Erudite scholar, Prof. Pat Okedinachi Utomi, is a political economist, management expert, entrepreneur, former presidential candidate and founder of Centre for Values and Leadership (CVL).
In this chat with Sunday Sun, he takes a critical look at country, why it is tottering, the challenge of nation-building and panacea to avoid impending anarchy. Excerpt:
You have studied, written and thought extensively on issues confronting our country, Nigeria. What is your assessment now that the country has clocked 59 years? Has the dynamics changed?
Well, the Nigerian situation is a heart breaker. There is nobody and I repeat nobody happy with what is happening today unless somebody who is involved in whatever that is going on. There is no one Nigerian who is not in the mix of whatever it is that is going on, directly, participating, who is happy. Our country has not lived up to its promise and I have articulated my worries several times, so I am not saying anything new. I actually gave a speech a month ago, which was entitled “one thousand one hundred years of servitude” and the speech was essentially to say that the failure of Nigeria, which is beginning to look more and more obvious could sentence the black man to a thousand years of slavery because Nigeria was the hope of black man. But it seems like, almost all of us fully complicit watch the group of adventurers, grab our country and destroy its purpose and its essence and we are all behaving like we either drank something that asphyxiated and we are watching it decline, decline and decline…. And unfortunately for me, I spend most of my time traveling around the world. In the next three weeks, I will be in four or five different countries and I am usually ashamed when I am asked, but my friend you come from Nigeria, how come your country is in such a mess? And I don’t know what to say, but to try and be as polite and nice as I can be because I am abroad and that’s the best thing to do, but it hurts. As I argued in one platform, our type of politics is that of the ultimate paradox. Politics is supposed to generate robust public conversation. The outcome of that public square is supposed to drive optimal public policy choices resulting in stout economic performance, the raising of the quality of life of citizens and the advance of the common good of all. But that is not so in Nigeria.
As an intellectual that you are, where and when did the country miss so to speak the right track?
It didn’t happen one day, but 1998 was a critical part of it when Abdulsalami Abubakar announced the transition to civil rule programme. We all misjudged what will happen. Some of us took all kinds of risks against our lives to say enough of the military rule, that we have had enough, our fights, our sacrifice and I can talk about my sacrifice in so many different ways, the sacrifice of the concerned professionals, we had a meeting just last week, a few of us to reflect. We said that now the soldiers are going and the traditional politicians were on the ground to take over that it was time for us to go back to our businesses. But even some of the traditional politicians were not sure that the Army was ready to go; they thought it was one of those military games they have been playing, assuring Nigerians that they will go, but were still involved in what appears an endless transition. You recall the kind that Babangida played and they didn’t have so much to risk so they didn’t border, so space was opened to all manners of charlatans, buffoons, and adventurers to move into the political space. Well, the Army, made a decision, by Army here I mean the “class of capture” those “who own Nigeria” they decided that what was important was the top, just capturing the top, so they insisted that their man Obasanjo be imposed on the rest of us and once they were able to do that on the political system, not that Obasanjo was necessarily a bad person, but because they were only interested in him being at the top because he still had the Army mentality, so if he is at the top, that is everything for them. So, they put Obasanjo there and the course they want Nigeria to go, it will go. Obasanjo found himself having to accommodate those characters, from corrupt officers, criminals of all kind, they were repelling opposition. Unfortunately, to make matters worse during that period oil price exploded so these guys (those in positions of authority) met the state treasury in flourish and by 2000-2001, oil prices were in the stratosphere and these guys just simply downloaded the treasury into their pockets and in doing so they used money now as a barrier to entering into politics. So, reasonable people, people who have a mind of service were more or less blocked out. And as Prof. Anya said in his lecture and Dr Christopher Kolade as well as other people are saying: the patching up doesn’t work anymore, Nigeria has to begin afresh. What we have now can only lead us to 1,100 years of servitude.
So, how do we begin again? Is it to restructure as many have suggested or what?
All those buzzwords create things that people are confused about, so let’s stop using buzzwords. One of the few problems of Nigeria is that the culture that came out of the military rule created an understanding of prosperity to be a revenue share. On Production versus Revenue sharing, I think it is so important for us to educate each other so we can reduce the folly that currently afflicts policy. Now, the people are struggling about how much share of the revenue they are getting, so all our energies are focused on sharing and unfortunately the whole conversation has moved into the sharing of revenue from Abuja. So the people who think they should have more are talking about fiscal restructure because they want more share of the revenue, but what they don’t realize is that those who even have more revenues are getting poorer and I give you a very simple illustration. In the 60s there were more local governments in the South than in the North because local governments were just an administrative convenience, so the North just chose to create fewer local governments, the South created more. By 1975-6, the Obasanjo government had restructured and fiscal federalism now involves transfers to local government, because local governments were getting money all the people who had influence began to rush creating of more local governments in their areas and so from a situation where there were more local governments in the South than in the North, we got a situation where we got 774 local governments and about 500 come from the old North. Now what this meant in principle is that since 1975 a lot of national revenues from oil have gone to the North, but what has happened? The North has become poorer since then. So, revenue doesn’t make you rich, what makes you rich is production. How do you encourage people? How do you create an atmosphere for production growth that is what the central issue in Nigerian politics is? Local government should be seen as business development units that can look at the endowments of those local governments and the education in that local government should focus on the development of those endowments becoming the best in the world, in the skills that those endowments in that local government require, that is how we will prosper, it is not what we are doing now. What a situation when the cost of government is so obnoxious and a senator I am told was saying: who are you people to tell us about reducing our package or emoluments? There is the need for us to cancel the bloody National Assembly, it’s of no use to Nigeria. As far as I am concerned it adds no value to Nigeria. I am a student of balance of power and what we have right now amounted to no system of checks and balances, so why spend that kind of money on something that is just a complete waste.
So, the Nigerian people ought to wake up, we ought to have 50, 000 people in front of the National Assembly every day, saying close down this House. That is how you save a country that is dying. But we continue what we are doing until there will be nothing to save of the country. Until we can discuss honestly the impact of politics and political parties on our quest for progress we will continue to be challenged.
But the Nigerian masses appear to have been impoverished, how will they mobilize themselves, bearing in mind what has happened to Sowore, the convener of #RevolutionNow?
It is just because one man was trying to do it, if the people rise, you can’t stop them. You know when revolutions take place, it’s not planned, it’s just one day, in the market place one person slaps another person and before you say jack the whole country is on fire. That is why I keep laughing at people that think they can manage the situation, they should go and read the history of the French Revolution. The problem is that what is more likely in our situation is a descent into anarchy rather than a revolution.
What appears to be your greatest fear today about Nigeria?
Anarchy is my greatest fear for Nigeria and it was predicted 20 years ago by a gentleman known as Robert Kaplan who wrote the book “The Coming Anarchy”. He talked about how West Africa could descend into anarchy from ethnic, religious and economic images. Nigeria has become one of the worst cases of income distribution in the world. There are few people who have such incredible amount of money, they are buying all kinds of things. In fact, some can buy anything that has a price with ease and there are many who can’t eat, many with nothing to eat, not sure of where the next meal will come from and when you impose this kind of economic situation on top of all the other threats like ethnicity, and religion cleavages, etc one day you will just see the place embroiled in total anarchy, just like Somalia. I first used the word: “The road to Somalia” many years ago and suddenly I am waking up to see what is gathering, it is frightening. It is time for the elite to get together and honestly speak to each other and say, look: our country is dying, what can we do? But some people are playing games, hiding in their backyard and wishing it away. Those who are in power are swaggering not knowing that they are running a country that is heading straight to the rocks. Nigeria is heading towards destruction the way it is going. The question to occupy our minds is how much we discuss how to erect leadership architecture through deliberate development of people of character whose knowledge level and sense of service assure us the future will be a destination of hope. And how do we educate our youth so that the youth bulge that is our reality will metamorphose into a demographic dividend rather than fear of traveling from Kaduna to Abuja by road?
Those that are in power still insist that nothing terrible is ahead rather voices of disgruntled persons or zones clamouring to situate itself for the power game?
My problem with Nigeria is the triumph of politics, everything is politicized even very sensitive issues threatening the country is politicized, that is a big problem, they are not thinking about development, they are not thinking of people’s welfare and progress rather everything is power game, power, power, what are you doing with power, you get it and there is misery everywhere.
The Southeast is saying power must shift to the zone, the North is saying it is still their turn, so where do we go from here?
Everybody is getting it wrong, what the elite need to do is to say: look how can we make our country work? If you don’t have respect for one another you can never get anything work, the mutual respect that leads to organizing things. Unfortunately, we don’t have elders anymore. It used to be that 30, 40 years ago in Nigeria there were a group of people, younger people, but they are kind of, like elders, they will get together in Kaduna, they will call some in Lagos, Ahmed Joda will go to some people’s house and before you know it, between Lawson, the late Sunday Awoniyi, etc with some few people, ideas will come together and they will say, let’s stop this thing here, let that person come, let that person go bearing the whole country in mind, but today we don’t it anymore, we don’t have elders anymore, so because of it everything is just running loose.
But this government has expressed optimism that the huge budget which is over N10 trillion will make a difference in the life of Nigerians and that things will get better?
I have always said that budget discussions in Nigeria are a joke, I used to discuss budget until I found that budgets were a complete ruse, it’s for public relations, so I don’t border to read the budgets, it has become annual rituals, mere annual exercise that has no positive impact on the people.
Some say that part of the problem with Nigeria is that there were no founding fathers rather liberation fathers that did not build a firm foundation for the unity of all Nigerians?
No, I don’t agree with that. What do you call the Herbert Macaulays, Awolowos, Azikiwes, Okparas, Balewas, Bellos, etc those are surely the founding fathers. They had good visions of a great Nigeria.