From Iheanacho Nwosu
PROF Pat Utomi is a renowned political economist. He is well known for speaking his mind on any issue. He played huge role in enthroning the current administration but less than a year down the lane he is not happy with the direction the country is going. In this chat, he declared that Nigeria is not being led properly stressing that Nigeria is more divided today than it was two years ago. The meaning of that, according to him is failure of leadership.
What do you make of the state of affairs in the country at the moment, is Nigeria moving in the right direction?
I am not sure that right or wrong direction is the appropriate word to use. The process of change is not a straight line graph. It is chaotic , it is not all that straight.
Obviously it is understandable that Nigerians are disappointed with the way somethings are going. I think it is something that helps us to reflect on how we guide and guard change and how we understand the process. To be quite frank with you, my understanding of the change process that will bring lasting solutions to our problems, it has to be very principles based. It has to be methodic. It has to look at the institution that will make things happen effectively rather than people, Nigerians looking for a messiah. The messiah complex is a very dangerous one.
You know Barack Obama on his first visit to Africa, the very first speech he made in Ghana, he repeated the point I made the day before in Lagos that what Africa needs is strong institutions, not strong men. But very often we turn around looking for strong men. Strong men are traditionally disruptive of progress in the sense that even when they mange to get some progress to take place, because they did it as strong men, the next strong man would want to put his imprimatur on progress. This may mean discounting what the strong man before him have put in place. That is why we have weak institutions. We need to progress with strong institutions.
I had a small debate on the platform on October 1 last year with my friend, Bishop Hassan Kukah. He was saying that strong men can help bring about strong institution.
I was making the point that it is not whether we need good leaders. We need good leaders. Strong leaders doesn’t take away from strong institutions. When you don’t instititutionalise, you have a problem.
Our experience is that the trouble with Nigeria, clearly is leadership. Nigeria is still not being led rightly. For me personally, 2015 was a huge disappointment. This is because what I had hoped for, what I expected that it was a classic opportunity to lead Nigeria, to bring everybody into a boat, saying this is the direction we are travelling. And with every body’s energy in Nigeria we will move towards that.
Was it not what happened?
I don’t think so. I think Nigeria today is actually more divided than it was two years ago. The spirit of Nigeria is much challenged today. That is simply failure of leadership.
But Nigeria came out and align with the opposition and for the first time, an incumbent was removed…
That was why I said it was a classic opportunity for good leaders to bring everybody into the house. But that did not happen. What happened was the old hegemony game started. People cornering something, excluding that person, pushing that person and they just couldn’t get it together. So everybody was urinating into the house and the house is smelling. But if everybody was inside the house, urinating outside, we would be erecting an edifice going forward. It was purely a case of leadership failure.
Would you blame maybe the opposition leaders for the failure you talked about. Was that simply a case of the opposition only being interested in kicking out Jonathan without first charting the direction and path that should be travelled?
Well it is not a matter of blaming people. People cannot give what they don’t have. If people understood leadership, understood their responsibilities they will behave differently and the outcome will be different. For example, the great leaders of this world when the moment of history comes, they know yesterday, but they forget about yesterday and focus on tomorrow. They know who was their enemy in the last fight. But what matters now is not who insulted you yesterday or who is your best friend. What matters is our country , where it must go. So you bring friend, enemy, everybody who can to move in one direction. I don’t think the skills were available to those who took power in Nigeria.
You were part of the whole thing. You played a role. At the time you and other key individuals were mobilising people, mobilising resource, did you also come up with advice on how things could be done?
Again, that is why change is not a straight line graph. You have goals. People buy into certain goals. One important goal for me and for alot of people was for Nigeria to establish that power can change hands from incumbents. That goal itself was a very very important goal. And achieving it was huge. But sometimes, when you achieve one goal, it might be possible that you miss another critical goal.
I will give you a classic example. I was involved in a big mission to push out the military from power in Nigeria. we founded all kinds of groups, including the one we call the concerned professionals. And we battled the military. When the military decided to surrender in 1998, we declared victory. Some amongst us say we must now take power and show Nigeria what we have been talking about, among them, a fellow called Waziri Mohammed, who died in the Belleview crash. And some in the group said we are professionals, we must go back to our businesses. They argued that we did a citizen duty of saving our country. I have to admit that I was one of those who took that point of view. Let the politicians now go on and do what they know how to do.
But what we did not anticipate is that the real politicians, the traditional people who followed Awolowo, who followed Okpara, Sardauna, Zik, people who knew that politics was about service, sacrificial giving of self for the greater good of the community; many of those people did not trust the military from their experience. So they did not come forward. The bad men of the soldiers, their contractors became the new politicians and Nigeria has not recovered from it. By the time we realised our error, it was four years into the Obasanjo administration. That was how that idea to be involved came. That was how I ran for office, it wasn’t because of anything. That realisation: “Oh my God. We made a mistake”.
So, in the same way in 2015, the goal was let us establish that power can change hands. That if you can push out an incumbent that is not doing well, then democracy will lead to a better government. That was the main focus, at least for some of us. But I think there is a fundamental problem with the character of the Nigerian state through which the agents operates. Until we can change the character of the Nigerian state progress is going to be difficult in Nigeria.
First and foremost, I have just been engaging in some reflection. In the last couple of months, I have come to the frightening conclusion that government does more to prevent progress than to advance progress in Nigeria. The evidence is just there and around me. Government does more to retard Nigeria than to move it forward.
Why , how ?
I say so because of the nature of the people, who play in the so called political arena. There are two, three or four strands you can find. There are people who want power for self aggrandisement. People who think they can make money, enjoy the sound of siren or whatever percuniary thing they see in power. There are people who want power to revenge on their enemies. Then there is a certain kind of elite, you call them AGIP(Any Government in Power).
They just want the room to make their money. They don’t want to be disturbed by power. They just want to be accomondated.
There is a huge number of people who just feel powerless, what can we do? Lets just survive.
Very critical for progress is a group of people who say look there is a certain tomorrow that we see for our children and for our children’s children. We are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes. Usually, they are people who have found success in other things. They have probably been successful as academics, successful as businessmen or whatsoever.
These are the legacy hunters. They have the courage of conviction to be able to lose whatever it is- access to power, access to money so that ultimately the society will be different. That group is still too small in Nigeria. That is really the trouble with Nigeria. Those who dominate are those who want power for their aggrandizement and those who want power to revenge on their enemy.
So, where does the current administration fit into ?
There is a mix. There is a mix of all of it . There isn’t a strong enough vision of tomorrow and selfless giving of one’s self for the purpose of getting Nigeria to that new height.
Recently, eminent Nigerians including Prof Ango Abdullahi was quoted as faulting the calibre of some people appointed into government by the President.
Do you share that view?
Ok. I have not seen the reason they gave and the people in government they talked about.
Who are the people?
They said some cabinet members.
I try not to personalise things, because doing so creates all kinds of problems. There are many smart
people in the team, that is the cabinet. There are many I will not appoint to run my kitchen, not to talk of my
living room. (laughs). I have heard a major leader of the party say that the trouble with the government is
that the cabinet does not inspire. This is unfortunate especially considering the fact that this came after a
long wait. He could have appointed this the first day after the election was over.
Again, that is part of the leadership failure that we can look at. People have all kinds of view about
what the cabinet should look like. There are people,
who talk a lot about experts. It is not so much about experts. Of course, it has to be very knowledgeable
people. It is not about this is the finest economist in the world, that is the greatest agricultural scientist in
the world. This is also about how the people inspire people and the kind of confidence and trust that the
ordinary people have that these people have their interest at heart.
You can be a wizard in technology and you are minister of science and technology. But, somehow,
people don’t connect to you, don’t believe that you know what they feel. The likelihood that you will succeed
in that ministry is very remote.
When you look at all these things and you look at what is happening, you just realise that what is happening
in our country is a leadership deficit.
Recently, Professor Nwabueze declared that the problem with the incumbent administration is that
it is not interested in making strengthening institutions and that the President lacked the capacity
to lead Nigeria to growth . Do you share this sentiment?
I think that is part of the problem. I think there is too much believe of the strong man mindset. It is a
But I think there is no point getting into personal stuff. I just think we make more progress with institutions
than with strong men.
Are you impressed with the way the government has gone about fighting corruption?
There are values in some of the things that have been done. Corruption is a very terrible scourge. To
deal with it is very important. But I think that it should not be seen as the only thing. My friend, Bismark Rewane
used to say better a little corrupt and competent than incompetent and a saint. I think corruption is terrible.
I have written about it all my career. I make a personal boast that nobody can come forward and say
I have ever asked for bribe in my life, no matter the position, I have ever occupied. It is not because I am a
saint, but because I know that I do more damage to the system, when I accept bribe.
Just like I have never asked anybody for a bribe. I will feel there is something wrong if somebody asks
me for one.
I have a project that I have abandoned. N200million is sitting on it. It is abandoned just because it seems
one state governor wants me to give him a bribe, I will not. After eight years, I will return to the project.
People need to have some principle. That is the point I was making. Okay. I am ready to stay poor, if
that is the meaning. Go and check, how many government contracts, I do. Instead, I will fly to wherever in
the world and give a speech or two and earn 20,000 dollars and come back, instead of going about bribing
So, corruption is terrible. It needs to be fought. But it is not just catch a thief. It is about systems. We have
to have systems that make it difficult to be corrupt. It is those kind of things that we need to be working on.
You see Americans. British, Austrialians. They are not created less corrupt than Nigerians. It is institutions.
Why is that when you get to the airport in the evening, Nigerians are breaking down at the airport;
doing all kind of terrible things, climbing on each other giving customs bribe. Same guys would enter
the aero plane, six hours later, they land in London, everybody behave themselves.
We do need to grow up in this environment, we all need to grow up. We are not serving our people at all.
Are you worried about the widening cracks in APC? Do you agree with those who predict
that the party may collapse in few years ?
In any political movement, there will be issues. Political skills is about resolving those issues.
So it is a matter of how people apply themselves in resolving differences. There will always
be differences. Political parties are melting pots of sorts, in which different strings come together.
It is made easier when there is a clear ideological thrust. Part of my own contribution to the party
was to see people firm up that clear ideological thrust, but we will see as we go along.
Is it working?
Everything is work in progress.
It has got to a point where some people feel that some key leaders of the party who are
really progressives and who are still young are already thinking of aligning with others to set
up new platforms. Are you among those tinkering with such idea?
The political process is in evolution in Nigeria and I would hope that having been able to create
an opposition group, that we can streamline things, get the imprimatur of a progressive movement
ultimately on the party. Why does it have to be the progressive elements who will move out?
Why not the others move out?
It seems like the progressive elements are the ones showing sign that they are uncomfortable
with the situation in the party …
So how about they leaving. We hope to have a good convention to talk about the party? At the
convention, we will be able to work things out or decide how things go.
Do you believe 2019 has anything to do with the cracks in the party?
Let’s fix 2016 before we talk about 2019.
Right now, 2016 is a big mess.
How can Nigeria get out of current fuel situation and economic hardship in the country?
You know Nigeria is an extraordinary country and invariably the failure of the Nigerian elite is
so glaring, so palpable that you wonder how is it possible? The things that are the easiest things in
the world in my view can be hard in Nigeria, because we are caught in balancing personal interest.
We have been talking about fuel subsidy, no fuel subsidy for how many years in this country?
See, crude oil prices are currently down – very low and fuel prices are escalating, black market
and all of that because of supply. See isn’t it obvious for somebody who has a brain that the whole
thing is artificial somehow? Some people should take a different approach and say hey guys, anybody
in the world that has petrol to sell so long as you meet some basic quality standards come
and sell in Nigeria for any amount you want. I assure you that petrol will sell right now beginning
from where crude oil prices are for less than the so-called NNPC prices. That’s the meaning
I also assure you that if the government also stop being a nuisance and allow anybody in the
world who wanted to build a refinery on the Nigeria coastline to refine product for export, for
selling into Nigeria, we will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in refineries, then we will
have abundant petrol produced in Nigeria either for those who want to export it or sell it into Nigeria
and competitiveness in the prices of petrol will bring it to something lower given current crude
If we want to subsidize, why don’t we subsidize crude? Why don’t we say if you build a
refinery in Nigeria, the crude you’ll get would be subsidized if we insist on subsidy, which I don’t
believe in. I am just theorizing now, if we so love subsidy. But there is no point in it.
When this government was coming in, it promised that it was going to sanitize the environment
but close to a year it is yet to fulfill the promise. Should that be taken as a mark of failure?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what failure is. I don’t know what success is. I just know that
things are not working. Nigeria is not being properly led.
And what should Nigerians do?
Well, Nigerians have different strategies; but for me, I long came to the decision to pretend
that there is no government. We rely on private initiative and social enterprise more than we rely
on government; because if you keep looking, you will see that many times there is failure, it
is governments action that have brought failure rather than individual initiative.