Nigeria living below its potentials because of lack of leaders in power – Pat Utomi

Access Bank
Patrick Okedinachi Utomi, popularly known as Pat Utomi, is a man of ideas. A professor of Political Economy and a management expert; Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of Nigeria; politician and a former presidential candidate; founder of Centre for Value in Leadership (CVL); founding member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Utomi is passionate about Nigeria.
But he, like many other well-meaning Nigerians, feels disappointed the way the country has turned out.
In this exclusive interview with Ikechukwu Amaechi and Eugene Onyechi, of The Niche newspaper, Utomi, who insists that Nigeria is not a democracy because elections have not done the job of determining what the will of the people is, gives the two main political parties – APC and PDP – a very hard knock even as he says: “I don’t know how Buhari governs Nigeria.”
Nigeria celebrated her 61st independence anniversary on October 1. Would you say the country has met your expectations?
I guess that is a rhetorical question but I am almost confident there is no Nigerian you ask that question who will answer in the affirmative. But the degree obviously will differ in terms of how or how not it has met their expectations.
To be fair, I have been one of those very passionate about the Nigerian project all of my adult life. Nigeria is the one thing that animates me. And I don’t have apologies for being passionate about Nigeria. I was born into it, so to speak.
I was a very young person when Nigeria became independent. I had goose bumps even as a child being involved in Independence Day activities.
As a young student activist, I have been drawn into Nigerian issues because there is the famous issue of my 18th birthday. I didn’t realise it was my birthday until about 8.30 pm because we had been demonstrating around the country. All the universities except University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) had actually been closed at the time because of protests at the anniversary of the Kunle Adepeju killing at the University of Ibadan and of course, at Nsukka, there was certain reluctance because of the civil war and many people had lost years and so many mature students just wanted to graduate, didn’t want to bother with what was going on elsewhere when ABU, Ife, Ibadan had all been shut down because of students’ protests.
So, we founded a group called the Students Democratic Society (SDS). They protested against the students union at UNN at the time. And so, while we were protesting on February 6, 1974, the Vice Chancellor granted us alternative platform, just rally so that the students can come together and discuss the issues.
So, at the Margaret Ekpo Hall where the entire student body had, literally, gathered that night, there is this gentleman, we used to call him Chairman P, who got up to speak and he said, “Today, February 6, 1974, will be remembered as the day when people who were physically demobilised after this civil war were finally mentally demobilised ….”
And February 6 is my birthday. That day was actually my 18th birthday and I was just remembering at 8.30 p.m.
So, that speaks to the nature of the passion through which we have come. And we were very involved students. We wanted to be part of national policy. And my personal contribution as a student leader was forcing a discussion of Nigeria’s foreign policy by challenging the Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Nanven Garba and his responding to my challenge and coming to Nsukka to debate us.
Joe Garba and I in a very dramatic turn engaged on the question of Nigeria’s role in Angola in 1975. He had agreed on a date for the debate but three days before the day the debate was supposed to take place, the Head of State, Murtala Muhammed, was killed in a coup on February 13, 1976. Nobody expected Garba to come, I was despondent, people who said I was just making mouth on campus said now I had excuse.
I didn’t know what to do. I went to Enugu, to Governor Atom Kpera’s office and everybody was just looking at me. All the telephone lines in the country had been cut off and the Garrison Commander in Enugu said to me, “Why don’t you go to the airport. If he has to come, it must be through the airport, it won’t be by road.”
So, I had no choice than to go to the airport. And a Nigerian Police jet just landed and there he was and we started heading to Nsukka. And the whole campus just went totally crazy.
So, that was the kind of commitment we had as young people. When we talk about Nigeria as great, as giant of Africa, we actually believed it and we wanted to see it happen and we worked towards it.
So, it should be understandable that many of us feel disappointed the way Nigeria has turned out.
With the picture you just painted, what do you make of today’s National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS)?
I have actually discussed this subject severally in the past and interesting enough, part of how that conversation has gone in my recent engagement with it is from when young people began to protest and say look at Europe, a 39-year-old had just become President of France, that is Emmanuel Macron at the time, look at the young men popping up in Italy, Austria; the young ladies popping up in the Scandinavia but back home, Nigerian elders have refused to give us a chance.
But for a completely different reason, I went to see General Alani Akinrinade and he raised the issue and said: “You know, young Nigerians are complaining that young people are taking over in Europe,” but he said, “You know, most of those young people taking over in Europe were formed for leadership in the students unions. They started as student leaders. Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, our young people did not have the opportunity of developing those leadership skills as students because we the military and the politicians that followed us destroyed the students’ union movement in Nigeria.” These were General Akinrinade’s words.
And so, the youths have lost the opportunity of the grooming that the students union movement should ordinarily give them. Now the characters who run around, calling themselves student leaders are neither students nor leaders.
General Akinrinnade can be an extraordinary guy when you meet him. He is very profound in his thinking. Sometimes, you just say waoh! And I share in the sentiments he expressed.
It is very sad that after our time, students’ union movement in Nigeria was destroyed by soldiers and politicians and that has denied our country the possibility of grooming leaders who are truly leaders in understanding that leadership is selfless, it involves selfless giving of oneself for the advance of the common good of all. If you are in it because you want to get a Prado Jeep, as many of them seem to be doing these days, you are not a leader.
If you cannot become passionate about your shared humanity, and are driven only by more narrow interests, you are not likely to be able to change the world because young people are in a very good stage of idealism. You know what is said about young people, when you are 18, if you are not a Marxist, something is wrong with your heart. But if you are 40 and still a Marxist, something is wrong with your head.
How did we get it wrong? Some people point at the January 15, 1966 coup, but Nigeria is not the only country to have experienced coup. Others have since moved on. Where did the rain start beating us?
It is not a one-cause thing. Several things happened but that coup was a critical part of the problem, not necessarily the event of the coup but in the military entering the political arena in Nigeria.
How do you mean?
The reason lies in what I will call the dangerous alchemy of soldiers and oil. Why is it a dangerous alchemy? You see, Nigeria was a very carefully crafted federation. In that federal arrangement, there were checks and balances of sorts from the conventions of engagement. When the military intervened, we can argue about the motives of the young officers from here till tomorrow, people playing it any way it is convenient for their own positions, but nobody who really knew those officers will doubt that they were driving some ideal, misguided or not.
The consequence was that the military entered political life and came to the realisation that, it should have been obvious but it wasn’t to the people who were intervening at the time, the nature of military rule with the hierarchy of the army was such that it was a centralising structure.
So, people can accuse Aguiyi Ironsi, for example, of moving from a federal structure to a unitary structure, but when he was shoved aside, it still continued in that direction because it was a very simple logic. The General is at the top, Colonels at the middle and the Privates are at the base and in the hierarchy of the army, a General says jump and a Colonel says, how high sir and so on down the line.
And so, the General at the centre appoints a Colonel a military governor and the Colonel is not going to question what the General asked him to do.
So, why is it a dangerous alchemy of soldiers and oil?
It was about that same time in our nation’s life that oil became a more significant revenue source. So, not only did the General at the top have all the powers to do virtually all he wanted to do and not be questioned by the Colonel who is running the state, there was now revenue coming into the state coffers that the General or the Colonel had no need to recourse to the people to pay taxes because the control the people exert on government comes from the fact that they pay taxes.
In those days in the 1960s, one of the most dramatic scenes everywhere across Nigeria was of tax collectors chasing citizens and they will be running. So, the government stopped bothering people with taxes. And the gift of oil and the hierarchy of the military distorted the way things could flow especially because there was a weak intellectual content later down the line.
Under the first phase of military rule – Gowon, the civil war and all of that – you also had another factor, the brilliant permanent secretaries of that era were significantly products of the London School of Economics – the Philip Asiodus, Allison Ayidas, etc., and the London School of Economics with Professor Harold Laski as the main driver of the ideology of governance that flowed out of LSC, and remembering the history of LSC, which came out of Fabian Socialism, members of the Fabian Society under the LSC founded the Labour Party.
So, with their mindset, there tended to be this dirigiste inclination of state control. Compound this dirigisme with the fact that oil revenue were now aplenty and the government merely driven by the ideologies of these permanent secretaries argued for government occupying the commanding height of the economy – the language of the time.
And so, the General who needed to occupy the commanding height of the economy simply altered the revenue allocation formula and nobody questioned him, he could do anything he wanted. And we went from the regions collecting say revenue like oil and sending 50 per cent to the centre to the Federal Government collecting 100 per cent and sending an increasingly diminishing amount to the sub-nationals and at a point in time, even the oil producing states were getting less than 0.05 per cent of actual revenues from oil because Kalu Idika Kalu, who was Minister of Finance at a point in time, while speaking at one Concerned Professionals event, broke it down and by the time you took out the special funds for Ajaokuta, Aladja, Alscon, Abuja – the so-called Four As – and you share what is left, what actually was getting to oil producing states was less than 0.05 per cent of revenues from crude oil at a point in time.
And there is another consequence that mindset creates. It creates a mindset of obsession with revenues. Everything in Nigeria became about revenues and how to share these revenues. Every quarrel was about who was getting more of these revenues.
Now, what the ideology of the time failed to recognise and this is the biggest bane of Nigeria’s development, is that revenues do not make you rich. What makes you rich is production. And so, the more we battled and shared, and the more revenues we got, the poorer we became.
A typical example is the argument made about who is producing, who is getting more, all the fight over should derivation be 25 per cent, 13 per cent, this or that.
Now, I will give you an illustration. In the 1960s, only two levels of government were involved in fiscal transfers – the national government and the sub-nationals – that is the regions or states as they became later. Local governments were not involved. They were the convenience of whoever wanted to create them. So, for convenience, the governments in the South ended up having about twice as many local governments as governments in the North. It was not a problem. It didn’t affect fiscal distribution. It was just for administrative purposes.
But by 1976, when the Dasuki Commission under the Obasanjo military government, borrowing from the traditions somewhere in Eastern Europe and Brazil, local governments became part of fiscal transfer system and the local governments, the third tier of government, were entitled to about 20.9 per cent of distributable funds – the so-called FAAC account. That is a huge amount of revenues.
And who were the powerful people around? They were the young Colonels in the army and each of them wanted his village to be a local government. And of course, the majority of the powerful young officers were from the North and we ended up with 774 local governments and now nearly 500 of that are in the old north
So, that is a huge revenue shift but the North has become poorer and people are wondering, what is going on? Nobody is remembering that they are getting a lot more revenue. So, why are they getting poorer and poorer? It is because we didn’t think through the logic of wealth. When the North produced in the early 60s, the quality of life was much better than when they started waiting for revenues to be allocated.
They abandoned production and became poorer and you can show it in simple terms in everyday life.
Why is it so? Why will people get poorer even when they are getting more revenue? Isn’t that a paradox?
It is called the lottery effect. Find me any poor person who won a lottery and ten years later, I will show you he is poorer than he was when he won the lottery. There is a current Nigerian case in the UK. I heard the story somewhere.
A Nigerian lady that was living in Peckham London, who won a couple of million pounds in a lottery. And the first thing, her pastor shows up and collects tithe and all the members of her church who had problems showed up also and then she went and bought a house in the St. Johns Wood and moved. But four years later, she sold the house and moved back to Peckham.
And this is not a new thing. If you go and read the economic history of the world, you will see it. Spain is a classic example. At the height of its economic glory, the elite of Spain were spending like drunkards, enjoying the good life that accrued from gold being shipped back to Spain. But the small countries around them, the Netherlands of this world, Switzerland of this world, were busy investing in their youths to be more productive.
A couple of generations down the line, these countries are far wealthier than Spain. So there is no magic. Everything that happens, if you know enough, you will know that this is where we are headed. I could tell you 30 years ago that Nigeria will be where it is today. It is not that I could tell you, I wrote it down. Go and read what I wrote 25 years ago, all this mess in Nigeria, I said it will happen, almost like a prophet, I went close to saying how it will happen, not because I am intelligent. Other people who were smarter than me thought it out and I just basically came to that understanding.
Robert Kaplan wrote the “Coming Anarchy” around the time of return to civil rule in Nigeria and I read it and said, this is what is coming. I bought copies and sent to my friend who was the DG of SSS, General Babangida got a copy, and General Aliyu Gusau got a copy. Everything Kaplan predicted has happened.
I used to host this monthly breakfast meeting at the Lagos Business School and in one of the early ones like about 20 years ago, we had among those in the house a chap called Brown with the IMF Country Office in Nigeria.
And I was making remarks about revenue allocation in Nigeria and I said look at how Botswana has cleverly saved revenues from Diamond exports into a future fund. In my view, what should make sense, because revenues from crude oil are meant for Nigerians of all times. God put it in the ground not for this generation alone but Nigerians forever. If we spend it all now, our children will curse us. Can we take a portion of this revenue, put it in our budget process, probably not more than $25 from each barrel and then everything above the $25, we put in a stabilization fund.
If oil prices were to crash to $8 as it were under Sani Abacha, the difference between that $8 and the standard level we are normally committing to the budget, we will take from the stabilisation fund and ensure that it doesn’t matter that the price of crude oil is now $8, the funding of the budget will still be the same constant $25 a barrel. So everything above $50 goes into the Sovereign Wealth Fund, the so-called future fund.
After I finished, this IMF guy came to me and said, “Why is your country a mess with people like you?”
So, these ideas have been around like forever. There is no rocket science about them. We have expressed them in the past and that is what is haunting us today.
So, why is it that when people who profess these ideas go into government, they do entirely the opposite? Is there anything in government that makes people forget what works?
I don’t think we have had enough of people who know go into government. Let us be fair and frank. We have not. And I will tell you how I raised that issue once.
I was giving a talk at a Lagos Business School programme focusing on higher education in Nigeria and I was talking about the fact that in the early 1960s, there was a commission on higher education in Nigeria set up by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and chaired by a British educator from Oxford called Sir Erick Ashby and Sir Ashby made the point that the quality of higher education in Nigeria that time was as good as the very best in the world. He said it was actually harder to get into University of Ibadan than it was to get into Harvard University in 1961.
One young lady in the class, one of these millennial, could have none of that. She said, “You people have come again. It was always good before in Nigeria. It is now bad. If it was so good, how come those of you who got that education have made such a mess of the country?” She thought she has scored a home run and it seemed like it.
I said to her, you are right actually that that quality of higher education should have made a difference but truly, those who got that education, have they ever run Nigeria? The truth is no. At a point in time, they got so frustrated and most of them left Nigeria. Once in a while, you get one tired one amongst them who has taken enough humiliation from the system and they say, come and be minister of this or that and all the guy is praying is to recoup enough to go into nice retirement. He forgets all his ideas, he doesn’t care. He just wants to survive in the system.
So, a body of thinking people have seldom entered government in the last 30 years and so, what you have had in Nigeria has been state capture – a group of people for whom power is about systematic goal displacement, where public goals are replaced with private goals
Nigeria has not just been able to rise to its potential because it has not had leaders in power. It has had state captors. It has had adventurers of power, entrepreneurs of power.So, truth be told, it is not that there is anything inside government that changes them. No! Many of those who get there would never have made any difference because they stopped wanting to make a difference by the time they entered government. They have groveled enough, distributed their CVs enough not to be able to speak truth to power.
And these guys who have captured Nigeria have been very clever. They have managed effectively to shut out any of the people who could question their thinking.
You worked hard to bring the All Progressives Congress (APC) and General Muhammadu Buhari to power in 2015. With the benefit of hindsight, was that a wise decision? Didn’t you know who Buhari was?
I think it is only God who can search the heart of men with effectiveness. You can guess some things from information available to you. So, first of all, I can never claim to be able to know anybody so well because I know that I am not God. I know many things that I am not and one of them is that I am not God.
Secondly, you know they say politics is the art of the possible. If we are true to ourselves, how many of us were in a position to determine the outcome of what happened in 2015?
I am one of those who argue that Nigeria is not a democracy and unfortunately for us, elections have generally not done the job of determining what the will of the people is. At the time that we are talking about, certain forces – both external and internal – had determined that Buhari would be the next Nigerian leader.
All of us just had to play to some sub-script. My primary role was in arguing that we needed a different kind of political party to take on what was a very corrupt Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I canvassed this in writings, in speeches.
One place where I canvassed it where almost all those who became the new opposition leaders were present, was the Leadership Annual Lecture in Abuja in 2012 and the subject was political parties.
It was a very profound lecture even if I say so myself. There was a very long high table with Bola Tinubu, Bisi Akande, Buhari, all the opposition leaders then, and the person who was sitting closest to the podium was Uncle Sam Amuka, publisher of Vanguard newspaper.
The lecture was based on Roberto Michels’ 1911 book, “Political Parties” – what political parties really are, how they evolved and how they make impact. The whole concept of the iron law of oligarchy. I took on all of that from the theoretical, then came to the practical and the challenge of political parties. As I finished, Uncle Sam looked up at me and said, “Hey men, you are deep.” And I said to him without thinking, did you think I was shallow?
Then Dr. Paul Unongo ran up to me and said, I wish I could lock all these doors here, let these men go nowhere until all of you sort this thing out in the way you have just pronounced it.
Anyway, I guess that became part of the beginning of what became the APC. But you cannot accuse me of anything because I could tell you that hours after the APC victory was announced, I could see signs that the one goal those who captured the party at that point had was to exclude me.
I am not sure what their motives were but it was very clear. So, I just chose to walk away and leave them alone. I was not struggling for anything. I just want a better country. But I knew that Buhari was going to fail on that very beginning note. By the time he constituted his cabinet, the so-called anti-corruption government, those who came in, I don’t have any evidence of anything but at least public perception was that these were some of the most corrupt people in public office in Nigeria. You don’t engage in a fight against corruption driven by the most corrupt people, perceived at least, so I knew the game was up from the beginning.
Of course, it has been downhill all the way. But I tried to talk. Where is the system within the party? How do we talk and tell ourselves what was going wrong? Go and ask Chief John Oyegun how many times I came to him. I said each time, things are not going as we thought it should go, can we train our people to understand what the philosophy behind this party is supposed to be?
After all, the so-called roadmap of the party was written in my house. Thankfully, Yemi Osinbajo who is the Vice President has said that publicly several times that he used to come to my house every other day for weeks as we were writing the roadmap.
Each time, Oyegun will throw his hands up in the air and say, “But you are sounding so neutral, are you not a member? You have access.”
Fortunately for me, Osita Okechukwu, the DG of Voice of Nigeria, came in when I was arguing this with Chief Oyegun on one occasion and said, “Prof Utomi is right. Where is the internal organ? You say he has access, access to who or where? How will he channel his views?”
So, it is clear what happens to machine politics. The parties are designed just as electoral capture machines, not as political parties that have ideas and plans, a sense of where the society is going. That was not what happened and we are witnesses now to the consequences.
So, our real duty as citizens is to unwind these funny contraptions called political parties and create real political parties if this country is to get anywhere through a democratic format.
What would you say is Buhari’s biggest problem in the way he governs Nigeria?
You are asking me to deal with something I don’t know. I don’t know how he governs Nigeria. So, how can I know what the fault is in it? I don’t know. I don’t see any system. Do you know how he governs Nigeria? If you know, please explain to me so that I can learn from it and then tell you.
So, what do you then make of his claim in his October 1 speech that he has actually performed better than all his predecessors since 1999?
When I was a rascal in the university, we used to say “arguementum aga aju onye.” Who do you want to ask? Just look at the numbers and the quality of life of citizens and then you can draw your own conclusions.
The President recently presented the 2022 Appropriation Bill of approximately N16.4 trillion to the National Assembly with a deficit of N6.258 trillion to be financed through borrowing. How sustainable is that?
You know, conversations about Nigeria have been going round and round – cyclical. You finance a budget from a variety of ways. Even if Nigeria used all revenues from its known sources today, it will not drive the kind of growth that we deserve. It means that there has to be creative way of driving economic expansion. The first and foremost thing as I said earlier is how do we expand production? It is production that generates jobs which gives people the income that you can tax to provide the services that the budget is supposed to be delivering.
Here is a case of shrinking production. On May 28, 2019, I believe, Forbes Magazine published an article, “Nigeria: Africa’s money losing machine,” and that article basically said if you have brains, don’t invest in Nigeria, you will lose money.
Why is that so?
Because regulatory capture is such in Nigeria that one man can wake up one day and say one thing and your entire investments are gone.
We have not been able to address those issues. So, foreigners are very reluctant to invest in Nigeria except where they have to hedge their bets and doing that means milking, literally, the system.
But it doesn’t have to be foreigners. After all, in the 1950s, a great economist out of Columbia University, Ragnar Nurkse, used to argue that capital is made at home – domestic savings. Look at Singapore, massive domestic savings and investments. You think you can manage that with the quality of elite that we have here? Politicians are trying to take as much revenue from the system as possible. Are they the investing types? No! They are buying new fancy cars. They are buying homes abroad and so capital made at home? You can’t.
In Singapore, people were forced to save. And it was those domestic savings – the housing fund – what became the backbone of the drive to Singapore’s ascendancy was the housing development board, the same housing fund we had here, they had. Theirs generated savings, where is our own money in the housing fund? Your big men have shared the money one way or the other.
So, it is a collapse of culture in Nigeria. The things that you can do to bring in capital from within or outside are frustrated.
The only reason the Nigerian government functions is because crude oil revenues somehow manage to come in and we are living in energy transition age in which a company like Total is reducing all of its crude oil assets in Canada to zero 18 years from now. It has changed its name to Total Energies. It doesn’t want to be remembered as an oil company anymore and this is one of the great giants of that business.
And so, we are still depending on that crude oil to finance this budget. And we are borrowing heavily against expectations that we will get some more from the crude oil and service this amortization.
How do you begin to talk about sustainability with that? You have to see expanded production for any meaningful progress.
In terms of ratios, maybe it is not the biggest problem in the world but the key is targeting.
I am not one against borrowing at all but you borrow to invest and you see the output that will come from the investment. If you are going to borrow for infrastructure, you can see the facilitation of output by the infrastructure that will generate the revenues that can amortize that borrowing.
There is this famous French economist, perhaps the leading authority on capital, his name is Thomas Piketty and Piketty in his tomes “Capital in the 21st Century,” “The Economics of Inequality” and other books, said that there is more capital available today than at any time in human history. The big problem is that that capital is in a few hands.
A couple of young men in California own more capital than the entire continent of Africa. So a Piketty who has been referred to by some as the new Marx argues for redistribution of capital and you know that is not likely to happen.
My take of things is if you prepare yourself well, you can become the bride of that capital in those few hands. And the capital will flow to you. All you have to do is to look beautiful enough for a Mark Zuckerberg to come and jog on your Ikoyi Link Bridge and use it to show the world that you are here.
But what did Nigeria do after Mark Zuckerberg came here? We then started banning things like Twitter. Is that the way to attract that capital here?
I just think that the quality of leadership we have in Nigeria is not smart enough to see through the consequences of their behaviour. They act on the emotion of the moment and they sentence their country to many years of servitude.
There is a projected GDP growth of 4.2 per cent and inflation is put at 13 per cent in the 2022 Appropriation Bill. Is that realistic given that we are not producing?
You have answered your own question. What do you want me to say again? But you see, another refrain from me is that there are lies, much bigger than lies, there are damn lies, much bigger than damn lies, there are statistics. Anybody can use statistics to say anything he wants to say. If you want to know where you are going, touch the ordinary man on the street and ask him, is your life better today than it was yesterday?
Are you still a member of APC?
Yes, I am still a member. They have to come and sweep me out. But as a citizen I am organizing the Nigerian people against ineffective political parties.
What is the nature of this mobilization? Are we about to see a new political party, the so-called third force?
There is this gentleman who was the president of the American Political Science Association when I was in the graduate school in the 1970s, James McGregor Burns. In his book, his tome on Leadership, he has a chapter in which he talks about the intellectual and moral authority – his duty. And when I think about James McGregor Burns and his writing on the subject and of transforming leadership, I think of a very important year in my life – 1978. I was a fresh graduate and as a youth corper, I became the editor of one of the biggest magazines in this country under Chris Okolie – Newbreed – and I was so passionate about change and that change began to happen far away from here.
Mao Zedong had led over one billion people in China into political power in the name of cultural revolution and China was getting poorer and poorer and the GDP per person was about half of that of Nigeria. And then God recalled Mao and there was this guy who has been played with called Deng Xiaoping who emerged leader of new China. Deng’s mantra, check almost every speech he made in 1978, was, our party should not downplay the place of the intellect as has been the case thus far. It is knowledge and people of knowledge in our party who will save this country. Thirty something years later, in just one generation, China’s GDP per person was about 30 times that of Nigeria. If people of intellect do not exercise the moral authority that James McGregor Burns puts on them to force the kind of thing that Deng did to China, then we must hold ourselves accountable through all of history for why our country lies prostrate.
So, in looking at the challenge of where Nigeria is and where Nigeria must be going, it was important to create a movement, not a party, because our parties are a complete washout. Create a movement of Nigerians, a movement of people of conscience, people of knowledge and intellect, who can create transforming systems that can change our country.
These efforts have blossomed into several groups. One of the first of the groups that broke out in all kinds of circumstances more than a year and a half ago was the NCFront.
We can discount how a certain gentleman who has been organizing some workshop then strung everybody’s idea together and announced this thing without even telling the people and created the early controversies and turned back to say I didn’t sign up to a party. The guy was exuberant. He is used to doing things like that. Of course, we know him as Wale Okunniyi.
But the basic point of the fact that that kind of movement should be taking place was well founded and so, people like me chose to become active in organizing, first of all, elders. We brought together a few group of elders. At the time, one of the more prominent of the elders that we brought together to get into conversation was the now late Ahmed Joda.
So, on October 1, 2020, we had a virtual meeting of elders of Nigeria on the structure and future of Nigeria, we invited about 70 elders. Then from nowhere, we were getting calls. Why didn’t you invite me? By the time October 1 happened, we had well over 130 of them – Uma Eleazu, Shyngle Wigwe, Mbazulike Amechi, the now late Dr. Junaid Mohammed, so many of them from across the country – men, women. Among those who were calling us to say why are you not inviting us included Kema Chikwe, Kalu Idika kalu, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, etc.
Ahmed Joda made this incredible speech about structure of Nigeria, the future of Nigeria, need for restructuring and the whole thing just took off for hours. I even got into trouble because I had no clue that the whole thing will last beyond an hour or two and I had a commitment to speak somewhere in the afternoon. And these old people kept going on and on about the Nigeria that they dreamt, when they did this and that, and at a point in time, two hours after I thought that the thing should have been over, I just had to get into the car and continued the zoom meeting on a phone as I drove towards FESTAC for my other meeting.
So, that was an enormous morale booster. So, we then created committees to look at the constitution, electoral process reform, look at how political parties can be created, real political parties. And those committees have been doing their work. Their reports are ready to be put in the public domain.
There is another group generally coordinated by Dr. Usman Bugaje. Their concern has primarily been leadership – the problem of Nigeria is that the kind of people in position of political authority should not even have been allowed to run for public office at all. They want to develop criteria that will be used to judge anyone who wants to go into leadership position. And they launched out with a session a few weeks ago in Abuja that sparked the speculation of a third force.
Nobody is talking about a third force. That reduces what we are talking about. We are not getting into this mess with these funny things. We are creating a new platform for a new Nigeria. I will like to see the process result in two new political parties that will be the main parties.
We are expecting that these two – APC and PDP – will implode. These are gangs of thieves looking at how to share money. They will fight and it will implode. Invariably they will implode. So, let us create something to build a new Nigeria. That is what the process is for me.
There is another group that is focusing more on economic strategies for Nigeria. It has more people from NESG, former chief executives. Our hope and expectation is that invariably at some point in time these movements would have created a national momentum on what we want as a country. The debates on the Constitution will be in the public domain, people will decide what kind of structure they want for the country; debates on leadership, all of those will crystalize and one or two of these groups can come together and call themselves whatever they want as political parties and go to the Nigerian people.
This looks fine but considering what is on the ground, are you not being too idealistic and utopian in thinking that those who have captured the Nigerian state will allow you to just come and supplant them?
No, they are not going to allow you. This thing we are in, Nigeria is collapsed already. We are in anarchy. How many of them can travel from Abuja to Kaduna? Let them just continue this nonsense for three more years and they won’t be able to walk on the streets of Nigeria. They better submit to this thing now to save themselves because they will be lynching them on the streets of Nigeria. The way this country is going, that is what you will see happen.
They better seize this opportunity to rescue themselves. They don’t know what happened to Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania?
Who is actually to blame for Nigeria’s woes – leadership or the followership? We ask this because in other countries, including the Romania you just mentioned, people revolt against bad leadership. But in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. The followership claps for those humiliating them in the name of leadership.
Followership is a flotsam. How do you say it in biology, it is like the protoplasm, they just go where sensible leaders suggest they go. So, to try and blame followership is bunkum. Good leaders will create the context to shape those followers. The Singapore Lee Kuan Yew met was worse than Nigeria but he shaped a set of values. That is what leaders do. Leaders set the tone of culture and the culture is what the masses respond to. That is what the real issue is in Nigeria.
In my book, “Why Nations Are Poor,” I tried to track what makes for progress – policy choices, the strength of your institutions, human capital, and entrepreneurship – what strings all of these together is culture, your values.
So, who sets the tone of culture? Leaders! That is what the real issue is, where people of courage and competence who are willing to sacrifice short term gains of flying around in private jets so that their children can be proud that they are carrying green passport. When we find these kind of leaders, you know that the Nigeria of our dreams has come.
The Naira is on a free fall. Who do we blame?
This is a very simple and straightforward one. I have never worried about nominal exchange rates. It is whether it drives production and economic growth. When the Japanese Yen was three hundred and something to the dollar; I remember the year that Yen became either one hundred and ninety nine or two hundred and ninety nine to a dollar, the Japanese were upset because they didn’t want the Yen to get strong because it made their exports cheap because they were producing. But in Nigeria, it is not a conversation because you are not producing.
So, the real problem remains production and not the nominal value of the Naira. But there are institutional issues. The institution of markets which we labored so hard to build in this country, everybody calls General Ibrahim Babandida all kinds of names but you know, Babangida displayed political sagacity that allowed the foreign exchange markets to emerge. That saved the drift in the Nigerian economy. Now, that market was destroyed between 2015 and now and that is why the Naira has crashed.
What are your worst fears for Nigeria?
My worst fears for Nigeria, God forbid though, is that we accelerate the drive on the road to Somalia.
Are you ever hopeful that it could be reversed?
It is absolutely avoidable and reversible. Look at Brazil and what happened between the chaos and Cardoso becoming Finance Minister, President and a new Brazil. Look at even the turnaround in Singapore. Where there is the will and there are a few good people, everything is possible.
You know, Margaret Mead’s famous statement that never underrate what a few committed individuals can do to change the cause of history. Indeed, it is the only way history has changed. A few committed individuals and Nigeria’s history will change.
Since you are still a member of APC, are you not worried that your actions may be termed anti-party?
Is APC a party? You have to have a party before talking of anti-party activities.
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