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Utomi: How To Sustain Relevance For 40 Years… And Counting



In the 40 years since Professor Pat Okedinachi Utomi’s University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) days, he has remained consistently relevant, even as many have risen, fallen and disappeared. On the thrust of Nigeria’s foreign policy, he first attained national prominence as a 19 year-old student leader; and, as 21-year-old Youth Corps member, his views were an issue in matters that forced a cabinet reshuffle. As he turns 59 this Friday (February 6), few would consider a discussion of the Nigerian condition complete or serious without his input. In this interview with MARCEL MBAMALU, Prof Utomi, among other things, gives an insight into his socio-economic life and factors that really shaped his destiny.

Congrats as you turn 59 this week; what does it really take to be as consistent and relevant as you have been?

TO suggest I have the answer to that is to give me more credit than I deserve. But I think I can suggest a few influences on my choices. I agree with the JK Rowling quote in Harry Porter that we are the choices we make. I have made lots of choices — some good, some awful and some so-so. The greater personal good has generally been served by creating a compass — a set of principles that make choice easier. I have also profited from being open to learning and the very firm belief that man was created as gift one to the other; and that the greater self interest is found in the common good of all. 

     In holding unto these from quite early in life, I have found very critical to this pathway a gift of the spirit of contentment, and some effort at self discipline. How I wish I could be even more disciplined in pursuit of self-mastery. 

   On pursuing principle-centered being, or existence, I give much credit to books and people like the late Stephen R. Covey. Once I learnt to begin with the end in mind, I could build a set of principles drawn largely from faith and study. Among the anchors of these principles have been the centrality of the dignity of the human person.

    My purpose, I affirm, is to be a co-creator with God; advancing creation, supporting and never detracting from the inalienable dignity of every human person. From this flows a respect for the freedom of all. This means for me the importance of social justice, universal access to opportunity in a world of merit, but which sees justice in a safety net to protect the weak and socially challenged. 

   Work is one way God has given us a track to elevating our dignity; the first duty of a social contract with a Leviathan in society, government, beyond security of life and property, is the provision of opportunity to work. Creative thinking about how to provide man work, especially motivating many on how best to create value and the work it generates has therefore been central to my path. 

    This is the very philosophical underpinning of my life’s work as a Business Angel, being in the starting of so many enterprises.

    In my work as an academic and in public policy practice, I can track the effect of these principles in the choices I have struggled to make. I was one of those to argue from about 1982 that the thrust of economic policy in the emerging oil economy was leading Nigeria away from progress. I argued early for a shift away from import substitution and the Prebisch thesis and applauded ideas of the Open Economy advanced by people like the late Rudigar Dombusch at MIT.

    I saw Nigeria begin to make more reasonable policy choices after people like Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu and I had been called all kinds of names. But I would also be one of the earliest to note that policy was not enough. Progress was increasingly a function of a variety of interdependent variables.     

    Looming remarkably large as keys, were institutions and culture. If you look at almost everything I have done in the last 20 years, you will see a passionate effort to contribute to building institutions or shaping the values of the society. In quite a few of those my personal material interest have been hurt or diminished by such choices. Had I not these sets of principles guiding me, it would have been easy to step away from such. 

    An example laced with much irony, in that regard, is the TV series, PATITO’S GANG. I had spent a good deal of time late in 1998, along with Ayo Teriba, Ifueko Omogui and others, in almost daily meetings with candidate Olusegun Obasanjo, developing policy and coaching the candidate. It was sometimes at great personal risk, because, as I recall clearly, two days before Christmas, my drivers had gone off and I drove myself to Otta on what was to be a quick afternoon return trip. I found myself driving back after 10pm. I justified all the trouble to the retired officer friend who had made the case that it was better to shape Gen Obasanjo’s thinking then than to analyse regrets when he goes the wrong way in office. In the end, the quality of public discussion of visions of society being laid down in 1999 was so pathetic, I thought I had a duty to create a platform that would both hold public office to account and enlighten the public on matters of public policy.

   Given the nature of public disposition to commercial support of titillating public affairs programmes, Patito’s Gang would be perhaps the single biggest drain on my finances. After a decade of tens of millions of Naira, being channeled into the programme, I decided to stop. I was shocked by the number of people who stopped me to question, why. I had to ask that production resumes. Had the bigger objective of the market place of ideas not been based on principles, I could very much quickly have succumbed to short-term self interest. 

   People, who flip-flop in the face of opportunity of a platform like that to feather their own nest do that sometimes because they have lost so much and then say why should I not think of myself. Before they realise it, they have become so compromised that their moral value is not zero, but negative. 

    People in power toast them but detest them as do citizens. I am created no better than those, but because the principles were clear from get-go, the compass steady and Grace supported by the gift of contentment there, I have been fortunate to stay with the path I chose. I can point to a few friends in public life who started out really good and well-meaning but the pressure to pay school fees for children and live as people expect, forced them into compromises that diminished them. Staying with principles can also be seen in my politics.  

    It is this same logic that has in partisan political engagement been associated with trying to build a strong opposition when, as Chief Ojo Maduekwe once pointed out on live national television, he could have given me any ticket I wanted; he could not understand with people like himself as secretary of the PDP, I should be in opposition with little chance. I dared even suggest, above him, including several of the PDP chairmen, were friends and admirers, who could have, in his words ‘literally given me any ticket I wanted. But as I said at that Nigeria centennial panel, of the NIALS, a little uncharitably, I have to confess, how would I feel in my grave if my great grand children sat together wondering what their forefather was doing among that kind of people in PDP at that time. 

    But more importantly for me, the PDP was far too dominant a party at the time and my duty to a better democratic order superseded whatever personal position I could desire. Helping build a viable opposition was a higher value and more closely aligned to the principles I chose. 

      On the second track, I have found embracing life-long learning very helpful. This was helped by an early discovery of the benefit of befriending older deep thinkers. I was gifted straight out of Graduate school with what could be the cheapest of post-doctoral programmes in town, “friendship ‘with the late Dr. Pius Okigbo and Ajie Ukpabi Asika. Through the early and mid 1980’s I would visit several times a week each of these two extraordinary men. One, one of Nigeria’s finest Economists, the other, a fantastic political scientist, and both men were experienced beyond academia, in praxis. Every visit I would ask one question and get hours of ‘free’ lectures. With Ukpabi Asika, you travelled from Aristotle, through the philosophers of the Enlightenment, to the Nigerian Civil War, on one question. From Okigbo who was Economic Adviser to Nigeria’s first Prime Minister came boxes of anecdotes on Economic Policy choices from Raul Prebisch to the nature of debates at the National Economic Council. 

    These continue to animate my classes till date, but very importantly enlightened the choices I would make, faced between what is populist and what endures. The values of contentment and deep care for man in society make it easy for me to often look foolish only to be vindicated with time.

The Centre for Values in Leadership is obviously critical to your legacy. Why is this so?

    As I have said several times, I came many years ago to the conclusion that part of the trouble with Nigeria is how we talk and do nothing about the platitudes we mouth. I decided that if I talked strongly enough about anything I should make a good effort to change things.

When I concluded that the denominators of human progress were values, institutions, policy choices, human capital development and leadership, I began to deploy what talent and energies I was gifted with to make some difference in each of those arena.

    Clearly central to these drivers is culture. Values, indeed, shape human progress and the path to enthroning the values that advance man’s place as co-creator with God, is in the values leaders live, and witness to. Acknowledging, as Warren Bennis, that leaders are not born but can be groomed, the Centre for Values in Leadership was aimed at developing in young leaders a passion for the values that make for progress. To train people of character, competence, and commitment to know the values that drive progress and embed them in culture by their action, has been central to the CVL essence and what I like to hope will be my legacy. Not only did this become part of the core of CVL and the effort using programmes of personal example and teaching, it also became a personal mantra for change.

    With institution building, my personal effort is rooted in work in civil society as institutions typically evolve from the contentions of engaged stakeholders. On human capital development I have, of course, strived to contribute with the bulk of work as an academic, in the ground-breaking work at the Lagos Business School as leading faculty after years in industry. I have also struggled to give of myself in service on the council of such universities as the AUN, Yola and the Ekiti State University. I have also worked with the University of Ibadan in setting initiatives on Entrepreneurship and encouraging students of Economics at Unilag. This is besides frequent lectures in universities across the country.

   It is unusual that one has played around all of the pillars of human progress, but my role as a Business Angel and an itinerant entrepreneur and social entrepreneur has in some ways allowed me to affect both venturing and influence on policy choice process as advisor to policy makers and activist columnist and commentator on policy matters.

One of the things said to your credit is that you have stayed consistent these 40 years, something that cannot be said for many who came up with you. Does faith have a role here? 

     I presume so. One thing Faith does for you is that it raises the important question of ‘why am I here’. ‘That usually goes with’ where did I come from’ and ‘where am I going’. It helps you do what Stephen Covey reinforced in me then about what is value. Faith and faith-based education have helped me with fortitude and perseverance. On quite a few occasions when I am giving away my last N10,000 to someone who evidently needs it more, but who thinks I am giving a drop from my abundance, but does not know that I could have less than N2,000  in my pocket after, I recognise that my grace could make me act that way. The consequence is that management in Faith’s view helps with living integrity.

     I have profited from Faith. It is also Faith and the understanding of our transcendence to a greater purpose of being that keeps us going. A purpose driven life cannot be well lived outside of a purpose beyond self, which the gift of Faith helps us aspire.

Can we be optimistic about the future in Nigeria in the light of experience these last 40 years?

     Even here Faith matters. Faith leads us in hope. But beyond being a creature of hope, there are plenty of reasons to be upbeat about the future if we do that which is right. But it helps to begin with the whys and hows of how we got here. 

    As education and health care are so important for progress, I constantly look at where we were on those longitudes. Iconic, as a measure, remains the Ashby Commission’s view of higher education in Nigeria in 1961, as being as good as the best in the world. The Oxford educator is noted to have said it was easier to get into Harvard in 1962 than UI.

     But as Prof. Akinkugbe remarked after my convocation lecture at UNAB a few years ago, he ran into Eric Ashby in the UK, just before his death and Ashby regretted that Nigeria had failed to follow the plan. Today few compare the quality of higher education in Nigeria with the best in the world. Even though some private universities are raising the bar once again the road south has been painful.

     With healthcare, the fact that UCH was once ranked the second best Teaching Hospital in the Commonwealth, corroborates anecdotal reference to a remark by one of the proprietors of the Saudi Hospital where President Yaradua was being treated. He had remarked to one of the Nigerians that nearly 50 years earlier, he had a heart condition and had recommendations to the University of London Hospital and UCH, Ibadan, as among the best. Wanting to be closer to warm climate and a place with Muslims, he chose Ibadan and got healed there. 

   He felt shame that so many years after, the President of the country where UCH was located would come to the hospital he founded after his UCH experience.

   In spite of these failings, a commitment by a leadership elite to drive up the growth drivers we have pointed out, will ride the youth bulge to yield the demographic dividend.      

How much do relationships matter in the achievement of success?

    Relationships matter a lot. Finding them, nurturing them and managing them make a difference. Relationships from marriage, family, colleagues are major determinants of balance that gives you the peace of mind to focus on what matters and have work/life balance. But there are times that the view of relationships in Nigeria is about being wired-in, networked, or well-connected to the powerful. I am a mixer and function with the same ease as I relate to the socio-economically challenged. Naturally, the issue and means differ, but the central point remains a duty of care, respect for their dignity as persons and in justice to our shared human heritage.

      I have been lucky. I have lived to see people I have regard for those who say kind things to me and of me. Each time I meet Alhaji Maitama Sule, or hear what Chief Olu Akinkugbe, Dr Michael Omolayole and some others say generous things of me, I am thankful for God’s mercy.

     I met Gen. Joseph Garba as a 19-year old when he was Foreign Minister and remained a friend till he passed away. As a graduate student at 24, I met General Gowon and still enjoy his friendship. Some figures have been more challenging. As a youth Corper, I was interested in investigative Journalism; I disconcerted the Obasanjo Government in 1977 with my writings. When he was in prison awaiting a death sentence from the Abacha regime, I went to war on his behalf. I still recall Alhaji Ahmed Joda visiting my home to urge me to journey to US and get some of my friends to pressure the Abacha regime. I did, at my cost, calling on friends in academia who had a voice in policy circles in Washington, and on then Assistant Secretary of State for International organisations, who had previously served as Ambassador to Nigeria, to get Washington to do something. I did the same with contacts in London.

     In the days, years later, I spent working with Presidential candidate Obasanjo on policy, and even at the Gateway Hotel Summit of (October 1) which held two days before in 1998, when he joined a table I sat on with Olisa Agbakoba, Bilikisu Yusuf and one or two younger people from that gathering of generally much older national leaders, I never thought to say to him; ‘you know we did this for your sake.’ I thought it was duty to seek justice. He, on the other hand, said to us his biggest mistake first time around was that he did not find and build up people like us to take the mantle of leadership.

      When I was persuaded to work with him on policy in the run up to the 1999 elections, it turned out to be more sacrificial than I imagined. The example I cited earlier should suffice. Still when Obasanjo proved quite uncharitable to me on account of issues of free speech like Patito’s Gang and my friendship with then Lagos State Governor, Tinubu, I was sure enough of my motivation not to get judgmental. I say this particularly because many who read my response to his latest book thought I should have described him as a shameless dishonorable man who should be given the cold treatment by all decent people. 

    My experience is that the more charitable you are to someone who lacks in charity, you not only rise in the discovery of who you are, but you are also (actually) throwing a life jacket to the uncharitable other. Drawing from my Obasanjo relationship; after he was elected in 1999 and began the romance with gossips related to Patito’s Gang and my political affiliation, I simply paid no attention. When, as he travelled all over the place, rather than run Nigeria, as he coveted a Noble Peace Prize, his government was perceived as rudderless by October 1999, he sent for me. 

     A natural disposition would be to disregard his invitation. I did think of that, I must admit. But a deeper charity made me accept. It turned out to be invitation to a dinner with his top team, including the VP, Finance Minister, SGF, Chief Economic Adviser etc. He then advertised to them how he had worked with me on economic policy. So, why were they not getting it right, he asked me. I gave my opinion, mindful that the goal may have been to get me to indict those around the dinner table. He then asked that we work with the Chief Economic Adviser to produce a policy document. I had to stay back a few days to get that done. Never heard anything about the effort until I was in London in February 2000 and the High Commissioner, Justice Bola Ajibola, invited me to dinner. He gave a government policy document that had been published. When I read it, the very first paragraph sounded like my English. 

     By the third sentence, I had full sentences you could find in my previous writings. That’s how I realised the government had published the policy document we worked on without even sending me a copy, not to mention acknowledging the contribution. But I chose not think of it as ingratitude. Today, everywhere I go, Gen. As education and health care are so important for progress, I constantly look at where we were on those longitudes. Iconic, as a measure, remains the Ashby Commission’s view of higher education in Nigeria in 1961, as being as good as the best in the world. The Oxford educator is noted to have said it was easier to get into Harvard in 1962 than UI.

  Obasanjo is primarily seen as an ungrateful person who has harmed those who have helped him. Keeping a quiet distance seems to have served me well.

What are your personal life goals and how fulfilled do you feel relative to those finding peace and joy in family life? 

    The desire for the simple life; the quest to collaborate with others to move creation towards its perfection and the attainment of the two immortalities are central to my goals.

    I had, in a MR. Magazine interview in 1991, made the point that the essence of being is the pursuit of immortality. 

     These, I suggest, can come in terms of remembrance of how you affected your world long after you are gone. Your conduct, in touching lives, and in the words of wisdom left in words printed, tend to be more what gets you what I call material immortality. Spiritual immortality is the claiming of the promise to see God face to face.

People look at you and assume you got most things right. What are your biggest mistakes?

  Of course, I have failed at many things. I have probably failed more often than I have succeeded. My attitude is that failure is learning; and I try to optimise on the return on experience. I have helped start many businesses, then been disappointed by the ethical course of the partners and pulled back. Some have gone on to make fortunes without me and some have flunked because I pulled out. In private life I have also had errors of judgment, thinking of some people whose motive was just to use me as loving me beyond comprehension. You win some; you lose some. But, in all things, I give God thanks.

    I have entered public life and sought elected office. I am grateful whenever I come into a group where Lagos State Emeritus Governor, Tinubu is talking and he gives my effort credit for the emergence of the APC. I thought, as institution building goes, Nigeria needed a strong opposition and feel triumphant in looking at this year’s elections. But I have disdain for getting the right thing the wrong way. For this the electoral process has not served well my intention to show example in practice of good governance.

     The desperation we have seen by many candidates this year shows that the motives should be questioned. Who kills to serve others? If it is that there is the big idea that the future hangs on and someone is fighting to make sure the forces of evil are not able to stop it that is understandable. Many of the desperate candidates have nothing to offer and have already spent so much time milking the system from one appointment to the other, yet they are desperate enough to risk the nation and the future of their children with their desperation.

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