A political scientist and former Special Assistant to ex-President Shehu Shagari, Prof. Pat Utomi, tells Bayo Akinloye, in this interview that had Gen. Muhammadu Buhari not toppled the government of his principal through a military coup in 1983, Nigeria would have become better today. He also notes that there is more unhappiness, unemployment, poverty and despair in the country today than ever before. Excerpts:
Do you think the recognition of MKO Abiola by the federal government came a little too late?
The life of 25 years is a very short time. In the United States, people are still lobbying for people who ‘were convicted for one thing or the other’ about 200 years ago to get formal pardons. So, in the life of a nation, I think that 25 years is not a terribly long period of time. At least, people like us, who were active in the (June 12, 1993) struggle, are still around. Will it have been better if it was done 22 years ago? Sure. But I don’t think that it was bad being done eventually.
Do you find it ironical that neither President Goodluck Jonathan nor President Umaru Yar’Adua honoured Abiola but it took a dictator-turned democrat, President Muhammadu Buhari, to award the late Abiola with the GCFR?
Well, in the world of politics, nothing is a straight-line graph. The bottom line is that our country desperately needs healing right now. We desperately need the past being reconciled (with the present) so that we can move forward. There is too much pain bottled-up and this bottled-up pain is being seen often not understood in many of the so-called security challenges around the country – whether in kidnapping, insurgency, terrorism. In many ways, these are connected to many injustices of the past. This country is full of historical injustices. Somebody has to take the lead in trying to help heal those wounds, because they are preventing progress that we should be making as a country.
Do you think the honour will put a closure to many open wounds in the country?
It will start but it won’t close, because the open wounds are too many and too many people, who are closer to those problems, still bear personal animosities. Nigeria has seen all manner of things. There were much genocide you can think of in the 20th century – Nigeria experienced a significant one. I’m not talking about something far away. In the Nigerian civil war, I had experienced it first-hand. I also was one of those, who resisted the annulment of June 12. The files are still full in the court in the SSS files of attempt to kill me. I’m talking, because I survived. People like Kudirat Abiola didn’t survive – so injustices are many.
The injustice has deepened the cleavages of ethnicity and religion – personally, I don’t feel any of those. There’s a joke I keep saying to people that if people realise how small these things (ethnicity and religion) are. I’m privileged to be very close friends with both the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto and the Sultan of Sokoto. When I go to Sokoto on some occasions the sultan, the bishop and I sit on the floor eating. I just wish all the people quarrelling in Nigeria can see the three of us sitting on the floor eating and joking about everything. Then they will know they shouldn’t be quarrelling and abusing one another on the Internet. Political leaders need to show leadership in helping to heal some of these wounds.
Is it correct that the award given to Abiola and Gani Fawehinmi was to woo the South-west ahead of the 2019 presidential election?
I was not there when the decision was made. So, I don’t know what the motivation was – I’m not guessing. But it’s not a crime in politics to make such moves. I can’t speak with any authority on what the motivation was, because I wasn’t there.
Talking about 2019, you’re a member of the Nigeria Intervention Movement. Do you think this movement can wrest power from the incumbent? Who are the possible presidential candidates you are considering to contest against President Buhari?
Again, this is part of the thing with attempts to create a movement to achieve certain goals. Sometimes they get misunderstood. Sometimes they get confused. Sometimes people have different perspectives and come to the table. Let me preface a little talk about social movement in Nigeria and my involvement with social movements. I don’t think we’ll be revealing something new when we say Nigeria is a horribly governed country. It is far from its potential for some many simple reasons.
In my view, sometimes some people will say because it has had terrible, wicked, and greedy past leaders – maybe it’s true or not but I tend to think that the wickedness of such people are exaggerated. I think the biggest problem with Nigeria is that it has had leaders, who were not educated enough and wise enough to understand the consequences of their actions. I think if the people, who usually were holding a gun to Babangida’s head to annul the (June 12) election only had the broader picture of the consequence above their immediate self-interest, they’d probably act differently.
Let me start with June 12: I was principal to the founding of one of the most important movements of that time called the Concerned Professionals. It was designed to draw into the political arena people who ordinarily would say, ‘Leave these soldiers; leave these politicians. God will judge them.’ Don’t wait for God to judge them. God has given you a brain, so be active in deciding your own future. We supported NADECO.
Now, the whole idea of the Nigeria Intervention Movement was to repeat the same movement that we built up under the Concerned Professionals – that if we can attract a lot of professionals, they can then go into whatever party they want to. They can take over the existing parties and turn them around – If they think it’s not working they can create another party. The NIM as I understood it was not designed to be a political party. It’s a force designed to create capacity to take over an existing party or create a new one.
A former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Alani Akinrinade, said the security architecture of Nigeria must be changed. What do you think?
I believe that and looking at the security architecture in Nigeria one important thing to bear in mind is the state of the economy. The more we have unemployed people and the more we have bad or poor education – as most people are certificated but they’re basically illiterate – the easier it is for people, who have grievances to recruit people and brainwash them to become agents of disruption of normal order.
The general state of anomie that seems to be overtaking us in Nigeria, for me, significantly is economy. Therefore, the beginning of thinking insecurity is thinking a developmental state that aims to create a full employment economy – people who are educated enough in civic matters to resist those who seek to use them to abuse the state. Of course, there are other aspects of the security architecture that need to be reviewed. Of course, Gen. Alani Akinrinade is one of the most outstanding officers of the Nigerian Army and still alive. He knows what he’s talking about. So, we need to listen to people like him.
Only six states – all from the South-west – out of the nation’s 36 declared June 12 a public holiday. Does that bother you?
I think there’s a matter of how people try to draw emphasis to things that are unnecessary and unfortunately, Nigeria has got into this very sad ethnic arithmetic in which things are interpreted in ethnic ways. I often repeat a statement that came from the World War II by Reverend Martin Niemoller, who said, ‘First they came for the Jews and I said these Jews are too troublesome anyway. Then they came for the communists and I said well thank God I’m not a communist. Then they came for the Catholics and I said at least I’m a protestant and finally they came for me but there was no one else to speak up.’
Why do you think the 30 other states didn’t celebrate June 12?
I just think it’s because they consider it as something that is too politically problematic. ‘Let just leave it. The day that the South-west succeeds then we would join them.’
Some are worried about Buhari’s possible second coming, citing his poor health records as president. Do you really think that should be a cause for concern?
In recent times, many of us have been talking about restructuring and all of that. One of the things I said to myself is that I want to become a village man. I want to focus on local issues and leave Abuja alone – let Abuja take care of itself. By the time I fix my village maybe I can then find out what’s happening in Abuja. Besides, I’m not a doctor; I can’t tell who is well or who is not well.
Some have suggested that there should be an independent team of medical doctors to test the fitness of presidential candidates before contesting in the 2019 poll. Do you agree?
You can’t single one person out. If you’re going to test the fitness of all the public office holders then we should test the fitness of every aspirant in any position.
This time round one would have thought that you would also throw your hat in the ring to contest the presidential poll. Why are you not contesting?
When I turned 60 two years ago, I wanted to retire completely. I said I had reached what should be called a retirement age and I was told that the academic age (of retirement) is 70. I’m more interested in serving Nigeria from the edge, where it stands than on a position or a title. One of the things that I focus on a great deal is the concept of the leader, who has no title. If I could find a way of making a difference without holding a position, I’ll be happier. There’s an obsession in this country with titles and positions. I want to make a difference.
There have been accusations that Buhari’s war against corruption is largely being waged against individuals in the opposition party. People say the anti-corruption war is not transparent. What more do you think the government can do to show sincerity and transparency?
I’ll just give the same answer I gave when they accused Obasanjo of the same thing that Ribadu was attacking his opponents – going after his opponents. I said: ‘Okay, it’s good. At least you people did something. Whether you’re the man’s friend or enemy let them go after you. If they finish catching his enemies then he can get to his friends.’ I think that people will always say something. Let’s deal with corruption; it doesn’t matter who it is.
Besides, catching people is important now that two governors are in jail. My prayer is that before the end of this year, we should have at least ten governors in jail. Why is it important for them to go to jail? Not that I want them to suffer – many of them are my friends, very good friends for that matter – but because I want us to learn a lesson that will be a deterrence in the future. But more importantly, my preferred approach is an approach that makes it more difficult to be corrupt than the one that catches those who have been corrupt.
The APC is battling to have a common front going into 2019 elections. Do you see the party failing next year?
It’s not a fair question to ask me, because I’m a member of the APC. So, what will I say that would be fair? Perhaps, I should not say anything.
Buhari has often been accused of nepotism and condoning corrupt practices of people in his government like Babachir Lawal. What is your thought on that?
I’m assuming the investigations are going on and when there is enough information, some actions will be taken. As a matter of principle, I would think that it’s important to clear that there are no secret sacred cows. In fact, people around you should be the first to be held accountable, because it points straight at you if you don’t hold them accountable. I would hope that such philosophy is borne in mind. But people should not also be persecuted just because they are close (to the government). There should be some kind of balance in these matters.
Killings in the North-Central have continued unabated. What do you think is responsible? How can these be stopped?
You know again that part of the problem that I have with the limitation of the public sphere in the market place of idea in Nigeria is that it has been reduced to a certain level of mediocrity that quality conversation is absent today in Nigeria. The issues in the North-Central are deep and complex. But they have been treated as Islamisation. First of all, the herdsmen-farmers clashes are part of a major sociological challenge in a transition society, transiting from an agrarian society towards an industrial society.
Fifty years ago, the herdsmen were principally entrepreneurs; they own their cattle and the land tenure system was different. But they were able to reach some kind of accommodation with the farmers. They were generally allowed in certain corridors, where crops were not planted. They didn’t bother farmers too much. But with time, our society became increasingly urbanised, the corridors. We do not do enough as a society to move into a ranch economy.
More than 30 years ago, we should have been there. Again, one of the failures of this country is failure in economic planning with continuity. As for back as the 1950s, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was setting up ranches especially a huge one in northern Ondo that has been disused for some time now. If we had continued with ranches at that time and if the railway system had not collapsed and we could have had a system in Yobe State or Jigawa processing meat put in cold storage in trains would get to Lagos within a day, the people would get their meat easily.
The second part of this sociological challenge is that these herdsmen are entrepreneurs 50 years ago, because you’ll see the cattle belonged to them. But today those cattle we see around probably belong to people in the National Assembly, some governors – even some southerners, who have invested in that business. The herdsmen basically are now labourers with no stake. They are, in fact, going through a transition crisis and there’s no brain to discuss the issue as it is and the simple answer is Islamisation.
Politicians have been accused of fueling the herdsmen-farmers violent conflict. What is your take on that?
The politics of Nigeria is very simple, because most of the politicians have nothing to offer. Therefore, they look for something that creates a cleavage that they can then use a fake or mere sentiment to attract us. So, the failure of the political class is what leads to problems of these cleavages in our society.
You were a special assistant to former President Shehu Shagari. What was the experience like? And how do you feel that the dictator now turned democrat, who toppled that government is ruling now?
First thing about my experience is that I learnt very early. I was 27 years old at the time. But I didn’t get appointed, because I was somebody’s son or uncle. At that age, I had two master’s degrees and a PhD. Therefore, I was coming to the table with something. Not only the degrees I had but I had served in the US as an intern in the US Congress. I knew how the American system worked and that was what I was bringing to the table.
Obviously, I dealt with frustration of the system and I kept talking about the permanent secretary that worked with me – every day I’d not sleep at night working on what we could change in the system to make it work for the Nigerian people. Once I began to talk to the PS, he’d say: ‘you know if you do this you’ll step on the toe of the minister of that.’ One day, I said to him: ‘Mr. PS is there anything that’s possible to do?’ My point is one of the great lessons from my experience was a decision that I made then that I’d never go back into public life without critical enough mass to make a difference.
This was the reason when President Yar’Adua asked me to join his cabinet and I told him I couldn’t give him advice, because but I didn’t want to be a token. To his credit, President Yar’Adua said to me that I’d make a greater difference inside than from outside and I said okay find seven good people and I’d be pleased to be the eighth and then he threw it back at me and said I should find the seven good people and come with them. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough. The view I hold about what we’ve been through the years can be found in an interview I gave to the New York Times, January 8, 1984.
In that interview I said Nigeria would one day feel sorry that they had thrown the baby out with the bath water (as many rejoiced over the coup led by Gen. Buhari that ousted the government of Shagari). I think any living Nigerian with brain will know that Nigeria would have moved further ahead today if that coup didn’t take place on December 31, 1983, although – in my view – I was convinced that the coup was done to prevent Dr. Alex Ekwueme from becoming the president in 1987.
Has Buhari made the country more divided or united than he met it?
I think we have been polarised as a country and it is much worse today clearly – whether somebody caused it or not, the bottom line is that the country is more polarised today. It’s important to begin the healing process, which is why I embraced the June 12 honours – it’s a good process.
What areas do you think the present administration should improve on?
Every government everywhere can improve on some areas, because life is work-in-progress – but very importantly, the economy. There’s despair in the land. There’s such a level of unemployment, unhappiness and poverty in the country. I think normal economic policy is not enough anymore.