to bring the groups together. Chief Adebanjo never gave up on trying to let me know the challenge in trusting the Tinubu group. He kept pointing to Tinubu’s obsession with self-interest and his challenged ethics.
How best to discharge the burden of guilt that all of this effort may have been unnecessary, if I simply voted for those that wanted the concerned professionals to step into the fray in 1998 and show the way continued to define me. With the benefit of hindsight, it may have been a better track because I was close enough to former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme who led the G34 that would ultimately birth the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
On many occasions, I still ponder on what path the country could have travelled had the kind of quality in the concerned professionals’ group been the principal organisers of a party in which Alex Ekwueme, an enlightened leader, was candidate for president in 1999. But would the champions of state capture who installed Obasanjo have accepted such?
I guess the answer will keep blowing in the wind, but the guilt was steady in me. The why not, in response to the question of why run, was partly about that guilt. In the end I was glad I said ‘why not’ because I could not have found out how rotten the apple was and how close Nigeria is to a criminal hijack of the political parties by the three gangs of actors. These are, those in the enterprise of transacting around public office for material gain; the cultists who have bullying as their way and hope to intimidate others; and the new fascists whose high comes from total domination of others. For the last group to oppress others probably provides an Adrenaline surge. Their ways were emerging as the norm in politics.
All of these groups pose grave and present danger to the democratic process in Nigeria.
The danger they constitute comes significantly from the sense of entitlement that they have developed from the imposition of their will on others and dominating them. This new fascism is palpable in their loss of sense of shame regarding their inability to serve well those in whose name they exercise this entitlement.
My not feeling any discomfort at the gale-storm I ran into into in choosing to run rather than keep my personal peace flows largely from my belief that the time has come to confront this shameless group. They take up public office, pay themselves obnoxious amounts of money directly and indirectly. These public officials through all kinds of spurious allowances, in the name of elected and appointed agents of tens of millions of people who inhabit arguably the most miserable place to live on this planet earth, appropriate for protocols for their comfort monies that will amaze leaders of truly wealthy nations and then turn a deaf ear to discuss them.
It is ranked the second most terrible country for open defecation in the world, with all kinds of attendant health consequences, it is a country that has now overtaken India as the biggest collection of the absolute poor on earth according to the 2018 study of the Brookings Institution. This is coupled with a terrible laggard position on all Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations whilst earning significant revenues from oil. I had had enough of Nigeria’s elite. And a broader canvas to confront was attractive. This power elite is clearly an embarrassment to the human community.
That they feel no shame running around in multicar motorcades and squandering resources that could help millions escape misery, on foreign traps from which they seem to learn nothing, qualifies them for public scorn. Confronting the impunity with which they use the system to frustrate anybody they think is not a brigand like themselves or available to be used to further compound the beggarly conditions of the people, suggest a duty on the part of patriots that are still left, to challenge them and help the people find their voice.