In this interview by Gbenro Adeoye, first published by Punch, the Founder, Centre for Value in Leadership, Prof. Pat Utomi, speaks about Nigeria’s leadership failure and how it impacts on its economy
What do you think about calls for restructuring?
Some things are fundamental to ability to hold the country together. One is the ability of the country to be a nation; two, the ability of the country to make progress. I think it is controversial because people are again not thinking deeply. What is at the heart of many people who are saying we won’t restructure? It is because they reduce restructuring to sharing of revenues. If we restructure, so it is only those states that are producing oil that will get much of the oil revenue and we won’t get.
Twelve years from now, oil will cease to be a useful factor in our economy. We used to say 25 years but given where the world is going, I can tell you that 12 years from now, oil will no longer be relevant. So if you fail to do what will make you relevant 12 years from now, then you are the most unwise person on earth. Because when it then comes, there will be confusion and anarchy. But if we are thinking deeply in politics, and recognise that what is at stake is 200 or 300 years from now, then you will not take a position based on what will terminate in 12 years. That is not how you build great nations and that is why unfortunately, we are stuck in this debate about restructuring.
So we must purge ourselves of those self-centered, short term views for elite gratification of now and think pointedly. How come our elite cannot take 200 years from now as the basis for their thinking about how their country should be built rather than next week’s sharing of booty for some governors to drive a seven-car motorcade and so on that they seem to enjoy doing? That is where the real issues are.
For clarification, are you seeking to be governor in 2019?
One of the favourite things I do is to teach leadership. I started this centre because I thought Nigeria’s biggest weakness was leadership. We need to develop leaders. And one of the leadership paradigms that I am enormously passionate about is one uttered by a Canadian called Robin Sharma. He talks about the leader who has no title. People are so obsessed with titles in this country. I will be happier if I can get something done without even being near any title or any position. But if at any point in time, a title can help something, I will have no problem in saying why not and that title will not matter whether it is councillor, governor or president.
The important thing is your ability to work from a place to make a difference in people’s lives. So that is really the issue. I don’t really go around asking myself, ‘Am I going to run for this or that?’ Evidently, I am inundated by people and delegations that have come to me about this or that. I smile at everybody and say no problem. When the moment is right, I will decide whether this will better serve people than what I am doing.
Obviously, you are familiar with some silly controversy that just started and one of the things that I have been given opportunity by that silly controversy to deal with is my personal contributions. Some people say to me, your contributions remain understated, you don’t talk about what you do. I say, I am not looking for accolades. I don’t need accolades. Because of the nature of the whatever it is, I am now having to raise for discussions about some of the things that I have been doing and I can tell you that as an individual with no resources and as poor as I am; in many ways, I have done more than many governments have done in this country for the people. This is just as an individual, working through civil society organisations and so on.
For me, there are three very important judgments and they are all that matter in life. They are the judgment of one’s conscience, the judgment of history and the judgment of God. And as I do whatever I do, I keep asking myself, ‘How is my conscience judging me on this? How will history judge me?’ History has no detachments; even if I don’t talk about what I do, history will discover it and judge me according to it and ultimately, the all seeing God will judge me. That is all that matters to me.
Do such controversial issues like the one you have with former Delta State governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, sometimes discourage you from trying to make a difference?
Let me give simple examples concerning that because I have decided not to talk about this matter except to just put a few facts out there as 100 per cent of what was said were lies. I don’t really want to descend to that level, so I put out a few facts so that people will better understand some of those issues. But outside of those, I thought the whole thing was a godsend to help make certain points about what is wrong with how we govern Nigeria. There is one example that so perplexes me. When you talked about discouragement, this is where you wonder whether you should be discouraged. Till now, I have never been able to understand it.
When the governor in question was in office, he cultivated my friendship and one of the ways by which he cultivated it was by apologising to me about something that was done wrongly in the previous government that he was part of. And that warmed me up to him. I thought it takes a man to be honest and say look, something was unfairly done. I liked him very much and considered him a friend. And many people knew that I had access to him and thank God for the person I am. Can you imagine if I had one day said, Mr. Governor, give me one small contract? Can you imagine what would have happened now with that kind of statement? All my involvements in trying to help government have always been completely selfless.
Do you know what Bola Tinubu calls me- Citizen? Do you know how the joke started? I used to lead the retreat of the Lagos State cabinet. And when they mentioned money, I said, ‘Pay ke, this is my contribution as a citizen.’ So he calls me citizen. A friend, who was a permanent secretary in Lagos, said to me, ‘How can you be doing this kind of work for free? People are charging money.’ I said, ‘I’m doing this as my contribution.’ So that has helped me, if I had asked for contract, can you imagine what they would be saying today?
Anyway, a multinational oil company, one of the top three, wanted to build a school in Delta State as part of its CSR, basically to donate a school to the state – a big school. The only requirement was for the state government to accept that after the school had been built, it would accept it and own it. It’s like someone coming to tell you, ‘I am going to give you a fleet of cars, just tell me that you will maintain them.’ The company kept trying to get the state government to give it a letter, it couldn’t get it, and so it approached me. I said, ‘Haba! Donation! You didn’t ask them for anything, just for them to take it and maintain it? So I phoned the governor and he said they would take it. The company spent weeks, months, just trying to get the letter. So I called the deputy governor, who was also my friend. I said this company wants to give you this, he said okay. I travelled to Asaba and met with him. He sent for the Commissioner for Education. He said yeah, no problem. Till today, that letter has not come and the school has not been built.
Why would any government not simply give a letter to have that kind of development?
Are you asking me? That is what I have been trying to ask myself since. Whenever I tell people that I cannot understand that this is possible, they look at me and laugh. They say for governments in this country, unless something is coming to the people in government, it is not a serious item on their agenda. I said even to the point of rejecting a free gift? There is no condition; you don’t have to do anything, just present a letter that you will accept this gift. So it is as bad as that.
When you say the past administrations in Delta State frustrated your plan to establish Silicon Valley in the state, how do you mean?
We had gone to elaborate extent to build this thing – Silicon Valley. We had acquired land. It was by an ethnic based association, Anioma – the Development Union of the Delta North People. Then, I was a member. Our plan actually was to take a number of different locations, build a science university in one, a technology park in one place, and so on. It was a number of clusters of technology related educational institutions. Then by accident, I met the governor and the story came up and he said it was fantastic. He said, ‘I must personally turn the sod of that place. I am going to the World Cup, set a date after so that I can declare it open.’ That year, the World Cup was being hosted in Tokyo and Seoul.
Nothing was demanded and requested of anybody. Two days to the event, full page adverts were taken up by the Delta State Government in newspapers, dissociating itself from the project. Who associated you with the project you are dissociating yourself from? The idea was simple: it was meant to make the foreigners think there was something dangerous going on there and to chase them away. As people explained to me, it was because it was in the wrong part of the state.
What does that mean?
We are in Delta, where there is ethnic politics. That area was the Delta North Igbo-speaking part of the state; the power was controlled by Delta Central – Urhobo-speaking part of the state. So some elements in the government, who were Delta Central oriented, said why should that kind of project be sited in the other area? Let us frustrate it. And one of the ways by which they frustrated it was by taking full page adverts in Nigerian newspapers, dissociating the state from something that was not associated with it. The governor himself, who made us postpone the date, failed to show up. He then sent one commissioner from the Delta North part to represent him, but at least, he was represented.
Did that affect the project?
Of course, they were foreigners going into a project and there were full page adverts in all the newspapers, saying the state was dissociating itself from it. It made it look like it was a criminal enterprise or something like that.
Is there no hope for the project to be resuscitated again?
What we did was to change our strategy. What we wanted to do was create companies from it like in Stanford, US. You create this institution, you get quality IT training and when people come out, they will create companies. But we created one company out of it immediately called Socketworks. Many of the young Nigerians leading high tech companies today are alumni of the company.
Socketworks created the e-Passports that you and I carry today in Nigeria. So the project was not wasted; it produced that commercial success, but it could have been something that would have become like Silicon Valley today with thousands of companies coming from there. It was unbelievable. I never still believe it. Somebody who was trying to explain the ethnic issues to me, I told him, ‘This is a private initiative by people from Delta North, if people from Delta Central think these other people are about to hit jackpot, why don’t they just organise their own and have it in their own place? What is wrong with that?’ I couldn’t understand it. The person said, ‘Welcome to Delta State, we don’t think straight here.’ James Ibori was the governor at the time and Uduaghan was Secretary to the State Government.
When he (Uduaghan) was running for governorship, he said to me, you know I owe you something. It is an apology so you can forget what was done to your project. That endeared him to me. I considered him a friend, I still consider him a friend. So I don’t know what led to that. That is why I said it is probably God that made him say those things to enable me tell my story because I never told my stories properly anyway.
Did you two fall out at anytime? Something must be involved.
I was making a remark and it was not a new remark. I have been talking about state debts in Nigeria for some time and that we were creating a major crisis and mortgaging the future of our children. I said that state governments were borrowing to the hills and all of that. I was making the statement somewhere in Delta State recently and I warned against borrowing and mortgaging the future of our children. I didn’t say who borrowed, whether it was the current government or the former government, nothing, no mention of any human being’s name and the response was from Emmanuel Uduaghan, calling me names, saying I should go and start (politics) from the local government. Uduaghan had not entered the University of Benin when I was a PhD scholar in a presidential advisory position. (Laughs) Nigeria!
Did you at any time warn Uduaghan about the rising debt profile of the state when he was the governor or even the current governor?
Warn them? Anybody that watches Patito’s Gang will know that I have been talking about this for years and I’ve not been particular about anybody. I have been talking about it for years.
Uduaghan said he made you chair several committees and that you were not available and also failed to bring investors to the state. Is that so?
There is one committee that I can recall in which I was asked to serve – a committee on flood disaster. How does a flood disaster committee attract foreign investment? And it did me a good favour by making me realise how bad the floods were. And an institution rallied to help flood victims and it picked Delta, Adamawa and Anambra states to work in, took reliefs there, and did other things. So that was for me a good insight. The only other panel or committee was Delta Without Oil Vision Committee, in which every prominent Deltan was included. I think everybody I can think of was in it, a kind of elders’ council. Is that a foreign investment agency? So they should know what particular foreign investment agency they put me in.
Outside of the Silicon Valley initiative, there was a foreign investment initiative that I brought, which nobody asked me to do. I was not in any committee, I just thought it was a great idea and would like it to be located in Delta for a lot of reasons. It was an agriculture industrial town that would have a wholesale produce market, which would have an industrial park.
The day my foreign partners arrived and came to Asaba, there was an executive council meeting in session. The governor was informed. To his credit, he suspended the meeting and returned to his office to welcome them. He received us warmly and said fine. He said he would set up a committee with the Commissioner for Agriculture or so as the chairman. So they worked it out. The project manager nearly killed himself going to Asaba, as he was being directed to this committee and that committee. At a point, what he heard from the grapevine was that some people had said, ‘Look, if you help this man, you will empower him.’ He didn’t ask for government contract or anything.
For two years, he kept going. Then I said to the guy that I think we should stop wasting time, these people don’t want this project. So we went to Edo State and within months, we had not only got the land, but also the Certificate of Occupancy. Construction is going on there as we speak. I cannot relate with these things.
Another thing that was said is that I would come to a meeting and run away in five minutes. Of course, everybody knows me. I am busy. I have to get things done. So if I come to a meeting that is wasting time, what do you expect me to do? They think everybody is doing nothing like them? Many years ago, I was on one committee – Institute of Directors. Mrs. Erelu Olusola Obada, who later became a deputy governor, was on that committee. But I was always in a hurry. The late Oba Oladele Olashore chaired that committee. I came into that meeting; I made some quick contributions and because I had another engagement lined up, after about 30 or 45 minutes, I said, look, I have got to go. I remember the chairman of the committee saying you may be going but please give us 30 minutes because the 30 minutes that you gave us changed the perspective of this meeting. Your 30 minutes are more valuable than the time spent by some people that have been here for three hours. I said, ‘Thank you.’ That was, at least somebody who appreciated my input. I finished that 30 minutes, I moved on. Somebody is asking me to come and sit in Asaba from morning till night, listening to some old man talking about his adventures. Really?
While you accused Uduaghan of mismanaging resources, he and a former commissioner in the state, Paulinus Akpeki, accused you of mismanaging Volkswagen Nigeria as Chief Operating Officer. Shed some light on your time as Managing Director there.
You see, the thing that makes ignorance such an incredible thing is that the ignoramuses, when they want to be nasty, expose themselves to the limits of their limitations. I went to work for VW Nigeria in January 1986. I was headhunted. The first chapter of my biography published in 1997 is titled ‘Still freelancing.’ It came from the comment of the person who headhunted for VW, the late Chief Foluso Longe. He said to me as the final thing to persuade me to work for VW, you might be doing interesting things but you don’t have big company experience; you are freelancing your way through life. I said but I enjoy this freelancing experience, he said no, you need a big company experience. I told him I was not interested in working for VW. In fact, I recommended somebody else for the job. The person is still around and his name is Kanmi Ademiluyi, who was the Editor of The Democrat Newspaper at the time. But Longe persuaded me to go there for two years and get it on my CV because I fit the profile VW wanted.
So that was how I got to VW, expecting not to spend more than two years there. But the second day that I reported to work, I gave an interview in which I said if I had my way, I would shut down the factory. Everyone was saying, are you crazy? But the strategy was all wrong. As a graduate student, I opposed the import substitution industrialisation strategy for a number of reasons as they were not going to result into sustainable development. The assembly plants were the ultimate import substitution kinds of things, in which the endowment of the country did not play into the choice made and you could have permanent infant industries. I eventually wrote an article, which was published in Nduka Obaigbena’s magazine at the time, called, ‘This Week’.
When I wrote that article, of course, people said this guy is a saboteur, how can he be against Nigerian cars being built? One intelligent person in government, who was the deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria at the time and the chief economic thinker in government, Victor Dozie, called me and said, ‘You know you are smarter than many people around here realise and you have this audacious courage. Nobody says he wants to kill the company that he has gone to work for, but that is honesty because you understand what the issues are and you want them differently.’ Was it because I didn’t want a factory? No, I wanted a factory that would do even more for Nigeria. My suggestion back then was that, having built a relationship with Peugeot, VW, Leyland, Steyr, Mercedes, what Nigeria needed to do was to tell them that what we do well in Nigeria is grow rubber. We have the best yield per hectare of rubber in the world and we would like to be the producer of X number of rubber components for your global manufacturing.
So instead of these funny assembly plants, use the factories, encourage the growing of rubber in the country to produce so and so rubber components and become the best rubber producer in the world. I tell you, that will create millions of quality jobs in Nigeria versus just 10,000 people working in the assembly plants. And the Nigerian economy will grow; there will be more tax revenues for government and all that. So Dozie thought it was a brilliant idea. People who could think knew that but people who couldn’t think said that would mean cars would not be made in Nigeria. From the outset, my position was very clear.
Secondly, even if I didn’t state when I was hired what I wanted to see, I was not the one who had authority to run the company, it was in contract with the Germans, who chose to close down the company. I was just a Nigerian understudy of the Germans and by the time I joined the company, the Germans had already decided to close the factory anyway because the Managing Director that hired me was transferred to Brussels some months later. He gave an interview to Manager Magazine in Germany in 1987, in which he basically said the VW plant in Lagos was over, that they could not get the government to cooperate with the right policies and so on, and that it was a waste of time. But why anybody would think that I was responsible for it, I don’t understand. People say things just to be nasty. But this is not even where I am going because there is a better part to this story.
When the debates were going on, the Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford (University), Prof. Paul Collier, came to interview me because he was fascinated by my different perspective on this thing. And I explained it to him. At the time we were talking about it, Nigeria was ahead of China in manufacturing. Twenty five years later, China had become the workshop of the world – the great manufacturer – and an African had become the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation. Ironically, a friend of mine commissioned Collier to study China’s manufacturing industry and what Africa could learn from it. When Collier finished his study, he used one example. He said, ‘More than 70 per cent of the buttons worn in the world were made in one local government in China, these were the ideas Patrick Utomi was suggesting 25 years ago.’ So some moron says what did he do, not knowing that I should win a Nobel Prize for it. That is the limit of ignorance. When someone says ask him what he did, when he should win a Nobel Prize, you know that person is really stupid.
Do you think the system makes it difficult for technocrats like yourself to get into political positions?
I have stopped worrying about those things. I told you about state capture. Those who captured the Nigerian state are deeply anti-intellectual. That is part of the reasons why Nigeria is where it is.
What can be done to correct the situation?
Revolution! See, I’m gone, I’m another generation. The time I will retire and go to the village and enjoy myself is around the corner. It is left to you. We need to have a revolution in this country because this country is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Delta is one of the richest states in the country with nothing to show for it. Does the situation sometimes embarrass you?
Not only me; everybody feels embarrassed. Deji Bademosi, the TV journalist, said that to me recently. He visited the state and was terribly embarrassed. He said you people have been very unlucky with the kind of people that you throw up to lead you. You know, a Nigerian will always ask what you are looking for. I have said I am looking for nothing. I have lived a simple life of a teacher, who just cares about tomorrow. That is why I spend a lot of my time working with young people. I believe that if the misfortune of history made my generation lose it; let the new generation not lose it. That is all. So long I can make contributions that will make the new generation not lose it, I’m fine, but these guys, history will judge them. There is no doubt in my mind; it doesn’t matter what they do now, it doesn’t matter what they control, history will judge them.
The country is in economic crisis, what steps should be taken to tackle the problem?
The same advice I tell these morons who asked me what happened to VW is the most relevant advice today, Nigeria should take a look at its environment, whether it is Sesame seeds in Benue State or hydrocarbons value chain in Rivers State, we can become the global leader in the value chains of those endowments. It will create jobs, sustainable developments and end quarrels between oil producing areas and nonoil producing areas. People will prosper from the hard work that they do.