Ideas Rule the World


Pat Utomi

If anything defines the challenge of nation-building in Nigeria, it is that in world history ideas have made the difference between poverty and prosperity; peace and progress; and triumph versus tribulation, yet the political power elite of the last 30 years or so, have managed to get popular culture in Nigeria to manifest in the disdain for knowledge and the knowledgeable.
One person who has had a bird’s-eye view observing this decline of Nigeria, in its engagement with ideas, is Dr. Uma Eleazu, institution builder, man of conviction and statesman.

As the noted thinker marks his 90th birthday, with the authoring of a book reflecting on leadership in Nigeria, nothing can be more salutary than a colloquium on Ideas, Think Tanks, and Public Intellectuals in Nation-building in Nigeria.
Dr. Uma Eleazu in his role in the cabinet office in the mid-1970s pioneered the idea of a Think Tank in Government in Nigeria. His work and that of colleagues at the cabinet office (Now Presidency) gave birth to the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Kuru, among a host of initiatives.

Did an Elephant give birth to a mouse? How come after all the work that people like Dr. Uma Eleazu and Dr. Patrick Dele Cole did in the 1970s and a tradition that the politicians of the 1950s and early 1960s had noted intellectuals in their kitchen cabinets today’s people of power in Nigeria tend to have toughs, praise singers, Court jesters, relatives and pimps as their closest confidants.
Interrogating the emasculating of intellect from the power arena in Nigeria is appropriate enterprise because one can literally find in it the seeds of Nigeria’s decline from respected ‘frontline’ state status in Africa.

Years ago, DFID commissioned me to do a research paper on the role of Think Tanks in development in Nigeria. In comparing with the US and European experiences I was fascinated by how Think-Tanks facilitate “rational public conversation” which in Jurgen Habermas speak is what modernity and democracy is about. Sadly, Military rule seems in some ways to have, on the one hand, fought academia, which seemed the only source of opposition, once they dominated the political class, but, somehow, in a clear paradox, they seem to have done more to encourage Thought Leadership in setting the tone of Nation-Building as we see with institutions like NIPPS. This may be because they were amenable to influence by people they admire so that the few intellectuals that enjoyed a good brandy in their company affected policy with ease.
Post-military-civilian government in Nigeria since 1999 has not only had the worst carryover of military rule but has been manifestly anti-intellectual.

In truth, one can almost witness a hatred for intellect in statements like ‘na grammar we go chop’ and the general notion that academics talk theory which is somehow far from reality. Lost is the fact that all thoughtful practice begins with the conceptualization of the relationships between phenomena.

Think Tanks have been important in the generation and packaging of produced knowledge but the phenomenon of the public intellectual has been quite important in the diffusion of produced knowledge.

The path of the public intellectual is an addictive one that comes from the force of conviction about ideas. I have to admit that I hardly thought of myself as one until a day I got a call from Dr. Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo who as Managing Director of Daily Times, when I created the TV policy Think Talk Show, Patito’s Gang. was one of the Pioneer gang members. He said he had followed my engagements and wondered where the energy came from. I don’t know if you know this, he went on, but you are probably the busiest and hardest-working public intellectual on the continent of Africa.

I was taken aback by what was obviously meant as a compliment but something I had never given thought to. I actually thought I was working hard at being a citizen and did not realize that had affected the diffusion of knowledge to the point of such a remark by Onukaba.

Still, I try not to separate citizenship from public thought leadership. As James McGregor Burns argues in that Grand Tome on Leadership, the intellectual is invested with Moral Authority which makes him a leader. In my mind, if that leadership is engaged in citizenship behavior that spreads useful knowledge from his participation in the affairs of the polis, Citizenship, then much of the knowledge he produces or learns, can shape thought. That influence can therefore be Thought Leadership and his pursuit of it invariably makes him a public intellectual. In effect, the citizen with a mind trained for inquiry, is the quintessence of the phenomenon of the public intellectual.
Contemporary phenomenon and issues in extant reality provide, from my own work, ample illustration of the link between knowledge production, diffusion and impact.

Influenced significantly by Douglass North who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Institutions and Economic Performance, and by my own Department Chair (HOD) in graduate school at Indiana, Elinor Lin Ostrom, whose work on Rational Choice Theory would lead her to become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, my academic work has been majorly on Institutions and Economic Performance, and Economic Development and Nation Building.

My 1998 book Managing Uncertainty- Competition and Strategy in Emerging Economies sought to produce knowledge about how the state of institutions in a country shape the choice of Competitive Strategy by firms and the effects on economic performance.
Anxious not to be guilty of fallacy of composition by interpreting macro-economic outcomes from micro-economic thesis around the theory of the firm, using Emerging Economies Environment (3E) Framework model I had proposed in Managing Uncertainty, I would, several years later, in the book Why Nations are Poor, offer, in a macroeconomic level framework, the Growth Drivers’ Framework, for assessing national economic performance in which institutions, in concert with other variables determine Economic and Political outcomes.

As a so-called public intellectual, I stomped on these ideas for years. In 2019 I published the book ‘Why Not’ on how weak institutions allowed for state capture, creeping fascism, and criminal capture of politics in Nigeria. In that polemic I accuse the educated middle-class, in refusing to be citizens and speak up, of becoming complicit in Nigeria’s drift towards failing state status as politicians pursued plunder which was legal, in the manner the 19th century French thinker Frederic Bastiat describes as legal plunder. I suggested that such plunder, though legal, were moral crimes. I urged the Complicit Middle to wake up and save their dying country.

A few weeks ago, part of the middle-found citizenship in the #ENDSARS protests against police brutality and abuse of prosperous looking young people in the excuse of checking internet fraud.
When the state introduced hoodlums into the matter, to trigger excuse for breaking up Ghandi style non-violent resistance and followed up with the cowardly shooting of unaggressive peaceful protestors they woke up the simmering anarchy Robert Kaplen had warned of in a book 20 years earlier titled ‘The Coming Anarchy’. That book had tracked cleavages in ethnicity, religion and economic inequalities to predict that the region could descend into anarchy.

One consequence of that was Lagos State Governor Jide Sanwo-Olu presenting a bill on November 12, 2020 to the Lagos State House of Assembly, to repeal the obnoxious pension law that packaged for Lagos State Governors and the Deputies a retirement chest that was in truth a moral crime even if legal. Most states of the federationhave such benefits for politicians that offend the spirit and add to the desperation for public office by people who have no clue what to do there. We must assault those evil strongholds now.

In my view no politician should attract remuneration or compensation higher than the top civil servants. If they reject this in their naïveté, they should prepare for the fire next time and how those they call hoodlums will visit them. But I prefer a more positive motivation for action. They should think of the remarks of the Ghanaian Highlife musician, Brako, whose says that a society where politicians are richer than the business men and women is on the brink of collapse. Surely they do not want to live in a country that collapsed. If they want to understand that phenomenon better they should go and read Jared Diamond’s tour de force on how societies have failed through human history in the book appropriately titled Collapse.

Should the Nigerian people not punish such crimes. I think politicians who have plundered in ways whose opportunity cost have been pervasive poverty and the deaths of many should be sentenced in the courts of public opinion and practical living to the moral equivalence of ostracism which was a dominant form of punishment in many traditional Nigerian communities. Thieving politicians should be treated as social lepers.
New boundaries are being set here. This is the evolution of institutions in the classic sense of Douglass North conceptualization.
Ideas, theory, and praxis. This is how nations are built. And the link between public intellectuals and institution building is evident. Dr Uma Eleazu is clear example of that category of Nation builder.

In his new book, Nigeria as I see it, Eleazu offers a critical and rigorous reflection on how leadership failure and structure challenges have robbed Nigeria of its promise, a potential African giant. That book will be formally presented at the CVL LWT Tribute Colloquium of November 19 2020.

Eleazu deserves our gratitude and celebration as a leader who had no title in the Robin Sharma sense of it.
In the joggling of roles between the policy science scholar, the policy Wong, Activist, Entrepreneur and journalist I may seem hard working in the way Onuka characterized it but it is to the steady hammering away of people like Eleazu that the the glory of social change really belong.
As we celebrate Dr. Uma Eleazu, a man of ideas, builder of Think Tanks and Public Intellectual, I welcome a robust conversation on this important thing around which we will celebrate nearly seven decades of disciplined leadership in integrity of Elder, Dr. Uma Eleazu, a man of thought and action, L’homme engage.

––Patrick Okedinachi Utomi, founder, Centre for Values in Leadership.