Prof. Pat Utomi is a renowned political economist and public affairs commentator. He served as Special Adviser in the Second Republic government of President Shehu Shagari.
He also contested as a presidential candidate under the defunct Social Democratic Mega Party (SDMP).
In this interview, he speaks on recent events in the nation such as the agitation for Biafra Republic, Budget controversy, National Conference and other sundry issues.
You are one of the eminent Nigerians who campaigned for the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari during the last election. What informed your decision to do that?
One of the big challenges of public conversation in a country like ours with varying degrees of literacy to comprehend complex issues is that there is always a grave danger of nuances not being properly understood. A second point to make is that in these matters, you are constantly challenged by whether you take a short term or a long term perspectives in thinking of things. I think the duty of leaders is to be able to take a long term view of things without losing sight of immediate palliatives that are important for people to have more decent existence. On whether the immediate past administration of Goodluck Jonathan could have managed things better, I think that in the main, a lot of the problems of now are carryover from yesterday’s bad behaviour. An economy is not a light switch where you switch it off and on. There is a continuous process where what is done today have consequence for what will be done tomorrow in many cases. I think that the general level of disregard for the sanctity of the public purse in the immediate past regime was such that if we are getting into the kind of crisis that we are in right now, it will be difficult, no matter how former president Jonathan tried to get his people to switch behaviour and stop mismanaging the public treasury and behaving recklessly. It will be impossible to do that. So, things would have been much worse. So, there is no doubt in my mind.
Even though we are dealing with what is called a factual counterpoint, we will not be able to conclusively prove this. But there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that it will be difficult to pull back people who already saw the treasury as an extension of their private back account from behaving that way. The thing is that the ordinary people would have suffered even much more. There is a sense in which you can build temporary self-deceit. For example, if they are taking monies from the public treasuries the way they are taking it, and some of them are using it to buy loyalty of people, a fairly significant portion of noisy people who can complain the most would have been taken care of and there will be less hue and cry. This is because all those people who get their money from them will buy a few more cars and they will be satisfied even though in reality, the conditions of the voiceless, the poorest of the poor will be getting much worse. So, those are the kind of complexities that a conversation like this should involve that many people don’t have the discipline to understand or to be able to follow through. So, it will then always come down to arguments on whether life would have been better or not under the previous administration. But that is not how the world functions. I am convinced in my mind that under the old order, things would have been much worse by now.
Now that change is here, can you say you are impressed by what is happening so far?
Truly, I was a very passionate supporter of change. I believe it is in the common interest of all Nigerians that the old order needs to go. Also, the political class had agreed that the rallying point for making that happen was General Muhammadu Buhari and I joined in that process. I was not looking for a messiah. Part of Nigeria’s problem is that we are always looking for a messiah. I was looking for a collaborative effort of a variety of people committed to changing Nigeria to work together to make a new Nigeria emerge. What I think has happened is that there is an imagination that there is a personal mandate to President Buhari to do with Nigeria as he pleases. That is not the case. The Nigerian people wanted change. They wanted a group of people who have been talking about change to sit down and chart a course for change. But, the change has been appropriated because it is a presidential system. The Nigerian people are not being consulted, even those who fought for the change are not being asked for their opinion. And some people are projecting a change that is theirs. I don’t think we have any compulsion to accept their views of how Nigeria should change. Actually, the country is at crossroads, a very serious crossroads. The most problematic challenge of now is that there is no consulting going on in the country, and therefore Nigeria is not collectively charting a course that she wants to travel. I am not consulted and I know many chief executives who said, ‘The only reason we supported this process was because of you and Bismarck Rewane and the views that you held about how change should happen’. I wrote about this shortly after the election and there is one CEO of a top four accounting firm who saw me on a flight and said, ‘We are holding you and Rewane accountable because we supported this process because of you two’. I am not sure anybody has consulted Rewane and none has consulted me; not even a phone call from President Buhari. I pray that God will help him and help all of us. Anybody will benefit more from consulting no matter who you are. The more you consult, the more ideas that will come to you.
There were reports you once said President Buhari should keep quiet when he said he will allow further devaluation of the naira?
The president can talk. He is a human being. Anybody can talk and give his opinion. What I was trying to say is because there is a lot of consequence when somebody of a certain position speaks; it is best not to be the first person to talk. It is best to keep quiet. Let everybody else talk and let there be uncertainty about where you stand until the decision process is complete. That is all I said but I was surprised when it is being projected that I said the president should shut up.
But, what is your take on whether the naira should be further devalued or not? Do you think those calling for its devaluation have been proven right given the current economic situation of things?
It is not a contest for who is right and who is wrong. What is at stake is Nigeria and the future of our children. Yes, we have elected some people to act on our behalf, but our own voices should not be considered unimportant, such that it is only one point of view. Then, it stops being a democracy. What leadership is about is to listen to the voices and glean the ones that make the most sense in advancing the good of all, the common good. And then make a decision on behalf of all because that is why you have a mandate based on your understanding on what best advances the good of all. Nobody is for devaluation. But there is a certain reality which when you get to, you have to take certain actions. I think it is best to reduce it to the basest level so that everybody can understand. The problem with the big intellectuals is that they spin these things and confuses ordinary people.
What happened to Nigeria was that it refused to diversify the base of its earnings. Out of all kinds of laziness and selfishness, we continue to depend on oil. Every budget, we talk about diversification, but at the end of the day, nothing happens. Looking at the fall in oil prices, ordinarily speaking, in 1998, oil was selling below $8, and we survived as a country. Then it went to $50, $60. People like me started shouting ‘Let us not exceed $40 in the use for our spending; let us just peg it at $40. Anything above $40 should be saved for a rainy day. If it then passes $70, we can keep the excess for the rainy day which will go into a future fund or long term infrastructure development in the country’. Some governors flared up and said it is raining already, why talk about rainy day? So, they were squandering the money.
Even today, as we are in the middle of this crisis, go and check the motorcade of some governors. They are still travelling with 25-30 motorcades. Something definitely is wrong with us. An American senator takes a taxi and goes to his constituency. I know many of them. Why should we buy SUVs for senators at a time the country is broke? So, there is a complete disconnect between the expenditure of government and the reality of the country’s purse. There is a total disconnect between the facts of what we produce and what we desire to consume. Whether you want to devalue or not, the truth of the matter is that you are exchanging something for something. When you don’t have that income and it comes the time to give the person you are exchanging with, and you don’t have it to produce, he will stop selling to you. When he stops selling to you, we will come down to exactly where we came down to in 1984, lining up to buy sugar and milk. We call it essential commodities in those days.
Nigeria set up a company called Nigerian National Supply Company (NNSC) to ensure that there is sugar and milk in stores in this country. We lined up on the streets to buy sugar and milk and this same president was Head of State. I am not saying devalue or don’t devalue. I am saying your reality is your reality. If we don’t have the money to pay people we are buying from at a certain exchange rate, two things will happen. We will begin to apportion what is available to people. If you like, you can be the greatest anti-corruption czar in the world, when the opportunity presents itself, people are going to get corrupt. Those you intend to get the money for essential things will not get it. It is those who have the price to give under the table who will get it. When you get to that stage, you create a mess of the economy. This is not a debate about whether to devalue or not. It is about the fact that you don’t begin to produce or you don’t reduce your consumption in a way that is just and reasonable, you will end up not being able pay for what you need to exchange with others. What determines your exchange rate is simply how much it costs to produce the same thing within your economy as another economy. Devaluing is not an issue. What matters is the stability of the currency. It is stability that enables people to plan and the planning then lead to the production that you will get.
You were also reported to have described President Muhammadu Buhari’s budget as a joke. Given the fiasco that has trailed the budget, can you say you have been vindicated?
I never said President Buhari’s budget is a joke. When I was asked about the budget, I said I stopped commenting about budget in Nigeria about 15 or more years ago. And the reason I stopped was that my whole career was built on budgeting and the budget process. I thought when I was leaving graduate school that my ultimate claim to fame will be as Director of Budget, which in America was a cabinet rank. My personal hero when I was leaving that school in 1982 was a young guy called David Stockman who was Budget director in the Ronald Reagan administration. That was my career goal by the time I was leaving America. Naturally, I became one of the budget analysts. Every year, I will analyse, every year the thing will go another way. After a while, I said to myself: ‘What is going on here?’ I don’t think people who are making this budget seriously believe in what they are doing. I think this thing is becoming a public relations exercise in Nigeria. Budget is not really a goal driver moving us towards a perspective plan. I decided after a while that this is not good for my reputation and I said I won’t talk about budget anymore that the budget process in Nigeria is a joke. Suddenly, some people turned it around and claimed I said president Buhari’s budget is a joke. I said: ‘See me see trouble o. I have not seen Buhari’s budget. How can I say something I have not seen is a joke?’
Looking at the probe of looters of the treasury, do you believe those who agreed to return what they stole should be pardoned and allowed to go?
I believe in the rule of law. The rule of law enables us to anticipate, plan things properly and do justice to all. I think whatever the law says on this matter is what we should follow. That is the only way to guarantee that things will be done right. In America, they have what they call plea-bargaining. If we have plea bargaining law here, let us put them in place, but we must follow due process.
What is your take on the continued agitation for Biafra?
I can’t comment intelligently beyond the fact that if people perceive that they don’t count, then they begin to find outlets for expressing their humanity. The insurgency in the North East, in my view, was significantly more than anything else a perception by many people that they do not count or matter. The North East was by far the poorest in Nigeria. So many people felt left behind and they became easy to recruit by people who had ideologies. In the same way, I think that there is a significant feeling by many young people in the South East who were not even born when Biafra took place. Those of us who saw Biafra do not even understand why it is such an umbrella to run under in expressing this sort of being marginal. That is why said leadership matters in leading. If in leading, we manage to communicate to all across the country that everybody counts and that Nigeria is going somewhere and that all of them will benefit from this direction Nigeria is travelling, you have less of the kind of things we have now, whether it is in the South-south, Biafra field, Boko Haram field and so on. Leadership really must find a clever way of bringing everybody to the house, as Mahathir Mohamad used to say, “People be in the tent pissing out than out of the tent pissing in”.
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That is the hope I had last year that our change is going to bring; a government of inclusion that says ‘this corruption has scattered us but will create a corruption-free country in which the goal is the advancement of the common good of all of us’. I am afraid that unfortunately, we didn’t make enough effort to make that happen and that is probably being what is stoking the fires of those who feel that they have nothing to lose in this system. By the way, nobody can solve it militarily. We live in the age of self-determination. If there is injustice that is perpetrated and perceived over a period of time, where the world’s psychology stands today, those people have the moral right to opt out. There has been an evolution of thinking that has gone full circle from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This set the tone for a sovereign state but after the things that happened in Europe in the early 20th century, the Jewish experience in World War II, the world realised that we needed to begin to think differently. And the Universal Declaration of the Fundamental Human Rights of the United Nations began a process that has been advancing to the point where today the mantra is that in which self-determination is fundamental to your human rights. It means that the modern state has the duty to earn the loyalty of its citizens. If you don’t act in a way that earns you the loyalty of your citizens through a just society with opportunity for all, they have a right to seek self-determination.
You once granted an interview where you said President Buhari could appoint all his aides from one village. Many Nigerians believe that statement is unbecoming of you as an elder statesman. What is your reaction to that?
The point I was making is that we should not take the business of Affirmative Action to extreme and illogical ends. I believe in Affirmative Action. What I am saying is that if there are 10 Abeokuta people who are very good and can benefit our common good somewhere, surely let us bring the 10 Abeokuta people on board if we can’t find somebody else as good as them in other parts of the country. But, because we don’t search enough, we then pretend that we don’t find. Usually, there are people who are good enough from other parts of the country.
What is your take on the Supreme Court judgments in Rivers, Akwa Ibom and some other states?
I don’t have any information about the Supreme Court judgments besides that from where I was sitting; I don’t think any elections took place in several states. However, courts have some doctrines that they pursue. Sometimes, a doctrine may be to prevent a greater evil. Sometimes, may be where a certain intervention will create a bigger problems for peace, courts can decide to just leave the matters alone just like the famous case of 12 2/3 and the ‘My hands are tied’ judgments. From what I saw watching televisions, I personally do not think there was election in Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Delta and some number of places like that. I may be wrong, but these are just my personal perception.
Are you not worried that President Muhammadu Buhari has not done anything about the implementation of the 2014 National Conference report?
I was one of those who pushed for that conference. In fact, I was the convener of the group that formally requested for that conference. There is no question about whether Nigerians need to have a conversation on many issues. Unfortunately, many times, incumbents don’t accept that need to have a conversation until they are boxed into a corner and they need to serve their immediate interests. General Olusegun Obasanjo did that with the conference that was convened in 2005. Former President Jonathan later agreed to the conference and we had some interesting conversations, but he then left it too late in the day and did nothing about it. If he had started doing something about it, maybe we would have gotten somewhere by now. We all know that certain power elements in the North are less inclined to conversation than others. Then power has just gone to them and you are asking them to implement the report. We are not being politically realistic. Do Nigerians want a conversation? Yes, we need a conversation. But politically, it is an awkward position. That is just the unfortunate truth. There needs to be constituency, talking about that conversation. Part of the reasons for the mess we are in right now is that we don’t have that conversation. I think we need a Prime Minister with a Parliamentary system than an almighty president that can put the whole of Nigeria in jeopardy. I am all for constitutional conference in Nigeria because we need it. I know President Buhari will not implement the report because there are certain elements who are opposed to it. We need to talk about Nigeria. It is in Nigerians’ interest to discuss whether it takes the discussion that happens under President Jonathan or another. We don’t need to spend N7billion. This is their children’s future. They don’t need to be given any allowance. Nigeria is not working. It is important for me to sit down with others who claim they are Nigerians to discuss the future of this country and that of our children. If they say they don’t want it, then let’s scatter because that is what the whole concept of self-determination is all about. Even though it is not the best for us, but if that is what they want, let us scatter. Nigeria scattering is not in the best interest of anybody. We are better off when we are bigger. It is the only conglomeration of black people with any chance of lifting the dignity of the black man. To scatter it is to basically sentence the black man to another 1,000 years of slavery. We need to be together but it should not be by force. It has to be from the understanding that it will benefit everybody.
The Senate recently ordered the NERC to revert to old electricity tariffs. Do you think this government is justified increasing tariffs now that there is not much improvement in the power sector?
These are matter of mechanics and mechanics are better handled with information. I think that we can have a challenge of sequencing of how we sequence things. We should also be careful that we all understand our prescribed roles. It is not the role of the senate to determine tariffs. I think we need to be careful before we mix things up. It is easy to play populist in times like this, just to create the impression that they are pro-masses. I would rather that my tariff is tripled if I am assured that I will always get power because I am spending much more on alternative power and getting less. But, is there a contract or agreement that says this must happen within this time frame? And what is the consequence if the people don’t provide what is being paid for?