From Mariam Aleshinloye-Agboola, Jos
•Nigeria is dying
For years, Professor Pat Utomi has advocated for a change in a system he was convinced was decaying. Today, he is exasperated at a nation and its leaders unperturbed by the US prediction that Nigeria may cease to be one in a few years.
The former Director of Lagos Business School and Presidential candidate of Social Democratic Mega Party (SDMP), in this interview with Magazine Editor, Shola Oshunkeye says he is convinced that what we have is no democracy and it is high time we dismantled it otherwise…
How has it been on the campaign trail?
The campaign comes as expected with many challenges but it also comes with a very firm promise in that it elevates your consciousness on why this is such an important exercise. Everyday I discover why our country unfortunately has not made much progress in spite of God’s grace.
I have particularly been struck by a number of things in recent times that go to the heart of the matter and sometimes people talking on the streets don’t connect to those kinds of things. Sometimes our elders, politicians and so-called business leaders either don’t get it or pretend not to but it’s going to catch up with all of us very soon.
Let me give you a couple of things that entered my universe of thinking in the last four days. I was reading a report from Brazil in one of our newspapers, about people trying to get the former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva prosecuted. As you know, Da Silva was an extremely popular president who worked very hard for the Brazilian people. Everything was booming. This is a hero but Brazilians have gone to court saying that while he was president he went somewhere or something and after he came back the presidency sent out thank you notes to those he saw and they said that he did at government expense what should be a private matter. They have gone to court for him to be prosecuted for using public funds to send out thank you notes.
Now while he was still president, da Silva flew from Brazilia, the capital to Rio on official assignment. It happened that his party was having a party caucus or something in Rio. He stopped over and attended, while he was still incumbent. Some people went to court that he used public money for party matter and the court ruled against him and refunded the cost of fueling the plane. The Jonathan government has crippled the Nigerian government. All the public resources of our country are being used to prosecute private personal political campaign of the PDP. The state governors have pillaged the treasuries to advance their political interest.
So you see the collapse of the civil society is part of Nigeria’s trouble. Civil society has collapsed just like almost everything else in our country. So I look at Brazil, I look at Nigeria and I can understand why today we talk about BRIC economies; Brazil, Russia, India, China. Nobody is putting “N” in it or calling it BRINC because nobody thinks Nigeria is going anywhere. Secondly, on Saturday I was flying to Abuja and there was a small guy in Agbada surrounded by two other guys on the plane. I was wondering who he was, there was evident movement that tried to suggest that he was of some kind of importance but I didn’t pay any attention. He didn’t look like somebody I had ever met.
I was sitting in seat 1A and he sat maybe two rows behind. When we landed, there was this rush to come to the door for them to be the first people to exit. So, I stepped back so that we the lesser citizens will wait for them to go out. As we disembarked, we saw a big crowd with cameras and they started yelling oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, ah, ah. So I asked the managing partner of KPMG who was also on the flight who the short guy was and he told me it was the former MD of NPA that was released from prison that day with Bode George. He started telling me the Bode George story because I didn’t follow the thing, and I didn’t watch it. he said it was live on TV.
Now in any country where you want to bring young children up and you show them people being released from prison when it wasn’t for treasonable felony or a political trial. Whichever way you look at it, it was for stealing, simplicita. And all I could think of was a friend of mine from Shagamu who was telling a story of growing up in Shagamu in the late 1950s and somebody in the neighbourhood sighted a policeman going into a house. It wasn’t that they knew he did anything, the policeman was seen going to their house and they became lepers in the community. Nobody would associate with them because a policeman was seen going to their house.
Now I see people who are coming out of prison for criminal offence being celebrated on Live Television as if they were war heroes and I definitely knew something was wrong with the heart and soul of my country. Values shape human progress. If we have gotten that wrong, progress can’t take place.
Why can’t Professor Pat Utomi just be contented with going to the Senate and putting all his intellectual values at the disposal of his people at that level?
That is the worst question to ask because that is one place I will never want to be. God will prevent me from being in such a place.
What has the Senate ever done of any value in Nigeria?
Because people believe that with people like you and others who are of like minds coming in…
We have a fundamental problem. We have to bring this system down completely and rebuild.
How do you mean bring it down completely?
Crash the democratic system?
Crash the whole thing. It is not working for Nigeria, it will not work for Nigeria.
So how do we crash it?
By proving to the world that it’s a joke. That is what this is about.
We have spent close to twelve years…
Of a joke. Show me one road that has been completed in Nigeria in 12 years. One road. The dualisation of theLagos-Ibadan Expressway? One Canadian diplomat was coming to a meeting with the Concerned Professionals and other Civil Society Groups three years ago and he had gone to speak to some group in Ibadan. When he arrived the meeting, he said that driving on the Lagos/Ibadan Expressway is a violation of the fundamental human rights of all those who travel on it.
The Lokoja/Abuja dualisation has been going on for more than eight years, it has killed half of Nigeria, literally speaking, and it’s not completed. It’s not working, the system is not working, and the country is not working. Why are we fooling ourselves?
Essentially because there are no viable institutions
Absolutely. This democratic system is just a gangster arrangement for extracting economic rent from the system. It is not working.
You just prescribed that we should crash this democratic experiment, what is the alternative?
First of all we need a new constitution. All this patching is not working. We need to start from ground level.
You need to have a system that is owned by the people. Have you ever seen a country where the people are so completely alienated from governance? The people don’t feel that the government is for them or about them. Anybody you talk to just shrugs: ‘God will catch them one day.’
So for me my role is essentially to highlight the fact that this is not a working system. You talked about Senate and all that, when I started out, my goal was to see if we could build an alternative institution, a political party that brings together progressive forces. When you have that kind of viable political force with a complete agenda of again literally starting afresh, then you can make progress.
When I woke up January 1, 2010, my New Year resolution, which I told my wife, was I’m not running for anything. I am out of it. I’ve worked with young people for so long. I will continue to work with young people in one way or the other to shape their mind so they can realize they can rebuild their country. But I kept getting pulled in. you know this Chief Enahoro’s idea, build a mega summit movement I was just a follower.
One day I traveled, came back and was told I was chairman. I said oh is that the story? On another day, I was told that I have to be candidate because they need somebody to rally around to make the point I have been making about constructing a new Nigeria, so I said okay oh. But you see what is required is so fundamental and requires commitment. We have a dying country. People don’t realise it but we have a dying country.
This is hypothetical. Do you think it will do us well if we shift the elections and go into that conference to re-arrange things before we can say we are ready?
It is hypothetical, as you say. But they won’t do it. We are going to have an election and it is going to be a complete mess.
Jega or no Jega?
Jega or no Jega. You see, that is another part of Nigeria’s problem; this turning to Jega. What we need are strong institutions not strong men. We are obsessed with strong men. Where will Jega be? How many places can he be? They will run rings round him so much he will just be wondering what is happening.
Is Jega’s constant demand for more money part of the confusion?
That is one of the reasons I say we should crash this system. What I mean is that we have to change it completely. We cannot run such an expensive democracy. We are now living for the democracy instead of the democracy living for us. Let us go back to the parliamentary system where a group of us in our village nominate one guy who we think is good for our village to go and represent us for a total cost of next to nothing. If he doesn’t do well, he comes back. This system is not working.
You sound thoroughly sad
When I was growing up, I was raised in a country of promise. I grew up expecting the world. As I am entering the sunset of my life, I looked back and all the promises have failed. Look, (Ben) Nwabueze, a professor of constitutional law, an extra-conservative man in his 70s, says Nigeria must have a revolution. That there is no way out but a revolution! This is not a flippant statement. He is conservatism personified and he is 70, saying revolution is inevitable. He is not mad. He is talking about a country that has failed and the only thing that can save it is upturning the system.
Politicians have been campaigning but a lot of Nigerians say they are just making noise…
We have not had campaigns in this country. At the risk of sounding funny, I was the only one who campaigned in 2007. I was considered a joke but I was the only one who campaigned in the sense that Americans campaign. Maybe because I didn’t have money. I had three or four vehicles and we went round this country. I was in every state in this country in 2007… I was in Kano at least five times. At least on three occasions I travelled between Kano and Abuja about 11pm by road. I see people jump into an airplane to Adamasingba Stadium with a huge crowd of people that they had paid and given uniforms. They clown around for 45 minutes and go. That is not campaigning. They are just making a joke.
What do you think the media is not doing right?
The media should point out that what PDP is doing is not called campaigning; that it is a charade, a circus. A ruling party runs on its record, an opposition party runs on its vision, the strength of his vision. Compare the vision of the opposition with the record of the incumbent. Of course, as you know, PDP cannot run on its record. There is no record to run on. It has destroyed the country.
Call one PDP trustee and ask him to show how the quality of life of the average Nigerian is better today than it was in 1999, even him cannot justify it. Everybody knows that life expectancy in Nigeria is worse today than it was in 1999. Everybody knows that infant mortality in Nigeria is one of the worst in the world. Everybody knows that Nigeria is almost at the bottom of the African competitiveness index, that Nigeria’s economy is one of the least competitive economies in Africa. Ironically, Tunisia, where this crisis started from, is Africa’s most competitive economy. So you can imagine in Africa’s least competitive economy, Nigeria, what should be happening.
I think our problem is oil. Because it can be used to service the greed of a few and make them bent on worsening our lives it continues. The Economist interviewed me in 1996 when Abacha was in power and I said I wished Nigeria could find a way of giving the oil to its soldiers and politicians and say tackle this, leave Nigeria, leave us alone and go away that Nigeria will be more prosperous. Because oil services this corrupt bureaucracy and political machine there is a semblance like we are functioning. If it was not there Nigerians will know that they either have to build their future or they will become Somalia and I’m sure that they will vote for building their future and Nigeria will be a truly prosperous country. The endowments of this country are enormous. The endowments that can make this country truly great even without oil are phenomenal.
What are you bringing to the table in your campaign?
Ideas are the most important thing to bring to an election campaign. Barack Obama is president of United States not because of anything else he brought to the table but because he can think. You know in Nigeria they think the intellect is a disadvantage. They call it theory, but there is no practice without theory. You have to think out, see the possibility before you can put it to practice.
Nigerian politicians who are very anti-intellectual have managed to convince Nigerians, including journalists, that thinking is theory. So we have a serious problem. The problem we have is the collapse of culture. The value system has crashed completely and Nigerians cannot even tell right from wrong, what makes for progress or what distracts from. It is not that there are no roads.
So it boils down to poverty of the mind
Poverty of the mind, ultimately. In fact, I will show you the message from a priest who read the piece I had in The Guardian. He was very frustrated. He said: “Prof, your message is good but my fear is that you are talking to a people whose minds are closed. Most of our leaders are sick and their sickness is chronic poverty of the mind.
They simply cannot understand the things you say because they are blind and you are thinking normally in a country where people are so accustomed to thinking upside down. Can you imagine the hero’s welcome given to Bode George? Can’t you see the level of mental poverty and decay? Anyway don’t be discouraged because there are still some sane minds who know and appreciate the truth. Regards. Monsignor.”
What is your assessment of INEC?
To be fair, we really don’t have any empirical basis for evaluation. The only thing I know that I can evaluate is the voters’ registration exercise. It had its flaws and aany things were corrected. Overall, it left you afraid and worried about a few things. But I think the taste of the pudding is in the eating. So we may have to wait until after the elections to be able to evaluate them fairly.
What will be your priority in the first six months if you are elected President?
Job creation. But you know the beauty of job creation is that you will be solving several problems at once. When you create jobs, they won’t be doing those jobs entertaining themselves. The jobs will be solving other problems. The primary way to create jobs quickly is infrastructure development. Anybody who is a serious observer will notice that our infrastructure continue to decay in an extraordinary manner. The contracting process is so fundamentality corrupted in this country. But massive effort at infrastructure development will immediately create several million jobs.
First of all, you have take people off the streets.
As I said before, the corruption in the contracting system has made it difficult. One simple way you can solve this problem is to take it away from the contracting system. For instance, iif you want to do Lokoja/Abuja dualisation, you don’t go to the Ministry of Works to award contracts to whoever. There are people who have their own money around the world who are willing to come and build a road and collect toll. But those people will not come to Nigeria. Most of the roads in Malaysia, Indonesia are all built that way. But they won’t come to Nigeria because there is so much uncertainty here.
They don’t know if the next election takes place the man nominated by this governor will not say I cancel that road arrangement because Nigerian elite have grown up feeding on corrupt extraction of rent. So they keep cancelling contracts and re-awarding. No serious business around the world will take that risk for something you collect your toll over 25 or 50 years. So they won’t come.
How do you change that? When we still had 60 something billion dollars in our reserves, I was on a flight with Chukwuma Soludo, then governor of Central Bank, and I said to him, now that you people have all this cash, instead of just keeping the thing there why don’t you take $20billion and put it in whatever bank in Europe as collateral security?
You can then invite private infrastructure companies from Australia (because Australia remarkably are the leaders in that area) to come and do a coastal highway from Lagos all the way across the Atlantic coast. People can build hotels and there will be tourism explosion. You just collect your toll. If we misbehave at any point in time between now and 50 years during which you have toll you can go to international arbitration. If we are found guilty, they can share the money in the bank and pay back.
Just the demonstration effect will lead to a flood of people even whether the collateral is there or not anymore because it has already given the confidence to open things up. We will put millions of Nigerians to work building those roads and railways and all of that opening our country for more progress.
I thought you were going to mention power
Infrastructure is also power. I started with roads because that is what I talked about earlier. Do you know how much we have spent on power and still it is not working. Same logic for power as for roads; just the same thing. Power should be decentralized. You come and build your ten megawatts plant and be collecting your tariff or whatever people pay for electricity.
How about security?
Security is very critical, very important. I mean if people are not secured they cannot do anything. Again, I will decentralize policing in Nigeria. I will go for a fiscal arrangement where the federal government will provide grants to the states and the funding of the police force will be a state matter. We need a state police force not a federal one. Policing is about being in the community, knowing the thieves. If you are in Abuja and you are sending people to Akwa Ibom to protect them, they will collude with the kidnappers. When a man from Ikot Abasi is policing Ikot Abasi, he knows that it is his personal business and at first point he knows the families that steal.
So the police need to be adequately funded and decentralized. They will say politicians used the local police to harass their enemies in the 60s. That is a naïve argument. Don’t we use federal police to harass our enemies if we are the government in the centre? The way to deal with that is that whenever any issue involves fundamental human rights it immediately becomes a federal issue as it is in America.
So decentralize policing, invest heavily in creating a new police force, re-educate the policemen and make policing a prestige institution. Right now policing is seen as some thing for any drop out to go into. I have no problem making a university degree the minimum requirement to be a policeman because you need them to be enlightened to understand what they are doing. If all that you do with your budget as government is education, healthcare and security the country will make progress.
How would you tackle the waste in the system, for instance, by trimming the size of government in Nigeria?
Well I used to say that one of the first things I will do in the first six months is to slash government massively.
By how many per cent?
It is not a matter of percentage. If I really have my way it will be by 80 per cent. But it is not a matter of sacking people, moving them to other functions where they can do real work. Seven years ago, DFID (Department For International Development) invited me to make a presentation at their London office. They were really fascinated by some of the ideas that I expressed on over-bloated public service. I said it is true that we have an over-bloated civil service.
People are in Abuja doing nothing. For instance, the Ministry of Finance is full of people who don’t understand the first thing about finance. If I got rid of 80 per cent of the people in the ministry today, bring in a few serious professionals who understand finance to run the ministry at 20 per cent of the current work force, I don’t need to sack anybody actually. I will look at the profile of all of these people that we don’t need in the ministry and probably spend a little more money retraining them.
Can you imagine what would happen in many local governments if people like that were injected into the local government administration because local governments don’t have capacity? What they are doing is just share the money and it is not just because they are greedy. It is because if you even gave them a target they won’t be able to do it with the money because they don’t know how to do it; they don’t have capacity.
These roads we are talking about, that none has been completed in 12 years since 1999, is an indictment on the public service because every year they award contracts for roads and not one has been completed.
The only road that can be completed is the Abuja airport unnecessary road. Why are you spending billions to build a road that was okay? What the hell in the rush building a ten-lane highway to the airport? It was Dr Kolade who said this to me; he said it is presidential route. So what decides what Nigeria is doing is the route the president travels on when there are serious commercial arteries in this country that are unmotorable.
Where are our foreign reserves that were built up to such a huge level? It’s gone. Where is the excess crude account? It’s gone. What was it used to produce? There is no single road that is motorable in Nigeria. There is no viable institution that is working even the judiciary has become a disgrace. Where in the world do you find judges of that level exchanging words? Nothing is sacred anymore in Nigeria and you don’t think your country is dying? Celebrating prisoners, judges abusing each other, people taking money from the treasury to run their campaigns and all of that, no accountability, impunity. The country is impunity extraordinaire.
One day young people who have been out of work for ten years will revolt. These characters are saying it is not possible in Nigeria, Tunisia started because one guy out of work was so angry he set himself on fire. I can show five hundred thousand guys who have not been at work for seven years after graduation. You think that one day they won’t get together and start burning everything. The short sightedness of these fellows just beat me.
People who said revolution is impossible in Nigeria site the example that in Nigeria we are so polarized along ethnic lines, religious divides and there’s the influence of money that the people at the top use in dividing us …
How many of the millions of unemployed Nigerians get some of the money they share? How many can you share to? How much does Nigeria earn from crude oil? Countries don’t get rich from selling one commodity like oil, countries get rich from producing things. So how much is that crude if you begin to share it? And if there are 3-4million unemployed graduates, how much will you share to them to prevent 1 million of them coming together to bring the whole system down?
It’s just short sightedness.
This thing you have said Prof we will publish you verbatim when you said we have to crash this democracy
It’s not a democracy. It’s not working. It is not a democracy
Some over zealous security agents might interpret this to mean you are canvassing alternative form of change
So, they have to catch me doing something that is unconstitutional. They have a right to think, it’s a God-given right.
Okay let’s spell it out, how do you want us to crash this democracy and start to rebuild?
We have to sit before the Nigerian people and discuss where we are which is that we are nowhere. If so many millions of Nigerians are unemployed there is no constructive plan, don’t tell me I will vote 50billion for employment to get Nigeria working, the engine has knocked but we are pretending. You know when a person is in the hospital on life support system they think he is alive because there is life support.
In Nigeria there is a life support system called crude oil earning. The country has crashed. It’s all about how to share that life support and what eventually happens is that one day the doctor will pull the life support and death will officially be recognized but you were living dead anyway. That is what Nigeria is right now, a living dead on life support system of crude oil revenue.
Now if people are not able sit down and say politicians are not serving Nigeria, all of us politicians are not serving the Nigerian people, then what should they say? What is a democracy? And you don’t say it by taking up NTA airtime in song and dance. You say it by standing before the Nigerian people in town hall meetings one-on-one but they definitely won’t want it to happen. You think Nigerians will wait forever? If we don’t organize to have a true democracy, one day the youth will take it over.
Do you see that happening very soon?
I don’t know when it will happen but I am just talking as a scholar who has studied societies. I wrote a piece that was in the papers this weekend, the poverty conspiracy. All I am just trying to do is show you historically what has happened in other parts of the world. Argentina was at par with the United States in the 1930s by the 1990s Argentina was down to West African level GDP. It had moved from first world to the third. The US had gone on to become the world’s preeminent economy.
You don’t have to read Gerald Diamond to know that collapse has come to Nigeria. Unless there is a massive rethink Nigeria’s life support system is designed to last only for a short period, and what you’ll get is Somalia.
Nigeria is on the road to Somalia. Look at what is happening with Boko Haram, in Jos, the Niger Delta? We are using some money to sustain the so-called amnesty, how long can we continue that? Those same boys will resume. The governor of Niger was shouting the other day that Boko Haram people were coming to his state. All over the place warlords will be in charge just because the elite has not shown responsibility in the way it has governed the country.
A US report predicted a few years back that by 2015 Nigeria will be a failed state. Do you now see that happening?
It is not in my interest for that to happen. What I thought that prediction should have done is cause us as an elite to rally around and say our country must not go that way instead we just continued doing the same very things that will bring us to that point. Look there is an index a failed state index. The difference between Nigeria and Ghana is more than a hundred countries; Ghana is as far away from being a failed state as Nigeria is as close to being a failed state.
So don’t come four years from now and say ah they said in 2015 Nigeria will collapse. For many Nigeria is already a failed state.
Most South Easterners are so passionate about the homestead that they go home every month. They have their mass return in Easter, and everybody goes home for Christmas. I was at a meeting in Abuja of leading politicians from the South East; some of them had not been to their hometowns in three years because of insecurity primarily. What do you call a state that people are so in secure? A failed state.
So Nigeria is in serious trouble. I don’t want to get into the American prediction and all of that because people forget that that process is not that a group of Americans woke up one morning and said this state will be a failed state, you know how they produce those reports?
It’s global trend survey. It’s not about Nigeria. Every five years, and that is how serious countries work, they pull together the world’s smartest people to look at how the world is evolving; the trends, the possibilities, what will happen and when these people finish they take the data from their study, the US intelligence community then produces a report. And then they find some of the smartest people in the world to review that report and publish what they call global trend for the next five years. I have had the good fortune of being invited. I was the only one from sub-Saharan Africa invited that room included former European prime ministers. We spent one week together reviewing the latest global trend survey.
Nigeria in the eyes of the world has lost its relevance because it has had bad leaders, nothing else. But I cannot just roll over and die. Let history record that some Nigerians stood up and said our country cannot go on like this.
Prof when you look at the political field and you see all this retired generals, people with deep pockets and who have almost become veterans contesting for the presidency, are you intimidated?
Intimidated by their deep pockets?
Deep pockets have nothing to do with running a country.
Because you need loads of money
If I want to do it their way then I shouldn’t be informed in this business. My being in this business is an indictment of their way so if I do it their way what’s the point? I can as well go and become one of them. I have to do it differently.
Granted the way the Nigerian system works, your chances of becoming president or being sworn in on May 29, I’m sorry I’m not trying to discourage you
No, go ahead
You know your chances are so remote but by May 29 what would you have achieved by joining this race?
Let May 29 come first. Let it come.
I’m talking about you refocusing that you have spent all your energy, resources over the years, how do you intensify your efforts?
You know the thing that makes me feel my life has been worth living are not this huge things, they are the small things like waking up, being in airport which has happened to me a week before last in Washington DC and a young man running from somewhere, running up to me and I look at him, he turns out to be a Nigerian and he says are you Professor Pat Utomi? And I say yes. He says my life is what it is because of you.
You know you just look at yourself and say who am I? for me the amazing thing is that it happens with such frequency this days that I say God you must have a good sense of humor. What are you trying to communicate to me? I flew from Washington to Atlanta and as I was checking a fully kitted US Marine walks up and I was saying what have I done now that an American soldier wants to arrest me you know and he says excuse me sir are you Pat Utomi? And I said yes I am. I said see these Americans, now they have sent CIA to catch me.
He said I was actually sending you something on Facebook yesterday night.
I said you are sending me something on Facebook, which one concern me and you? Then he introduces himself. They were just arriving from Iraq. He is a US army doctor but he is Nigerian-born. So I talked with him a few minutes and he was very excited. He is in touch with me on Facebook and he goes on saying some extraordinarily kind things about without people like me, our country is dead and blah blah. I said thank you.
I get into the airplane. Coincidentally he is sitting right next to me. That one-hour plus flight to Atlanta we did talk. Then he said his family must meet me. So I went up with him; he was taking photographs. Look people were seeing him and as they were coming, you know the way Americans regard their soldiers. They were giving him flowers, all kinds but he was chaperoning me to go and take photograph with his wife. So when I go through moments like that, I say its been worth it. He is from Benin but he is a US Army doctor.
So looking back at the whole of your life now 55 years of your life do you have any regrets at all? Would you do what you have been doing all over again if you had the opportunity to?
You know that question whenever I am asked my response is not the typical one. Most people when they ask that question will say definitely if I live my life ten times I will do it all over again. I am not that em em what is the right word to use.
If I had to do it all over I probably will.