The grand consensus by majority of Nigerians is that the Nigerian state stands on a precipice. Indeed, most people believe that this is the most critical point in Nigeria’s political history; the point that we are very close to imminent war, or even final dissolution. This opinion is shared by both ordinary Nigerians whose very lives bear the inscriptions of the failed governance process in Nigeria, as well as the elites who keep struggling to keep the state from tottering and falling. The imminent danger at the moment is not even the COVID-19 pandemic and its multidimensional implications. With the first wave, Nigeria somehow escaped the death statistics that went into millions across the world. And Nigerians escaped outside of any governmental attempt at providing a stimulus package which could have alleviated the pains and agonies of a lockdown protocol that was so out of tune with Nigerian socioeconomic realities. Now, the second wave of the pandemic is biting hard, and the death tolls are increasing.
And right in the midst of the pandemic, Nigeria’s national development problems are escalating. And they are escalating right at the most fundamental core of a state’s responsibility to its citizens—law and order. Since the turn of the twenty first century, the national anomalies created by the amalgamation of the Nigerian state started culminating in several dysfunctional consequences. Central to these structural and institutional dysfunctions is Nigeria’s status as a federation. Nigeria’s constitutional past was a careful consideration of Nigeria’s plural reality and what constitutional history teaches about dealing with such realities. And yet, political adventurism, induced by military intrusions, led to a unitary imposition that engendered acute centralization. The centralization of the law enforcement machinery of the Nigerian state, for instance, stands in acute contradiction to the semblance of federal framework the Constitution promises, to wit, the governor of a state shall be the chief security officer of such a state, and shall be responsible for preserving the live of the citizens. The result is that the president dictates an order to the Inspector General of Police that flies in the face sociopolitical realities in each of the 36 states of the federation.
The Nigerian security reality is presently accentuated around the evils of kidnapping, banditry, insurgency and multiple killings. The terrible combination of Boko Haram insurgency and the herdsmen conflict has brought the Nigerian state to a watershed in her history that is only matched by the pre-civil war tension of 1966. In fact, many Nigerians fear that we are on the direct path to an imminent civil war. News report and political commentaries and analyses in the public sphere are filled by lamentations and angers. For some, it is either that the Nigerian leadership is playing a dangerous game or that the state as guarantor of peace and security is overwhelmed. This amounts to the same thing: neither can the state get the work of development done nor are public institutions working.
It takes a little reflection to see how such perception from the citizenry could lead to acute and depressing pessimism. Even political elites are throwing up their hands in resignation. And those who have not resigned themselves to fate are engaged in unceasing interrogation of a state that keeps frustrating every attempt at resolution. One major capitulation to pessimism was by Chief Bola Ige, the late attorney general of the federation who, unfortunately, fell to the insecurity of the Nigerian state. He popularized the catchphrase “siddon look.” This is a pidgin statement that speaks to a decision to fold one’s arms and watch as political incidences and events unfolds—without making any attempt at intervention. This attitude of political apathy is not nonchalance. On the contrary, it is borne out of the experience of bitter frustration that borders on cynicism.
And yet, cynicism is most cowardly of all responses to political troubles. And it is because it obviates the politics of hope. Stephen Colbert, the American comedian puts it most aptly: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the furthest thing from it…. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness: a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say ‘no.’ But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow.” And there is one political commentator, and active participant in Nigeria’s national project, who has never given in to cynicism, but rather has consistently been saying “yes”: Professor Pat Utomi. As a public intellectual, he has never shied away from projecting his hope and patriotism about Nigeria and her latent possibilities. He does not just analyze, he also participated in national affairs. He believed so much in Nigeria’s future and his blueprint for bringing it to pass that he actively took fundamental steps to become, first, the president of Nigeria, and then second, the governorship seat of Delta State. For him, Nigeria is too significant to be cynical about. Founding the Center for Values in Leadership (CVL) ensures that he keeps pushing the boundaries of thinking and action about making Nigeria a great nation. This means that there was no way he could be an armchair critic.
Utomi’s way of “yes” to Nigeria and her possibility to is to retort a “why not?” to the anguished and resigned chorus of those in the “Siddon Look Movement” who ask why we should bother about Nigeria and her consistent failure as a nation. It was therefore so apt that he would make his optimistic retort the focus of a book aptly titled Why Not: Citizenship, State Capture, Creeping Fascism, and Criminal Hijack of Politics in Nigeria (2019). This is an autobiographical narration of the author’s immersion in Nigerian politics, and perspectives on how it could be better. It is a book that speaks in a timely manner to Nigeria’s current security and governance challenge, and how we should be begin to reflect on solution, even though it was published almost two years ago. In the Preface to the book, the author categorically states that “why not” is the response to “the question ‘why bother,’ which is posed by those who believed that criminal capture of political parties in Nigeria is complete and that those outside the league of cult members, 419ers and con men have no chance of breaking in.” The book is Utomi’s own way of recoiling from cynicism, and spelling out fundamentally his vision for retrieving Nigeria from imminent collapse.
Utomi’s thesis is simple: politics has underdeveloped Nigeria since the founding fathers calibrated a vision of how Nigeria’s plurality ought to be managed. Politics in Nigeria, rather than being emancipatory on behalf of the citizens, has rather become a cult of personality dedicated to advancing the selfish and greedy interests of those who are committed to siphoning the commonwealth. This led to the crowding out of legitimate and genuine participants and citizens who could contribute their quota to making politics work for Nigeria. And this, in Prof. Utomi’s reckoning, is the reason why so many had folded their arms and assumed the attitude of “why bother?” the “why not?” retort, Utomi insists, “should be a clarion call of a people determined to prevent their lives from being determined by a cluster of cultists, conmen, fraudsters and treasury looters masquerading as politicians and political party leaders.” These people consolidated their fetish grip on politics with the terrible understanding that people do not matter, even in a democratic experiment.
To get the people, Nigerians, back into politics and reform the odious politics that exclude them and steal their commonweal through state capture, Prof. Pat Utomi has two solid recommendations. First, he demands that we hold the Nigerian middle class responsible. By “middle class,” Utomi has in mind the intellectuals, the professionals and the civil society—the academics, the business professionals, the religious leaders, the students, and the media professionals. The middle class is already complicit in state capture and the rape of the commonwealth because it has lost its moral authority. It has been reduced to an impotent and angry social media force that merely resort to name calling. The other side of the equation is to reform the political party dynamics that consistently make it practically impossible for those who genuinely want to participate to do so. Party politics has effectively become the competition of the rich and the wealthy.
Essentially, Utomi insists that Nigeria’s salvation demands the emergence of a purposeful new elite with new vision and new values that will become the foundation of new structures and institutions. The reformer in me rejoices at this recommendation. This is because it has been the focus of my agitation for institutional reforms for many years. Pat Utomi’s larger concern is to draw this new elite from the larger class of professionals and civil society, while I focus on new public managers with the capacity to birth new institutional philosophy on which democratic governance can be remodeled for development. This is the imperative of rehabilitating the Nigerian project and making it achieve its ultimate goal of achieving national integration and national development through a developmental Nigerian state.
To this end, Pat Utomi calls for the revolution of the enlightened leadership as a possibility that is only equaled by the revolution of the popular masses. When he wrote Why Not in 2019, the #EndSARS protest that shook the foundation of Nigeria was just a few months away. I suspect that Utomi would have been elated by the protest, but ultimately disappointed by its conclusion, as most of us were. But the protest gestured at the possibility of hope that has animated Prof. Pat Utomi and other concerned Nigerians for so long. The #EndSARS protest tells us essentially that Prof Utomi is right in his assessment of the Nigerian state, and that his vision is solid. We will need to reevaluate the politics that has kept us down for far too long. And we have started already. And why not?
Prof. Tunji Olaopa.
Retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos