Nigerian State…is reluctant to discuss the legacy of MKO Abiola, says Utomi
Prof. Pat Utomi is a Nigerian professor of political economy and management expert. He is a former presidential candidate and a NADECO member. He spoke with Victoria Olisa
Some Nigerians still debate that June 12 and July 7 should be declared as Democracy Day or Public holiday and not May 29, what can you say about?
Well, I think that the focus of this conversation should not be misplaced. Nigerians have too many public holidays if I had my way I would cancel many of the public holidays, we don’t work enough. The key is the importance, the value of those days in the building of democratic culture in Nigeria. What is the best way to give value to the meaning of the 1993 experience for the evolution of democracy? I think that these days should be considered days of very strong contemplation about why our democracy is not working because it is not working. Democracy is directly connected to modernity; at the art of the idea of modernity is the concept of the public sphere.
One of the contemporary philosophers most closely associated with the idea, the concept of the public sphere is a German Jurgen Habermas. He basically made a point which is absolutely correct that the act of modernity is the rational public conversation where sound ideas are discussed by citizens to produce the best way to govern and move society forward.
Would you then say our democracy is maturing or retrogressing 17 years after the return of civil rule?
I think measuring movement in terms of a straight line upwards or downwards is not necessarily a correct way to looking at things. The mode of the journey has been recursive “two steps forward, four steps backward”. There is an American group of scholars who have tracked democracy in Africa since the return to civil rule in Nigeria i.e. “Afrobarometer” Prof. Micheal Bratton and other colleagues. It is not a straight line, different things have affected it. In 1999 the level of ethnic sensitivity in politics was fairly mild following the June 12 example as most people agreed that Nigerians in freedom voted in the so-called Muslim to Muslim ticket. There was much happiness say the south-east with the ticket do not have anybody from the south-east, no Christian what the people from the south-east should have been worried about. Then if you look closely at the last year election, it was a different story.
23 years after Chief MKO Abiola’s death, do you think President Muhammadu Buhari fits into the much-awaited benevolent leader Nigerians envisaged?
I think that kind of track do not really serve the goal we pursue as it will increase emotion which is not what is important for where Nigeria is right now. What Nigeria desperately needs is united actions by its people to rise to her biggest threat to nationhood this country has faced in a generation. We live in a time where there is an incredible divide between the haves and the haves-not of our society. We live in a time when our economy is severely challenged both structurally and in terms of immediate existential problems for citizens. This kind of time calls for a passionate commitment to national redemption, to which people from all tribes should commit working together to rebuild the fallen walls of Nigeria.
In 1999, American journalist Karl Maier publish a book on Nigeria titled “This House Has Fallen” but when he was writing the book the condition was nowhere as severe as they are today now in Nigeria. What I expect from responsible Nigerian elites is a passionate effort for everybody to come together to look at how to improve the well-being of Nigerians, take advantage of our factor endowment to generate prosperity and move people away from despair back to the promise of hope.
If we fail to do that, then we miss the essence of the point of leadership and leadership does not rest only with those who have titles, it includes every Nigerian because each one is born to lead. Robin Sharma, a Canadian writer reminds us in the book “The Leader Who Had No Title” you do not need a title to lead. The great Indian of the last century Mahatma Gandhi was never a leader or chairman of any party yet he was the “Father of the Indians”. I want to challenge us to move away from the obsession of position and authority for everybody to be a committed patriot who wants to use the democratic process that calls for a rational public conversation to get the best ideas on the table and from the marketplace of ideas to move the country to next level through effective leadership.
Is there hope for Nigerians to encounter visionary like Chief MKO Abiola in the shortest possible time?
Yes, it is possible to have another visionary like Chief MKO Abiola and it can come anytime. It could be today, tomorrow, next week, year depending on how we share in his vision and work to achieve it.
A country like Malaysia had all kind of problems until Mohammed brought everybody into his idea and the history of Malaysia has changed since then. Indeed, if you look at the roadmap of APC and that of Brazil from a country of great potential without achieving any goals to moving it to a level where it has become one of the top economic countries in the world. The truth is that authenticity of leadership is more important than any ideas you write down, authentic leadership that has the capacity to carry out responsibility, that is compassionate for the people and disciplined.
Do you expect the present administration to give Chief MKO Abiola a posthumous presidential recognition?
Whether anybody does anything or not, history would acknowledge Chief MKO Abiola as the winner of 1993 Presidential election as somebody who broke all the mode of Nigerian political line out of just sheer personal passion. Obviously, Nigeria is in an unfortunate state of “State Capture” i.e. certain classes of people has captured the Nigerian State for the reason of continued self-validation and is reluctant to discuss the legacy of MKO Abiola but that would be overcome one day.
Would the recognition of MKO make up for the injustice carried out by the military government?
It will never completely make up for injustice. For many years, I have been saying I know who I am and I know where I am but one thing I know is I live in one of the most unjust societies on earth. Nigeria is a very unjust society with very little justice and one of the reasons many foreign investors do not come to Nigeria is that our institution is very weak; regulators use their power in an abusive way.
Those who have tried to invest in Nigeria have suffered great injustice and Nigeria state does not correct those injustices. The institution of state repeatedly in Nigeria has abused property rights and they have not gotten any justice for the great injustice done them. Unfortunately, that is the state of the Nigerian State, something obviously needs to change in that but sadly this is our reality for now.
What does June 12 stand for you?
June 12 is a watershed moment that suggests to me that Nigerians can live together with a shared vision and commitment in which the common good is identified and pursued with social justice as a critical element of Nigerian culture rather than the experience we have lived with, for years now which is of state capture and one in which the strategy of the commons reigns supreme.