A political economist and former presidential candidate, Prof Pat Utomi, shares his thoughts with DANIEL AYANTOYE on Nigeria’s economic situation, corruption, and plan for a new political party, among other issues
You recently said the 2023 presidential candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party, Labour Party, and the New Nigeria Peoples Party have commenced discussion with stakeholders for a possible merger to wrest power from the All Progressives Congress in 2027, but this claim was debunked by the political parties. What is your reaction to this?
Did I say anything like they commenced a merger? People are creating their narratives. I said we are trying to build a real political party. In the process of the building, I have had the opportunity to talk with each of these candidates and the process of building a party is ongoing and not a merger. One thing that I know is wrong is that I have seen the merger before that brought about the APC and look at where it has brought Nigeria.
The problem is that Nigerian politics has been left in the domain of interest of individuals who are politicians, and they couple together a convenient arrangement that will make them win elections and they forget what political parties are supposed to reel out and how political parties build ideas that solve society’s problems. So, my idea is that we will begin from the get-go to build the party and then talk with everybody; all Nigerians, including these leaders if they feel that they fit into the ideology, the values, and the operational national strategy for development that this our platform will offer, they can join and become part of it. As I said, I have had conversations with these particular people, and they are open to the idea.
Won’t this new party have the same structure as other existing political parties?
It is completely different. These other parties are not political parties. They are private business enterprises by few people, though they incorporate certain elements and use them as a tool of politics for securing power and eventual state capture.
But there have been situations where a new party is created, and people defect to the new party. Are you expecting such to happen with your new party?
This is why we are trying to define what the party is about and what it stands for, so that those who are coming are doing so because they subscribe to those things not because they are bringing a structure to come and look for transactions. Nigeria is left prostrate by such transactions. What we need are leaders. People who believe in Nigeria, in the idea of this particular political party and social movement, and this will be the particular basis for engagement.
Are you not concerned that the proposed political party may be hijacked by powerful political gladiators from other political parties?
I am not concerned at all because we can learn from what has happened in the past so that we don’t get to that point.
Are you confident that this new political party will unseat the APC in 2027?
I don’t care whether the APC is on the seat or out of the seat. That is not the purpose of my involvement. Who is governing Nigeria? Nigeria is currently run as a ship. So, let’s get Nigeria governed whether it is by APC, UTC, or whatever. Let’s get Nigeria governed; that’s what matters.
With the current situation, especially since other political parties have debunked the merger claims, do you think any merger is possible with other political parties ahead of 2027?
I am not in a position to predict what is possible with other political parties. Anything is possible.
While reacting to a report, the APC Director of Publicity, Bala Ibrahim, boasted that no party, including any coalition, would be able to unseat the APC in 2027. What do you make of that?
Can we have a serious discussion? Did APC win in 2023? Please, let’s have a conversation.
If APC didn’t win and we have the APC government currently, are you not concerned that we may have the same situation in 2027?
Nigerian journalists are too obsessed with elections rather than governing. What we are trying to build is a platform to affect how Nigerians are governed, not a platform to win elections. If that platform is appropriate, the effect will be felt from next week, not Election Day. We want to provide a clear way of how to govern Nigeria effectively. And what that person said is something I have heard every day. You don’t expect me to take those kinds of comments seriously. Modernity and democracy come together at a point of rational public conversation, and that is not a significant thing.
So, it has to be ignored as part of the individual propaganda of Nigerian politics. We need serious people to discuss serious issues as they affect the lives of Nigerians who are living in the worst times. Most times, the question I get to ask is are you better off today than you were four years ago? Every generation expects a generation that will allow it to have a better life. Nigeria’s emerging GEN-Z is having a worse life than their grandfathers had. They have a moral obligation to ask their grandfathers questions about why they ruined their future.
You said it doesn’t matter the party that governs Nigeria, how would you describe the current situation in the country as led by the APC government?
What I know is that most people I run into are in distress. I have to struggle to buy fuel and shout at the driver when the fuel is empty from the tank. I say, ‘Come, my friend, when did we enter the filling station last? Why is the tank empty?’ Everybody is facing this situation except those who are stealing money.
Despite this situation, the APC has continued to argue that the current administration is on the right path. What do you make of it?
You can’t stay on the right path; to where and what? They have to be specific and show us how they are on the right path. You don’t generalise. For instance, the exchange rate, how are we managing it? Our debt profile, how are we managing it? The poverty rate in our society, how are we managing it? How are we managing the diversification and production of the economy? Let’s look at how we are managing education in our country. What about healthcare? How are we managing it? How many Nigerians are dying every day from curable diseases? These are the issues we should bring to the front burner of discussions and address, and not stating emotional issues. We have gone past those stages; we should be looking forward to how we will save the country.
Let’s stop playing games. It is like in the scriptures where God said, ‘I put before you, life and death, choose life.’ Before us is an existential crisis. Nigeria will either continue as it is going and end up like Somalia or dramatically do something and have the chance of going the way India did. I practically like citing India these days because the story of India shows that it is possible when people take themselves seriously to have a turnaround. Nigeria has travelled the wrong way, but it is possible to turn it around. But we have to get serious, and not go into power to share money. Look at all these stories of corruption everywhere.
As if these people don’t have a conscience, how can they sleep when people are starving and dying, yet they are busy stealing money? But a political scientist of mine in the US has a theory that basically explains it. He said the Nigerian political class negotiated how to stop the military and how to share the things that fell to them, but somehow failed to discuss the people. So, politics in Nigeria right now is all about who can corner power rightly or wrongly, and who he/she is giving a share of the booty not minding whether Nigerians are better off or worse off,
From where we are coming from as a nation to where we are currently, there have been diverse issues that have affected the economy. Do you see President Bola Tinubu’s administration making any big difference in the development of Nigeria?
I don’t know. I am not God. How will I know?
But the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Daniel Okoh, recently urged Nigerians not to lose hope due to the current economic situation of the country, saying they (Nigerians) see the effort of the president to secure the nation. How will you react to this?
Of course, you went to school and have the capacity to observe. When people are determined to solve a problem, you will see their attitude and actions revolving around the problem. In 1977, oil prices dropped, and there was a young soldier, called (Olusegun) Obasanjo who was the head of state, he had enough common sense to realise that this was impacting the wealth of the people. So, he began to say things like, ‘We must cut our cloth according to our cloth, not according to our size.’ He ordered a low profile; the highest that the head of state could be riding was a Peugeot 504. Now, we are in a worse time in Nigeria’s history in terms of the welfare of Nigerians.
Check the motorcade of your Presidency and National Assembly ride and tell me who acted more like a politician; Olusegun Obasanjo, the soldier, who was young, or 80+ years politicians who have been around for so long. It shows you that the disconnect between the political class and the people is now complete. The people are a joke, that’s why they could be asking, ‘Should we let them breathe?’ And when these things happen, it is easy to joke about it, but check the history of Eastern Europe and see how it ended.
I cannot advise him; he is very experienced. He knows better than me. I think this thing is very simple. There is a class problem; the political class has a monumental cultural problem. They have accepted corruption as a Nigerian way. They have seen it as a transaction. When the consequences come…all the things we said would happen 20 years ago have happened. The one that will happen, I may not be around to see it. But I can assure you that something dramatic will happen that will turn around the political class and everybody will say, ‘I said it’.
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Kayode Ajulo, recently said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission seems to have lost the essence for which it was created and has now allegedly turned into a political tool. Do you agree with him?
If it is the EFCC, half of the legislators and executive members shouldn’t be free. Is it not in this country where they said if you want to be forgiven your sins, come and join our party? One of the terrible things that the political class has successfully done is to damage our institutions; the EFCC, police, judiciary and what have you. No society that does that to its institutions survives for a long time. Go and read Jaret Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’; it is about how society has failed throughout human history and you will see where we are going. Institutions are at the core of human progress and values. All that I see is that the political class is unaware of this, and they deliberately function in a manner that is moving Nigeria towards collapse.
You once said the political class must change its approach or the country will die. What do you mean by that?
I am not flippant. I am looking at history and I have studied why nations succeed and why nations fail. What I see us doing maybe not self-consciously, is doing those things that nations that have failed did. I mean look at our peers, look at where those we started with are compared to where we are. If you look at India between 1999 and now, how political violence has decreased there. In Nigeria, it (political violence) has been increasing. What is the variable that is responsible for our traveling in opposite directions? How do our institutions and political actors approach the matter of the quality of citizen’s life?
The more you make the lives of citizens better, the less violence you tend to get. It is only rational that I can extrapolate that Nigeria’s society will just get more and more violent until anarchy reigns. And we are close. Even in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, people are being kidnapped. Where is safe in the country? Look at how our Christmas was messed up with the kind of mindless killing that took place in Plateau State. Go to the North-West, the killing fields; they don’t even report anymore what happens there. For to the North-East, the Boko-Haram syndrome; come to the South-East, you see kidnapping everywhere. In the few places that seem a bit safe, everybody will be rushing there and one day, everybody will be trapped. We have to work, and we have to pray.
Given the security situation, a civil society organisation called for the suspension of the National Youth Service Corps. What is your take on it?
I think the values of the NYSC have significantly diminished and depreciated by how it has been going for some time. I think we have to rethink the scheme completely. This is not a new view from me. I am not saying we should scrap it or get another value from it but we need to rethink it. It certainly did not give the value that it was supposed to give 40 years ago.
It appears the political parties don’t have the solution to the problems of Nigeria because you discover that after each government administration, things get even worse. What do you think is the problem?
A big part of the problem is citizenship. Civil society is very closely related to citizenship. I think it is all tied to political culture. As I have always said, if you look at the way the Greeks categorise people in society on three levels; at the bottom, you have people who think only of themselves, and they call those people idiots. The next are people who think of people who are only related to them; they call them tribesmen. Then those who have more universal dignity of the human person, as a basis for engaging in society, they called them citizens. The problem is that Nigeria has been running short of citizens.
Some people who were struggling to be citizens yesterday have become tribesmen. Many more have even dropped into the league of idiots. So, we now have an awkward situation where we are now wondering whether civilisation is in the reverse just because of the greed of the few. Let me just say this, I don’t have plenty of naira, and I don’t know if I have ever got a government contract, but can these guys look at me? Does it look like my life has become a miserable one? So, what is this obsession about money? That I don’t have enough money to fuel my car, does it make me anything less than them? I think there is a sense of inadequacy in people in our country who measure their self-worth with net worth.
I can assure you that a man’s self-worth far exceeds his net worth. We have a new party that will recalibrate new values in the society. You have people like the Zambian president, who want a society organised according to the rule of law, who will say if you want to drive a big SUV, that’s your problem, it determines by your pocket. You see a photograph of the US Treasury Secretary travelling compared to Nigerian Ministers chartering planes to go to Abuja; that country is very rich and this one is a very poor one, it doesn’t just add up. Does it make sense to them? And this is the situation that is making many to japa and you see a country losing its best hands.
The Leader of Afenifere, Pa Ayo Adebajo, former NADECO Secretary, Chief Ayo Opadokun, and some other stakeholders have called for the dissolution of the centralised federal system of government. Do you think this can be a solution to the country’s challenges?
The thing with Nigeria is the selfishness of politicians; if a politician is shouting about that now if he gets hold of that centralised system, he will not let go. Instead of the person saying this is the moment to make the change. There is no doubt that we need to restructure the system as it currently is.
There have been calls by stakeholders and some governors for the police system to be decentralised and for the creation of state police. What is your take on this?
I have been on the call for a decentralised police force for a long time. Policing is a local function. It should even be just a state thing. I will give you an example; when I was in America, I lived in a college; the university had police who carried guns. There was a time when the governor of a state came to watch a basketball match, his driver packed at the wrong place, he got a ticket for it from the university police who knew it was a governor’s car. Then the city where that university was located had its police force, then the country had its police force, and then they had what they called state troopers. But anytime there is a civil rights violation, it is automatically an FBI matter. This is how you ensure checks and balances in the system. But here, we hear, we say this and that will abuse the police as if police are not being abused already. It is more difficult for the people in Yola who are posted to Ogbomoso to know that someone who lives on a street, the grandfather was a thief from that area. That’s what policing is about, having a close intimate relationship with a community.
But some lawyers in an interview recently raised concerns that the state governors would abuse the police. Don’t you think this is possible?
Is the Federal Government not able to do the same with the police? It is the same way you check the federal police that you will check the state police. In America today, because of this kind of tendency, once civil right is involved, it becomes an FBI matter, and the federal will come in. But for basic security, it will not even be states but local government areas. You can’t find excuses for not doing the right things. The truth of the matter is that policing is a local function everywhere in the world. The truth they refused to tell you is that most of the reasons things are centralised are corruption because they want to gather all the money in Abuja.
How would you describe the performance of INEC and the judiciary on election the 2023 general election?
That is why I told you that the political class does not realise what it is doing to Nigeria and to itself. It may think it is getting away with it now. The political class has destroyed the judiciary. Very few people will take the judiciary seriously. Foreign investors will tell you that this is one of the reasons they won’t invest in Nigeria because when there is a trade dispute, they can’t be sure that they will get justice from the legal system. I was on social media one day and I heard a governor or somebody saying he was thanking God that Tinubu could have asked the judiciary to rule against him, but he chose not to do so, and that he was grateful to him (Tinubu). Are judges not ashamed to hear this kind of statement? Even the man that they are thanking should be ashamed to hear that kind of statement because people will believe that he can influence the judiciary. I don’t know whether it is true or a lie, but I feel ashamed that such can be said by a person.
You once spoke about your health status when you were diagnosed with cancer. Nigerians will want to know how it is going with you.
The good Lord has been kind. The treatments have gone very well so far. So, we are thankful.
Credit: Punch newspapers