He is listed among the Who is Who in Nigeria. Although he hails from Ibussa in Oshimili North Local Government Area of Delta State, he was born in Kaduna, spent some of his formative years in the North of Nigeria, and has lived in several parts of Nigeria. Thus, one could say that Professor Pat Utomi is a “ True Nigerian” to the core He also served as Special Assistant to former president Shehu Shagari during the Second Republic in the 1980s.. And if he had had his way in his undergraduate years, this distinguished Nigerian and professor at Lagos Business School would have become a pilot.
In this exclusive interview, the widely travelled founder of Centre for Value in leadership (CVL), renowned financial and management expert, and former presidential candidate, opens up on Nigeria, the politics, his passion, student union days, career and family in a refreshingly different way; including an expose on his social life, plus why he thinks Nigeria is a ticking time bomb if the country’s leadership fail to get their acts right.
It’s a collector’s item. Excerpts.
SU: You once contested for the presidency. If the opportunity presents itself, like it did before; would you run for presidency again?
PAT UTOMI: The critical thing is that, if there is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people, the very essence of my being would gravitate me in that direction. So it’s a matter of is there really a serious chance that one can affect people’s lives for good?
SU: There has been a lot of talk about the opposition merger. How feasible and workable is this merger and do you think it would be formidable enough to knock the PDP off their perch?
PAT UTOMI: First of all, I think that pessimism about opposition merger is nothing new. Pessimism was there in Kenya until FORD (Forum for the Restoration of Democracy) came together and stopped Arap Moi from taking their country in a particular direction. Pessimism about merger was also there until Morgan Tsvangirai and company came together and at least stopped Robert Mugabe’s exclusive domination of Zimbabwe, in spite of Mugabe’s violation of their constitution. Opposition merger was scorned in Senegal until they got together and (former president) Abdoulaye Wade became ancient history. So, it can happen and work here. It’s a combination of factors. Some of the things that would drive it include; real commitment from people who lead, and even when they don’t have great commitment sometimes, the nature of their various selfish interests can aggregate in a manner that serves common good. Anybody who can think knows that the Nigerian people are fed up with the PDP. The two reasons why the PDP is around is because of a lot of rigging – but that can be overcome, and, Nigerians are not quite sure that there is an alternative. So if you get a group of people who come together and provide a formidable alterative group, most Nigerians would move in droves and swarm away from voting PDP, if they ever voted for the PDP.
SU: In the last few years, there have been debates about the supposed improvement in Nigeria’s economy. As a renowned professor of political economy and management expert, what’s your honest assessment of the economy presently and where do you see it in the next five years from now?
PAT UTOMI: There is a lot of disingenuous engagement on Nigerian economy on both sides of the debate. The economy is actually growing. But a lot of the growth taking place is not really as a result of good policy work or anything. Nigeria is growing in spite of us. And some natural phenomena have made this happen. One is that there is a ready market – the number of people that we have in our country. There are disruptions in Europe and America that is making people think in another direction. The youth bulge is also providing certain advantage to this economy. Oil prices as a result of the commodities boom fuelled by India and China economic ascendancy have helped Nigeria too. So all these factors coming together will obviously lead to some progress, not because we’ve had some remarkable creative surge in the way we are governed, but because these are almost natural trends. Maybe we are not moving it backwards as much as we used to do. And that could be credited to those who are there. On the other side, for those who want to pump up the numbers and say that Nigeria is doing fantastic, they should know that we are in a stage in our history where the GDP index measures income distribution in the society. The index in Nigeria is getting progressively worse. What it means is that more and more of the country’s resources is flowing into the hands of fewer and fewer people. So what you see happening is that we can’t find places to park private jets. If you go on commercial flights these days, you hardly see ministers or governors on them. Everybody is finding somebody who can lend them a private jet to fly them somewhere if they don’t have one for themselves. And yet, poverty has never been worse in Nigeria. More people are poorer today than was the case five years ago. So, anybody who’s talking about Nigeria growing doesn’t recognise that Nigeria is becoming more of a time bomb. There is also another frightening factor, Nigeria is divided into two countries at several levels; between the few who have access to power and they are using it to accumulate a lot of money and the majority of poor Nigerians. It is divided regionally in terms of economic prosperity. Most of the GDP growth in Nigeria is driven by Lagos, not by oil by the way. As a separate country, Lagos would be a remarkably wealthy country in spite of the huge population in a small area, compared to the rest of the country. Where a state like Borno is literally dropping out of the radar in terms of economic performance, because of Boko Haram and the other things that are happening; we are seeing remarkable growth in some Southern states. So we see Nigeria divided again into two countries on regional basis; a stagnating North and a rapidly advancing South.
SU: You were one of the co-founders of the Lagos Business School (LBS), now Pan African University in 1993/1994 and regarded as one of the best in Africa today. How did you come up with that idea?
PAT UTOMI: Actually, people don’t realise how humble the early beginnings of Lagos Business School (LBS) were. The primary initiative to start the LBS came from a non-governmental organisation that was founded by members of a prelature in the Catholic Church called Opus Dei. It happened just by coincidence that I was getting my spiritual formation by attending their activities, mediations. At that time, I worked for Volkswagen and my deadline for leaving then was just around the corner. I had planned to transit to go and teach in the university. People thought it was crazy when I said I would do it. Then, suddenly one of those Sunday mornings, we were reflecting and somebody mentioned the idea of a business school they were about to start… I had already been given part time to run some course at what was called the Centre for Professional Communication, which was also run by the Opus Dei. So I found myself becoming part of that first set of academics professionals who began to offer sessions in the Centre for Professional Communication, which is now the LBS. In the early days, it was so really ad hoc. The first sessions took place in a living room of somebody’s house at Adeola Hopewell. During the day, their living room would be converted into a classroom. At night, it will come back to normal. Many of the sessions took place in a hotel where you now have Elpina Plaza… That’s how modestly LBS started. Most of the initial courses were structured by the first director of the school, a Spanish gentleman called Dr Patrick Merinho and myself, when we visited mainly expatriates and chief executives of companies who had attended executive programmes at Harvard and Stanford. We would just sit with them and share their experiences. That was how we structured and constructed the original programmes of the LBS. It was a matter of commitment and spirituality that drove the focus of the LBS that less than a decade after, these extremely humble kind of beginnings had begun to enter the radar and was rated by establishment like the Financial Times.
SU: In the light of the success of the LBS, how can we rescue the country’s diminishing education sector?
PAT UTOMI: First and foremost, it has to be done by people who are extremely passionate and committed. That’s the only way you can get it done; by people who see their reward in the success of those who pass through their programmes, people who have a vision that is beyond just another’s day job, getting a pay. That’s the way to do it because you have to really provide leadership that drives people to understand the power of learning, and create an environment that is completely focused on making learning happen.
SU: You once served as Special Assistant to former president Shehu Shagari and you are also quite familiar with the workings of present day governance. If you were to compare and contrast then and now, has anything changed in the way Nigeria is governed?
PAT UTOMI: Well, comparing times is always a problematic issue; different times, different contexts. They have their nuances. However, I think that some fundamental things are different. It’s funny that a lot of people made noise about corruption in Shagari’s time. Now they know the meaning of corruption. President Shagari was never a rich man. He entered and came out of government a poor man. He didn’t make any money. Everybody knows that. Dr Alex Ekwueme, his vice president, went into government a very rich man and came out a very poor man. His own was even a worse scenario. Unfortunately, people go into government today to get rich. They are so distracted by their desperation to get rich that they don’t focus on serving people. I think that there was a lot more leadership in Nigeria at that time that helped to make for a more accountable system. It came because there was a strong leadership for opposition. Can you imagine leading a country at the time when (late) chief Obafemi Awolowo was in opposition? That was serious hard work on the opposition side; in the time of strong civil societies, when Tai Solarin and lots of such people were around. Today what do we have? Civil societies and the opposition are very weak. There are too many ‘business men’ both in government and the opposition. So, their concern most of the time is being accommodated in the sharing. They don’t have that closeness to the people that politicians normally (should) have, which was very evident in that era.
SU: But don’t you think that in the light of what you’ve seen in terms of businessmen being in and out of government, don’t you think this would become a major problem for the new merger considering the fact that the quality of opposition cannot by compared with yesteryears?
PAT UTOMI: Yes, but because it’s not as good as it was compared with yesteryears doesn’t mean it cannot be done. The quality of the government is much worse than before. So, it is just that everything has been devalued in Nigeria, opposition and mainstream.
SU: Nigeria’s problems have been blamed mostly on failed leadership. With your experience, and also being the founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership, how can the country’s leadership get it right across federal, state and local government levels?
PAT UTOMI: This is part of the reason I founded the Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL). I think we have to go back and start down there. Young people in the country who have been scandalised by the kind of leadership they have grown up watching and so on are in grave danger if we don’t have the kinds of activities we are carrying on here at CVL; so much so that 20 years from now, the process of ‘mediocritisation’ of public life would have reached its lowest levels. If you look everywhere in our national life, the triumph of politics is so complete. With some minor exceptions like Akinwunmi Adesina in agriculture, every public service agency recruiting people today across the board, hire people into public service via notes from senators or presidency… And for some reason, those guys never manage to find people who are remotely capable. They just use their power to push into position whatever dreg that hang around them. You’d find that 15 years from now, many of the permanent secretaries would be complete morons, because of the kind of people we are taking into public service as a result of these things. So, it is in the hope of averting that kind of total collapse that we are using the CVL to affect young people, the emerging generation next; so that they would understand what leadership means. And let me say this, I don’t criticise leadership in Nigeria from the point of anger that people come at it, that these guys are corrupt, they are thieves… there is nobody, no matter how greedy the person is, who would like to see his country go down. So there has to be a bigger reason why these fellows are acting the way they are acting. It can’t (just) be greed.
SU: So what do you think is the reason?
PAT UTOMI: Ignorance. They are very ignorant people. And the most terrible thing about ignorance is that when it comes in the variant that I call the ‘dangerous alchemy of ignorance and arrogance’, then (it’s) disaster. Many of the kind of guys we have around in public life today, whatever their titles are, are not only ignorant; they think that because they have the title, they are entitled to being the ones who know everything. So they just act within their limitations and put in jeopardy the lives of over a 100 million people.
SU: Many of the younger generation of Nigerians feel that the older generation failed them by failing to establish structures that would have made national life better for all Nigerians. Do you agree with this assertion and where do you think the old generation failed Nigeria?
PAT UTOMI: Well, whether the older generation failed or did not fail Nigeria, the kind of quality of governance we had in the 60’s was far superior and very sacrificial in nature if you look at those first generations of Nigerians and what they did. In 1964, in spite of all the political crises, Western Nigeria and Eastern Nigeria were competing on which of them would be the fastest growing economy in the world, if you cut them out of Nigeria. That was the kind of competition between the East and West. And the men who did that largely left government without anything in their pockets. Dr Michael Okpara who made it possible for an egg a penny led the South East surge to catch up with the South West in education and all of that, apportioned GRA (Government Reservation Area) Enugu and did not give himself one plot. At the end of the civil war, when he came back from exile in Europe, people were running around to see how they can contribute money to build him a house in his village in Umuahia. He didn’t have any of such things, but he was Premier of the Eastern region for several years. Compare that to the kind now who spend six months in government and think it’s time to buy a private jet. So, if you say old generation, I think our tragedy is that of military rule, what was left as the legacy of the military and the kind of civilians that they created, those that took over from them. That’s where we began to slide this farther down.
SU: But, what is the way forward for Nigeria, how can we remedy this situation?
PAT UTOMI: The young people must say that things can be different and force the system. Most of the people in the voting bracket are under 35. So why blame anybody? All you do is organise yourselves, push these characters out and run your country. There is a story I told three times in the last one month about my days as a 19 year old student union leader at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Then I wondered why Nigeria should conduct foreign policy without students making input into it. They said, this crazy boy, what do you mean? I wrote a letter to the foreign minister to come and debate foreign policy with us. Nobody replied my letter. Then I came to Lagos and went to see the foreign minister, a young colonel called Nanven Garba. I went up to Colonel Garba’s office early in the morning, but he was not in. I told his PA/secretary or whoever I met and told him of my mission. He looked at me and was like, what are you talking about, foreign minister to come and debate with you people? …The man said to me, just go back to your campus. So I went downstairs and asked the concierge when he thought the foreign minister would come to work. He said, he would be here in a second because his advance party had just arrived. Just then, the motorcade pulled up. And as the doors opened, I said, Col. Garba, I disagree with your position on Angola. He replied ‘who said that?’ I answered, me. He said ‘why?’ I began to marshal my position and we were arguing, talking and arguing until he walked past his secretary into his office. He accepted my invitation to come for a debate with us and he did.
SU: Going back to the Nsukka days, you were in the student union; were you involved in other social activities on campus?
PAT UTOMI: Yes, I was. I was actually director of socials of the students union. I was a party guy, don’t look like that today (general laughter) But, in Nsukka, a remarkable thing happened to me. I ran into something called the library and it changed my life fundamentally.
SU: And prior to that?
PAT UTOMI: Prior to that, I was very much a party guy…
SU: But not involved in any of the frats?
PAT UTOMI: No. We didn’t have those then.
SU: But there was Pirates?
PAT UTOMI: Well, yes. But I belonged to a social group called the Great Alpha fraternity. That was actually extreme right rather than extreme left, you know…
SU: Extreme right in what sense?
PAT UTOMI: In terms of gentlemen, you know; you’re supposed to wear ties, treat people with courtesy, stuff like that, behave like a modern day Roman… (general laughter)
SU: You are very cerebral and people would wonder, does Professor Utomi listen to music? What are your hobbies and interest?
PAT UTOMI: I have to admit that my social possibilities have collapsed in recent times (laughs). But I used to be the guy whose room you came to on campus to hear the latest music. Those were the very early Bob Marley days. I was one of the first guys to start collecting Bob Marley, 1973/74 and stuff like that. Then I became a jazz person for many years, even in grad school, when I had become a triangular student, I had many smooth jazz piece that was there. But I have to admit that I have not been in the night club in many years.
SU: What kind of music do you listen to now?
PAT UTOMI: I listen to music and I go through waves. I say to my wife, look, I’m beginning to have a boring lifestyle, let’s get the latest. And I’d go and buy every latest jazz and for three days, I’ll be playing it until I decide to stop. But my wife listens to a lot of gospel music.
SU: Do you have time to watch movies at all?
PAT UTOMI: Yes. I think I go through phases. Sometimes, like 10 years ago, I was really excited about helping the Nollywood guys get their acts together, so I began to watch, from about midnight to 2 am everyday, I watched Nollywood on television. Now we have workshops at LBS for Nollywood people to help them organise themselves better and stuff like that. So yes, I went through phases of that. I like movies, but I’ve not been watching much, I have to admit.
SU: But do you have any favourite movie?
PAT UTOMI:There is a movie I watched on a flight a couple of years ago. Afterwards I bought it somewhere and brought it back to my children. It’s titled The Ultimate Gift. It’s based on values and I thought it was a very good movie. I liked it very much. Also I like The Dead Poets Society very much. In fairness, I watch a lot of movies because I fly a great deal. I read a great deal on flight and then watch movies. I very seldom sleep on flights and do a lot of 14-hour flights. So by the time I go from London to Singapore, I would have watched at least two movies and maybe read a book.
SU: The Super Eagles made all Nigerians proud by winning the Africa Cup of Nations recently. How much can sports influence politics?
PAT UTOMI: A great deal. If we were very smart, we would invest much of the money we spend on our foreign policy ensuring that the Super Eagles keep winning football matches and that Nollywood films keep spreading around Africa. It would do us a lot more good than having embassies in those places (general laughter).
SU: You seem like a very protective family man. What are your most cherished values and view of family?
PAT UTOMI: The family is the ultimate bus stop. When the world is mean to you and everything, you come home knowing that here, love is unconditional. It’s not because you are smart, make a lot of money or what the world judges you by; but because you’re daddy, mummy, brother or sister. So that makes the family a very special place in the world full of all kinds of collapsing values. Family values re-make the difference.
SU: A lot of young people see you as a role model. What’s your advice to them, especially in an economy like this where dreams die very fast?
PAT UTOMI: Never let your dream die, because the most fun you can have in life is chasing your dream. When you do something that you enjoy doing, it’s difficult for you to recognise that you are doing work. People say to me, ‘why are you always smiling in difficult times?’ And I laugh at them because while some people call most of the things I do work, it’s like going to a party for me. So why won’t I be smiling? I can teach for like six hours non-stop and really have such fun in the classroom that people would wonder, aha, does this guy not tire? The truth of the matter is that I’m partying. You see it as work. I see it as fun; because I’m doing the things I love doing. If what motivates me is money, then I’ll be miserable all this time…. But here I’m doing something that makes me have absolute fun and somebody ends up paying me for it. It’s amazing.
SU: What’s your guiding philosophy?
PAT UTOMI: One is what I call the pursuit of immortality as the essence of being. The second is an undiluted belief in the basic value of the dignity of the human person. Let me explain a little bit. I believe that every man is born to live forever. The purpose driven life really is about the search for what it is that would make you live forever. In a 1991 interview with Mr Magazine, I essentially defined this by saying that there are two kinds of immortality; material and spiritual immortality. Material immortality is being able to be around long after your body has become sawdust in the consciousness of others. Perhaps the easiest way to achieve it is through the written word. If you look at Shakespeare who died hundreds of years ago, most of us still think he’s our next door neighbour. I quote Machiavelli on a daily basis. The man died 500 years ago. So, those people have achieved immortality. If you do things that make such an impact on people’s lives, they would remember you long after you are gone. I ask people, the richest man in your neighbourhood who died 20 years ago, who was he? They don’t remember. But they remember their great village teacher, who died 60 years ago; Dr Michael Okpara, Sarduana of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, chief Obafemi Awolowo… The second immortality for people of faith is to see God face to face. So they live their lives as people of faith, treating others justly, trying very hard to do what’s in their view God’s will. The expectation is that that transcendental nature of man would bring them to a point where they would see God face to face someday… That’s what drives me. And my hope is that I can achieve both material and spiritual immortality.