The Nigerian landscape is littered with images of the triumph of politics. The new winners are either draped in silkwear of triumphalism and yesterday’s winners in today’s mourning fields cloaked in the bitterness of regret. But pray, tell, where is the legacy of progress that yesterday’s triumph brought, or the shine of human material advance, that today is bringing?
The visitor was a South African-resident Nigerian scholar and activist, who left the country during the struggle against military rule.
I knew he was very serious, so, to laugh, which would be a kind way to bring us down to earth, did not seem practical. I chose instead to provide a few stories on my struggle down that path. I began with one of the more surreal of the efforts. I had been involved with a small team working on policy advice with Presidential candidate Olusegun Obasanjo in 1998.
It is hard to build Nigeria working at being leader of Africa or chasing the Nobel Peace Prize.
The new path forward I schemed up was to create elite consensus for progress. My strategy was to identify a number of influencers of competence and nationalistic fervor in different spheres of life and bring them together to brainstorm on how to work to make examplars of select leaders in public life to so attract attention to the fact that the ultimate success was in serving people well through delivering massive advances in quality of life of citizens in inclusive growth and development. I then began to draw up a list of such influencers who for the purpose should be mainly in their 40s with a proven track record.
From Commerce, I had Aliko Dangote, Fola Adeola: civil society, Olisa Agbakoba, Adams Oshiomole Femi Falana and Oby Ezekwesili , from politics, I had the late Waziri Mohammed. I was to invite from the public service, Bello Gwandu, Munir Jaafaru, Tunji Olaopa, Joe Keshi and Nasir El-Rufai.
As things turned out, Waziri got ahead of himself. One day, while I was in Abuja serving on a committee on petroleum subsidy, I got a call from Waziri. Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, was hosting the Governors of the South in Lagos. Waziri had taken liberty to ask Aliko Dangote to host a first working meeting of those we could support to perform. I jumped on the plane and came to Lagos.
The motley crowd that gathered at Aliko’s had public and private sector as well as civil society credential, but I took one look and knew the dream was in trouble.
My visitor was familiar with aspects of the excursion I had undertaken, but was firm in his view we owed history a duty not to give up trying to build this movement. He was obviously sound in that judgment, but the challenge of making such a movement have much impact will take more than trying again after a fall.
My experience with having been involved in several efforts to build an alliance for development is that several paths can lead to the development ideology market. Leadership and communication are critical. A leader, who builds a network around ideas of progress, can change culture by personal example. I have given the example of then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed, addressing the Global Knowledge Conference in 2000 in Kualar Lumpur. A Nigerian Doctor broke down and wept, asking me what we had done wrong that God would not send us such leaders, as he finished. Just as Mahathir built a coalition for progress and Lee Kwan Yew did in Singapore, lucky leaders who emerged by happenstance should make it their duty to inspire such a coalition. My personal admiration for Bola Tinubu arises from such a track.
Think Tanks can also spread such an orientation in public life when they have an evidence-based advocacy. In the 1970s and 80s, the academic community was active on the pages of newspapers like the New Nigerian, Daily Times and the Guardian, creating the atmosphere that should have resulted in such a movement.
As a young Graduate student, I had hoped for a modernizing coalition of the type Argentine scholar, Gulliermo O’Donnell, proposed in his Bureaucratic Authoritarian thesis, in which he identified coalitions forged between the political elite and bureaucratic/technocratic elite for purpose of modernization and economic growth.
The call by Omano Omano for a coalition for development, across and beyond partisan lines is founded in good logic. He got my pledge to cooperate, but it takes a small group of dedicated individuals, as Margaret Mead reminds us. It is really the only way history has changed, and Nigeria’s history needs to change for good, away from poverty and ignorance, as the Great Escape Angus Deaton has so well captured in the book of that title.Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership