Saving Nigeria

By Pat Utomi

If wisdom were ever desperately needed, that time is now. But reason is embattled and truth often comes with a high price in this kind of season even if it may bring posthumous tribute to those who speak them today.

Why are we caught in this gale of emotional neighbor-bashing and bitterness of spirit even as terrorists rule our forests, innocents are murdered in cold blood, bandits kidnap at will, making the drift to a Hobbesian state of nature clear and palpable?

The absence of honest, rational, public conversation can explain the unreason of people holding on to ideas that are ostensibly advancing their interests in a narrow parochial way, whereas in reality it is worsening their condition, often at levels that should make these people madochists of an extraordinary nature if they could glance into a future they are unwittingly subverting.

I will use four examples from ethnic jingoism in the current Nigerian experience to illustrate this dysfunction before offering some explanations for why things happen in these strange ways. Then I will turn to some problems with leadership and what Malcolm Gladwell would call talking to strangers in his enlightening engagement of how people make a mess of the world because of how prejudice affects the way they engage with people they do not really understand.

Back in the 1840s,   in France, there was a Laissez Faire activist Frederic Bastiat repeatedly pointed to the nature of man who was inclined to seek gain without pain. Even more interesting, he points to the fact that those who have power encode into law the means to preserve their advantage to plunder ”legally”.

But before Bastiat wrote The Law, plunder in fields of adventure by conquistadores had brought Spain plenty of cash. The elite squandered the revenues like Nigeria’s elite currently squander oil revenues. But one or two generations down the line ”rich‘’ Spain would be much poorer than smaller countries of Europe like Switzerland and the Netherlands. These had invested in their youth to enhance their ability to produce while Spain was sharing revenues.     We learnt from them that revenues do not make sustainably rich. What makes rich is production as the case of Switzerland and Netherlands show.

When, in fact Netherlands had a revenue surge from oil and gas finds in the 20th century it had an effect that we have come to know as Dutch disease from that surge of cash.

In our Nigerian experience, the North of Nigeria was quite a production region as the groundnut pyramids symbolised, and even in processing or manufacturing, Bompai, in Kano, as an industrial estate, even before the government stimulated Kakuri Industrial Estate in Kaduna, tells the story of productive enterprise. But when oil revenues started flowing, political power led to local government becoming a federating units and many more local governments being created further North. The sad result, following the “lottery effect” , that phenomenon in which the poor man who wins the lottery usually ends up poor a fees years after, has drained the North and made it jettison production, becoming much poorer, as a result even though it gets more revenues. But those who know better, including a former president of the Kano chamber of commerce who spoke to me about this 15 years ago lack the courage to speak truth to the people lest they be seen as sell outs.

In the South East there are people so angry with perception of injustice that they seen to be cutting their nose to spite the face by developing post Nigeria visions.

Same errors prevail in some in the South-West who harass prospering people from other parts of Nigeria. You wonder if they do not wonder why how some smart countries go in search of smart foreigners with Visa policies that canvas their relocation.

Yet, these points do not come to the fore in public conversation because political actors play up emotions that make people embrace as their best interest, factors that are against their interest but provide revenue capture opportunities for a few individuals in the state capture scenario that defines contemporary Nigeria

Thanks to the work of Joshua Greene at the centre for moral cognition at Harvard, and others, it is easier to show how the gap between us and them comes through as emotion triumph over reason and rational public conversation which Jurgen Habermes offers as the peg of modernity.

The solution Is in enlightened leadership who can see the Forest beyond the trees, and can manage to rise above the emotions that prey on the fear of strangers.

Here we can learn much from a visionary thinker Malcolm Gladwell, who has some drops of Nigerian blood in his system. His excursion into the many tragedies the world has suffered because many people do not know how to engage strangers,point to how Nigeria is can profit from leaders with strong emotional intelligence. Much of the trouble in Nigeria today will be easily overcome if we could learn how to talk with strangers. If we all cannot do so, at least let those people who are leaders and exercise influence, so learn.

Whether it be the open grazing matter, which Katsina State found two decades before the current crisis, is prime driver of dessert encroachment and needed to be controlled. Ditto for the agitations in irredentist movements for the decoupling of the Federation. The naked truth is that most are working against their best interest simply because they have not learnt to talk to strangers.

Whenever I read again Hammd Bubboyi’s delightful collection of some leadership values of the Troika of the founding of the Sokoto Caliphate in the book ‘Principles of Leadership’ I wonder where the present leaders of Nigeria got their education. If the ghosts of Uthman dan Fodio (Sheik Uthman Ibn Foudaye) Sheik Abdulai IbnFoudaye and Sheik Mohammed Bello Ibn Uthman Ibn Foudaye were to run a Retreat for the leadership of today’s Nigeria, we could have more peace and progress.

lProf. Utomi, a political economist, is the founder of Centre for Values in Leadership.

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