Pat Utomi and the Nigerian Project


Tunji Olaopa

Many would have thought and indeed have asked me repeatedly why I had not celebrated Pat Utomi since I started this series in 2012 given my great admiration for him in a measure that has grown into deep friendship since we met again at a workshop we both addressed about a decade ago. Sometimes in 2016 however, I was compelled, as part of my critical celebration of those I chose to call intellectual heroes and heroines in the Nigeria project, to do a piece on Professor Pat Utomi. In that piece, I referred to him as an avatar and a patriot. I began the article thus: The name of Pat Utomi stands for so many things—teacher, administrator, public intellectual, policy analyst, and entrepreneur. He is unqualifiedly a patriot and my sense of a great mind with an incredible blend of depth and breath. He is an activist that loves Nigeria enough to engage her failings and her possibilities. He is equally a committed elite who does not shy away from rigorous analysis about Nigeria’s political economy. In fact, there is no aspect of Nigeria’s socioeconomic and political landscape that Professor Utomi does not traverse solidly with sufficient evidence and demonstrated knowledge. His boundless energies and intellectual expansiveness places him in the same critical space as Arthur Nwankwo, Ibrahim Tahir, Odia Ofeimun, J. K. Randle, Rasheed Gbadamosi, Chinwezu, Dele Cole, Doyin Abiola, Sonala Olumhense, Olatunji Dare, Jibrin Ibrahim, Ferdinard Agu, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, Issa Aremu, Olusegun Oshinowo, Patrick Okigbo, and if I may, the younger vibrant Abimbola Adelakun, and others, to name just a few who are not just cerebral and scholars in their own right, but could be relied on to articulate definite directions for Nigeria. And the extent of his patriotism is reflected in his desire, however symbolic, to be at the helms of Nigeria’s affairs to direct proceeding.

But, it seems to me clearer now that the significant essence of Patrick Okedinachi Utomi cannot be contained within one piece. His status as a quintessential public intellectual, amongst many others in Nigeria, is crucial to the understanding of what is needed, again amongst many, to evolve a stable and sustained development paradigm for Nigeria. Nigeria needs her public intellectuals. In that same unassailable logic, Nigeria needs intellectuals in the mould of Pat Utomi who are patriotic enough to continue to write and advocate in the ardent optimism that Nigeria will eventually come out of the woods of postcolonial development and democratic listlessness. In this article, I want to focus on Professor Utomi’s legacy of reflection on the Nigeria leadership and institutional crisis.

I am not sure that a consummate scholar like Utomi would be fazed by the intellectual dilemma between institution and leadership. This distinction constitutes one of the standard but complex discourses in the social sciences. The essence of the distinction is to see which is primary in the understanding of national development between the leadership factor and the institutional factor. For the advocate of leadership, this seems significant because it takes a leader to facilitate the dynamics of institutional stability and coherence. On the other hand, the theorists of the primacy of institutions contend that there is no leadership that can even ever hope to function with some measure of success if the enabling institution is not available in the first place. How then do we undermine the dichotomy between leadership and institutions seeing that both are required to make a state function optimally in terms of democracy and development? Is it even sufficient to just conclude that both are necessary in nation building, and then move on? Or, is the distinction inherently false?

It seems to me that Professor Utomi has managed to grasp the two horns of the dilemma between leadership and institutions by not only dedicating his intellectual and policy analyses to the two but by equally working tirelessly to ensure that both constitute the focus of his advocacy for the progressive evolution of Nigeria as a democratic state. In other words, as far as Professor Utomi is concerned, Nigeria’s sociopolitical and economic future cannot afford the sterile discourse on the distinction between leadership and institution. Their relevance in the Nigerian context must be determined by their simultaneous evolution.

Pat Utomi’s relevance in Nigeria’s public sphere is built around his solid reputation as an intellectual who has mastered the capacity to match postulations with advocacy, and policy analyses with sociopolitical and economic realities of the Nigerian state. We do not have in him an armchair theorist who spews ideas and paradigms that are too far-fetched to enable us make sense of our collective situation and predicament. On the contrary, Professor Utomi’s solid credentials are carved out of a seamless multi-sectoral linkage made up of the private sector, academia, management, and the public sector. The experience accumulated through all these spheres of endeavour tells of an individual who is aware of where he is going. The significant thing for us here is that the very act of going somewhere for Utomi, and unlike the average political elite in Nigeria, is intricately entwined with the Nigerian national project. When he founded the African Democratic Congress party to contest the presidential election in 2011, it becomes clear that Pat Utomi has a greater vision than just the betterment of the self. Of course he failed to win the election, but that is entirely beside the point.

The point consists in the boldness it requires to inject oneself constantly in the public sphere as a simultaneous act of rebellion and patriotism. Failure at the polls has not in any way dented Professor Utomi’s nationalist ardor. And that is where my interest as a reformer lies. I see a critical similarity between my failed desire to achieve my professional ambition of institutional transformation of the civil service through reform as an expert-insider and Utomi’s incessant denial by our Lilliput’s political elites of critical policy space to translate vision to legacy. Both attempts were attempts to serve in the face of the obvious failure of leadership itself. And such bids arise out of the conviction that something critical can and should be done to rescue the dysfunctional situation in the civil service and in the nation respectively. Reform is a serious business. And only the courageous knowledge worker with expert’s blend of what it takes to balance what it requires as ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘doing it right’ in a manner of speaking, can dare its complexities. Since the logical destination of a reformer is to achieve an office which would constitute what I have called a reform space that permits significant reform imperatives and authority, it stands to reason that a public intellectual like Utomi would eventually desire the office of the president of Nigeria.

What should concern us is the vision and ideals that defines Utomi’s understanding of leadership. The answer is simple; he is fascinated, at a fundamental level, with the relationship between human dignity, democratic ideals and managerial enterprise, and how these three could facilitate an institutional capacity that can grow development. This explains his long tenure at the Lagos Business School, and eventually the founding of the Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL) whose objective, as the website declares, is “the elevation of the dignity of the human person, beginning from Nigeria. The sense of a great duty and a big burden to improve the quality of life of young people, in our society, by building good values in them, led to the setting up of a Centre for Values in leadership.”

What I see in the idea of the CVL is a very clever combination of vision and a methodology. The vision to be a centre for leadership development is straightforward and fundamental enough. But there is something more behind it, if my deduction is correct. I read the CVL as a reform space that enables Pat Utomi to ground the culture of value leadership in a crop of youths with the underlying intention of building a leadership culture that is strong enough to undermine what Richard Joseph famously called the prebendal political behavior of the present crop of Nigerian political elite.

Since independence in 1960, there has been a gradual but steady dissociation of the ruling elite from the social contract that binds the government to the governed in democratic relations of duties and responsibilities. But with the debilitating intervention of greed and political corruption, the Nigerian state has become a conglomerate of prebends rather than a dynamics of democratic welfare that empowers the citizens. And since a gloomy statistics of youth unemployment constitutes one of the consequences of the short-circuited social contract, what better way to reignite the youthful energies and reinvent the idea of leadership than through a catch-them-young framework of programmes and innovation that reward leadership skills and competences?

Professor Utomi ought to know because he is a rare intellectual who has consistently remained outside of the dynamics of anomie and corruption that has entrapped the Nigerian elite. Alongside others, Pat Utomi walks a lonely, enervating but patriotic path that seems to require more frustrating energies than what is required to steal some billions from the Nigerian treasury. He belongs to the corps of a few critical intellectuals committed to what I have called “empathetic scholarship” who remain committed to the Nigerian project, no matter what. Patrick Utomi has been celebrated a few times. When he writes, we all pause to listen and ponder his consistent reflections on the Nigerian condition, even though we may not always agree with him. He is one of the bright stars in the firmament of the Nigerian public life. But all these would not really matter if we refuse to take cognizance of his specific brand of patriotism and activism which choose to not only critique the Nigerian condition but to also programmatically build access points from which we can begin to address what is wrong with Nigeria. Professor Utomi chose leadership and values as an entry point into what is wrong with us. And this is significant because it is with the youth, whom the CVL targets, that we can commence a generational reinvention of Nigeria as a nation with budding potentials.

––Dr. Olaopa is the Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (