Nigeria has been captured – Utomi



Professor of political economy and former presidential candidate, Patrick Okedinachi Utomi, has argued that Nigeria is a country under capture.

Utomi who aired his views in a recent interview with Business Hallmark’s Teslim Shitta-Bey and Obinna Ezugwu insisted that it was obvious that the current ‘federal’ structure is not working and therefore needs to be looked at. He also spoke on other issues besetting the country. Excerpts:

 Nigeria has gotten to a point where people like Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point, a point where it must determine whether it is a mouse, a rat or a bat. What do you think we have to do as a nation to have a more stable polity?

First, we need to have sensible conversation. One of the problems we have in Nigeria is that we enjoy living the lie. We like to pretend that there are no problems, and so the absence of intelligent public conversation then pushes the pains, the frustrations into the margins, therefore people go to social media and insult one anther which doesn’t lead to any constructive outcome. Then in the formal open space we pretend that there are no problems, but we know people are seething. There is anger in every part of Nigeria, it is not a problem with only the Boko Haram territory in the North East or militants in the oil bearing South South or in the Indigenous People of Biafra territory in the South East.

Everybody complains about Nigeria. I used to joke about Nigeria being a country of the marginalised… every Nigerian insists that he is marginalised. So, the question I ask is, who is marginalising the other if everybody is marginalised? The real problem is that we are not allowing ourselves to have a proper conversation to enable us, with evidence, to understand what the problem is and therefore to begin to solve it. Somehow there is this pretence that if you really deal with it the thing will break. This fear of it being too fragile and so let’s lie about it is what has really keeps Nigeria from determining whether it is a mouse or a rat or a bat.

That’s one; public conversations. The second one also has to do with a bit of not understanding this reality that Nigeria has been a state under capture; there has been state capture in Nigeria. For much of 50 years, Nigeria has been run by less than 20 people; our fortunes have been determined by less than 20 people. I had used different kinds of numbers. In the past I had said not more than 60 people until a very important security person who I have known for many years said to me that they are not more than ten. The truth of the matter is that for a number of reasons, our fortunes have been spurn around by a group of people who were young officers in 1966, and have dominated the country completely for a variety of very simple reasons.  They led in prosecuting the civil war, and at the end of the war, the country was literally in their palm.

Although there is a huge irony in it because when I talk about the class of 66 that has dominated Nigeria in the last 50 years, I actually do not include General Yakubu Gowon who was really the head of government when that class took charge. He was an outsider, he wasn’t part of that class of 66 which is a very big irony. So, those in that class of 66, having taken over the country, something remarkable had happened, of course we know oil was discovered in commercial quantity in 1956, but it was not really so much, Nigeria was like where Ghana is today with oil coming just on the fledgling side. But after the civil war in 1970, oil had become a really significant component. By 1973, we had Arab/Israeli war in which the Arabs tried to use their oil as a weapon, which added momentum to what started in 1960 when the Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt flew to Baghdad and OPEC was born.

So, from the gains after the founding of OPEC and the cartel increasing prices progressively, the events of 1973 led to the quadrupling of oil price and Nigeria’s revenue base ballooned dramatically. That ballooning of the revenue base created what I call the dangerous alchemy of soldiers and oil. On the one hand, the nature of military rule concentrates power; whether you like it or not, whether you say (Aguiyi) Ironsi tried to do this or didn’t do that about centralising… all the military governments we know have been central, and it’s very simple; it is the structure of the army. The big general at the centre sends out the colonel to go and be governors in his outpost. Colonel cannot talk back to the general, so the relationship between the centre and the state became one that you could not really call federal. And so, the convergence of soldiers and oil for the most part, ended Nigeria’s federalism. Having ended Nigeria’s federalism, this small group of people, controlling all these resources coming from oil, the Nigerian elite fell into a very simple natural trap. The only way to have influence, to make money, or to do anything in the system, was somehow to dance to these fellows who had these powers. They could ensure you got rich through contracts, they could ensure you got appointment into government because they had government; they could ensure that you run for office because they could give you money from what they were taking from the state. This small group came to define Nigeria, even to make it much worse, a culture of impunity had arisen in the country, which meant that we can kid ourselves as much as we like, most of the elections we have had in Nigeria have been a farce. Once that group determines that look, it is this person who should be president; they will manipulate the system for that person to become president. I mean, the biggest evidence of it was in 1999 when there was a legitimacy crisis and they panicked and backed away in 1998 and decided to return to the barracks for civilian government to return in 1999, but they quickly decided that the person who will be president is (Olusegun) Obasanjo.

You can say anything you want to say about 1999, whether it was Obasanjo or (Olu) Falaye who won, but the bottom line was that they decided that Obasanjo would be the next president of Nigeria and they manipulated the system to achieve that. I can say, without batting an eyelid that President Jimmy Carter, when we hosted him to dinner when he came for that election… Aliko Dangote, Umar Aba Gana, I and few others at the Hilton, Carter was so stunned by the evidence of the army manipulation of 1999 election that he couldn’t talk. It was when we were leaving the hall that the former US ambassador to Nigeria, Princeton Lyman called me and said: “Pat, you know, the army was not clever at all with the way it made deliberate effort to manipulate this election.”

We know that 1999 election was a farce; 2003 was a huge game, but it was a game between a very crafty vice president and the symbol of the class of 66. In the end, the game resolved itself with Obasanjo continuing… and I can tell you because I was one of those in the Obasanjo’s so called policy advisory team, I was actually chairman of it in 1998… Obasanjo kept insisting that he didn’t want a programme for more than one term. As far as I can tell, in 1999, Obasanjo did not want more than one term. But by the time the game between him and Atiku (Abubakar) got to a head, he not only wanted second term, but a third term. 2007 was the ultimate farce, all the foreign observers who came made the point that there was no election. The former Prime Minister of Canada, the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright and Co; everybody knew that election did not take place in Nigeria in 2007; they just decided what to do.

So, knowing these facts, you have to, in looking at how Nigeria got to where it is today, consider what the interest of those who have affected state capture has been. I go so frequently to South Africa because of some international boards on which I seat, and I see South Africans agonising about state capture, the Guptas and their connection to (Jacob) Zuma and all that, I just laugh and tell them that they have not seen state capture. They should come to Nigeria and see. If you take this subject that we have spoken to; the fact of not having a conversation about the truth of our situation, living the lie, the fact of state capture and the fact that the principals of capture are just people who don’t realise their capacity to change history for good on the one hand, or don’t have the capacity to recognise the consequences of their behavior for history. I know almost all of them personally; they are not smart enough to know that they have held the country hostage. And that they had the power to build a great country.

You were one of the youngest advisers to a president in Africa, which suggests that we were on the path of integrating the youths into leadership that had been gerontocratic. What went wrong, how come we couldn’t build on that?

To be fair, the commentary is not completely accurate in the sense that the state captors took over in their 20s and 30s. But as they got older, they started referring to 60-year-olds as small boys. Really, for people like me and what has come after, it’s really a statement about how Nigeria had progressively moved away from a merit society. I mean, I became whatever I became without a godfather, without a mentor, indeed without a father because my father had passed on when I came back from graduate school at 26 and a year later, I was in a presidential advisory position. It was just that we had a merit society in which one person of intellect who was in position of public authority was listening to what I was saying in the media; what I was writing in the papers and what I was saying on television and decided that this young man is saying some very interesting things. They came and found me, and a couple of weeks later, I was replacing one of my own professors in government. It was completely merit based. Something happened along the line, when the twenty going on thirty year-olds began to get older, and I think 1999 was the real terrible juncture.

Alright, they got rid of (Shehu) Shagari, which would have been real progress for Nigeria. Shagari’s first term was really terrible, the civilians were back in power and were playing games and he was not the strongest of leaders, but his second term was going to change things significantly. You saw people like the Onosode’s, the Asiodu’s come into government. There was a new thinking, a new strengthening and if the country had continued to go from there, perhaps we would have long passed the mess we are dealing with today. But unfortunately, the military returned for a number of reasons. They gave excuses of the corruption of the Shagari era, but as we saw, they became much more corrupt than Shagari’s so called corrupt government. If you really think of it, the issue couldn’t have been corruption. The truth is that the class of 66 feared something that was going to happen, which is that Shagari was going to handover to Dr Alex Ekwueme in 1987, and they wanted to stop it. They can tell any story they want, but the coup of 1983 was designed to prevent Ekwueme from becoming president of Nigeria in 1987, which is why they accused Ekwueme of running the government instead of Shagari who was president. So, while they held Shagari under some kind of house arrest, they put Ekwueme in prison. It was the same fight that Obasanjo fought with Atiku. Perceiving a strong vice president who would move the country away from the dominance of the class of 66, they wanted to stop Atiku.

But Atiku is back again in contention. Going by your analysis, do you feel he will be a better option among the people we have now?

In these issues, we don’t talk about better. History is driven by all kinds of factors. I like to remind people that (Adolf) Hitler sent some of his most trusted generals out as the Third Reich was expanding and when Eisenhower’s army and all of that began to push back into Europe, the commander of the division based in Paris got orders to level Paris. That German General was called Hermann Von Choltitz, the guy wore his uniform, stood in front of the mirror and said: “Why should history remember me as the man who destroyed the most beautiful city in the world?” He refused to give the order to burn Paris. But he knew that they would immediately know what he was doing and send a counter division to move to Paris, so he quickly sent a message to the Allied Forces to move in quickly and take Paris that he will not resist. However, the Allied Forces said no, this foolish man wants to trap us. They ignored him, and he was getting calls from Germany, is Paris burning? So, one French man leading a rag-tag army called the French Free Forces, General Charles De Gaulle decided that if you guys won’t go, I’m going. And with a rag-tag army, he drove into Paris and took it without resistance because Dietrich Von Choltitz did not want history to remember him as the man who destroyed the most beautiful city in the world.


History is replete with those kinds of morals, and to be definitive about something in the face of history is to be unwise because anything can determine the cause of history. So, I can’t say to you that this man will do this or that man will do that, it is not wisdom to make that kind of statement in our history. But I suspect that I know the motives of the actors, and I know why they would try and stop someone like him. Some people will argue about his sanctity; whether he is a saint or not a saint, but those are marginal issues. The truth is that they know he is resourced enough, determined enough and brave enough to move the country to a different path. And in the interest of their capture, they will try to stop him.

Would you say then that at the very base of Nigeria’s problem is the conflict of generational interest?

I don’t think so; I think it’s a conflict of personal interest. I think that even the big issues- ethnicity and all of these things are false consciousness; they are pseudo excuse for self interest. If the problem was ethnicity: these are Hausa, these are Igbo, these are Yoruba and so on, who has run the country for most of its history? They have been generals from the North. Who are the richest people in the country? Their bag men are usually not Northerners, it’s one Igbo trader who is carrying the money for them; it’s one Yoruba entrepreneur who is carrying the money for them. So it completely destroys the argument that it is an ethnic thing. No, it is simply self interest. I think ethnicity is false consciousness in many ways. Obviously we have primary affinities and all that, but in terms of what has determined the major engagements in Nigeria, it has not been ethnicity. That’s why when people get into all this ethnic reasons for making political appointments, I laugh at them.. The question I usually ask people is, how many of you whose sons became governor, minister, president or anything, have witnessed a dramatic improvement in your community as a result of that? How much did Abeokuta thrive because Obasanjo was president? Let’s look at the many Northern presidents. Are the people of Niger State the highest quality Nigerians because they had Abdulsalami Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida? So clearly ethnicity is false consciousness. But it is a useful false consciousness manipulated by those who it profits personally.

I have spoken with people who say that we need to go Confederal in order to make any progress. If really the problem is not that we are so disparate in terms of ethnicity, in terms of our views, why should we go Confederal?

Federal or Confederal kind of structure derives its value from the principle of subsidiarity; that the closest government is to the citizens, the more easily it is to be held accountable to the people. If you go back to the most important contribution to the political science theory in Nigeria made some 40 years ago by a Professor at the University of Ibadan, Peter Eke, “The Two Publics” in which he basically argued that in colonial society, a split in the sense of civic culture emerged. A certain consciousness of public morality in which the man who will not even dare to touch one Kobo from his village association fund, will, as permanent secretary, carry the whole treasury without feeling any remorse. So, that mindset in some ways suggest that you can better hold people accountable and government work for the better interest if decisions come down to some subsidiary level.

However, one must also acknowledge the argument of people who say that in today’s Nigeria, the federal government is, in fact, much more accountable because the state governments are just fiefdoms of governors, they buy the whole state assembly. And indeed it is true, I know of a story years ago of one ‘lawmaker’ who had been in Enugu House of Assembly, but then was elected into the Federal House of Reps and after a few months in Abuja, he said what’s this nonsense? That this place is not as profitable as being in the House of Assembly. That by now he should have built two houses. Apparently, the governor just shares the budget, gives them what to play with and does whatever he wants with the rest.

However, the defense of that is that it does not take away the fact that it is easier to hold people to account at that level. But institutional weaknesses at the sub-national level are much more and the capacity at that level is so much less that you can manipulate more in today’s arrangement. As different from the 50s and 60s in those regional arrangements where actually governance was bottom up. The regions were in competition with one another over who will most bring progress to their people. The concept was described by two American academics: Robert Melson and Howard Wolpe, as ‘competitive communalism.’ Very often I give examples how Awolowo led in that competitive bidding.

Awolowo found that there was no industrialisation under colonial government, so he decided that he was going to industrialise the West. He came to a place called Ikeja in Western Region at the time and demarcated an industrial estate, then went out seeking investors to come into that estate. Today if you drive down Oba-Akran, you will see that Oodua Investment has interest in most of those companies because of how the estate emerged. Once he did that, his competitor in the Eastern Region, M. I Opara was minded not to be outdone, so he set up Aba and Trans Amadi in Port Harcourt at the same time. The Sadauna (Ahmadu Bello) set up Kakuri Industrial Estate in Kaduna, an estate that would become the hub of Nigeria’s textile industry.

Then the story of television. The Nigerian Broadcasting Service said something that the Premier of Western Region was unhappy about, he had to write a reply, however, they denied him access, but he had the authority to set up his own. Instead of setting up a radio station, there was a new technology emerging called television, so he leapfrogged and in 1959, Ibadan had the first television station in all of Africa, ahead of Brussels and Dublin. And Opara saw that and said no, this guy cannot outdo me. In the WNTV which was the station set up in Ibadan, the pay off line was “WNTV, first in Africa.” So, when Opara set up his own in Enugu, his own pay off line was “ENTV, second to none”

The competition led to significant growth. In agriculture they were all competing, farm settlements here and there. And Opara’s goal was an egg for a penny. Until the dangerous alchemy of soldiers and oil like I said began to fracture the regions. They created states ostensibly to bring government closer to the people, but today we know that with 12 ministers Awolowo ran the Western Region from Lagos to Asaba. Today, there are eight states between Lagos and Asaba, each of them has dozens of commissioners, hundreds of advisers and yet the development is far less in real terms than was the case in the 50s and 60s.

So you are presented with complexities of factors that you have to deal with in coming to the decision about what manner of government is appropriate. What is certain is that what we have is not working and needs to be reworked. And that public conversation I talked about is what will aid us to find out what will most work at this time. Nobody has a perfect structure but when you are talking about it, you can then figure out.

Certainly, the federal government dominated system is not working, and even worse for many people, that failure to really give thought to these issues makes them desperate in pursuing what they think puts them at an advantage in the current order. But not having enough conversation actually makes them shoot themselves in the foot in thinking that they are pursuing their advantage. A simple example… all this resource control, restructure, are all based on the view that we should get more money because we are more entitled to it. Those who have used state capture to make more of the money come to them don’t want to lose that. Those who feel that the money has been taken from their place and they have suffered are saying we need more of it. But I have evidence that both are incorrect in assuming that it would give them progress. Very simple; in the 60s, there were two times as many local governments in Southern Nigeria as there were in Northern Nigeria, but that time it didn’t matter because they were just administrative units that the regions used. By 1975/76, the Dasuki panel reviewed local governments, Nigeria looking at Yugoslavia and Brazil from where it got the idea of three tier fiscal structure, approved a local government system that was part of the federating units, and significant transfers began to go to local governments.

The young army officers from the North who dominated politics began to covert each person’s village into a local government. Today we have 774 local governments in Nigeria, more than 500 are in Northern Nigeria; a dramatic reversal of what was the case before. If you look at it, it means that a significant part of Nigeria’s revenue has been flowing to the North, but the North remains the poorest part of Nigeria. So, there isn’t a correlation between their getting more money and their becoming more prosperous. Indeed, I had offered an argument that what has happened is the lottery effect. If a poor man wins a lottery, ten years after, he would be poorer than he was before he won the lottery. What you didn’t work for, you will use it the way somebody who picks up a windfall uses it. That is my explanation of what has happened to the North.

Bringing it to the South, we have argued a lot about resource control. I played a major role in this. The word resource control entered the public lexicon from the lecture that I gave on May 29, 2000 at the marking of the first anniversary of the return to civil rule in Delta. It was a lecture in PTI Warri at which every public official in Delta was present. This argument led to the 13 percent derivation principle. A lot of money has flowed into Delta, far more money than in Anambra to its East and Edo to its West that have very little by way of oil bearing status. But if you look at Anambra, it has a better road network than Delta. If you look at Edo, it has better quality life in general than Delta. So, what has the money been used for? When you look at these things rationally, you will see that it is not the money that makes for progress. It is an elite conspiracy of those who seem to have today’s advantage trying to get the most because they can steal it for themselves. It doesn’t translate into an improvement in the quality of life, what translates is quality leadership.

How do we get that leadership? We have been talking about the quality of education we have in the country; people say our graduates leave the school system and are unemployable. Inevitably, these are the people who will take over the leadership of the country tomorrow. What do we do?

There are very smart kids in spite of all of these things, I will give you an example. Many years ago, I used to get calls from a certain young man who got into the University of Nigeria, he was poor and was going to withdraw because he couldn’t afford to maintain himself on campus. But one American fellow who was director of a certain centre called Uhere Study Centre in Nsukka there somehow found him, discouraged him from withdrawing and gave him scholarship to live in the centre. He ended up with a first class in engineering, went to imperial college and broke a record of more 200 years. Today he has a senior executive position in Microsoft, covering Europe and some other places.


What is the point I’m making? As much as we talk down this university system, you can see somebody that was going to withdraw from it, come out of it and go to Imperial College and break over 200-year-old record. So, yes standards are slipping here and there, but we are still producing a lot of very smart young people who can make a difference. And there is a lot we can do to even further improve what is coming out of this system.

A lot of young people are now going to some of these private universities that have better structures and values; because it’s not as if you don’t still have smart professors in UI, UNN and so on. They are there, it’s just that the environment and the values are not quite the way they used to be. I think, perhaps more than my peers, I’m probably the one who has identified more with the youths. I set up this centre essentially to do that; taking young people, giving them examples of what leadership means. I see them come through; I’m not as worried about the future in terms of their capacity to lead.

Yes, we might be producing good quality people, but the world is an increasingly competitive environment. You talked about this brilliant chap, but where did he end up? In the US, so most of our best emigrate. Isn’t that a problem?

It is true that they go out, but many come back. I think people underestimate how many people are coming back. People talk so much about Lagos, of course Lagos has become the Nigerian economy; it is not oil, it is Lagos. Lagos is 70 percent of Nigeria’s economy today. Who are those driving it? It is these young men and women coming back after going to some of the best universities in the world. They start out from their parent’s homes probably in Lekki and you will be amazed at what they are doing. Some of them are developing software in Nigeria; in Lagos for Canadian companies. I met a group of them on a flight to Canada. Let me even use my own children, three of my oldest children returned to Nigeria within one week of their graduation, and they went some of the best universities in the world. And even those that stay behind, just a little incentive and they will be jumping back home. One of the reasons I don’t fear so much about even their staying back is that they are the hope of Nigeria. If look at the history of economies that have been revived after falling behind; it was the returning of the Japanese in Germany that stimulated Japan in post Mehiji era. You look at India, it is Indians born outside of India that are returning to the country after the 1991 reforms. So, we need that critical foreign mass. When I read statistics that suggest for example that Nigerians are the most highly educated migrant population living in the United States, I say to myself that the future is bright because those kids are the ones that will save Nigeria, and they will come when the time is right.

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