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?
There seems little doubt that part of what is urgently required is an ideology of sustained development, no matter who is in power. One person anxious for an ideology of development and progress came knocking on my door recently. His narrative was sound, but as he talked, I was taken over by a sense of déjà vu. It was journey down a familiar road.
The visitor was a South African-resident Nigerian scholar and activist, who left the country during the struggle against military rule.
He was worried that, in the extreme partisanship of now, and obsession with power above purpose, we seem to lack a guardian class that can keep the country focused on development and progress with a sense for what is setting the tone for progress around the world and the passion and clout to ensure Nigeria is rowing in that direction, no matter who was sitting in the Villa.
That meant a loose coalition of Thought Leaders disposed such that Aso Rock will continue to see the goals of their politics, mission and even self interest; and the people, common good, in their suggestions on how to travel the road of nation building and development, down the path of inclusive economic advance. He thought I was appropriately positioned from my antecedents to lead the effort to build such a movement for progress.
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.
Among those in that team were Ifueko Omoigui and Ayo Teriba. For several weeks, we met every day with the General in Ota, until we fought each other to a standstill on several issues. It was quickly clear to me that, even if we succeeded in many things, including in reshaping the candidate’s thinking, sustained progress seemed improbable from the distractions and other ambitions of the man just returned to power after a 20-year leave.
It is hard to build Nigeria working at being leader of Africa or chasing the Nobel Peace Prize.
I thought a new strategy besides convincing the now President that Privatization was a good idea, away from his old anti-privatization ways, was needed. Relying on him to make it happen, seemed evidently foolhardy. I had to think of new ways, especially after I tried to get President Jimmy Carter to convince him that Vision 2010 was not poison because it was done under Abacha, and I did not get very far. Just change the cover of the book, the former US President had said when I raised the matter.
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.
I recall that from faith I had Femi Aribisala, Fathers Matthew Kukah and George Ehusani? and from academia, Gidado Tahir, Adigun Agbaje, BUK Economist, Murtala Sagagi and Charles Soludo. We had from the ranks of Governors, Donald Duke and Joshua Dariye. We picked some sharp officers from the military and the Intelligence services. I went and deposited money at the Akodo Resort for all of us to gather for three days and brainstorm on how our collective brainpower, global network of contacts and pool of goodwill could help a few select governors deliver such extraordinary impact there would be no argument canvassing that our thrust was the way to go.
I began to go round to proselytize my thinking. Waziri Mohammed literaly came under a spell from the idea, Fola and Olisa made valuable suggestions.
Some more details of the effort were published in a book I issued a second edition of about 14 years ago. It was titled, To Serve is To Live – Autobiographical reflections on the Nigerian Condition. I went to work structuring the values of the movement. I had already received the commitment of a very brilliant former foreign minister of Uganda, Olara Otunu, to give the opening keynote at this retreat planned to be off the radar.
Having heard Olara speak more than once about the Africa’s redemption and the place of Nigeria in that enterprise, I wanted him to burden those men and women with that vision.
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.
Governors present included Orji Uzor Kalu, James Ibori, Lucky Igenedion, and Donald Duke, who chaired the meeting. From civil society, Adams Oshiomole was there and private sector players like Tony Elumelu were there too. When half way into the discussions, one Governor whispered in lamentation: see as this place dry, no babes, I knew it was over. Next meeting was scheduled for Babes country, Benin. Even though I had nothing against babes, I stayed away. I thought one first had to work before playing, but it seemed play was up front.
Aliko, Donald and I met at the Dukes’ to try and rework things after Benin, but the movement had become a political, and not a development movement christianed the Under-50s movement in Benin. The meeting, hosted by Dariye in Government House Jos to create new momentum, was an unmitigated disaster. I told Oby Ezekwesili, as we drove to Abuja the following day, that the quality of effort at nation building seemed to be progressively deteriorating.
It certainly had come down from the days of the Congress of Concerned Citizens we helped found in 1983 with people like Femi Aribisala, Olisa Agbakoba, Emeka Ezera, Jimi Peters, Mohammed Garba and others.
Some of the nature of the group was commented on in an opinion piece I wrote a few years ago that was titled ‘The Generation that left town.’ Of the two dozen of us in the group, largely new repats, only Olisa, Femi and I still lived in Nigeria, and from the group of principled people in the early days of the Concerned Professionals who put much on the line for justice on the elections of the 12th of June 1993.
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.
Help can come from how civil society, and media honour and celebrate leaders that drive initiatives that result in a quantum leap in the human condition for a broad spectrum of the population.
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.
Such an alliance, which flickered briefly in the Gowon days when General Yakubu Gowon worked well with the technocratic top civil servants like the Allison Ayidas, Philip Asiodus and Ahmed Jodas. It did not quite happen, as I found in researching my own PhD thesis about 1981 and spending time with the principal protagonists. Still it prompted enough jealousy that ignited the purge of the civil service in 1975/76.
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