- ‘Nigeria has had very bad politicians one generation after another’
A political economist and former presidential candidate, Prof Pat Utomi, who also contested the governorship primary of his party in the last election, shares his thoughts about the state of the nation in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA
Nigeria will be 59 in two days and many Nigerians are grossly disappointed with the country’s level of development. How would you assess the country’s progress so far?
Part of my personal burden is that I have been around for all of those 59 years and so I have seen those 59 years from the eyes of a young person, a teenager, a middle-aged person and someone now entering into the twilight of his time of being. I think one sentence sums it up; excruciating and painful witness to a country’s failure to live its dream. Most of my adult life has been focused on two things; social justice and economic development. In both areas, Nigeria has been a remarkable failure. I still remember as a young academic interested in development issues the days people used to say to Indonesia that ‘if you organise yourselves well, maybe you can be like Nigeria.’ And now I’m living through a time people are saying to Nigeria; maybe you can be like Indonesia. Isn’t that a great irony? In fact, a friend of mine, an American professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins, Peter Lewis, reflected that in a book, titled ‘Growing Apart’, which was a comparison of Nigeria and Indonesia. As Nigeria went south, Indonesia moved up the ladder. If Indonesia is painful to compare Nigeria with, you just try to compare it with Singapore. If I compare what has happened over the years in Singapore and Nigeria, sometimes, I literally break down in the night and begin to sob. I just love Singapore.
What’s the attraction?
Well, it’s the story of a country that was literally nothing. I saw it grow from a fishing village to what it is now. Its Prime Minister once broke down and wept because they thought they could not survive without Malaysia when the Malaya Federation got rid of them. But it became the hub of development. Everything happened before my eyes. Something happened when I went to Singapore this summer, and the story is very real. I was in my hotel room; reflecting and I found myself literally going into private conversations with Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela. In many ways, some of their expressions reminded me very deeply, painfully and sorrowfully the failure of Nigeria as a country. I was just lost in conversation with these men and I actually plan to put down a book of those conversations of which I got no reply from these men. Somebody interviewed me in 1990 and I was shocked when the person said there is a topic you would turn to that would animate me any day, which is Nigeria. I have always been pan-Nigeria in all my views, but Nigeria has been a depressing ride; its youths are leaving and they are unsure about the future.
Where do you think the country is getting it wrong?
One of the things that the Nigerian elite have never gotten around is understanding what it means to govern. So we have one generation after the other of very bad politicians. Government has gone from bad to worse; you think it’s going to get better and the next one is just worse than the one before it. It’s depressing when you think they would learn from the mistakes of others but it never happens. Associated with this is the fact that governing Nigeria is expensive; politicians are on ego trips, which must be manifested in motorcades and how they steal the commonwealth in the name of taking care of themselves because they are government officials. In many countries, public officials are some of the least paid persons. Here, they are probably not as well paid but we know how much of our resources they have plunged.
The budget of the country comes to less than six per cent of our Gross Domestic Product and what it takes to run the government is extracted mainly from revenues from crude oil and taxation, and about all of it going into the budget. And this budget maintains less than two million of us who are either civil servants or politicians and they don’t even feel accountable enough to ensure that the rest of us have a decent life. They actually think who are we to be talking to them and asking to be governed well. So, between the civil servants and the politicians, we have a new colonisation of the Nigerian people. Femi Falana said the other day that Nigeria is governed like we are a conquered people and I disagreed with him. I told him we are not governed like we are a conquered people; we are a conquered people. Only a conquered people can be governed the way we are governed. We are in captivity and that is why a lot of people are trying to escape as if they are trying to break out of captivity. It’s a run for freedom. We cannot continue that way; it’s not possible.
Would you have an idea of how the country got to this level if Indonesia once admired us?
Yes, it wasn’t this way from the beginning. I remember the late Prof Emmanuel Elebute saying that when he was appointed a professor of medicine in the 60’s, his pay was higher than that of the Prime Minister of Nigeria. Can you imagine anybody in the National Assembly allowing a professor of medicine to earn more than them? That’s impossible in today’s system. We know how long it took him (Elebute) to get there, but we don’t know how long it took to get to the National Assembly. In some cases, all it takes is to steal a few ballot boxes, even if you are coming from the gutter. A collapse of culture happened somewhere along the way. When there is a collapse of culture, nothing dear exists anymore. Value shapes human progress and it determines what any society becomes, but there has been a collapse of culture in Nigeria and there are no values guiding anything anymore. Anything goes and you can get away with murder, literally. You can steal the maze today and the next day you would be the custodian of the maze. That’s a society that has lost everything.
If Nigeria continues on this route, where do you think the country is headed?
For three decades, I have been trying to get the Nigerian middle class to realise that they are the problem. I recently wrote a book, titled ‘Why Not’, where I talked about the complicit middle. I think I played some role in waking up that middle in 1993 after the annulment of the election. I wrote an article, ‘We must say never again.’ Professionals got up and said truly we couldn’t continue, but everybody went back to sleep and the conquest continued. Fully conquered by the political class, the Nigerian people are wondering who they are and what would happen to them next. But, you see the thing about situations like this is that they are not sustainable; it’s just for a period of time. About 25 years ago, I began using a phrase that Nigeria would witness the revenge of the poor. My friend, Rev Fr George Ehusani, seems to have popularised the phase. It’s happening as we speak. Let the rich travel from Abuja to Kaduna in their flashy cars and see what happens. And it’s just starting. Unfortunately, the poor and middle class are also caught up by it. We could have avoided all of these and build a prosperous and just society for all. When there is no justice, peace is hard to find. Nigeria built an unjust society and today it is searching for peace. It was all avoidable. I can go back to look at all my writings for the last 40 years and I can show where I predicted where we are today. I am tired this time and it’s time to retire.
There are people who believe that the discovery of oil is part of our problem, do you agree with that?
Nigeria has suffered a major problem that led to the collapse of culture, and it’s what I like to call the dangerous alchemy of the convergence of soldiers and oil. Military rule, which brought an authoritarian structure, met with oil, which brought free money. The people in power, who were soldiers, did not need the people because they had enough money coming from oil exploration to do as they pleased. So, people were very happy that they (military) left them alone. Then, they also stopped paying taxes and they stopped asking what they (leaders) were doing with our (oil) money. That drove the emergence of state capture. The people who had power and money basically captured the Nigerian state. I often talked about those who own Nigeria as their property. For nearly 60 years, we have had a group of people who have captured the country and owned it. In many ways, groups negotiate with them entry into sharing some of what they own. I have a very remarkable relationship with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and I love him. There are two sides of him. There is a side of him that is with that rapacious group of captors and a side of him that represents a certain social will for good of all. He’s a very complex man caught in the middle of this and people don’t understand him. There are things about him that you may not like but there are things about him that you can’t but respect. But, there are others in that group that are not given to his pang of conscience. It’s a rapacious parasitic group.
There is also the belief that the Nigerian citizenry went to bed after the return to democracy in 1999, was that truly the case?
While the state capture lasted, they woke up in 1999 and we all fought the system until they (military) decided to let go. After that, we – and I charge myself as the first accused – decided we had done our bit, which was the ultimate mistake, in my view. It opened the doors to a bunch of charlatans and once those traditional politicians moved in, that was it. People who came with the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Michael Opara and Ahmadu Bello, who grew up in the understanding of social conscience, thought the military was not serious about going. Then a bunch of bandits stepped in and Nigeria has not recovered since then.
Do you think it is possible to recover?
It is possible to recover. You see, why I think any nation caught in this kind of mess can recover is Brazil. If Brazil can come back, why not (Nigeria)? But my fear is that if we are not careful, instead of taking the Brazil option, we might do Argentina or worst still, we may do our natural ally and soulmate, Venezuela. Do we learn from our mistakes? Nigerian civil war was the worst genocide of the 20th century outside Hitler’s attempt at exterminating the Jews, even though we tried to cover up that history. Rwanda went through genocide and recovered brilliantly in the way President Paul Kagame has tried to rebuild the country. Nigeria has not had a good fortune of learning from the error of the Nigerian genocide in the way Kagame had. So, where do we find hope? I think there is still a group of people committed to the dignity of the human race, who are middle class persons and are still driven by a bigger good. I remember that one of the things I had written while reflecting on my thoughts about Achebe and Mandela was what I titled 1,100 years of servitude. My fear is for Nigeria as a nation not to plunge its people into 1,000 years of servitude. When I talk to many Nigerians, people are so short-termed and instant gratification-driven and it increases my pain. To have elite that are not sensitive to the pains of Nigerians is one of the reasons my time of being has been a depressing one.
Your party, the All Progressives Congress, on assuming power in 2015 lamented what it called PDP’s 16 years of misrule and people felt the APC would do things differently. Do you think anything has changed since your party took over?
Let me tell you my own history with that adventure. I think about seven or eight years ago, I was asked to give the annual lecture of the Leadership newspaper and the subject was ‘political parties’. I remember vividly and I remember that in that room were almost all the people who became the bigwigs of the opposition, sitting on the high table. I took the pain to analyse what political parties are; what their role is in building up ideas for social transformation and progress. But there was something interesting after I finished speaking in that hall. Paul Unongo (former Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum) running to the podium saying to me that he felt like locking the doors and preventing all of us from leaving the place so we could sit down and discuss how Nigeria would move forward. That lecture was to get the opposition to realise that the redemption of Nigeria was all these people getting together, crafting ideas about how Nigeria should travel and using the platform of a political party, based on ideals of social democracy, with the people’s capitalism embedded in it, to organise a better society. The first thing I would say about the trouble with Nigeria and my party, as you called it, is that we didn’t form a political party.
How do you mean?
We created something called the APC, but it’s not a political party. Political parties in Nigeria unfortunately remains essentially machines for winning elections; a classic example of machine for elections. Machine politics does not save a nation, rather it produces political actors, whereas Nigeria needs to be saved. Once we did not manage to form a political party out of the APC, the game was lost. The first game that was lost was that the APC had no machine for internal conversation. So, once the machine produced officers, it was the end of the game; we could not even talk internally about what we should be doing as a party. People who can testify are still alive.
I kept going back to talk to Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, who was the chairman of the party, about the need for us to sit down, develop ideas and coach all the people elected on the party’s platform about what we stand for and where our country should be. He said we truly needed such but that there was no money, and I told him we didn’t need money. I said he should invite them and leave the rest to me. I told him I would bring my friends free of charge to orient them. So, I went through that with him, but when you can’t find a platform to speak inside your own party, what do you do? Maybe once in a while journalists would harass you (laughs) and you would say one or two things and that is the end. I’m not surprised that we are where we are now. But, it’s a tragedy for our country. And there is this big misconception that we are a rich country; but we are not. We are a bankrupt country. If we are a company, we would have gone like Thomas Cook (a British global travel group that folded up a few days ago).
Have you tried having that conversation with the new leadership of the party?
Remember I said I’m retired (laughs). Since I have no pension, maybe I would first go to an American campus and speak English for two years, perhaps I would earn enough that could sustain me in my village (laughs). It’s a big pity, because this country has so much potential. A professor at Harvard years ago said the central conservative truth is that it is not politics but culture and its values that are responsible for the progress of the society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself. In effect, what he was saying was interpreted very nicely by Samuel P. Huntington (jnr) who gave an example of that. Lee Kuan Yew in many ways represents that central liberal truth.
He was a man who used politics to change the culture of his people and in doing that effectively, he took that country from the third world to the first. Unless there is a change in culture and values in Nigeria, the result would be the same. For example, our youth bulge should be producing demographic dividends for us, but, right now our youth bulge is producing the road to Somalia. Robert Kaplan told us 20 years ago that we would likely descend into anarchy, with ethnic, religious and economic cleavages. Instead of us to work assiduously at preventing that from happening, we just kept on behaving every day to get to the destination we were warned against. If lives were not involved, Nigeria would be a serious comedy, but the lives of millions of people are involved.
You participated in the presidential campaigns of your party prior to the 2015 election, and as an economist, some people expected that you would be in the President’s team to bring your experience to bear. Would you know why you didn’t get an appointment or were you offered and you declined?
One thing I know about God is that He loves me and He doesn’t let me go to where it’s not in my best interest. So, whatever happened was absolutely what God loved to happen, and it has been for my own good.
You took part in the primary election of your party for the governorship election in Delta State in the last election. Even when you wrote to your party to postpone the primary because the list of delegates was not available, you said you got no response. How did you feel about it?
I believe in process. The rule said if you would use the indirect primary you must provide all the aspirants with the list of delegates so they could pitch their ideas to those people, but the list never came. To be on the record, one week to the exercise the list didn’t come, so I wrote to the state and national offices. Even on the day of the exercise, we didn’t see the list. What is tragic about our situation is that we have used social media to confuse many things. I have seen on the social media on how some people said I didn’t know where the primary was taking place and that I went to another place. It was all nonsense. But they planted it in the media to suggest that I was somehow confused. But there was no such thing. 70 per cent of the things I see in the social media with my name don’t emanate from me, but what do you do.
What happened on the day of the primary?
You see, based on what I just said, there was no reason for me to show up; when I didn’t get the list and there was no response to my letters. On the day of the election, which was supposed to start at 9pm, they called for a meeting at noon and the delegation from Abuja was there. The then Minister of State for Petroleum Resources (Ibe Kachikuwu), who is also from the state was there, including the other aspirants. Every single person, except one, said it didn’t make sense and that we should postpone it. The chairman of the panel said, ‘Prof, you know the way things are in Nigeria’ and I asked if I could see the list but he still didn’t bring it out. He said he saw it yesterday in Abuja and I said okay, can we see it? He said ‘Prof, you know we are brothers, let’s just go to the field.’ I was looking at the man and I asked myself how this country came down so low.
He even said, ‘Prof this is not classroom’ (laughs). At that point I didn’t know whether to be amused or not. I knew it was clear what they came to do, so there was no point. The problem is that people who violate laws don’t go to prison, so it would be done again in the next election. In a normal country, all those involved in that process should be in prison by now. I am watching for the third time in my life, grand treason against the Nigerian people. What has happened in Nigeria unfortunately is that it has become a way of life. It has become a racket. So, rights are denied Nigerians normally. Several times I have told the Nigerian Bar Association that they have a duty to be activists for the rule of law.
At the point that the process didn’t go as planned, did you make any attempt to reach out to the authorities at the national level?
Which authorities, when they were the ones doing it? Whatever it was, there was deliberate collusion from the upper echelons of the party. They (electoral committee) can’t just do that kind of a thing among themselves.
The man who won the primary lost the election, were you surprised?
I expected that to happen. That was why the whole thing was like a no-brainer and I wonder why they didn’t understand that was how it would play out. The general politics of the place was such that anything other than someone like me emerging was baptising the incumbent.
Do you think you would have won if you had emerged as the winner?
Clearly, I would have. People were looking for something new and different. I didn’t wake up to say I wanted to run for any office, but they harassed me in my house. Those concerned persons disrupted my peace. Nobody around me, family and friends, wanted me to contest, but the people who came to me were not even my kinsmen. They were mainly from the central part of the state, which was what impressed me.
What was the position of your wife?
My wife, more than anybody else, was the one going quietly behind me to beg my friends to tell me not to go ahead. But, I also ask myself how history would remember me if there was a chance to mount the stage and effect a change and I walked away. One thing I can never be accused of in this country is not having made the effort to change anything I have ever criticised. I criticised how we treat widows and then I created a centre to support widows and it has been on for nearly 30 years. I observed that we didn’t have a public conversation, so I created Patito’s gang to aid public conversations. I know what it has cost me, beyond what it costs to air and produce the television show for 20 years. But I have been happy to live with all those things as part of my own sacrifice for nation building.
Are you still a proud member of the APC?
Political parties are an aggregation of groups in a direction, if it was really a party. The Conservative Party have the back-benchers, so consider me a very serious back-bencher in the APC.
You once contested to be President and then you later contested to be governor, some people would see that as a descent. Did you see it like that initially?
No, I don’t even think of those things like that. Many people thought that way but I don’t think in those terms. That is where pride really is, and the example I gave in my book, ‘’Why Not’ on that subject was that when I was a graduate student in the United States in the 70s, the Governor of California, a gentleman called Jerry Brown did something similar. After he left being the governor, he went to be a local government councillor. Over 30 years after, he ran for governor again. I had a good fortune of becoming friendly with a one-time Prime Minister of France. Just before he died, he was the Mayor of Lyon, after being the Prime Minister. So, I don’t think like that. In fact, if you tell me that what would change Nigeria is if I become a local government councillor, not even chairman, I will. My interest is not in the title but the impact.
After those attempts, do you still have plans to contest any office?
I told you that I’m making the moves to go to my village, you’re talking about an election (laughs). In fact, if not that I’m not buoyant enough to retire, because I don’t have a pension, I won’t be here (laughs). I also believe that impact is not a function of title. I wish people didn’t have to have a title to make a difference. I’m not looking for a job and I’m not looking for a title. What title did Mahatma Gandhi hold in India? You mention India and the first name anybody thinks of is Gandhi. I ran into Dr Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu sometime and she looked at me and shook her head. She said ‘you know I have been watching and following you; I see these people trying to stop you to block you out the way they blocked my father.’ I was struck. As she walked away, I turned to the person next to me and I said I wish they would succeed. If I could go to my grave in the stature of her father, I would rather that than any title in Nigeria.
Now that you want to retire, what do you do at your leisure?
I talk to people like you (laughs). Of course, I read a lot, and that one is a habit. If I have 10 minutes to myself and I didn’t read, something would be wrong because I would always have a book in my hand.