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Nigeria in mess because of bad leadership, says Utomi

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Pat Utomi


For Nigeria to emerge clean out of the current mess it has found itself, the challenge of bad leadership must be tackled and Nigerians must once again embrace one another in love. These are the views of professor of Political Economy and management expert, Pat Utomi. Utomi, who is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of Nigeria, former presidential candidate and founder of Centre for Value in Leadership and the African Democratic Congress, made the postulations in this interview with MARCEL MBAMALU

You used to be one of the youngest agitators for a better Nigeria. You are now turning 65; what has happened to the Nigeria you have been so passionate about since your teens?
My reflection on that journey brings up puzzles, and much sadness, but seldom despair. The biggest puzzle remains how a mild-mannered person, who is realistic enough to respect the reality of compromise and accommodation of differences, end up in a life of struggle. The truth is that struggle became my life. It did not come from a romanticisation of struggle, like some of my Aluta friends. I neither embraced Marx nor hung a Che Guevara poster in my room in the university. I was actually a tie-wearing 18-year old. Even as a young PhD my Marxist friends, including many who would enter public life and become the ultimate establishment people, called me a ‘Bourgeoise apologist’ once upon a time. I still remember my encounter with Dr. Iyorchia Ayu at the University of Jos in 1983. 

So, how did struggle become my life? Here you have to look at the miracle of creation and the human conscience. For some reasons, it pleased God to give me a sensitive conscience. I cringed always in the face of injustice. And I am even more hurt when those who perpetuate injustice, to gain personal material and power advantage are so ignorant that they do not realise that they do even greater harm to themselves in the medium to long-term from the damage they inflict with impunity.

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Conscience that has profited from study and global exposure to practice elsewhere, sets on me a huge burden for the unnecessary government inflicted poverty, misery and backwardness that is Nigeria-writ-large today. Nigeria should be the light on the hill and a place blooming with prosperity, but the unfortunate admixture of selfishness of many in power, laced with ignorance, arrogance in ignorance and a tepid followership that foot drags about becoming citizens has crippled the promise of Nigeria. My conscience has not let me keep quiet in the face of such travesty.

That gaping wound of conscience has caused me much pain and put a life structured to be simple on the course of struggle that is now nearly 50 years running. But there are upsides when I think of my struggles. From undergraduate days it was about the inclusion of students in public policy formulation. Then it was the long struggle against impunity under military rule, which culminated in the June 12 annulment confrontations. 

In more recent times the struggle has been against state capture, growing fascism, and criminal hijack of politics.  Each struggle has opened my eyes to human nature in a very peculiar way. Each has raised my amazement at the infinite possibilities for the triumph of the human spirit. Most have left me broke but not broken. I have learnt that to be despondent is not an option. What is clear is that the promise of Nigeria is unrealised. But we look at Brazil and some once laggard performers that woke up and despair is clearly not an option.

Surely people close to you must say to you Nigeria is not worth the struggle or trouble. Why and how have you persevered?
I can try to sound smart and give you a formula and motif force. The naked truth is that it is the pure grace of God. Just consider the amount of energy, time, risk, and material resources I have poured into faith that the Nigeria project, where tribe and tongue may differ but in brotherhood we stand, may gain traction. Yet, I seldom ever get sick. Sometimes I pause and imagine: what if I just kept back in my account, the kind of financial resources I have spent trying to get things right in the public interest? I would be a ‘stinkingly’ rich person. Dare to add the opportunity cost from the system trying to hurt my entrepreneurial interests because I insist on speaking truth to power, it is clear I would be listed among the wealthiest people on the continent. Yet sometimes, I am down to less than 100,000 in personal liquidity.

Only grace can keep one on the straight and narrow for a lifetime knowing that what it takes to join them, or to sell your soul, can be as little as a phone call. I committed early to the world view of the human society and its best when it is a civilization of love in which the dignity of human person should be the essence of public choice.

Nigeria is the mess that it is because we are all out of love. The lack of love for neighbour and low trust, or trust deficit is generated between the people and those who govern, between communities or between social strata is the reason for all the insecurity, failing institutions that result in horrible economic performance so bad that two globally celebrated economists, Arvind Subramanian and Xavier Xala-I-Martin go as far as suggest that if you sent to every Nigerian a cheque for their share of oil revenues, the country would be better off than with the kinds of governments we have.

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I was so stirred by these comments in an IMF working paper written by Subramanian and Sala-I-Martin that I could not but initiate a number of programmes to help the economic education of those who govern Nigeria. These included scholarships to National Assembly members to executive education at LBS. Only one of them from back then, Nze Chidi Duru, took advantage of the offer. One or two others came for a week or so and dropped off. 

The naked truth is that they are not interested. The reason they are as out of love as a car that has run out of petrol on Eko bridge is the disposition of man to gain without pain, the basis for the pursuit of legal plunder, as Frederic Bastiat would write in 19th century France.

You always give examples from Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, and elsewhere, people who overcame adversity and poor governance. Why do you think the Nigerian problem, unlike theirs, remains intractable?
I have been troubled enough by the challenge of saving Nigeria that I played the three sides of the partnership for progress: the public sector, the private sector and the social enterprise sector.  Most people generally stay on one side all their life. For good or for ill, I have been a manager and executive in industry and serial entrepreneur on the private sector side. I have been deeply involved on the social enterprise side, a passionate in private development agencies from education, youth and women empowerment, etc, just as I have been an economic growth activist and a human rights advocate. I have served on the Governing Councils of several universities, public and private, serving as pro-chancellor on several of those and helping establish schools from primary to secondary and tertiary. I can feel the heartbeat of the social enterprise sector. And I have had a run with the public sector. The experience from the spectrum speaks to the trouble with Nigeria as a failure to understand what leadership means. It is other-centred behaviour.
 
Unfortunately, many leaders’ wannabes put themselves first. That is a recipe for disaster. And the tragedy of the moment is from that.  So many examples from our own history show what has gone wrong with how we understand what leadership means. Imagine the experiences of both the first premier of Northern Nigeria, the Sardauna, Ahmadu Bello, and the first military governor of Northern Nigeria to get mortgages to buy a house in Kaduna. Both failed. Compare that with what would happen today. Or the example of my own personal hero, Dr. Michael Okpara, who could not allocate himself land in GRA, Enugu, compared to what we hear about those who came decades later.

There are people who talk. There are people who do. I was determined to be in talking-doing person. There are those who complain and there are those who do something about things.  I not only complain but created ways I thought could elevate how you complain, like the TV series Patito’s Gang, which I have kept on air for nearly 21 years and in spite of all odds, various talkfest like the CVL Annual Lecture Symposium focusing on economic growth, which has brought eminent global influencers to Nigeria every year for 18 years and quite a few other platforms. Still, I managed to take those ideas from talk and create or collaborate with others to build enterprises that give them life. That is what gave me the privilege of being a catalyst in putting Nigeria on the internet, with Linkserve, striving to redefine the agricultural value chain with IPC, frame setting in financial services before regulatory risk set back the hands of the clock, the re-defining of executive education in the work at the Lagos Business School, etc.

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From playing so broadly, the evidence before me is clearly that the trouble with Nigeria is leadership.  There is no major problem Nigeria has today you cannot go back 25 years and read a clear statement from me predicting it will be so.  I am not clairvoyant. It was all so predictable but poor leaders still got us there.  

‘It is elementary, my dear Watson, very elementary,’ as the Agatha Christie detective character would say.

The youths are bitter and angry and almost all who can are leaving the country. You have been an icon to young people. How can Nigeria stop the hemorrhage?
Young people must not allow this system get to them. They must not be discouraged. They are the majority and they are the more knowledgeable. If they allow the dying gasps of a corrupt and unwise hegemon chase them from the promise of the redemption of a race that has borne the brunt of injustice for 500 years, they may have to live with the guilt of the new 1000 years of slavery the black man may endure if Nigeria fails.
What they must do is educate themselves to be relieved of the bondage of false consciousness of ethnicity, religion, and corruption that held their parents in bondage and focus on the things that inspire social harmony and create an opportunity for production, influence, and affluence.

I hear those who are emigrating usually tweet on arriving the other side ‘Bye-bye Nigeria; the evil you have done is enough’. That evokes two passions in me: how those who have effectively captured Nigeria sleep well knowing this is how their watch is remembered, and how those who tweet bye-bye Nigeria fail to see the acceptance of defeat in that statement. Life is not a tea party. The countries we are moving to were built on the back of struggles of a previous generation. 

I do sympathise with the youths, though. They have been vilified and called lazy by people who are lazier. They have been shot at by people who vowed to protect them and have been kept unemployed by Dirigiste policy that aims to advance the interests of a few. It’s so normal for them to feel frustrated. But as I say to myself I say to them: if you dislike now, invent a new now that will build a tomorrow you can love.

Much of your expressed concerns have been about the economy. We are presently in a recession and there are discordant tones about the future prospects. What’s the way forward?
I am persuaded that the prospects for the economy of Nigeria remain bright despite current challenges. We are in a recession driven by the triple shock crisis of loss of confidence in the world on how we manage the economy because of poor property rights records, weak institutions generally and challenging rule of law situation. Then the second source of shock being Covid-19 related disruption of global supply chains, and the third being the collapse of oil prices. If Nigerian politicians can move away from renewed dirigisme tendencies, respect property rights and what they preach in the ease of doing business campaign, we will find that a turnaround is possible. But we must in addition to this have a clear perspective plan based on latent comparative advantage piggy-backing on our factor endowments and seeking to dominate certain global value chains that we support with targeted industrial policy.

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We also need to build elite consensus on economic management. The excessive partisanship and buccaneering, and widespread conflict would need to be reduced to increase predictability and improve investment flows in the country. Improved governance, equity and fairness in how power is exercised will also bridge the trust deficit in the relationship between state and society. These would make the investment climate more attractive.
With these, revival can be in sight. 

After all these years of struggle, how do you see your legacy?
I wonder a bit about that. In the early days, I wanted a life that would make impact through social activism, by helping people find their voice and deploying Private Development Agencies (PDAs) like in education, and NGOs that strengthen civil society and provide services difficult for commercial enterprises to offer, like Patito’s Gang, the TV series focused on argumentative policy conversation. Most drained me mentally, physically and financially, even though they were tangential to how I sustained myself and family.

But many senior people, prominent among who were Chief Ayo Adebanjo and the late Chief Anthony Enahoro kept saying to me that the only way to make meaningful impact in these parts is through politics and political office. I gave it a try, insisting the only way that made sense was the path of integrity. I found that those who thrive in state capture fear that path. As Dr. Awolowo-Dosumu once said to me, I can see how they try so hard to stop you like they used to do to stop my father. But I was willing to deal with their “stopping” as long as the next generation can learn about being tenacious on the side of right.

As I look around, there remain two groups encamped around me. One says: the value you constitute as a passionate lover of a better society, respected even by many of those who try to stop you, is best harvested if you stay away from politics for good. I am much tempted to favour this. But there are those who say that the failing state desperately needs trustworthy people of competence to keep hope up. To retreat from that arena would be to betray. No side is an easy debate to win, so you need the big HS (my nickname for the Holy Spirit).

But most times when I think legacy I think about how I can affect younger people to desire a life of sacrificial service in advance of the common good. Often young people come to me and challenge that I reached a Presidential Advisory position at 27 but they seem to get labeled too young at 40. I sympathize and worry about the generation that has consumed the benefits of their fathers, theirs and that of their children, and, if left, will eat up the lunch of their grandchildren. But I am quick to remind the young that I did not get there from connection or nepotism. I had no godfather. Twenty-seven may sound young, but I not only had two Master’s degrees and a PhD, after my undergraduate years during which I had gained some national attention, but I had also already served as editor of the flagship Newsfeature magazine in the country in the Chris Okolie’s Newbreed organisation stable. Luck may help but it typically smiles on the prepared.

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Your birthday is around the corner. Every year for nearly 20 years, it has been marked with the annual CVL Leadership Lecture/Symposium. What are the main features for the 2021 edition?
The lectures have been running for 25 years, but about 19 years ago they were adopted by CVL as part of its annual programmes. The first lecture was given by one Fr. Mathew Hassan Kukah, who is now the Bishop of Sokoto, on February 6, 1996. Speakers and special guests were General Gowon, President Olusegun Obasanjo, VP Yemi Osinbajo, and Presidents of Liberia and Rwanda, the Sultan of Sokoto as well as subject area experts like Prof. Paul Collier from Oxford, Prof. Richard Joseph from Northwestern, Prof. Benedict Oramah, President of the Afreximbank who gave the keynote last year, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, and such Governors as Peter Obi, Kayode Fayemi, Akinwunmi Ambode and Babatunde Fashola, a British MP and U.S. Congressman have also featured.

The central purpose of the series has been to suggest why Africa is poor and how to confront the problems for solution. In the recent past, we have focused on issues in slow growth in Africa including capital formation, capital flows, and the mystery of capital, trade health and education in the great escape from misery. This year we are trying to pose the question: which one of these variables should be the topmost priority in accelerating development? We have a lined up speakers from the U.S., Nigeria and I hope the insights can help us focus.

Capital, trade, and economic policy have continued to challenge us and the CVL lectures have tried to tackle these. Can you summarise how far we have traveled?
Trade matters. Most nations have traded their way to prosperity. This is why some of us pushed hard for the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). It is also why Prof. Benedict Oramah of the Afreximbank was the keynote speaker at the last CVL lecture/symposium. Capital matters a lot. I point often to the book by Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales titled Saving Capitalism from Capitalists, because it points to how institutions improve access to capital and facilitate enterprise growth. As an entrepreneur, I have experienced the difficulties of access to capital because of weak institutions. If it was tough before, it’s worse now that the banks can say I am a politically exposed person, even though I have neither been elected nor appointed to public office since 1984.

How access to capital can improve with the strength of institutions comes clearly in the efforts of the Peruvian economist, Hernando De Soto, in explaining the mystery of capital, especially on how representational systems like functional land registries can make asset-rich people capital-poor.

But I believe we need reforms. Our banking system is unable to make for significant economic growth. As presently defined, it can only drive the extraction of economic rent with little impact on sustainable production. And I speak as a concerned insider and not the angry iconoclast. I have chaired the board of a bank and I think the incentive structure in the economy does not drive banks to power up a job-creating, production-inclined economy. The incentives need to change.

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You talk always about saving Nigeria but some ask: Can Nigeria be saved?
I am persuaded that it can. But that will not come from wishful thinking or outsourcing to God without our doing our bit. Critical to saving Nigeria, in my view, is the strengthening and energizing of the strategic middle. This mythical middle includes the Geographic Middle of the Middle Belt; the moral middle of the educated middle class which is currently complicit in the Nigerian desolation, because they feign neutrality, act disconnected and try to survive by working hard enough or stealing hard enough to function within a bubble of their own as a local government generating their own light, water and security and buying SUVs to navigate bad roads. We must remember Dante’s Inferno and the fact that the hottest part of hell is reserved for those, who in the face of a moral crisis seek refuge in neutrality. It is even better put by a former Catholic Archbishop of New York, Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, who says that the decision not to take sides on a grave moral issue is a decision, a silent acquiescence to evil. And the tragedy of our time is that those who believe in honesty lack fire of their conviction and those who believe in dishonesty are full of passionate conviction. Fulton Sheen seeks a moral rebirth.

In a manner of speaking, the former Archbishop of New York was re-echoing Machiavelli, who writing in The Prince, reminds us that those who profit from an extant order that might be evil will do everything to prevent a new order from coming about but the greater majority who would profit from the new order do not do enough to make it happen because man is incredulous in his nature not wanting to try new things until he has witnessed the experience of it. If that presently complicit middle can raise their voice it will provide the emotional, strategic stability that the assertive middle belt in a proper federal arrangement will offer in geopolitical terms.

One of my goals in 2021 is to host town hall meetings in association with elements of civil society, some political parties, and intellectual groups across the country, taking on issues from the perspective of that location. Appropriately, Jos has been chosen as the location for the first of these town hall meetings. Each will look at a national level issue and a regional level issue. The middle belt and Fiscal Federalism is the National issue for Jos and the subtheme is ‘Mining and Agriculture Value Chains in Building a Regional Economy that is Globally Competitive.’ Nigeria may have started on the politics of precarious balancing, as Prof. George Obiozor likes to refer to it, but the future must be based on the politics of strategic balancing from the middle.

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