Between the Price of Conscience and Gratitude

7

By Pat Utomi

It seems real. I lived to be 65. Who would have believed it? Escaping assassination attempts under military rule, terrorist bombings on a London train, near Air crashes, and automobile mishaps, one of which left me with little evident pulse or breathing, and so presumed to have crossed over. That got me the rare privilege of reading my obituary.

But these are not the things that matter. Whether your run is 21 years, or 30, like Stephen Biko in the Struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, or 33, like Jesus, or as long as Methuselah, what matters is impact. What impact from the time of being?

That always triggers huge dilemmas for me. Has my life had impact? That is a question of always for me.

One generation has been certified wasted in Nigeria. Ask Professor Wole Soyinka.

Another has been branded locust field. But some of my friends who know I worry about the impact of my run worry that I have allowed a sensitive conscience to incline me towards truth in a manner that those who fear truth work assiduously to get in the way of my being in a position to do greater good and make more impact.

They then urge more economy with truth so I can have more opportunity to work for that greater good. To this I often plead that I generally approach even those I disagree with as politely as possible even if I choose to condemn the path to perdition. But they tend to suggest a benefit from temporarily looking away from wrong doing or exhibiting amnesia about that which is the truth for the purpose of later good.

As I reflect during this birthday it seemed proper to ask myself if these 65 years have been optimally utilized for greater plausible impact because of the desire to seek the truth and to promote integrity as some of these seem to suggest.

I never pretend to know all the answers so when I escape to my place of solitude,that nirvana which the Indian Guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar calls the place of silence, I ask question of myself, would coating the truth with sugar and honey to allow for being incorporated, in the hope that I can now do good “from inside” a more beneficial track?

With the benefit of the long look back I am not sure that even in arguing factual counterpoints, being economical with the truth would have enriched my impact.

Sure, the price of a sensitive conscience can be high. The song says count your blessings name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

While I agree with the sentiments of the song I was sure I could name , one by one, opportunities denied me , and other cost imposed on me by the use of impunity, in regulatory capture that is deployed against those not considered cheerleaders of those in power. In those cases where public authority is used to despoil property rights and actually steal other peoples businesses,
I have a compendium, from my stakes in banking to Retail marketing and Agriculture, where states action has reduced to zero, billions of Naira of my entrepreneurial effort, valuable for a book I hope to write some day soon.

But the losses can be compounded with my having lost fortunes in business patronage even for public good initiatives like Patito’s Gang, and my right to participate in elections by a party I helped found.

Still I see little to suggest greater gain beyond a limited material excess that burnish the ego. Few can show that in plunder of the commonwealth, from being in power, they have had a better quality of life than me.

As I look at a potentially great country of promise experience its possibilities vaporize from the doings of poor leadership which has stoked a collapse of culture, with impunity, plunder, and limited consideration of others as a way of life, I am more pleased that I chose the path that I have and I am increasingly confident that history will vindicate that choice.

More and more I am confident of history’s verdict and judgment, in the words of Shakespeare, that the evil that men do lives after them. I am also convinced that infamy is a poor choice of a dwelling placte, as current events already suggest that location for many in whose watch we regressed so badly as a people..

Unfortunately, out of ignorance or greed, many who have cost the children of this land their tomorrow in the scramble for positions they are neither fit for or worthy of have made that choice to live in infamy.

Those who swagger in prowling over the wastelands of dry bones that is today’s Nigeria do not think well about the judgment of their conscience in later times, the torture of the judgment of history, and the judgment of God. They are yet to understand infamy as a place of abode.

Thankfully my sense for the future is that these purveyors of ruination have a limited run. I remain persuaded that Nigeria will rise up again and that we have a duty to the future that Nigeria can be salvaged.

What is therefore more important is not the opportunity lost to speaking truth to power but the gratitude to a country that has been kinder to me than I deserve.

So I am full of gratitude for the privilege to have been part of long hours of labour behind the klieg lights, away from public notice, chipping away at the sculpting of a new nation. I have thick drops of sweat as evidence that nation-building is not easy work. But it is a privilege that one must be thankful for. So gratitude defines my sense of these 65years.

To understand that it is a privilege deserving of gratitude to the creator and those whose generosity light up my paths is to think of how ordinarily difficult, without Grace, it would be to make a typical remark that I make such as that there is hardly any state of Nigeria in which I do not have bosom friends. Whether it be the Middle Belt where recently a much-celebrated Idoma intellectual, thanks to his daughter’s culinary skills had enough food in front of me to feed an army just to welcome me back to Jos a fortnight ago after two Lantang friends had visited with me the day before threatening to send luggage of Sweet Potato and acha.

Had I gone NorthEast from there I would have been welcomed to Maiduguri by the Hayatudeens or to Biu by the Ahmed Kuru’s Ibrahim Usman’s, and Danmasani Biu himself.; To the NorthWest where my primary school years made me an Aminu Kano cheerleader in Kano with the Jibo Ibrahims of the world in the same class, to the further North where His Eminence, the Sultan is host to my visits with nearly four decades of friendship. And I can choose to drive up from there stopping to spend the night in the Kebbi home of Bello Gwandu and up through Minna with a call on the Generals.

With an Ibadan secondary school education I probably would have classmates and school mates from most Villages in the South West. Ditto for the South East and South-South which nurtured me from School in Onitsha and the University of Nigeria, to participate in struggles for the emancipation of the Niger Delta and the renewal of the Igbo nation. Above all, my Pan Nigerian and global upbringing thought me the basics of our shared humanity.

A basic truth of the privilege of understanding our shared humanity and the central place of the dignity of the human person is a duty to help those not so lucky to see these truths of our common humanity, find the lamp conveniently hidden under the bed.

The Nigeria people are kind and generous people in spite of what they have endured. The duty I feel in seeking the Common Good of Nigerians being advanced cannot even begin to show gratitude for how the people have treated me consistently. And it does even begin to flow from self righteousness. Just a longer time horizon in dimensioning the self interest and therefore an understanding that the best self interest opportunities flow out of a general advance of the common good.

Back in the 1990s, I returned from a trip abroad to messages from Coca Cola Nigeria about a trip to Egypt to run with the Olympic torch towards the pyramids to usher in the centennial Olympics. To what did I owe this, I asked. Then I was educated about a television phone-in contest for the most admired Nigerians. My friend and schoolmate Dora Akunyili who was making waves as reformist DG of NAFDAC was selected by callers, so was a very popular musician of that time. But how does a former manufacturing executive, now a common business school teacher, get into the vote. Well, I was told the people voted so. So I went to Cairo.

A few years later, Vanguard Newspaper and Silverbird Television got together to run a poll on who were Nigeria’s Living Legends. Nominees included President of the country, leaders of churches with large followings, Nobel Laureates and men of wealth and power, and the celebrated for contributions to Music and Arts. I could not figure out how I got in the pack, with hardly any money, and very often broke, no church I preside over, no position of power.

I actually ignored the whole matter until my then 7 years old daughter came to say she had voted for me. She was upset when I told her I had not voted but was grateful for the generosity of those who thought me fit to be nominated. I had to pacify her, by voting, at her instance. To my shock, enough people voted for me to make the top ten.

The big lesson for me from all these is that the Nigerian people are generous and loving people. You love them a little they love you back a lot. Seven years after a simple teacher is voted so by people with no emotional connection like church, position of authority, etc, I turned 60.

I will never stop being grateful for lessons learnt. It was seven activity-filled days in which there was more than one event of celebration every day from Symposia, to Theater, to Contemporary Music to Highlife etc. And all were offered free of any charge by people who wanted to love back from a little love of caring for the Common Good.

Many of those who gave so generously their equipment, talent and time had actually never met before in person.

In my experience, Nigerians and their willingness to love back shows the classic possibility of erecting here what the great saint of the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II calls a civilization of love and erect justice fairness and progress for all.

So why do we have instead, so much hatred now essentially manifested in mindless violence and the insecurity that threatens us all around Nigeria. To understand that is to understand a greedy selfish few whose capture of the Nigerian state through systematic corruption of the political and governance apparatus for purpose s of advancing their material and power interest disrupt public choice that would have advanced the Common Good. The light to understand this phenomenon, this obtuse paradox, is one of the things I am most grateful for as a benefit of this 65 years run. I thank you all for it.

Patrick Okedinachi Utomi,

Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship and founder CVL