GUEST COLUMNIST BY PAT UTOMI
As America descended into tribal war in the final days of the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, Nigeria, about which the traditional ethnocentric social scientist in my graduate school days there, 40 years ago, would explain ethnic conflict as tribalism, sunk further down the gutter of parochial contention of everything, from security to restructuring, a field of multiple tribal warfares. Instead of turning to Joshua Greene who directs the Centre for Moral Cognition at Harvard, and who gave us the perceptive interrogation of these matters in the book: Moral Tribes- Emotion, Reason and the Gap between us and them,
I actually turned to an old storehouse of wisdom, Holy Scripture. Nigeria is charged. Apparent drumbeats of war almost everywhere because, instead of rational discussion of issues, emotions are aroused. How shall we tame this dreadful monster mushrooming into an existential threat?
I thought of the many moral wars I have fought and how remarkably my turning the other cheek for a slap enabled my winning later victories. This was never the wimp’s turning of the other cheek but that of one inclined, with the courage of a bold vision of tomorrow, to delayed gratification.
None of these legions of battles I have contended with stuck out on the matter more than my long relationship with former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
I recall walking down the corridors of a hotel in Moscow about two years ago, in the company of a friend who served in the Obasanjo cabinet and then suddenly, there was General Obasanjo. He was just arriving for the conference. We walked up to him to say welcome. Then accompanied him to his suite. The affection and camaraderie flowing from the former President to me were so effusive that when we left him my friend who had served in his government felt confused. When we were in government, he said, anytime your name was mentioned, the man almost went into a feat of convulsions.
I assured him I knew that.
I then felt a need to bring him up to speed on many encounters with President Obasanjo which could be traced all the way to my time as a 21-year old Youth Corper, serving as a Reporter. But, I typically prefer to start the story from when General Obasanjo was imprisoned in the Abacha Gulag.
A few of his friends worried that he would be killed or just die there, like his erstwhile deputy, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua reached out to several people including me. Some asked if I could deploy some of my contacts in foreign capitals to put pressure on the Abacha government.
It was obviously the right thing to do. So I promised Alhaji Ahmed Joda that I would set up meetings for him in Washington. I flew there, at my own expense, and pounded a few corridors on the cause. Then I went on to set up some appointments for Alhaji Joda.
In a number of meetings with Obasanjo after he was freed by the hand of God, I never as much as mentioned that I played a role in trying to free him. But, shortly afterwards, General Obasanjo called a meeting of who was who in public life in Nigeria to reflect on the 38 years of Nigeria’s independence. This was in Otta, on September 30, 1998.
A small group of ‘younger’ people, including Olisa Agbakoba, Bilikisu Yusuf, Clement Nwankwo and I were invited.
An act of natural selection led us to cluster unto one table at lunchtime. Our host managed to select our table to spend the most time. One of the statements that afternoon was that his greatest regret from 1979 was that he could not gather people like us and hand the country to us to lead.
When shortly after, he called to invite me to serve on a policy advisory team, after ‘the holy spirit finally asked him to contest the Presidency’ I assumed it an outgrowth of his 1979 regret. If it would do Nigeria good, I found no harm in contributing. One well-known Economist at the University of Ibadan rejected the invitation with a letter saying he was opposed to the Obasanjo candidacy and so could not, in good conscience advise him.
But I thought differently.
It was part of a life service.
As things turned out I would end up the leader of that team of Advisors.
The story of daily meetings with Candidate Obasanjo by our group, in Orta, from his living room to his bedroom, when the crowds overtook the living room, is stuff for memoirs.
As expected, we fought a lot over ideas. But, I got to respect his ability to recognize superior ideas even if he is not quick to admit he had switched his position. His views on Privatization remains my favourite example.
By the time he was sworn in as President, I had also come to play a similar role to the then Governor-elect of Lagos State. I would learn later, that association with Senator Bola Tinubu displeased the President a lot. But that mattered little to me, so long as my efforts in Lagos added up to the advancement of the common good.
From time to time, friends of mine like Waziri Mohammed and Oby Ezekwesili would ask how come I joined AD. I would tell them I did not belong to any political party. But someone had told the President I was in AD and said so to whoever cared to listen, it seemed. But I stated the reality to those that asked me. And they would say it seems to upset the President.
To that, I would respond that I had the right to join any party I liked and owed Obasanjo no explanation.
What is important about the story is how the first apparent ceasefire in this unsolicited state of belligerence between us produced what may be one of my true legacies.
It came when, after a few months in office, the Obasanjo administration was widely criticized for lacking economic policy direction.
Part of the response of the President was to invite me to dinner.
I could have chosen not to honour the invitation, but I thought it polite to.
When I arrived, I found it was not dinner for two. All the heavyweights of the government, from the VP to the SGF, Finance Minister, Chief of Staff to the President, Chief Economic Adviser were there.
Not sure why I was there I settled down to ‘awoof’ dinner and was enjoying the free food until the President turned to me and asked how people could be saying he had no economic policy when he and I had worked on that.
I figured I had been set up. Knowing me as the President did, I thought he desired a straight to the face frank speaker to tell his team the truth point blank and imagined I was cut out for such. I decided I was not going to blame the old men who were of a different age of ideas not because of when they were born but because of the prisms through which they viewed the rainbow.
A dirigiste crowd trying to fix an economy in the age of globalization surely would have trouble.
So, I said it was possible he had not shared with them well enough the ideas he and our team, which included Dr. Ayo Teriba and Ifueko Omoigui, had worked on.
To elevate the pitch I talked about the importance of shared ownership of ideas. Building shared values on economic direction among a national elite, I offered, was important.
That moment at the dinner would turn out to be what I would call my Habermas moment.
I had long been an admirer of contemporary German Philosopher Jurgen Habermas whose point about Democracy and Modernity have been that at their core is rational public conversation.
I began almost right there to think of how I could help build up the public square with contending informed opinions.
Within a week, I had borrowed some formats from two US talk shows, Capital Gang, and McLaughlin and Company, and BBC’s Hard Talk, adding some original ideas like the Parliament, Field reports from the arena of practice and a vox pop. We soon had a 90 minute Magazine show we would call Patito’s Gang which would have been on air for 21 years this Summer.
The irony here is that even though the programme was conceived to bring together a spectrum of views to facilitate consensus building, the gossips were quick to ferry back to President Obasanjo that the show was routinely having him for lunch in its feast of criticisms. On account of those gossips, a vexed reaction included unsavoury references to me that peaked with a National Honor encounter.
In National Honors selection sometime in the 1990s, the Private Sector was mandated to present its candidates for honour. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce nominated me and called on me to sign off. I politely told the Director-General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry that as a matter of principle I found having to sign to be like I was applying for an honour and that if anyone found me worthy of honour it should come as a surprise like the living legends and other honours I had received. But Sir Remi Omotosho would not accept my no. He persisted until the closing Friday when I buckled only as a mark of respect to the Lagos chamber and my long friendship with Sir Omotosho.
A few weeks later, I was in Abeokuta to give a talk and ran into Justice Bola Ajibola who congratulated me warmly. But I could not tell him I was unaware of what he was congratulating me about, as he said, no one would be more worthy of the honour. I would find out later that I had topped the private sector nominations list and it had apparently been in the press. The day before the release, I was told, President Obasanjo ran his pen across my name.
Not long after, I was in New York at the UN office of Prof. Ibrahim Gambari. As the then UN Under Secretary-General and I bantered on the troubles of Nigeria, I mentioned the joke of the ‘national honour revocation’. Prof. Gambari told me he had suffered a similar fate with President Obasanjo. After his own nomination was cancelled by the President, friends had urged him to get some people to intercede. On account of the intervention, his award was restored the next year. I also found Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe suffered similarly on the same matter from the same person.
I told Prof. Gambari I would never even behave like I knew what happened. I never let it affect my relationship with the President even though it reinforced my low regard for Nigeria’s National Honor system for role modelling.
Titles had never defined me and I did not think much of many of the people who had Nigerian national honours, but I just told Prof. Gambari that I did not think national honour was worth my making a case as his friends did.
It therefore must have shocked a few when General Obasanjo was being shredded as Divider-in-Chief last year that I put up one of the most sturdy defences of the former President on the same Patito’s Gang that those who gossiped to him said was the platform to shred him.
Dr. Christopher Kolade who watched that episode of Patito’s Gang just as he readied to go to Abeokuta to see the former President made a point of mentioning it to me.
The point of it all is that it’s not about liking or disliking Obasanjo, in spite of his own past conduct. It was about the issue at hand and the effect of his position as it affects the common good. If it is, in my perception, driven by self-love and harms society, he will hear strong words from me. If his view supports justice, I would give him a thumbs up even if he was uncharitable to me today or yesterday.
I have a feeling that such an approach to public conversation may help lessen the emotion of the current state of utterances by those who claim to be leaders today who are managing to push us to the brink.
As emotion-laden voices try to crowd out rational thoughtful ones in this season of anomie a few good men and women ought to be raising their voices to construct a future that is just, fair and gives room for win-win outcomes and solutions while others are looking spoil for war.
Looking back, I find much to teach from this tradition I have upheld for averting the looming anarchy.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is the founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership