Our current challenges predate Buhari administration – Utomi

Political economist and All Progressives Congress (APC) member, Prof. Pat Utomi, says Nigeria’s electoral process is fatally flawed and can at best only produce ‘criminals’ as leaders. Utomi, who was featured on AIT’s live interview, monitored by PATRICK ANDREW on Tuesday, also thinks the country is fast sliding into anarchy. Excerpts….

What would be your initial assessment of the state of the nation at the moment?

I think the country is in a state that challenges all of us to be statesmen. Honestly, we can see that these challenges are on many fronts, but I would like to come from the perspective that these challenges are not insurmountable; they are parts of the pains of nation-building. But we should not take them for granted as we so often tend to do. I will prefer to start with security though people would prefer to say insecurity in the country. We should be worried because it is one of the first major signals of the descent into state failure. By its very definition, the state exercises authoritative monopoly over the means of violence and when all kinds of non-state actors can exercise those same powers then the legitimacy of the state should be questioned.

But it is manageable; it is something we now should focus properly on. When you get to the kind of situation that we have got to many countries technically recognise that they are in a state of war and that there are conditions of war time that they need to be put in place in terms of how they bring people together to try and solve problems. If we look at how General Gowon dealt with the outbreak of the civil war by putting together all the grand players of the political sphere and organising people even from the part of the country that had broken away – Biafran part- even found arch-enemies like Ukpabi Asika, he was a member of the Supreme Military, and so together everybody reasoned on how to solve the problem. We are in a moral equivalent of war and we need to approach things from that perspective.

How can the current crop of security operatives address the disturbing security problems in the country?

The starting point for me is not to make the security situation a public relations stuff. Prior to the civil war in Sierra Leone, the joke was that everybody was partying in Freetown. Christmas was like four – five days of celebration though there were some funny things happening around the border areas everybody was no, no, no, no and before they could close their eyes and wake up Freetown was that way. And talking about next door – Liberia – a former classmate of mine was the Liberian Ambassador to Nigeria during the civil war there around 1989 -90, and l recall he was always saying to me ‘we Liberians are so grateful to you Nigerians for spending so much of Nigeria’s money to try and save us from ourselves, how you are pouring Nigerian blood like water in the gutters of Liberia to save us from ourselves, but we can’t understand and I sit here in Lagos (the embassy was in Victoria Island) watching you all do exactly the same thing that brought us into that sorry path.’

You got to ask yourself, therefore, what are the sources of the potential blow-out and how do you engage those sources? That is where you need to bring leaders of thought together to sit down on one hand while working, you bring security experts to look at how to deal with the immediate security challenges, but be assured that sending soldiers in does not solve anything permanently, it gives you enough respite to be able to negotiate the underlying problems because when there are injustices you can’t escape it. There will be consequences and what we are dealing with is the consequence of a lot of injustices in Nigeria. That injustice can be economic and there is plenty of it in Nigeria; that injustice can be political and there is plenty of it in Nigeria and it can be social etc.

So, how do you begin to deal with the real problem and just the symptom if we tend to focus on sending soldiers in you can never definitively solve the problem, the best they can do is getting the worst culprit out of the way while the politicians kind of sort things out.

On paper, President Muhammadu Buhari has the credentials to deal with the security situation in the country when he came in 2015; what do you think has gone wrong?

I can speculate from here to eternity, but it would just be speculation. We just have to accept the hard fact, which is that the challenges we have in Nigeria date back a long, long time before, but we just didn’t pay the right attention. It kept festering and festering and when he got there in 2015 in my view there was a fundamental mistake of too much reliance on a clique and that clique’s greater vision was not the cleverest vision for Nigeria. And so it just got worse and I can say here that the lack of vision – decency will not allow me to mention names – that a former military governor of one of the northern states called me within four months of the president’s inauguration before he even had a cabinet in place and said to me these are the terrible signals that I am seeing; these are the consequences I fear and those things he said are the things that are happening now.

Who are the leaders that you think will fill Nigeria’s leadership vacuum, where are they from and how can they attain political relevance to be able to fix Nigeria’s problems?

We often look at political leadership at the top. Leadership is everywhere: in the family, schools, churches and mosques. Nigeria is suffering from the collapse of culture; there is the collapse of values across the country. So, the starting point for any conversation around leadership is an articulation of what the values of those people are; a setting of the basic minimum acceptable standard. You cannot be our local government councilor if you don’t have these kinds of track records and value; if you can’t tell us clearly the things that you would do and the measurable ways that we will hold you accountable; if you can’t do these sorry you cannot be local government chairman all the way from there to the president.

Often, we allow cheap sentiment to sway us and we descend into tribalism – I am not talking about ethnicity, but I have this relationship with this person, kinship or religion or whatever it is. That is not how societies fix their problems. Again, if I get repetitive in talking about how the Greeks saw society at the base of the society are people who think just about themselves – me, inside my house, myself and l – those people are called idiots, and those who see slightly above self but only the people who have some kinship relationship with them, i.e. blood tie, but everybody outside of that is an antagonist – those are called tribesmen, and the real people who see a common humanity and therefore the accord the greater social goals to society are called citizens.

Unfortunately, for our country, we have reduced our political class to tribesmen and idiots. So, we have a real problem, we have to grow citizens. It is when we grow citizens that among them we can select leaders. That is the challenges of Nigeria. This problem has been going up for a while, so we are going to rebuild. Nigeria was not like this 50, 60 years ago, look at people who offered political leadership in the 60s and just take their basic values. My favourite example is that there is a place called Government House in Enugu and the man who used to govern from there Dr. Mike Okpalla had the authority to allocate land – Independence Layout, GRAs – yet the man did not give himself one plot of land. Several years later the former Premier returned and didn’t even have a house to live in, so people had to get together to find how to build him a house.

Fast forward 40 years, the new people who occupied that position took over the whole state and gave half of the land in the state to themselves. This is the damage that has happened to Nigeria in the last 40 years. We can’t fix it by calling a few names; we are going to begin a fresh with civic classes for kids in primary school to say to them this is what is important in life. We want to return Nigeria to the era of Dr. Okpalas, who was in competition with Western Nigeria, Northern Nigeria and presided over an economy that was even outside Nigeria reckoned to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. How do you reckon that this man did not even build a house for himself? But it was just in the Eastern Nigeria alone. I can tell you that in Northern Nigeria the Premier, the Sardauna, was trying to get a mortgage to buy a house in Kaduna and he couldn’t. Also, Gen Hassan Katsina – the military governor of Northern Region -put his name forward to get housing allocation, but the chairman of the commission told him ‘I am sorry it’s not appropriate for you as the man who signs the paper to apply’ and he apologised. Has that Nigeria died? Why is it not possible to rebuild that Nigeria? This is the question we should be asking ourselves.

Am I correct to say you are part of the National Consultative Front which says that it is a new credible alternative, how is that the case?

It is an effort to put first and foremost these values that we are discussing and then determine the kind of people that are acceptable. A variety of people have into come this process from different strength, perspectives to this conversation, what is important and fundamental is that it is an effort to define values that should allow people to give service to society. If through acceptance of those values, we can create a huge movement of Nigerians for me that is what is most important. Movement of Nigerians for a better society, a better governed society, and then these people if they choose to go to one political party or other political parties can in a structured way offer a better alternative to the country. But what is most important is to see that public life is not for brigandage but for the sacrificial giving of self for the advance of the common good of all. If we can get the majority of Nigerians who currently don’t belong to any political party and don’t even think it is their business to realise that they should be citizens and may be if they come into the NCF movement then we have a pipeline.

Are you saying that it is not the ultimate goal of this movement to evolve into a political party?

No, I have not said that because different people have different perspectives of what is more important than the other. For me to have just another political party to behave like the ones that have behaved badly so far is a meaningless proposition. So, let us determine what is real change and then if that real change results in a political party so be it and two parties even nicer, but let us have parties that think, care about the people.

In this new movement, what is the role of young people?

They are central. You would probably get some people from yesterday to provide guidance and experience, but those at the core of it are the young people of Nigeria. Most of my adult life I have spent on this conviction that the duty of every generation is to make available the shoulder for the next generation to stand on. I am pretty sure to set up the leadership precisely to help young people get socialised into the right values to be effective leaders in whatever aspect of life they choose whether it is entrepreneurship, public life etc.

The beauty of the NCF is that we have given to a crop of young people a core role to develop a strategy going forward and they are working significantly. In fact, they turned in a report last week that is fascinating and we are going to have to move them to the fore to run things. It’s best to get work done than to talk.

One of the things that amaze me from their report is that INEC needs to make an electronic list of registered voters available. Why is our election so fraudulent? People collaborate even with INEC staff in some states of the federation to ensure that names of non-indigenes are played with in the INEC register before elections so that they are disenfranchised. It is done such that the non-indigenes are confused because they are pushed around to different polling units and at the end they can’t find their names in the voter register and are disenfranchised so that their votes don’t count. These young people identified this from the work that they were doing and they want to find a way to tackle this.

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