Utomi: Nigeria worse off for lack of philosopher kings

Professor Pat Utomi. PHOTO: Youtube<br />

Prof. Pat Utomi is one of those eager to see political and economic transformation in the country. In this chat with News Editor MARCEL MBAMALU, he discussed sundry challenges facing the country and the way forward.

Why does a leadership deficit persist in the country despite all the talent?

In a strange way, there is a kind of conspiracy for mediocrity. There is an unholy alliance between those for whom politics is simply a game of spoils of power, those who desire state capture for a variety of uses and those who see the wrongs but feel so powerless they say to the true change agents, “you are too much of a gentleman to be in the political area,” or “it requires so much money to prosecute a political campaign, so just left them do what they want to do.”

Then there are the not so literate, who neither understand citizenship nor their place and power in a modern democratic state.

So, it all works out to a dangerous alchemy of the triumph of ignorance with the triumphalism of arrogant- ignorant; the pettiness of many in power who see it as a game of exclusion because Abraham Lincoln of this world who put together teams of rivals to procure victory for the common good. So, we continue to see power substitute purpose and our place as a nation in this globalised world continues to diminish in spite of the potential.

What truly shocks me about the Nigerian condition is how people can reach age 50 and not be obsessed with legacy. To reach age 60 and still be concerned about the size of your SUV and bank account is to diminish the essence of man. For me, that man is truly dead and what we see is the walking dead.

For me, experience has taught that man is but a speck of dust in the harmattan haze, here at dusk and gone before dawn. To not see a bigger purpose of social impact for one’s life really is the true death of man.

This is why I never cease to remind myself of that 1991 interview I gave Mr. Magazine in which I said the essence of being is the pursuit of immortality. One form of immortality is to live in the people, whose lives have been impacted. I called this material immortality and the other for people of faith is to see God face to face. Impact is purpose.

Unfortunately, because of the absence on pedagogy of desire, people pursue much that is lacking in deep meaning, ostensibly for the advance of self, but crush
the possibilities for all of society, forgetting the greater African wisdom that “I am because we are – Ubumtu.”

Anyway you look at it, most Nigerians are on the verge of despair. President Obasanjo’s recent letter captured this mood in some ways. How did we get here?

The journey down was long coming, but I think the pessimism in our general conversation is somewhat exaggerated, even though I also sound that way to wake people up. The makings of a Nigerian renewal are all around us. What we need to do is overcome the know-doing gap citizenry; have a committed citizenry and a leadership, which understands that leadership behaviour is other-centered and not about self. Then, we need the public sphere to sprout thought leaders and a robust market place of ideas.

Our present public sphere is very anti-intellectual and society needs thinking people to see the future more clearly. Nigeria is worse off for the lack of philosopher kings. We came crashing because of corruption, people in positions of decision-making who lack capacity, a sense of service and the humility to listen, supported with a heart of compassion.

We need a culture of human progress marked by a developmental state mindset. Instead, what we have is a predilection for sharing. Our culture has foisted on our people an entitlement orientation, caused work ethic to suffer and given us a system of incentives and rewards that does not encourage production. The richest people around are not those who work the hardest, they are those who have been in positions either to extract economic right or have outright moved the public treasury to their homes. This is why I support the war on corruption with everything I have got.

Having said all this, I believe the youths of today are smarter than the youths of my time and are better exposed, in spite of the decline in the educational system. I believe that Nigeria is in the position to earn a huge demographic dividend, especially when the Diaspora kicks in. I was in India, when it was down to less than three weeks trading money in its reserves in 1991 and was technically bankrupt.

But Prime Minister Rao’s appointment of Manmahan Signh as Finance minister drove reforms that saw the Indian Diaspora bring in know-how, know-why and capital. India has not looked back since. I think Nigeria’s surge will be just as impressive.

The talk of the moment is about a Third Force. What is your view on this?

Like most issues in a challenged environment, more dust can first be blown up, and then truth emerges when things began to settle. I have always argued for a movement for a developmental state.

In helping found the Concerned Professionals in 1993, and before that the Congress of Concerned Citizen in 1982 straight after returning to the country, which Olisa Agbakoba said helped shape his activism, I have wanted to bring citizens into active engagement in politics and in holding government accountable. The NIM came out of conversations among people like Donald Duke, Olisa Agbakoba and I, but was given life by people like Wale Okuniyi, Opeyemi Agbaje, Akin Oshilekan and others.

My own vision of it is of a social political movement of impassioned and enlightened citizens, who can build or shared vision and sets of values about progress and move in blocks from the movement into political parties of their preference and reform them for good. If remnants not on existing parties at a future date want to found a new party, it is up to them. But first, those of us in political parties have a duty to draw energy from the movement and reform our parties.

We are said to be out of recession, but there is still so much poverty and anguish in the land…

Part of my problem with how we look at growth is that the states are not doing enough. Strictly from the point of the fiscal space of tax and spend or share and spend, not much progress will happen as fast as our population growth calls for. We must become more creative and aggressive at the sub-national level. In the 1960s, the sub-nationals were the bases of economic regeneration.

The herdsmen issue has dominated the headlines. What is your take on it?

I urge great caution on all sides. This is where leadership matters and thought leadership even more. When these matters began to escalate, a friend of mine, a former military governor and Fulani man called me and expressed concerns. His words continue to ring true in my head to date. He saw the implication, if not well managed, as capable of creating trouble that will go on for generations, if good leadership was not shown in the matter, as in the case of the troubles of the Balkans. He is being proved right by events.

Good thinking can allow all sides to have their fears addressed and what is good for our modern circumstances emerge in the interest of all stakeholders. We need remedies for economic reasons. The herdsmen themselves are transiting culturally from when they owned cattle to this new season where they are just workers for cattle owners. It’s a sociological challenge that requires honest brokerage of people with knowledge, noting the fear of dominating or being dominated. Let us all be careful. Importantly, let us show good leadership.

What are the prospects of economic regeneration?

The global economy has moved into growth phase. If we just try to savour the gains from the higher oil prices, it will be a tragedy for our children. We must leverage our latent comparative advantage by deploying targeted factor endowments and developing industrial policy to push the value chains of the produce to a point of competitiveness and dominating the value chains from the farms to the factory and supermarkets in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

Some Chinese companies in Nigeria are already showing it is possible. If we advance some of the gains we are seeing in agriculture down that path by appointing champions with clear targets for each value chain, incentivising them and providing institutional support, I do not see why double digits growth is not possible.

When you turned 48, you said you were in double extra time because you nearly died in a motor accident at 35. At that time, life expectancy in Nigeria was said to be at 47! Have things changed since then?

The French are known to say that the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same. These were years, when I had hoped for a lot more progress. Like in all things, we have had a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. What galls me is that the world is not waiting for us.

A year ago, as we seemed to pray for a rise in the price of crude oil, I was alarmed that the urgency of the coming end of the age of oil had not hit us as a society. I reacted with an opinion piece titled “Is Nigeria the Next Haiti?” My aim was to shock Nigerians into recalling a little known fact that Haiti had the highest GDP per capita in the world in 1789 in the golden age of the slave oiled plantation economy. But by the middle of 20th century had become the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

If you discountenance the conspiracy of the West against Haiti, which is well documented by former cross roads Africa activist Robinson in his book on Haiti, the country suffered huge reversals because the elite carried on like the Nigerian elite does, in goal displacement after the world changed when James watt re-designed the steam engine and got the industrial revolution under way.

Last month in the weekly video series I put out on Facebook, I reflected on the 4th Industrial Revolution that is already upon us, when artificial intelligence will rule, and wondered if leader wannabes are reflecting on the implications for our economic competitiveness and how we organise our society.

It’s hard not to conclude that Nigeria has a huge leadership deficit, which is dangerous for the future. The good news is that people are waking up to the problem and asking how they can become involved in making real change happen beyond sloganeering.

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