Professor of Political Economy and Founder, Centre for Values in Leadership, Pat Utomi, discusses the state of the nation in this interview with GODFREY GEORGE
What are your thoughts about the worsening security situation in the country today?
Well, the insecurity situation is very unfortunate, and it is a shame. In some way, it does not come as a surprise to me. Anybody who studies the history of societies will be able to forecast certain things. For me, the signal, pointing to where we are today, started quite some time ago. If you do a content analysis of my writings over the last 25 years, you will find very frequent references to phrases like ‘The Road to Somalia’ and ‘The Coming Anarchy.’ This is because there are a number of trends that you watch and you see where they will lead to.
‘The Coming Anarchy’ is from a book written by an American, Robert Kaplan, about 21 years ago, in which he looked at trends in West Africa and where we would be going. He identified what he termed ‘cleavages’ on the ethnic, economic and religious spheres and how these will converge in a way that will result in, potentially, a descent into anarchy in different countries in the developing countries. He specifically focused on West Africa and mentioned to Jos, Nigeria as a potential epicentre for that disintegration. Well, after I listened to Kaplan being interviewed on CNN, I was thrilled; so, I quickly ordered copies of the book and distributed it to the ruling elites at the time. Just before then, The Congo had been in a meltdown.
A CNN correspondent had done a series down the Congo River, at what was happening in the country and how those led to a state of anarchy. I looked at the way Nigeria was being governed and it was clear to me that if we do not govern more responsibly, we will arrive at where Kaplan was predicting that West Africa would go. Part of my personal reactions was to found the civil society group, Nigerians United to Resist Anarchy. Our objective was to send information to people within public authorities to look at these trends and to act in ways that can create better employment opportunities for people so that we won’t have an army of unemployed young people who will be easy recruits for nihilists and people who have a society-hidden agenda. I suggested things like religious tolerance. After a while, I got a little tired of singing these things, because it was clear that we had a political class that was driven by self-love and could not quite understand the consequences of not developing society.
There have been perennial calls by some Nigerians for devolution of powers, while the call for self-determination by the Indigenous People of Biafra and the proponents of Oduduwa/Yoruba nation have grown more strident lately. What do you think the way forward is?
Well, I think that people are venting (their frustrations). They are frustrated with the failure of the Nigerian state and so they want to go with anything – secession, devolution – to express that frustration. (They are saying) if it (Nigeria) is not working, can we find something else that works? The truth of the matter is that we have a failure in the social contract and it is a big problem.
Now, man’s first duty is to appreciate and protect the ultimate gift given him by God, which is the gift of life. To make sure that happens well, man gets together with other men, surrenders some of his duties to the protection of that gift of life to the state, and the state, in exchange for taking over some of that right, assures man of the protection of his life and property. When the state fails, either woefully or shows incompetence to protect that right, man reserves the right to resist that social contract and take back to himself the primary duty, which is to protect that right, which God has given him. This has been expressed in different ways in the Nigerian situation.
If this bigger unit is not effective in the protection of that right, people opt for a smaller unit, or they say, ‘Let me have a limited forfeiture to the Nigerian state of my right to life,’ and this is why there are calls for devolution. So, what we need to do is have an honest conversation about what can make things work. But we are not having that honest conversation. People who have supposedly higher advantage often want to overstretch it, and everybody turns out to be a loser in the end.
Do you think that Nigeria and Nigerians have learnt lessons from the civil war?
Let’s put a few things in perspective. Nigeria has been in denial about the civil war and this has made it difficult for the next generation to actually learn from it. This is one of the grave dangers of how Nigerians have managed the civil war story. For a long time, Nigeria has not taught history in schools, which is not proper. There are those who speculate that part of the reasons for this is to pretend that the civil war did not happen, literally speaking. So, many people have not learnt any significant lesson from the war, and this is one fundamental problem. I have run into many Nigerians above 20 years, who don’t even know Nigeria fought a civil war. Beyond that fundamental problem, the naked truth of the effects of the civil war is that, if you don’t manage its memories well, the war itself can be the very basis and stimulation for the next war. When World War I ended, the victorious powers extorted from Germany a treaty of surrender that most smart people knew would lead to another war. This was because Germany felt so devalued by that document that it was sure to stimulate, in the next generation of Germans, anger, which is what it did. It created an opportunity for a charlatan like Adolf Hitler. People often forget that Hitler was a democratically-elected Chancellor of Germany, but because he was a nationalist supremacist, he rode on the sentiments of the unfairness of the treaty to raise a war-hungry generation of Germans, which led to World War II, which did great damage to humanity.
So, first of all, Gen. Yakubu Gowon must be commended for his official disposition till the end of the Nigerian civil war – the “No Victor, No Vanquished” philosophy. Nigerians should think of the civil war as a small error that is being mended. (The late) Dr Alex Ekwueme, who became the Vice-President of Nigeria, barely nine months after the civil war, was even a great signal that could have put the ghost of the civil war to an end if, as projected, he had become the president of Nigeria in 1987. But certain forces in the military did not seem to want that to happen, and in the opinion of many people, the coup of 1983 was actually designed to abort the possibility of Ekwueme becoming president in 1987. That feeling was not helped by the fact that, again, certain elements in the military, deliberately, frustrated what was, more or less, an agreement in the old political order that he (Ekwueme) would become president in 1999. So, in that sense, we can raise questions about lessons learnt from the civil war.
Generally speaking, the fact of lessons learnt or not learnt does not stop the fact that if we have fought a war, that is not the end of all wars. As we see in the case of Germany, how World War I ended was the very reason for World War II. So, if we come out of a war and people feel that the terms of surrender have been too harshly visited on them, you always have the risk that their children will want to avenge the injustice.
The Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, said recently that Nigeria cannot afford another civil war. Do you agree with him?
No country affords a war. The damage from war is always so terrible that nobody can afford it. I read a few statements as a result of public opinion about how we, as a country, can’t afford another war, but the naked truth is that we are already at war. Nigeria is in a civil war. More people are killed in Nigeria everyday than died in Iraq in a week during the heights of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, let us not deceive ourselves – Nigeria is in a war. Unfortunately, the victims of that war, preponderantly, are the powerless, so we don’t count its toll well enough. But, technically, Nigeria is in a rolling civil war, country wide.
When I was a young person, I grew up inside of Biafra, when the civil war began. One year later, I was in Nigeria, still growing up, I was living in Lagos, going to school in Ibadan; we did not even know there was a war going on a few kilometres from where we were. All we saw were clips on TV while the normal war propaganda was going on with ‘One Nigeria! Gowon, go on with one Nigeria!’ We were dancing away with James Brown’s music in Lagos. But this particular war we are in now, everyone in Nigeria is at war and it is everywhere. It is just like when the Boko Haram insurgents started, people down South were saying, “There is one funny thing going on in the North-East; who are those ones killing each other?” but now, people are being killed everywhere. So, this is the first real civil war in Nigeria.
What do you make of the calls by some Nigerians that the Minister of communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, and the President, Major General Muhammdu Buhari (retd.), should resign?
Democracy is about having a barometer that measures the feelings of the people. Not long ago, a group of academics in the US and some African partners set up the Afro-Barometer Base, which was designed to survey people all over Africa, regarding democracy. Consistently, the Afro-Barometer studies showed that Nigerians have become more and more disenchanted with their democracy. There was a high desire for democracy in 1998 and 1999 and a very low acceptance of what we have today as democracy. Now, these lead up always to a trust deficit. When there is a huge trust deficit, the politics of power erosion tends to flow from it and the government will gradually lose legitimacy until it becomes illegitimate, even though they pretend that they won an election. So, in a sense, democracy needs to be renewed every day.
This is why, in advanced democracy, politicians tend to read opinion polls. Leaders should provide leadership; democracy needs to be sensitive to the people. The unfortunate situation with the current reality is that the political class, especially the executive, is totally insensitive to the Nigerian people, almost offensively intolerant of what Nigerians think. In fact, if you wanted Pantami to go, the thing to tell the government is “Pantami should stay” and they will do the exact opposite, because they have total disregard for the Nigerian people.
So, I have no judgment, personally, as to whether or not Pantami should go. The thing is the whole democratic order has failed us. What Nigeria needs is to restore a sense of belief in democracy by doing something really dramatic. Right now, the legitimacy of this regime is gone. I believe that one of the ways we can move forward is to, immediately, put together a government of national unity, to see if we can bring some legitimacy back to government.
I have followed the funny exchanges between those who say that some people are planning a coup by having a conference; it is silly in the extreme, because people who are in power are the ones who have ordered a coup against the Nigerian people by giving us a government we are not sure exists. They are then accusing citizens, who want to get together. One of the constitutional reforms that I will be insisting on is that, from now going forward, after the current experience and the Umaru Yar’Adua’s, there must be four medical reports every quarter on the health of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. One will come from the president’s own doctor; the second will come from the doctor appointed by the Senate, the third from the doctor chosen by the House of Representatives and the fourth from the doctor chosen by the civil societies. Every quarter, they must publish, to Nigerian people, the state of health of whoever is president of the republic.
Some people berated INEC for releasing the timetable for the 2023 general elections amidst the current security and economic challenges in the country. What is your take on this?
First of all, a country does not die, because it has a bad patch. People have to sit and talk these things over. If they choose, therefore, their differences are irreconcilable, then, it is very simple. How nation states are formed and continued to exist have evolved. Back in the 15th century, there were a lot of wars in Europe by feudal lords. In 1618, the German emperor, who called himself ‘The Holy Roman Emperor,’ sent his emissaries to Prague in Czech and they were thrown out of the window. A war resulted sometime that went on for 30 years. They called it a religious war, but that was an excuse. It was a balance of power struggle in Europe. By 1648, the princes of Europe and their diplomats met in Germany and signed an accord, which is today known in history as ‘The Peace West Thalia.’’
This became the basis for the creation of a modern state. The world has run on those principles for a couple of centuries. By the time we get into the 20th century, the Armenian genocide, in World War I, and the Jewish holocaust in World War II began to push the disposition of the world towards a focus on the fundamental human rights. As a result, the new doctrine that emerged is one of self-determination. So, if a group of people feel that their lives are fundamentally disadvantaged in a setting, they can have a referendum and decide whether or not they want to continue in that union; it doesn’t always have to be war. So, Nigerians may ask themselves: “Is it in our interest to live together?” In my view, a large customs union is good for everybody to thrive in, but if the danger to your life exceeds the benefit from the union, it is possible to then say “I prefer the benefit of this union, but I’d rather be alive to enjoy it, and if I can’t do that, please, let me go on my own.” But let there be no illusion that if we split Nigeria into smaller constituent units that there won’t begin to be new problems within the constituent units. The man from Arochukwu will now realise that the other man from Owerri is different from him. So, people need to think of a Modus Vivendi that can give that security and dignity that everyone desires in addition to the opportunity to live in a bigger customs union.
At this moment, I think Nigeria’s top priority is not the general elections. The constitution is flawed. The electoral process is a joke. ‘State capture’ has made every election in Nigeria since 1999 a fraud. Anybody who wants to put me to the test can try me; I can prove that nobody has been duly elected in Nigeria, especially at the top level. It has always been a fraud. Before the elections, we need to deal with the editorial process as well as constitutional reforms. When we’ve settled those, then, we can move forward.
What is your take on the clamour for ‘Igbo Presidency’ by Nigerians from the South-East?
What is most important, first and foremost, is that we have a competent president or prime minister or whatever the outcome of the constitutional reform will give us. This person must be one who cares for the dignity of any human being, irrespective of their tribes. It is also important to have representative bureaucracies, so everybody should feel ownership, being part of the polity. It makes general political sense to move around to every region. So, if we find somebody who is Igbo and is acceptable to all Nigerian and is elected, perhaps, (s)he will serve Nigeria better, than somebody just as suitable who is from, say Sokoto. The first thing, therefore, is for us, as a people, to find a competent person, acceptable to all Nigerians, who can govern Nigeria well, but, at least, has the additional credential of being Igbo-speaking, so the Igbo can have a sense of belonging.
Some political experts have described religion as one of Nigeria’s greatest problems. Do you agree with this assertion?
Religion is a personal and private thing. I like to think of myself as a person of faith, but I should keep it to myself and deal with it privately, worshipping my God privately, seeing anyone who doesn’t share my ideals and embracing them for their humanity. Both Christianity and Islam speak of man’s humanity, anyway.
What would be your take on the way the presidency handles constructive criticism from her citizens in the light of the current exchange in our social space?
I think that the problem for me is the nature of the kind of public conversations we have in Nigeria. If it is a rational public conversation on issues, there should be no problem. We get into these pedantic trading of insults and call that a public conversation. If you say, for instance, minimum wage should be paid at this level, and someone comes to say no, then you give advance rational logic on why it makes sense to do so. Let it be a marketplace of ideas. All the ideas we mesh there will make people come to a conclusion, which makes more sense. But, because they like to reduce conversations to insults, they say things like, “You are angry because we did not appoint you to the position or give you that contract!’ That’s childish. That’s not the conversation. Let’s face issues, not what you did or did not do for me. I will also blame the media for the way they shape the narratives. If a government’s spokesman writes nonsense, abusing somebody, that has nothing to do with the issue, trash the nonsense. If an opponent of the government says the minister’s mother did one thing in the marketplace, trash the nonsense. Face the issues that affect public interest. What are your logical ideas of how things should be done differently?
How would you grade this regime in the last four years?
I stopped grading governments. Those things are emotive. I do evidence-based conversations. Is your life better today than it was four years ago? Are you safer today? Can you travel to your village with both eyes closed?
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