Who Will Save Nigeria? Where Are The Citizens?

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Reuben Abati

Pat Utomi, political economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is one of Nigeria’s leading public intellectuals and one of the few in that category who have refused to give up on the country, emigrate to another country in search of better opportunities, new friends and a place of imagined solace, away from the difficult environment that Nigeria has become. He is also one of the most versatile and durable of the lot, considering his devotion in the last four decades to the selfless task of seeking to make Nigeria a better place through the promotion and development of a public sphere propelled not by by the values of personal gain, but the common good, selfless leadership and national progress through enterprise and service. From an early beginning as a Catholic church altar boy exposed to Dominican principles, to his involvement in student unionism for public progress, his stint as a journalist reporting on the Nigerian dilemma, and his many years of involvement as a leader in business, advocacy and activism, Utomi has remained a recurrent decimal in the Nigerian public sphere. In a country where many have given up, and no longer bother about tomorrow, cocooned as they are in either a comfort zone or a place beyond care, he remains and continues to demonstrate his public-spiritedness, his faith and optimism that Nigeria can be transformed to a higher place of relevance, and value. There is a strong religious, if not spiritual, dimension to this conviction, that is often unmistakably noticeable in Utomi’s writings.

In his newly published book titled Why Not: Citizenship, State Capture, Creeping Fascism and Criminal Hijack of Politics in Nigeria (CVL Press, 2019), all of this stands out in bold relief. But it is a book that will draw mischievous responses in the shape of “we told you, didn’t we? or cries of disapproval and protest from those who are victims of Utomi’s case study approach to an unsparing portraiture of the idiocy, ignorance, insincerity, and absolute lack of enlightenment on the part of Nigeria’s social, political and economic elite. This is not Utomi’s first book. He has written extensively on and about Nigeria in books, journal articles, newspaper columns and has spoken extensively on television, including the creation by him of a 20-year-old television programme, Patito’s Gang. This is different essentially because it is part of a tetralogy, conveying what Utomi calls “a narrative of experience”. It is an intellectualized, analytical and elevated version of that book by Lamidi Adedibu titled “What I saw” except that this is not about “amala and gbegiri politics”, it is more about how that kind of politics – alimentary politics, the politics of the self, the politics of “I-me-myself”, indeed how the politics of wrong has thrown Nigeria into the vortex of modern slavery, failed potential and missed opportunities, orchestrated by those who rather than move the country forward have rather raped the mother-nation in a pitiable and abject demonstration of lack of conscience, values and a much-needed citizenship spirit.

The departure point for the narrative, here, is Utomi’s decision to run for Governor on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in his home state of Delta in the South-Southern part of Nigeria during the 2019 general elections. Professor Utomi had helped to set up the APC in Nigeria ahead of the 2015 general elections as an alternative to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which had ruled the country and his home state, Delta, since the return to civilian rule in 1999. He was one of the most visible chieftains of the party. But how did an intellectual end up in active, partisan politics? The answer to that question can only be traced back to the brazen violation of the Nigerian public sphere by the military over decades, resulting in the equivalent of a people’s revolt in the early 90s. Utomi was part of that struggle for democracy , having been one of the founders of the Congress of Concerned Citizens (1983) and one of the leaders of the Concerned Professionals movement (1993) which brought together Nigerian professionals across every sector to stand up against the Nigerian military to say “No” and “Never Again” to the violation of the people’s will, and the imposition of a culture of fascism on the people of Nigeria.

In 1993, the military government led by General Ibrahim Babangida had annulled the June 12 election won by Chief MKO Abiola and that drove Nigeria to the brink of a precipice. The resistance of the Nigerian civil society would eventually lead to the exit of the military and what may be termed Nigeria’s second liberation in 1999, the first liberation being the attainment of independence from colonial rule in 1960. Utomi and other professionals, including priests, poets, journalists, lawyers and bankers, and a Nobel Laureate joined other concerned citizens at the barricades to defend the democratic right of all Nigerians.

One of the subsequent outcomes of that process was the realization that the governance of Nigeria could not be left entirely in the hands of professional politicians, either in military or civilian clothes, and that it was time professionals went into partisan politics. The message was one of engagement with the political process and bringing about change from within. Few of those who were part of the struggle for democracy joined the political process eventually, most of them simply moved back to their primary engagements once it was thought the struggle had been won. Professor Pat Utomi admits more or less that this was a mistake. In 2007, he threw his hat into the ring and ran for President of Nigeria on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the same party that the military robbed of victory in 1993. He didn’t win but he remained involved as a key contributor in policy spheres and the public arena.

In 2018, he expressed interest in political office again as a Gubernatorial aspirant in Delta State. This book titled Why Not is basically a field report by a participant-observer and a reflection on his experience. He was invited and encouraged to join the race by those who believed he could make a difference in the politics of Delta State. One or two persons advised him not to bother, and instead of going to Delta State, why not run for maybe Senate in Lagos State, having lived in Lagos most of his life. A bosom friend of his, Chris Asoluka advised him that he could end up being disappointed because the APC is a party of greedy and unconscionable politicians. But Utomi was motivated more by the determination to serve the people of Delta State, even if it meant running for a local government councillor’s seat. His long sojourn in other parts of Nigeria and the world had not robbed him of his connection with his Anioma and Igbo roots. He saw this as an opportunity to help build a new narrative of service delivery to save the people from the trap of poverty, under-development, corruption and irresponsible governance.

In an anecdotal and autobiographical style, the author tells the story of his disappointment. He delays the focus on Delta state politics and the APC during the 2018/19 general elections till much later in the book but when he eventually gets to it in Chapters V and VI, he does not hold back in expressing his shock at the transactional nature of Nigerian politics, the crass opportunism and insincerity of Nigerian politicians including those who call themselves friends and progressives. Or may be the word “shock,” should be re-contextualized. Given his background and exposure, the author of course must be fully aware of the sordid side of Nigerian politics, he probably did not anticipate the kind of rot that he encountered and the large population of criminals and sinners in Nigerian politics, especially among the ranks of self-styled progressives. In many of his writings, Utomi usually avoids attack on persons but here he departs in turns from his usual style as he writes with a tinge of anger, irritation and contempt. In Chapter V, he recognizes those he calls “a few good men”: those who get involved in the public sphere not for selfish reasons but as an opportunity to advance the common good. In Chapter VI, he turns the searchlight on transactional politics: the charlatans in the corridors of party politics and power who are only interested in what he calls “Shiagwaeri” money, party leaders who cannot be trusted, party members who are in it for what they can get, and the organisers of the APC Gubernatorial primary in Delta state on September 30, 2018 in Asaba.

Utomi refers to that day as a “day in infamy”, and he adds “not because a supposed primary election was rigged, but because it was done so unintelligently that those who organized it ought to go to jail. Not so much for the criminality of what they did but for how it exposed them to be low lives.” The author does not pull punches in identifying some of these persons he calls “low lives”. He names and shames them. Leaders of the APC, at both the state and national levels, accused of narcissism and insincerity many not be too pleased with Utomi’s account. They should read the book.

But perhaps before such persons rise in defence of the choices they have made, they should await Utomi’s sequel to the present book titled “In the Devil’s Den”. Beyond the politics of the Gubernatorial election in Delta, Utomi’s Why Not is devoted to a much larger subject: the Nigerian dilemma, that is how a country of great promise, blessed with so much, and once considered the epicentre of African renaissance simply failed and found itself in a position of “strategic irrelevance.” He writes about the absence of “enlightened leadership” and the capture of the Nigerian state and its politics by “criminals, ritualists, 419-ers and con men.” In Chapter IV he puts the blame on those he calls “the complicit middle”: the critical segment of the Nigerian population which has failed to rise to the occasion to make a difference, namely the Nigerian intellectual who has lost moral authority, young Nigerians who have embraced a full-time culture of gossip and idleness on social media, hypocritical business tycoons who are mostly interested in rent-collection and conspicuous consumption, a sedated religious leadership class, the media and other civil society stakeholders not doing enough.

However, in spite of the rot that he sees and the disappointment that he describes, Utomi does not regret the choices he has made. His baptism of fire in local and national party politics may convey the limitations of the system and perhaps the limits of the hypothesis that change can be effected by getting involved, but this merely pushes Utomi to reflect further on matters of culture, values, leadership and the nature of man. In Why Not?, he poses additional questions: Who will save Nigeria? How do we save Nigeria? How do we rescue a thoroughly challenged country from creeping anarchy and its capture by fascists? The key question for Nigeria, he concludes is: “Where are the citizens?”. In Chapter VIII and elsewhere in the book, the author answers some of the questions he raises. He is of the firm belief that Nigeria can be “reclaimed” and “redeemed” through a “people’s revolution option”, youth mobilization, an enlightened leadership revolution, the arrest and trial of “those who abuse electoral processes…in International Criminal Courts,” and conscientious action – to move Nigeria from “serfdom to freedom”.

Utomi’s call for “a people’s revolution” and “action” and the public presentation of this book in which he does so, comes ironically at a time when the word “revolution” has crept so prominently into the Nigerian conversation, even if it is a much mis-understood word. Frustrated with the turn of things in Nigeria, a Coalition for Revolution also known as Coalition for Security and Demoracy, led by Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of Sahara Reporters, is calling for a “revolution now” in Nigeria. The authorities with the support of those who have hijacked the Nigerian state and politics insist that such calls amount to treason, and they have responded with tear gas, police brutality and other forms of state-sponsored abuse. Professor Pat Utomi’s writing may well prove prophetic in the long run. His arguments are unassailable. His focus on “the complicit middle class” is a useful reminder of the failure of citizenship on the part of those who should function more as change agents. The picture that he paints about the crisis of internal democracy in the APC is an apt and realistic comment on the state of every other political party in Nigeria’s democratic space. Virtually every institution in Nigeria is in dire need of redemption.

But with regard to Utomi’s own politics: we should ask: what next? Will he run for political office again? Will he ignore those Asoluka, his friend, calls “scoundrels?” And move on to other challenges? Will he seek new political associates? Or will he lead a “revolution” from within?
On the whole, Pat Utomi’s Why Not: Citizenship, State Capture, Creeping Fascism and Criminal Hijack of Politics in Nigeria enriches an ongoing conversation about the crisis of statehood and citizenship in Nigeria and the place of politics, the politician and the political party system in the unmaking of Nigeria. This is a welcome contribution to the bibliography on the Nigerian condition which should be of interest to students of ideas, researchers and the general reader as well. In future reprints, the author is advised to pay more attention to proof-reading oversights, provide an index, and package the book more stylishly.