Prof. Utomi

On clocking 65 recently, he used the occasion to pen an OPED, where he touched most significantly on the his life-long commitment to making choices of conscience. Professor Pat Utomi needs no introduction to Nigerians. One of our most ebullient public intellectuals, he spoke with Contributing Editor, RICHARD MAMMAH on a number of issues of ‘urgent national interest.’

Congratulations on your birthday. I read the OPED you did, reflecting on the occasion of your birthday and found it quite interesting. But I am wondering; you make the point about insisting on a lifestyle driven by good conscience. Of course, it has cost you something. Now if we take the state of affairs in Nigeria today, and a younger person, maybe 20-22 years of age, makes that choice; is he going to find it as easy as it may have somewhat been for you?

I don’t know what easy is, and what you will call hard but I think that the choices you make define you. It was the Harry Potter series author, J.K Rowling who said we are the choices we make. She is very correct. In the end, I see lots of people who make certain choices. They made choices like oh, my neighbor is driving the biggest SUV, whatever it is I have to drive an SUV. Fine, it is a choice. He gets to buy 10 SUVs and 10 years down the line, they are miserable people.

Nigeria is a country where I see people who are dominating the news everyday today and totally irrelevant the next day. It never stops surprising me, and it seems to me that clearly this has to be a function of the choices that they have made. Prince Emeka Obasi, more than anybody else keeps repeating to me that that there may be nobody he knows in this country who is not in a position of power or authority that has been consistently relevant as I have been. I keep on wondering why he says that. It is because Nigerians tend to dance towards authority, but these things come and they go.
But that your conscience which God has put in you to be your navigation, that thing which tells you, you should hold on to it even if it is costly for now, in the end I think you will be vindicated by it.

You also made this point in the OPED that at the base, the mass of the Nigerian people are good people. They are decent, they are honest, but we seem to have some things that tend to pervert this inherent goodness. You have walked through this space this long; is there any hope that someday we would get around the corner so that we can build the kind of country you have always advocated?

One of the things that fascinates me about culture is that culture is such a powerful thing. Several years ago, there was a colloquium about values, how values shift human progress. It was published in a book called Culture Matters. You will see from a careful reading that the most important contribution of leadership is affecting the tone of culture, and ultimately culture shifts human progress. What is needed, and it came through so easily in Brazil, Singapore and several other places is that you can have a terrible run and then one leader with the right values emerges, and this should not seem as a contradiction of my opinion that institution are the most important thing. Institutions matter and leaders must accept the challenge of institution building.

In the case of Brazil, it was a country of great potential that was not going anywhere, until Cardozo emerged. His leadership set the tone for Da Silva’s leadership and Brazil was now running. All Nigeria needs is to have two or three good leaders, honest people, who want the institution to do what they should do, and all of these troubles that Nigeria is having will just become history. It will be a story told that once upon a time, we used to be like this in this country.

If we stay with the question of leadership and institutions, I am just wondering, we have for example the insecurity challenges in the country and we have the armed forces, the different security agencies. They are supposed to be addressing the issues. We also have non-state actors who are responding in different ways. Sheikh Gumi the other day went on and started discussions with bandits. And then between the Governor of Zamfara and the Governor of Kaduna, they are having differences. One is saying amnesty, another one is saying no negotiation. Institutionally, is there something that our security services should had done, could have done, and may have been prevented from doing to have prevented the crisis from expanding to the dimension where we are now?

You know it is easy to erect factual counter points; could have been, should have been. There are many things that should have been, but again it comes down to culture, the effect of culture, the culture of corruption, which has grounded Nigeria, as in, all of these things at every point in time was for some people an opportunity to corruptly enrich themselves. They couldn’t look at the bigger, longer term implications of those things when they were just small problems.

In the year 2000, I bought several copies of a book titled The Coming Anarchy, which was a projection that West Africa will collapse into anarchy. It was written by an American writer, Robert Kaplan, and the guy had been successful in a previous book where he predicted similar things from the Balkans. He predicted that ethnic cleavages, religious cleavages and economic cleavages will come together and intersect quite negatively in West Africa and indeed named a city called Jos as the epicenter where the region could descend into anarchy.

Now, the first thing that the security people should do if they see these kinds of threats is to begin to think of initiatives that can abort the threats, to prevent them from coming out as predicted. As a citizen, my duty was to alert my friend in the security services, and I bought copies of this book, sent them to the DG of the SSS, and even the NSA got a copy and all of that. I even got the chance to discuss with the NSA about this book. He told me that he had even given a copy to General Babangida and all of that. But what happened? What did we do? Until those things that Kaplan had predicted began to manifest.

Our institutions matter, look at trends and therefore at how leaders themselves in playing the appropriate leadership roles, then shape culture so that those ugly trends will not become part of culture. We failed obviously to do those things and we are now living with the consequence of it. Because 22 years ago, I was acutely quite sensitive to where Nigeria is today as the prediction of the people of intellect looking at each part of the world.

We saw the almajirai phenomenon growing for example. It was a sad thing. I remember a speech I gave out 15 years ago, and I remember it was in Kano. And I said, if a young person, a 9-year-old is hungry and goes begging for food, gets some food, and can sleep easily under a tree, and the next day he again starts out begging for food, by the time he is forty years old, people won’t give him food and he has no skill, doesn’t have any other way of feeding himself, he will likely pick up a gun and kill somebody. That it what exactly has started happening. It is not rocket science; most thinking people predicted it was coming and somehow we allowed ourselves to walk into it.

Does it sometimes seem frustrating that the challenges, the problems, are things you foresaw and then when you reach out, people do not respond? Does it frustrate you?

Part of the problem is the failure of citizenship. Because we don’t have citizens, we have a middle class that is in my view complicit. I called out the middle class in my last book titled Why Not. I said the most important problem that Nigeria has is the complicit middle. The middle class that says ‘hmm, which one concern me? They are not stealing the roads, maybe if I work hard enough, I can buy an SUV. And if there is no water, maybe I can sink a borehole. So let me make enough money to do these.’
So, in the course of it, the middle class has become complicit. People I am most angry with in Nigeria right now are the so-called successful business men who have used those resources extracted from the system of rent to support politicians to keep this system that is not sustainable in place. Because they think that they are profiting in the short term, because they think they can take the money they are making out, invest same, and that they have private jets such that when trouble starts, they can run to the airport.

During the EndSARS protests, almost all Nigerians owning jets got to the airport and flew out. As I said to some of them, the next time the airport might be a bridge too far. It is the complicit middle and the failure of citizenship that prevents us from holding politicians accountable. There are no good or bad people as such in politics, there are only people who look at the consequences of their action.

The politician in America behaves differently because institutions have stabilized all those things. He behaves differently because he knows the consequences, he won’t win the next election. He knows he will be tried. The Nigerian politician knows he will get away with all these in an almost natural way, and so he continues doing those things that are wrong.

Let’s talk about some things that you are engaged in, and in my view quite positive for our space. I am talking about the Lagos Business School, now Pan-African University and then the Center for Values in Leadership. My thinking is that Nigeria needs institutions of this nature to drive advocacy, drive standards in that sense. How do we find and drive more of such models in different spaces and expand them to the micro level so that the country can ultimately become a nation of excellence?

Imitation they say is a better form of flattery. Good models are important because people always emulate things that are working. I go around the place, I don’t know how many people have invited me to be pro-chancellor, vice-chancellor because they are hoping that we can transfer some of the learning from the Lagos Business School experience or whatever to their own effort.

Let me put it this way, you cited the Centre for Value and Leadership and the Lagos Business School, but they are not the only place I have struggled to create example. When I came back from graduate school in 1982, I said to myself that my goal is that anything I criticize, I should be able to do something about. I must be not be able to sleep if I don’t make an effort to do something. So, I am not going to criticize somebody without an effort to solve whatever problem I have pointed to.

This has led me to so many initiatives in trying to keep that my promise to myself. There are people who admire this, but there are also people whom it irritates; and indeed somebody called it dabbling. In this country because most of us don’t keep busy enough, we spend more time in gossips and judging other people. I might be one of the most judged people in this country. There are people who do not have better things to do with their time, so they sit down and say ‘Oh that guy, why is he running up and down?’

A few weeks ago, we lost a thinker, writer and journalist, Jimanze Ego-Alowes. The first thing that I became conscious of about Jimanze, more than 15-20 years ago, was when he wrote something about me. Apparently, people had been going on talking about all these things: ‘Look at him, he is doing this….’
There was a time when I was writing three weekly columns in different newspapers. I was running some business venture and teaching at the Lagos Business School. So one day Jimanze wrote a piece, and said look, enough of this nonsense.

They say somebody is a generalist, he is commenting on everything. Then he gave the example of Peter Drucker, he said that is how they used to say about Peter Drucker, that thank God Peter Drucker had the privilege of a long life to live to see himself as the father of modern management. But thy started saying the kind of things they were saying about me that time. I found it very interesting because two weeks before that time, someone else had actually referred to me in a public event where he was speaking as the Peter Drucker of Africa, and I had laughed at that. Back to Jimanze. He was now going on in that article to say that they say he is all over the place but none of us have heard a whisper or complaint from his family, showing that obviously the man must be a very good father and husband. He really dismissed them. And I said who is this guy, I had never met him. Then I ran into him later at the Warri Airport and he introduced himself.

That is the problem with Nigeria. People don’t give themselves a life mission. It is that life mission I have given to myself to always make an effort where I can, to do something to make a difference around the things I complain about. I came back to Nigeria, I saw the terrible state, I saw a person’s wife go from upper middle class to penury within months because she lost her husband and his relatives took everything. So, I thought this is not good, I wrote an article in The Concord, at the time, the Agony of a Nigerian Widow. This was in 1983. And I wanted to do something about it. I discussed it with a friend of mine, a Rev. Father at that time, Fr. Matthew Hassan Kukah. I told him I was thinking of an institutional arrangement that could support four widows and give them protection, go to court on their behalf, teach them new skills, how to earn better, and so on and so forth. The result was the Widow Support Center which I started nearly thirty years ago to support poor widows.
When we ran into the problem of policy discussions not taking place in Nigeria, of not having rational public conversations, I started a television show, Patito’s gang. We are now on the 21st year of that programme. If you look at all these things I have tried to create, most of them are 30 years old, 20-something years old, but people when they gather around to gossip and judge everybody: ‘ehn he starts many things;’ who else has been able to keep a privately produced television show running for 21 years in Nigeria? But people won’t stop talking because idleness leads them to just want to judge other people.
I think setting examples is good and anybody who can find any way to show example does a good thing for all society because people can learn from that in the society and make a difference.

I would have wanted this interview to be a physical one but we are in the COVID season and that brings me to the question of our national COVID management strategy. What are tour thoughts on it?

I think there are many salutary things that have been done and many things that could also be done differently. Look, talking again about wanting to do something, I do an interrogation of Nigerian history and for the last 12 weeks we have focused on the health sector. The last one was on infectious diseases so I asked the NDDC chief executive, Dr. Chikwe Iheakwazu to come in. I also had Professor Wale Tomori who is the leading epidemiologist in this part of the world and Professor Sylvanus Okugbemi who is the director at the Irrua Centre where they deal with Lassa fever.

There was also Dr. Jide Idris, the former commissioner for health when they fought Ebola and all of that. And for nearly three hours, we interrogated the whole challenge of managing infectious diseases in Nigeria. You will find that these guys are heroes for what they do, and with the limitations they have. You should actually erect a tower in tribute to them. But then we can do many things differently; the system is so flawed.

If you look at the dilapidation of health infrastructure in the country, if you look at the exit from the country of healthcare personnel, if you look at the challenge of even policy makers being clear about what they are driving, you will commend the fact that first of all they committed at it, especially at the high policy level, by bringing the kind of team that does that briefing to stem the thing. So, there is plenty to commend.

Most people think that Chikwe Iheakwazu and his team have done a great job but I would have liked to see far more testing, I would have liked to see far better communication because they have not cracked the belief system for example. While it is usual in this kind of clime to have all these conspiracy theories, I think it is possible, and using real experiences, to show that the pandemic is real. I alone in one stretch in January of nearly two weeks was losing like 2 friends every day. And I don’t mean far away people, I mean close friends; so take that kind of story and tell them. If they are crazy, the madness will clear in their eyes that this thing is real.

I will take another issue that touches on policy, that is the cryptocurrency debate. The CBN has made a statement, there is a debate ongoing, where do you stand? Do you think that the CBN may have done an overkill in this situation?
You know the problem I have is a more general problem in terms of the thrust of policy. When you make a commitment to a direction of policy, it is important to regulate certain things and all that but you got to ask yourself, do we want to be a closed or an open economy, and that basically will settle many things. I generally see an inclination towards controls in this era sadly, but that is the tone of the regime and so the choices made have to be realized in the context of that orientation.

What about the plans to rebase the National Economy, our GDP markers and all that? Does it address the fundamental issue that this economy may not have been performing as well as it should have been?

Of course, it will not address everything but it is the routine in the business, the professionals can do whatever they consider to be normal in the business, but if the idea is to dress up performance, then it would not be a worthwhile effort. The naked truth is that the Nigerian economy is not producing, and though there is some production obviously, most of it is largely unsupported by policy, and they just happen because of the great industry of citizens, as in the development that we saw happen in Nollywood, it was totally against the grain of the flow, just by desperate creative citizens who wanted to make something of their lives. We can say the same thing of the young kids in IT, the remarkable things they are doing. Anyway, that is not so new, anywhere in the world, policy tends to play catch-up except in Asia where they have been very proactive but in many parts of the world, like in North America, they have a culture base that facilitates entrepreneurship, and so do I think that rebasing is going to solve any problem, not really, what we need is a campaign to shift the orientation of the Nigerian economy from rent seeking to production.

The African Continental Free Trade agreement is already underway. Nigeria resisted participating at the beginning and lost out the opportunity to be the host. We are now in it but it still does not look like we are in. Now that we have signed, why are we not driving?

The problem is that the political class is not fully committed to end extraction and profiting through trade in exchange for what is produced. So, there is a moral dilemma. Part of the reasons why we have these problems is that we have a leadership elite that is not sure what direction to travel. Logic suggests that the direction of intra-African trade is where prosperity will come from but their own thriving has come from extracting rent from policies. In the end, logic pressures them towards the African free trade agreement. The personal interest pressures them towards some more restrictive arrangement and that is why we have the recursive mode of two steps forward, four steps backward, and we have to be committed to one direction that we want to go, and that is not in place, and that is the problem. If it is clear that this is the part we want to commit to, there are logical consequences of that commitment in the kind of investments we make, and the kind of people who run certain activities, but the current regime is a rent regime that wants to appoint people that are friends, that are relatives, people that are whatever, it doesn’t matter if they understand the assignment.

Before now, a young chap from Bayelsa who always called me to ask for help with getting an appointment, saying that oh, he has worked for the APC. When Ibrahim Gambari was appointed as Chief of Staff, he called me and said ‘he is a professor, I know you must know him as professor to professor, I need an appointment.’ So, I asked what appointment, and he said SA to the President. And I said, SA in what, to which he responded, in anything, Niger Delta Amnesty. And I said to him the person that is in Niger Delta Amnesty is a professor, you don’t have school certificate! So in the thinking of Nigerians, it doesn’t matter, anybody can be in any position and you don’t have to do anything.

Despite the work that the CVL, Fix Politics and other groups are doing, when we look at some of the issues that arose from EndSARS and even the politics and the issues that are still going on in the tribunals, youth disenfranchisement, insecurity, the Almajirai phenomenon, it seems that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb. How do we get the critical changes that must be gotten so that we don’t end up with those distasteful Somalia and Rwanda situations? Soyinka was screaming the other day that the whole construct could backfire, how do we get out of these things?

I agree with Professor Wole Soyinka, the thing will backfire in many ways. Again I think because every political class is acting like an army of occupation. It is like they are so confident that because they have houses in Dubai and in London they can run if it happens. Any real citizen will see what we are cooking, will know that it will soon be all cooked, but they don’t seem to pay much attention to it or seem unable to look at the outcome and consequences, so I think that our first thing is to reform the political parties so we can find a better way of recruiting people into public life. Our political parties don’t work, they don’t allow the country to recruit the most capable people to go into positions of public authority. Reform political parties, change the constitution and the structure of the federation so that people who are closest to the people can be held accountable and responsible for the things that affect their lives.

Your sister Okonjo Iweala is WTO Director General. WTO has had this history and it has its own politics and negotiations between blocks, groups, developed nations, developing nations, and then we have Africa and Nigeria. On a good day, how much can Okonjo Iweala achieve as WTO DG? If you are to give her counsel, what should you say she should focus on giving the fact that it is politics at its own level. And then connected to that is Joe Biden, the new President in the United States, what should Africa and Nigeria except from him?

I think the responses are fairly similar. What Ngozi Okonjo Iweala should be focusing on is to create a greater win-win and mutually beneficial structure for international trade. Trade usually benefits all the participants if the rules are fair and therefore efforts are made to help those who are challenged to overcome the hurdles. Let me give you a simple example: Africa does not participate effectively in international trade today because in its poverty, it cannot organize itself well enough to bring in goods of a certain standard, and passing through systems that have been developed over a period, so they seem to get shut down and relegated to products that suffer from trade disadvantages.

But if the WTO that wants greater fairness in international trade creates patterns that facilitate aggregation across borders for example, in fractured small states, in the margin societies, and facilitate in some way the setting up of standards and processing, and support for example lenient comparative advantage in which industrial policies help to build up certain structures of economics for which the smaller countries have factor endowment, then they will be able to trade more effectively, and everybody will benefit because whenever real trade takes place, it benefits all the actors.

Joe Biden on the other side is committing to greater equity and fairness in the way people deal with each other in our world, which I think is the reason why he has indicated that he will be supporting Okonjo Iweala in the position. So, our world needs more fairness, commitment to a win-win arrangement and I think that is what US solidarity is about. And what we have seen in recent history of the world is that when you force some people to the margin, things will happen to the margin that will invariably enter your heartland. Look at what happened in Europe when the people from the Middle East were all torn apart; they couldn’t stop them from surging into Europe. So, Europe understands that it I in its best interest for there to be a minimum quality of life in the Middle East, otherwise the Middle East will move to Europe. Those are the challenges we face today, creating a fairer world for all.