Thinking aloud before a nation unravels by Pat Utomi

pat utomi

THE hate speech is  everywhere. They are coming from people you expect to be more responsible. The so called campaign adverts do more damage than the young people, on social media, who seem not to realize how Rwanda happened, even though one of them has generously been circulating a warning from the Sierra Leone experience authored by one Omar Bangura. Then there is Obasanjo in the broth. Quo Vadis Nigeria?

A quarter of a century ago I wrote a weekly column in this newspaper, The Vanguard. Its title was Thinking Aloud. And it appeared every Tuesday. That I find myself thinking aloud today shows, to use the title of a book by another Vanguard columnist of old, the late Pini Jason, that we are travelling A familiar Road. Sadly, this familiar road is looking like it is getting so much more dangerous we can reap more damage than the recursive economy we have erected from moving close to the brink ever so often and retreating from the edge of the cliff.

The building of a strong opposition has been central to my own engagement in partisan political life. After eight years of fairly intense engagement on the matter, I literally threw up my hands in frustration before Sen. Bola Tinubu.The bottom line in this effort at thinking aloud is to remind political actors of their duty to campaign and not stoke conflagaration and to remember accountability for the consequence of their conduct. The Campaigns of 2015 have been more animated because the stakes are higher. For the first time in a long time there are equally matched Political Parties contesting the Presidency. Here tribute has to go to the Lion of Bourdillion, former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu.

The former Lagos State Governor who had been in the process, decided it was time to get things done and he met with success. Instead of celebrating this success the 2015 seems to have moved elections into the new moral equivalence of war. Insensitivity to what makes competitive electoral politics work for countries is now in danger of making this good thing of a two party dominant system a threat rather than opportunity for the well being of the Nigerian people. Blood is beginning not to seem to matter. But those of a certain faith know how Abel’s blood mattered.

When I spoke at the Leadership Newspapers annual lectures a few years ago on the subject of Political Opposition and Political Parties I made the point that the raising of contending perspectives on the issues in governing, with the benefit of the education of voters, was one of the great benefits of multi party democracy. Surely the people cannot learn and vote right, better, with the hauling of insults and digging up of old wounds, as they will if policies on diversification of the economy, job creation to deal with the scourge of unemployment; Corruption, which has clearly become a weapon of mass destruction, and how to better insure security of lives and property, are not more important than personal insults, religious and ethnic sentiments.

Spectres of violence

As frightening as the poisoning of the atmosphere in a way that raises spectres of violence, before, during and after the elections there is the question of how people think they can govern if there is so much bitterness between the actors. No one can govern effectively without the other, so democracies need to have a culture of moving on after elections with less sharp divisions between government and opposition, even when the useful tool of a shadow government exists. When the quarrels become personal and deeply bitter, as the kind of contention we are witnessing, has potential for, that cooperative engagement for nation building is denied society. Surely, the Nigerian people do not deserve such.

How come politicians, who have reached heights they may never have aspired to, but for opportunities that Nigeria provided, do not reflect enough on how these expressions of aggression and desperation can bring the whole house come tumbling down. How do not feel possible outcomes from such desperate games.

Casting my mind to how we managed to get to this stage I can see enough blame to parcel around. From the nature of political recruitment process, the material benefits to be made from politics, the poor education in history of politicians; a media not as alive as it should be to its social responsibility role; weak civil society and elders that have failed to be elders, all have blame as I do. The costs are already manifesting in economic decline, tense environment, escalating violence with amazing levels of loss of lives and lowered standing in the world, for Nigeria, if we read the foreign press on these elections.

How do you justify the vicious attack on the character of opponents. While both sides of the two leading parties could tone down on those kinds of personal broadsides, that amount to petrol and matchsticks in the minds of supporters, I must say that General Buhari has been the greater victim. In his media chat President Jonathan suggested he may not be in the know of hate messages flowing from people who act in his interest. He should make effort to find out.

One civil servant in fact said to me that the awkwardness of desperation flowing from incumbents was because the fear of a clean audit of the system by a cleansing new government frightened many civil servants and politicians indulged in an orgy of corruption and impunity. In the old wisdom of Machiavelli, in The Prince: those who profit from an older order will do everything to prevent a new order from coming about; while those who could profit from the new order do not do enough to bring it about because man is incredulous in his nature, not wanting to try new things until they have witnessed experience of it.

I often dare to add that those who could profit from the new order are usually in the majority and do not act in their interest. However, on this occasion I would point to the fact that where profit from the old order is criminal, as with the current pervasive corruption and impunity in the system, those who profit from the old order are more likely to be most desperate. The problem with such desperation is that it is enormously short sighted to let personal desperation bring a country to ruin, because in the end even if they temporally uphold the old order, the people ultimately get desperate enough from the weight of injustice that the House falls, in their uprising for justice.

Like in Liberia and Somalia or Rwanda, they trade their private jets and fancy cars for refugee camps or police cells, awaiting transfer to the internal criminal court, whereas only a few could have been used as example if the new order had been allowed to arrive.

Sacred trust

But it is telling of how much rot we have all allowed the system to degenerate into that people who have the sacred trust of agents superintending the Commonwealth are so scared that a cleansing new order might come about. This is why a premium part of my prescription is that no matter the outcome of the elections, a primary duty would have to involve a reform of the rewards of public life, recruitment into political parties and positions in public office and citizen monitoring of public management.

The rewards of power in Nigeria are quite unhealthy for good governance. We must push for a political culture that emphasizes the simple life for people in power. Beside humanizing power, which is important for democracy, as different from the current distance and disconnect of the public office holder in Nigeria, it makes having office so alluring that pursuit of it, becomes the favourite chase of scoundrels, rather than people who can give service. We need to get rid of motorcades, dramatically reduce or get rid of the presidential fleet, or government jets, prosecute public officers who avoid commercial flights, except in attenuating circumstances, and charter jet aircraft for local travel. We should also bring security votes under some oversight, and limit discretion in deployment of public resources.

Presently political parties across the board disappoint on how they recruit and select candidates. If character were a premium we will have limits to the swings in loyalty. In the main it remains about cash, not competence, commitment, credibility and a passion for service, with only occasional exceptions from the rule.

Unfortunately, as I feared, the postponement of the elections, no matter the truth of the motivation for such a shift, has only intensified this sense of desperation. The emotions boiling in people for and against one candidate or the other has converted the radio phone in show into a stream of venomous outpouring of hate talk. If they only knew it was how the chant ‘cut down the tall trees’ took hold in Rwanda and exposed man’s bestiality in the golden glow of sad sunshine.

Cautioning moderation

We must, as we say in Nigeria, exclaim: it is not our portion. But ejaculatory prayer is not enough. We must work and pray. And to work here begins with politicians speaking prudently; elders acting wisely, and cautioning moderation, and the media and civil society getting politicians to focus on the issues while INEC forces a pulling off of messages that smear others. Then there is Obasanjo.

May God give General Obasanjo temperance of nature and as an elder wisdom to make what point he thinks is useful, with learning from the Clintons on Bushes who seldom speak on the extant order and are, therefore, not subjected to rain of insults I hear pouring down in torrents on a father of the nation, from people as young as not to have been born when Abacha held him in the Nigerian Gulag.

As we act and pray, I trust that Nigeria will rise up again, like the phoenix from this low point it has fallen, because the cost is high. The Business class seats on major commercial airlines into Lagos had dropped so low a friend on a well known flight from London had only three others sharing the cabin, the stock market fell eight percent in the week following the postponement of the elections and was ranking with Ukraine as among the most challenged in the world. Desperate politicians hardly think economic costs to the people.

In many democracies in the world that I know many office holders and Leader Wannabes would rather bow out with grace than let their country suffer such for the sake of their ambition. For some reason love for country in Nigeria is still at such low stock that many who lead us would rather our stock crash than their fortunes.

We must keep hope alive but the truth is that the polity is sick, the economy is unwell and I am not feeling quite so good myself. So let the deliverance ministry go to work. We need dry bones to rise and walk.

P.S     The forgoing lines were written before General Olusegun Obasanjo’s dramatic tearing up of his PDP membership card. While that is within the rights of the individual in freedom of expression I hasten to plead that elders have a duty to calm tempers and not pour kerosene on troubled waters.

Troubled waters

For some time I have been ‘harassing’ the elders I am friendly with, General Gowon, Gen TY Danjuma, General Ibrahim Babangida, General Aliyu Gusau and others that they must speak caution and peace to the land so history not treat us as some have unfortunately had to be treated as I look at the Middle East, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere, even as the world looks to an age of progress.

I have done it so often that some of these elders jokingly or seriously begin to warn me as I come towards them. February 16 was a cause of great fright for me. I hope now that people who failed to understand why I once suggested the incumbent should gracefully step away to save the country these kinds of moments will understand. Add to the events of Abeokuta the frenzy of support for General Buhari in Maiduguri that was of such a pitch he could not even stay on at the rally as a change desperate people poured out their hearts. Our country is polarized we need the calming balm of statesmen.

Listening to radio call-in shows and hearing the passions for and against I begin to fear that the politicians need to read the Omar Bangura piece and begin to educate all that the key to the future is for all to be inside the house pissing out, than for some to be outside the house pissing in. Veritable words from Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former US president, which the Malaysians adopted as Mantra for their vision 2020 process.

Again I like to recall comments I made at lecture to mark the 60th birthday of Pastor Wale Adefarasin, a few years ago. Ironically the speakers were the now APC V-P nominee, Prof Yemi Osinbajo and myself. I gave examples from Liberia and Somalia of elite of Somalia and Liberia and what they, were reduced to in refugee camps and Osinbajo who served on an assignment in Somalia cited an example he witnessed.

The key is for all to remember that Nigeria, and the future of our children come bigger than all our egos. So let them arm themselves with Olive branches and know that to allow a country like this become a version of Dante’s inferno, the hottest part of hell will be like deep freeze, compared to what they reap as against the path of immortality, in erecting peace but encouraged violence.

  • Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship and founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership was a Vanguard columnist in the 1980’s.

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1 Comment

  1. Prof. Pat Utomi spoke my mind and highlighted several of my discussion with friends, lovers of Nigeria, the new political actors and politicians alike.
    Nigeria reached its political climax for the first time in a long while because the act of opulence in public office has gotten to an unprecedented height while poverty reign supreme.

    Politics are discussed in schools, classrooms, market, commercial buses, corporate environment, religious centres and all corners of the country which tells us that the once docile dog has now become active because of survival.

    The hard question on both side is can things get better without a change, while another is we want a change because things have gone from bad to worse.

    However, the fear is the passion with which we the polity is been heated up by people who should know the truth and repercussion should there be war is a cause for concern. Communication teams of political office holders and aspiring leaders have gotten to the lowest ebb in decades. A governor slapping a judge, also challenging the ruling of an appeal court on the pages of newspapers. How did we get here in the first place?

    The issues has been well said and it is an ideology between those who want the old order based on what they can continue to benefit and those that prefer the new order even though some of them do not know what it might produce.

    Ladies & Gentlemen, i dare say that hate speech and derogatory remarks will not take us far but plunge the country in further darkness. We need real issues to be discussed on every level. Politicians of major political parties should warn supporters and keep it simple. We all know that most of them are only interested in themselves but one thing is sure, after this election, Nigeria at all level will not remain the same irrespective of the winner because i have this feeling that the tide has turn and there will be no war.

    Finally, my advise to key political actors goes thus:

    To President Jonathan: Please engage your communication team and demand only the best even if you have one day left in office. The best does not know tenor but can seize the moment. Your ambition is not worth any Nigerian’s life. Do your best to win and if not, take it and move on. At least you will always remain respected and a former president. If you win, choose the best to work with you and seek training where neccessary.

    To Gen Buhari: I hardly blame you for most of the dictatorial issues during your reign because most military leaders are like that but we always remember the discipline. However, this is democracy and the rule of law must be respected. If you lose, accept and move on but if you win, put in your best and do not run after unprofitable thing. Select the best with the assistance of those who love the country and embrace the whole country. Nigerian are more alert and a president might be impeached in 1 or 2 years based on performance going forward.

    To all other apsirants, show maturity and serve the people. Enough of leaving a life of stupendous opulence.

    God bless Nigeria

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