A renowned political economist and former presidential candidate of the African Democratic Congress party, Prof. Pat Utomi, tells TOBI AWORINDE that the Federal Government should initiate dialogue with Biafra agitators
What is your reaction to the release of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu?
I think that it begins a process of redeeming Nigeria. The regard that nations have in today’s world is defined by a few basic things, amongst them human freedom, regard for the rule of law, and institutions that try to ensure that our conduct essentially gives dignity to the human person. So, I think that any decision that brings us more into line with civilised conduct takes us away from attribution of impunity, which is really what has described the story of Nigeria in the last 50 years, a country with extraordinary potential, which sadly has been in a mood of state capture. There has been a state capture in Nigeria since 1966 and the culture and tradition of those who have dominated this society completely for 50 years has been a culture of arbitrariness and exercise of personal authority over due process. Part of what this has done is that it has created a level of uncertainty that has struck me remarkably in the last one week, travelling and speaking in the US.
Years ago, I wrote a piece titled The Generation That Left Town, in which I was talking about the talented Nigerians who just couldn’t take it anymore, and one by one, one ticket after the other, they left our country. I travel all the time; I’m in the States and in Europe several times every year, sometimes, almost every month. Day before yesterday (Monday), I was at the Atlanta airport, from one flight to another, a total of about two hours or so. I am not joking, up to 12 different sets of Nigerians came to say hello to me — Nigerians who live in America, some of them working in the airports there. It struck me: my God, we’ve lost a generation in this country and this is the result of the impunity and arbitrariness of the Class of ’66 that exercised state capture over Nigeria, which caused this country to lose its best talents.
So, when you see some moving away from that tradition, like releasing a person who has not been found guilty after being held for two years, then you would think to yourself, ‘Perhaps this is a redeeming process.’
In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election and even after winning, there were some concerns about President Muhammadu Buhari’s antecedent as a military head of state. But the President claimed that he had become a converted democrat. Do you think that Kanu’s 18-month detention points to the President’s dictatorial history?
I don’t want to think anything. Everything now is guesswork. All I want to do is hope that my country continues in the tradition of the rule of law, in the tradition of institutions that respect the dignity of the human person. Forget what they say about the so-called strongmen of Asia that built strong economies. (There is) no modern state that makes continuous progress that does not try to build strong institutions. The reason is very simple: when people are making decisions, including economic choices like investment decisions, what they ask themselves is, if I cannot anticipate behaviour, what is the likelihood that I will lose this investment I’m making? Imagine a civilian governor, just like the military in Nigeria, your predecessor made a decision, followed rules, and without even blinking an eye, you violate the property rights of the person (citizen) that is involved and you think, because of arbitrariness that is the way of Nigeria, ‘who can do anything to me, I’m governor?’ Well, you’ll be governor for eight years and come out, and somebody else will do the same thing to you. That is how limited they are; they don’t think.
The point is that the arbitrariness continues, and because it continues, many people will not invest in a country like Nigeria. So, the growth, the development, the future of our children that we all look forward to continues to elude us and Nigeria continues to be a laughing stock in the world in terms of its prospect, its possibilities and what it manages to accomplish. It is important that people in public positions of authority recognise how consequential acting properly — according to the rule of law, respect of property rights of others, etc. — is for development and progress. Of course, a book that has come to summarise it fairly well for many people was written by a Turkish-American professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London School of Economics, (Daron) Acemoğlu, and (James) Robinson. The book is titled Why Nations Fail (2012). People forget that I wrote almost exactly the same thing in a book titled Why Nations Are Poor (2006), several years before Robinson and Acemoğlu’s book. And it has not changed. In 1998, I wrote a book titled Managing Uncertainty, looking exactly at the same phenomenon: institutions, state failure, and economic performance. So, honestly, it is painful to see Nigerian leaders, one after the other, not recognising the full consequences of their behaviour for the long-term good of all.
Several prominent members of the South-East were unhappy about the bail conditions for Kanu’s release. Do you feel the same way?
I find some of them sort of strange. I’m not sure where they come from. I was not deeply involved, so I don’t know how they came about the thing about a Jewish leader. Is Nnamdi Kanu a Jew?
Reports say the court asked Kanu what religion he professes and he replied saying he practises Judaism.
Oh, so that’s where the Jewish leader came from. Anyhow, those are peripheral issues. I think the important thing is that bail conditions, if they are too harsh, amount to the same thing as not granting a bail. However, it seems that they were not so harsh that he could not meet them.
Did you participate at all in the process to secure his release?
I don’t know what process took place, but I know that Nzuko Umunna (a global group of Igbo’s thought leaders) had created a committee to engage in any discussion regarding Nnamdi Kanu release. I was supposed to be chairman of that committee, but as it turned out, I don’t think that the committee formally went into any negotiation at the time that the bail condition was finally announced.
Since he got out of prison, have you contacted him? Has he spoken with you?
No, as you know very well, I’ve been out of the country travelling. I just got in this afternoon (Wednesday). But the leadership of Nzuko Umunna, I trust, have in different ways probably been reaching out to him.
One of the conditions given for Kanu’s release on bail was that he would not be in a crowd of up to 10 people. A picture has since emerged on social media of Kanu, moments after his release, where he is posing with a group of about 12 and some have argued that he violated that condition. Do you agree?
(Laugh) I didn’t see the picture. I think I am even more fascinated by (Ekiti State Governor) Ayo Fayose’s visit and — who was it that drove him from the prison? Femi (Fani-Kayode)?
That was former aviation minister, Osita…
Osita Chidoka, yes. I think I’m fascinated by all of that. Maybe it might even become a rallying point to unite Nigeria. In many ways, I am fascinated by Fayose. Sometimes, people who are strong-willed and focused on certain things eventually have become symbols of some things. And Fayose may yet surprise people to be a major factor in the realignment and rebuilding of this country. I find it fascinating; he has good political judgment.
But a lot of people see Fayose as …
Exactly, he is perceived as opportunistic.
All politics is opportunistic. I don’t understand it, but I think that all this touchiness in the politics of the South-West/South-East needs to blow over. In my view, we have two stages of quick moves in Nigerian politics now: we need to build a South-South/South-East zone of development, where all of the South-South and the South-East works as a zonal development and it should go into a quick partnership, in terms of development strategy, with the South-West, and then engage other parts of the country that are interested in such a partnership. And I believe that there are many elements reaching for progress in the North that would like to engage with these kinds of partnership for development and the whole of Nigeria can profit from it.
What people miss, which I find very sad, is that the story of state capture in Nigeria is the story of opportunism by a few people. Then people will say that they are representing northern interests. It is just a couple of 100 of them in their own self-interest. If not, the North would not be as poor as it is today. If they (northern ruling class) really represented northern interests, the North would flourish. But that is not the case. This is a group of selfish people who have taken the possibility of progress for Nigeria and have hurt their own people even more.
What do you make of the title given to Fayose by IPOB, Honorary Governor of Biafra?
(Laughs hysterically) I think that’s part of the fun of the moment. Biafra is not a state, so how come it has a governor? But I think that his move should inspire a number of people. People forget that one of the great heroes of Biafra was (Prof.) Wole Soyinka. He was actually jailed for speaking up (against) the injustices of 1966/1967 that happened to the Igbo people. He was harassed. So, it is not a new tradition from Yorubaland that people of conscience recognise that something is wrong somewhere. Therefore, wherever there are opportunistic people who try to capitalise on these in their own interests, there are people of goodwill and strong conscience who recognise differently. And I think this must be the project now, to get those people of good conscience to break this thing.
The reason Lagos is as developed as it is, to the envy of everybody, is every simple. During the Civil War, the divide-and-rule game played by the Federal Government led to Igbos being eviscerated in Port Harcourt (Rivers State), which is part of Igboland. Igbos then turned to Lagos and the people of Lagos were welcoming of the Igbo people, and that is why Lagos is the way it is today as a strong centre of commerce in the world. I think that the lessons from that, which is the point I tried to make when the Oba (of Lagos) made a joking remark during the election that people took too far.
The one about Igbo people jumping into the lagoon?
Yes. Nowhere in Nigeria has been more welcoming of the Igbo nation than Lagos. The consequence of this welcome should be a bridge across the Niger, a handshake across the Niger, which has been used in terminology previously. The Yoruba nation and Igbo nation, which share a lot in terms of enterprise and values, should be able to work together and engage any other part of Nigeria, because it is in the interest of Nigeria to build a whole of all.
Do you think Soyinka also deserves honour from IPOB?
Certainly. I spoke at a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, two weeks ago on 50 years of Biafra. Part of my remarks was a tribute to Soyinka and what he stood for back in those days. I think he is deserving of being honoured.
IPOB appreciated you and the likes of former Central Bank Governor, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, for your support. How do you feel about the honour?
I think that where the person does what is his duty, which is what I was doing, I don’t think that there is any need for honour. It is a call to duty to do the right thing and one just did what was right.
What do you think about IPOB’s claim that South-East governors and leaders failed to identify with Kanu?
When principles don’t define how people engage in public life, they become arbitrary, looking at their self-interest, looking at who will say they did so, and they tend to fall into the tepidity of neutrality. And if you recall from Dante’s Inferno, where it is said that the hottest part of hell belongs to those who, in the face of the moral crisis, take refuge in neutrality. So, in the pursuit of narrow self-interest, in not making principles the basis of public engagement, yes, many of the people there just disappeared into voicelessness. And if there is a very important habit that we need in this century, as Stephen Covey says to us in his The Eighth Habit, it is to help people find their voice. If there is one thing that my life’s journey represents, it is that commitment to helping people find their voice.
Do you think this indecision on the part of South-East leaders could haunt them in the 2019 elections?
I don’t know. It could. It may. But what matters is that there should be accountability for everything. There must be a time to account.
Kanu is facing charges of sedition against the Federal Government in court. Do you think there could be a possible political solution to end the trial?
The only way that societies that want to move forward have dealt with problems of people expressing dissatisfaction is political engagement. I very frequently turn to (former Prime Minister) Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and his reference to the words of (late US President) Lyndon B. Johnson when he says it is better for everybody to be inside the house pissing out than for some people to be outside the house pissing in. The reason Nigeria smells so bad is that there are too many people outside the house pissing in. The biggest leadership failure of the last 50 years in Nigeria is the politics of exclusion. The Class of ’66 specialised in excluding: ‘We don’t want these people.’ ‘Oh! It’s those people.’ ‘It’s this group.’ And so, they kept excluding till most Nigerians who could contribute to Nigeria’s development left Nigeria, either physically, as in those ones I ran into at the Atlanta airport and many other places, or mentally. There are many people who live in Nigeria but don’t live in Nigeria. They gave up on Nigeria a long time ago. What leadership requires now in Nigeria now is to bring people back into the house. That’s the capacity which the current leadership elite that’s come out of the Class of ’66 and their cronies lack. They don t have that capacity.
Are you and other Igbo leaders of thought planning to visit Kanu anytime soon?
It is a regular thing that we all continue to talk as brothers about things, and I don’t think there is a grand, special reason to walk any other path. We will continue to dialogue as brothers on things that we would like to do to uplift the common good of all of our people.
How do you feel about the pan-Igbo socio-political group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, saying it will convince Kanu to accept restructuring?
When brothers meet, they will have conversations. The direction of the conversation is not a matter for the marketplace.
What is your response to people who believe Biafra is a lost cause that died with Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu?
To start with, I have always expressed a view that Biafra is a metaphor for discontent writ large and what has happened in Nigeria is that, in the words of Chido Onumah’s We Are All Biafrans, people in the North-East are Biafrans because they are unhappy with Nigeria. Many in the North-Central dealing with herdsmen issues are Biafrans because they are unhappy with Nigeria. Many in the South-South are Biafrans because they are unhappy in Nigeria, and so on. Across Nigeria, there is a democratisation of discontent. Nigerians are all Biafrans now. Until we can purge Nigeria of the sins that breed discontent, every Nigerian is a Biafran.
Do you think that Buhari has to implement the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference report to resolve the Biafra agitation and other sectional grievances in the country?
I think it is a starting point, not the very end. I think that we need a new national consciousness, a new spirit of development, dignity for all Nigerians, social justice and equity. And really, the people who do a better job of those kinds of things are political parties in the kind of people they recruit, in the way they socialise them into certain bodies of ideas about how society is organised. Unfortunately, we’ve done a terrible job of political parties in Nigeria. At this time, I’m not even sure that I can say there is a political party in the country. So, what is desperately needed are social movements that are strong in values and identification with certain ways of doing things, strong in certain principles of how you make society triumph over its limitations and ensure that the collective travels farther than the individual. Africans say Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are.’ How are we?
What has happened strangely is that in the past 50 years, through a very self-centred prism that we see reality, we have allowed mindless pursuit of individuals (to steal) out of the commonwealth without even encouraging a work ethic. They go to the commonwealth and extract for the self. The result is the corruption crisis that we are in. People say to me as I travel round the world: ‘What kind of disease is in your country that people are burying money in cemeteries, etc.? And it is very simple: it is the outcome of not socialising people to understand that the real goal of being alive is the pursuit of immortality; to be remembered, rather than the size of your bank account because very few people with big bank accounts really get remembered, if you think of it. The people who get remembered are the ones who touch other people’s lives for good. But we’ve not educated our people to do the right things because we’ve not had the kind of leaders who have been able to understand the right things.
What is the next line of action for the Igbo in terms of Kanu’s release?
It is just one phase in the evolution of a process of building virile communities where the future of the children can have a greater assurance that they will live in dignity and not in deprivation, being looked down on and taken advantage of. I think we need to begin to rethink and reteach history. I suspect that that’s part of the reason history disappeared from the curriculum in Nigeria. There were people too ashamed to tell the story of Biafra. Until Nigeria accepts that the Nigerian Civil War was one of the great genocides of the 20th Century, we will continue to make mistakes. It is not a story told me. I witnessed it. I saw people, unarmed civilians, being shot. Our story happened in my presence. Pretending about it is going to just breed anger in the Balkans, the people are remembering a hurt 1,000 years after and they went through what we went through. Let’s purge ourselves of the error of the past and begin to move forward. That’s what Nigeria requires and that must be the commitment of the new leadership in the land that wants its children to know that they are people of a certain dignity, not people looked down at.
Should we expect a similar news with regard to the other IPOB members who are still in detention?