On Why Nigeria Remains Backward by Pat Utomi

08 Apr 2012

Dear Simon Kolawole, when I read your column, “Why Nigeria Remains Backward”, I was not sure whether I should commiserate with you, encourage you not to be despondent or just welcome you to the club of Nigerians, who are depressed by the Nigerian condition. In the end I thought I should share with you some of my reflections and experiences on the subject.
Your start-out lamentation that even if crude oil sells for $2000 a barrel for the next ten years it were not likely to see a significant improvement in the quality of life of most Nigerians, in many ways sums up the central concern that has made my spirit restless.

I worry though that you sound like you are in the surrender mode. I have been close to giving up many times myself. But I have been brought back from that mind frame by lessons from my history. My favourite examples that keep me stubbornly hopeful that this nightmare will give way to light and progress are Indonesia and Japan. When Nobel Prize Winning Economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote off Indonesia as hopeless and stuck in “intrinsic stagnation” and noted Harvard Economist Edwin Reischeller said Japan could not hope to make economic progress, and both economics turned around within a decade of their predictions. Who could have anticipated later times? Besides Faith, and a certain conviction that the political and bureaucratic class that have burdened us with much backwardness by their actions do not desire backwardness for Nigeria. They are, unfortunately, victims of limited knowledge and atrophied imagination. So I live in hope that something will open their eyes to the true cost of their conduct. Have hope.

There were seasons in times past as you did, when I have been driven by anger. How can we have a generation so foolish their years of desperation for power only have a disgraceful misery index to show for it? My anger nearly consumed me and the conditions got worse even as the powerful lived it up in the country of the big man with much swagger. It occurred to me at some point that my anger strategy was not working. My expressions of outrage did not stop the schools from getting worse, the police from becoming less effective, and the economy from creating fewer jobs even as the population ballooned. And some, ever ready with counsel, suggested that if you criticise them harshly, they would not listen when you speak. So I was quiet for a season, offering counsel I thought would incline the hearts of power to the common good. But it made no difference. Again those ready with counsel said you see they do not trust you. If you join them, become part of their party you can get inside and once inside you can use power and do much good.

So I looked at those who got inside. One cultured gentleman, who spent eight years in the senate, told me it was the biggest waste of a huge portion of his life. Again I looked at technocrats who were useful in boosting credibility before the world. The sterile advice they offered, which missed the beat of the heart of a simple people tired of living so much hardship in a land of plenty, did not seem to improve things much, beyond occasional celebration of statistics of progress of GDP growth often negated by figures that showed the absolute poor increasing in their tribes. Then I decide I cannot afford not to be angry. But I am tired of anger because the core of my being is a contrary emotion, it is really of love. So I resigned to a frustration mode so palpable in your column of last Sunday. But I know that is no good. I think of my children and I engage again.

In this rollercoaster of emotions I am given to long reflections on what can work. How can one deal with so anti-Fanon a generation, so unable to discover its mission, or so comfortable in the betrayal of that mission. I realise from faith that despair is not an option.

But is the trouble with Nigeria leadership, as Chinua Achebe concluded five years ago; or is it, as you suggest, the five obstacles of “too many checkpoints”, “your turn to eat”, “too much politicking”, “incompetence” and “crime with no punishment”?

While these are critical factors the collapse of culture assures sustainable progress is improbable. As leaders shape culture and values shape human progress Achebe may not be far off the point even if people more directly feel specific aspects of this collapse of culture.

The reign of impunity and retreat of the rule of law stokes the fire of the mindless pursuit of riches, mainly through corruption and direct stealing. As justice is denied all but the rich and powerful, the desperation to have it and power has filled the corridors of power with many hardened criminals. Try reading newspapers. It’s one page after the other of missing billions. These days if I see a man convicted I think first this must be a framed innocent, because criminals seldom get convicted in Nigeria. We may have to outsource that assignment of convicting the truly guilty to British courts. In all of these there was a question of personal accounting. What should I do to make a difference? Maybe teach better because I can influence many more people. Or should I just try and make a lot of money, ignoring the bribery required there so I could use the proceeds to do well. Teach well, use your media skills and be active in civil society and your life will yield much more impact on businessmen your affect as business angel will make more money collectively, and civil society effort will help build institutions and affect culture.

I turned to active politics when I found civil society was not making politicians account.
Civil society, especially media, has failed to facilitate horizontal accountability and citizenship. It was as citizen that I had hoped to find meaning for being. But I went from founding one to joining another, concerned professionals, Nigerians United to Resist Anarchy etc. It was clear that as poverty and illiteracy held majority captive, the educated middleclass was too desperate to protect its small gains. It would not risk working for the good of broader base. The fuel subsidy protest proved my point that if that class failed to rise to its role anarchy or a bloody revolution would be inevitable. Those who think they would have escaped the rain into the house of politics, creating a “democracy” that is government of politicians, for politicians, by politicians, will find they will end up with nothing if we do not now cut the cost of government and abuse of commonwealth by politicians.

It remains true that if you have power in Nigeria you can steal one bank and be applauded for it even as you crush  the well-being of hundreds of thousands because impunity knows not history, it knows now. The Nigeria that does not remain backward will have to find men and women obsessed with their place in history to lead, and to shape culture.

The trouble with the kind of political class we have is that the idolatry of the worship of ill-gotten gains is so blinding to what is coming that they always imagine they are invincible until they end up in refugee camps scrambling for a bowl of rice. An old school mate from graduate school days in the US who served as Liberia’s Ambassador to Nigeria in the years of that country’s traumatic conflict used to say to me that it amazed him we could be sacrifice so much of Nigerian blood and material resources to save his country yet run our country without learning how they got there. So when Karl Meier writes that this house has fallen and that it’s midnight in Nigeria, and others predict failed state status beckons, the political class is not minded to saying how do we sit and talk about how to avert the coming anarchy something is wrong, they dismiss people who express the feelings like your column as alarmist. Perhaps, I should say see you in the refugee camp SK, if we are lucky, but in the spirit of Falomo, the citizen’s revolt of January, let us hope that raised voices will inspire action that will deliver us.

•Prof Utomi is founder, Centre for Values in Leadership

One thought on “On Why Nigeria Remains Backward by Pat Utomi

  1. To the Law & to the testimony: if they speak not according to this WORD,it is because there is no LIGHT in them- ISAIAH 8:20

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