Pat Utomi told sordid tales about the weird and fetish lifestyles of our politicians and how those lifestyles negatively affect our own lives. Today, he takes to the cleaners religious leaders and institutions, intellectuals, business communities, student bodies, and young people who stand aside and look and do nothing while criminals in the cloak of politicians have field days.
The Complicit Middle
WHEN the roll call for the blame on how the promise of Nigeria was squandered comes up, the fault will not be limited to the tropical gangsters and other champions of state capture. The shame cards will also go to the intellectuals that forgot the duty that comes with what James Macgregor Bums calls, moral authority which in turn comes with the role of the intellectual in leadership.
Blame will also surely go to the students who have stopped being the conscience of society as their protest culture used to make them. Same will go to religious leaders who have neither spoken truth to power nor inspired their congregations to resist the new slavery with the same perseverance as Williams Wilberforce fought for the abolition of the old slave trade. Even much bigger blame will go to the business community who take cover in feigned neutrality to collaborate with whoever is in power and quietly fund them against the people’s will.
In today’s Nigeria the social media crazed community that manages to reduce existential crisis of current politics to a matter of poking fun at all the actors with name calling as routine. These all take away from the capacity to focus the people on the new slavery and the imperative of fighting off the yoke foisted on them. They constitute the bulk of the complicit middle.
Guilty by omission and commission to the propagation of conditions that ensure their own enslavement and misery is the complicit middle. There has to be the target of intense re-education, for the middle if Nigeria is to be saved. This book is part of my own continuing effort to discharge my duty as an academic with the burden of that moral authority. The rule of law approaches collapse, and impunity reigns in political parties with a clear threat that criminal elements could take over the Nigerian State. Not to act is to my mind, treasonable.
Moral Authority Forgone
In tracking Nigeria’s complicit middle and their guilt for the state of the nation, the role of the academic provides a particularly peculiar subject for reflection. Respect for knowledge was an important part of the independence movement in Nigeria in the 1950s. Perhaps if it had remained part of the Nigerian way the Nigeria condition would not be as it is today. I have often pointed to a speech made in 1977 by the father of the new China, Deng Xiaoping, about how knowledge must be respected if the goals of the new China were to be attained. Deng’s charge to the Communist Party China is full of lessons for Nigeria.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the founding fathers of politics in Nigeria were typically surrounded by men of letters. Society, in general, had the same high reverence for intellect. Famous professors were associated with each of the lead in a politicians during the period of self-government in 1957. Nigerian academic, Steve Okecha, writing in a book on the decline of Nigerian universities, cites the anecdote of rumours going around the Onitsha market. The market was at that time the largest open Bazaar in West and Central Africa The rumour was that a noted academic, Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike, was sighted somewhere in the market.
Suddenly the clanging of shutters filled the air as people shut the stalls to go and behold this man of knowledge who was the first Nigerian to be appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan. Okecha figured that if dozens of Onwuka Dikes paraded themselves through Onitsha market today the people there would not notice. Could the decline of the Nigerian academic be related to her failure to exercise as intellectuals, the duty of moral authority?
That role could in some way make them guardians of the nation. In truth, that decline may have come with military rule. With politicians subdued by soldiers, as a result of the coup, the only real opposition was the outspoken academic.
For reasons not likely different from these, the military regime began to try to break the spirit of the academics. In one example, shortly after the Civil War, the academic staff were threatened with ejection from university-provided residence if within a few days they did not sign to abide by conditions given by the government. This bullying would set the tone of the relationship between the academic and power in emerging Nigeria.
In humiliation, many succumbed to the threats and beat a hasty retreat. This resulted in some losing faith in the system and seeking greener pastures outside Nigeria. I previously reflected on this phenomenon in an op-ed piece titled “The generation that left town” in The Guardian newspaper of Nigeria. In the piece, I gave an example of a period late in 1982 shortly after I returned from graduate studies in the United States. A group of about 22 of us with freshly mint PhD’s from Oxford, Harvard, John Hopkins, Indiana University and some other very fine universities used to get together to discuss a way forward for Nigeria. By 2010, of the 22 of us, only three still lived in Nigeria. By 2018 two more had returned after a full career of more than 30 years in the United States after they left on their second missionary journey.
The intellectuals may rationalise their choice exiles, but it does not absolve them of guilt. Neither can those who stayed home and blocked off the public sphere claim to be more patriotic. Many either approach the arena in beggarly deference to power or act powerless in the face of wrong. Some sometimes seek neutrality so intently that you assume that it is for them that Dante’s Inferno confirms the hottest part of hell as being reserved for those who in the face of a moral challenge take refuge in neutrality.
By their conduct they had in effect abdicated citizenship and made liars of Socrates, Plato and many of the masters. It was my practice to bring to them the following quotes published often in social media.
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferior.
The wise who refuse to rule should prepare to suffer the rule of idiots.
A people who elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims… but accomplices.
– GEORGE ORWELLS
When APC, the political party that seemed to lead the pack in abuse of the primaries for the general elections set up an appeal panel to review appeals, many were shocked at the incestuous moral paths of the Party Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, in naming his predecessor in Edo State, Professor Osa Osunbor, as chair of the panel.
The charges of nepotism and plain cover-up dominated beer parlour talk. Others with still some faith in intellect as partner in truth thought that the fact that he was a university professor, he would exercise moral authority.
This is in spite of the fact that the courts had in the past invalidated his supposed victory in the Edo State Governorship elections, years before, thus suggesting his participation to be improper. As it turned out, his stewardship on that panel was considered a whitewash and a travesty.
Waking up the spirit of the young
The 18th year of life for many in some countries is the year that they become freshmen in the university, the home of protests. Many do not now have to learn about Karl Marx or quote him as a few undergraduates in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s did to protest against one thing or the other. The age of 18 stalls the season of interdependence. Stephen R. Covey canvassed an understanding of the life cycle that runs from the age of dependence (infancy) to a time of passionate assertion of independence (the teenage years) and then a time of maturity when interdependence is the path to lasting accomplishment. Undergraduate life is time of final hurray in the assertion of independence which protest as a way of engaging, represents.
Beginning from a time of national independence for Nigeria in 1960, the youths protested against the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact. Those protests forced the abrogation of the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact. It is puzzling that that kind of protest has little chance of taking place today when social media makes it easier to mobilise for protest. It has to be that sometime in the new millennium the youth of Nigeria lost their appetite for protests and possibly deep concern for issues of the common good. Is that really possible?
The streets, the arena of the protest world, have been deserted by Nigeria’s Generation X. This is partly because soldiers in power and politicians conspired to choke life out of the student movement in Nigeria, with the banning of the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS, and willfully compromising those who seek to lead in the success of NUNS, or the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, with a variety of inducements. Thus, Nigeria lost a veritable growing ground for its next generation.
It will take rekindling the passion of the youth in public issues for the young, who often lead redemption turnarounds in troubled nations throughout history, to rise to that role in Nigeria. Without a spirit of Nigeria-consciousness and readiness to protest social wrong as Nigerians in the same age bracket did in the past, the Generation X seems more inclined towards social media wars. They mock everyone in public life without realising that they are in the cusp of a new slavery with their future being mortgaged by a class of adventurers. They have little understanding for “nation” and the spirit of noblesse oblige which requires of the privileged, a duty of care towards those not so fortunate.
The youth cannot absolve self of blame, but the extent to which they are complacent is spurred by failure of the generation before to show good example, mentor them and provide shoulders for these young ones to climb in order to see tomorrow more clearly. Indeed, it is very African to say that what an old man sees sitting down, a young man may not see standing up. But imagine how far the young can see if they combined their vision with the power of the elders to see.
To save Nigeria, a massive programme of youth education and re-orientation is required. An achievement culture rooted in the levers of modernity which the Nigerian academic, Olufemi Taiwo, argues in the book, Africa Must Be Modern, needs to be aggressively advanced.
In the advocacy for value-based leadership and the teaching of leadership, Nigeria’s Centre for Values in Leadership, CVL, has used an approach which it calls The Pedagogy of the Determined to reach the Generation Next. The model of instruction is essentially an adaptation of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed proposed by the Brazilian educationist, Paulo Freire.
It would seem obvious that any fruitful strategy for salvaging the situation would focus on getting this part of society to acquire the right set of values, competences and motivation. Getting it right with the young, would certainly yield a demographic dividend. To fail here is to leave a ticking time-bomb that could explode at any time resulting in consequences too dear for the sub-region and the dignity of a race.
The Hypocritical Tycoons
Perhaps more culpable than most for the Nigeria nightmare are the so-called business moguls. They require a stable and predictable environment for their investments to remain secure and have prospects for advancing. Yet no sector is as shy in putting its money where its interests are or where its proverbial mouth is.
In years of service on the boards of the National Council of Nigeria’s top private sector organisations such as the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association and the Council of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I have been a participant observer in pretentious partnership for good.
The politicians engaged in the criminal looting of the treasury and sentencing of the poor to misery too hard for the modern mind to fathom, receive nourishment from the new elite of so-called business tycoons. These so-called tycoons profit from rents that they are given access to by the poor governance in the country. So, the relationship is symbiotic and not neutral as the businessmen pretend. But on society it is parasitic in the main.
Adam Smith may have shown that the unseen hand can guide self-interested choices in a market, cumulating the actions of those actors into the wealth of nations.
Experience however, shows information asymmetries very prominently leads economic actors to avoid economic intercourse in order to avoid the losses consequent upon uncertainty. This is why market institutions strive to punish those who profit from such abuse of access to good business or market information.
This is why high-profiled people like Martha Stewart of Martha’s Vineyard in the US were sent to jail for insider trading, which if it were in Nigeria, would have been a joke. But most of the tycoons in Nigeria are rich because of the abuse of information asymmetry and access to power.
As a result, the business elite in Nigeria, are not as interested in a better society in which their investments can thrive but in continuity of access to the incumbents in power. Be they the devil or saints, the gains of uneven access through compromise outweigh any reasoning on their parts.
The so-called successful businessmen are, therefore, beneficiaries of an unjust system. They commit to its perpetuation even when they see daily, how it can trip up their own interests. The collaboration with state actors that keep institutions weak by business eventually gets in the way of sustaining presently.
One of the biggest risks of doing business in Nigeria is regulatory risk. Any player in highly regulated industry like banking, insurance and oil and gas, for example, can wake up to find that they have lost everything – not because of a wrong strategic move but because the new sheriff in town, the head of the regulatory agency does not like the kind of haircut they have chosen to wear.
That could result in the revocation of an operating licence or the shifting of a milestone that would entrap and lay to waste an enterprise on which thousands of people’s livelihood are dependent. Worse still, if the regulator has the intent of cornering a venture that he or she has desired, they will put in place policies that cause severe earthquakes within the venture, ultimately leading to the relative ease of a change in ownership.
In other parts of the world, history has shown that yesterday’s rubber barons have realised the need to clean up the act for their sustainable long-term interest, but in Nigeria, that has not quite happened. Instead this nouveau riche group who have built fortunes from graft, economic rent, and through being bag men for public office holders, empty the tills. They go about ego-tripping in pretence of pursuing public good via one foundation or another, but in reality, they spend a thousand dollars to celebrate a hundred dollar give-back to the community.
In 2009, I got a chance to explain this better to an emerging media mogul in Nigeria, Ben Murray-Bruce. Ben, who would later become a senator, was the founder of the Silverbird Media and Entertainment Empire. He had come to visit me and had popped the big question. He said he was puzzled that I lived so modestly even though he could easily point to several tycoons who had ridden on my back to their fortunes. So, tell me, he asked ‘Why do you hate money?’
After a hearty burst of laughter, I asked him how he thought a man who was perhaps Africa’s best-known evangelist of free enterprise could hate money. I then explained that man was a product of his choices. I was motivated more by the number of people I could count who were creating wealth and the jobs that go with them than the size of my bank account. More importantly though, I was mindful of how sustainable wealth should be created.
I reminded him of my good fortune in that since I was 19 years old, I had been privileged with access to just about everyone who had been head of state and in government in Nigeria on my own terms. For many of the types he was calling men of money, that kind of access would have been translated into billions of dollars from contracts, allocation of oil well licences that were essentially mints for printing money. I said to him that none of those men of power I was familiar with could ever recall any request that I made for my self-interest. Whatever I put on the table was for the advance of the common good.
That encounter inspired my writing of a book in which I chronicled case studies of several ventures I had either inspired or been part of building from idea stage to public icons. The book would be titled: Business Angel as A Missionary. Reflections of an Economic Growth Activist.
I then asked Ben Murray-Bruce to look around me and see if my quality of life that he observed was less than that of those with overflowing bank accounts. Moved to go beyond the typical half measure in making my point, I reminded him that the television and radio stations in his media group had just collaborated with Vanguard Newspapers to run a national voting campaign to choose Nigeria’s top living legends.
For reasons beyond me, I had been nominated alongside the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka; the famous writer, Chinua Achebe, a living former head of state and leading religious figures like Pastor Enoch Adeboye. I had been voted by the public into the top ten. I wondered why they had nominated me and not the private jet owning business people.
More interestingly, why had so many people taken the trouble to vote for me given that I had not been in a position of political power for a whole generation nor had the bank account size that could attract so many votes from those in my employment? We left the discussion without reaching any conclusions.
Surely business had much to contribute to an environment that observes the rule of law has strong institutions and rigorously made policies. The business community had not done enough to ensure that would obtain!
As the 2019 elections approached, foreign aid agencies began to assist with creating activities that would make for a better atmosphere for the elections. Some of the initiatives they undertook included a workshop by the US elections support NGOs, such as the Centre for International Private Enterprise, CIPE, and sister organisations, IRI, NDI and Solidarity.
Several leaders of the organised private sector, including the President of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, NACCIMA, President of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Leaders of NECA and the Institute of Directors, IOD, felt that the private sector was not doing enough to promote an environment conducive to free and fair elections and stable governments. More shocking, to me, was the loss of institutional memory regarding partnerships for development.
In my keynote address I pointed to the 1985 Aga Khan Foundation conference in Nairobi, Kenya. It was based on a theme to advance a tripartite approach to development and human progress in which the public sector, private sector and private development agencies, PDAs, (that is the social enterprise sector NGOs), dialogued and worked cooperatively. Hardly did anyone remember that out of it came the Enabling Environment Forum which would become the forerunner of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group.
The yearly Nigerian economic summit was designed to get policy makers to interact with businesses and civil society and to align so that governing will produce optimal outcomes. The other sectors, however, allowed the public sector to take lightly the ideas flowing from the summit. There was not enough pressure for accountability from the private sector on public officials whose conduct frustrated the environment of business and challenged economic growth.
Indeed, the point made in my 1998 book, Managing Uncertainty – Competition and Strategy in Emerging Economies, that the big elephant distorting strategy for firms, especially if you developed models from the Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm in structural economics was the predatory acts of public officials.
Failure to close ranks and alter the power equation between the public and private sectors made the summits, for me, a waste of precious time. I stopped participating in the annual jamborees since 2003.