In this interview with WALE AKINSELURE, Professor Pat Utomi, a renowned economist and chieftain of the Labour Party (LP), speaks on the performance of his party in the 2023 elections, the leadership crisis rocking the LP, the President Muhammadu Buhari administration and expectation of the Bola Tinubu administration, reports Nigerian Tribune.
How would you describe the performance of the Labour Party (LP) in the last election? While there is a good cheer about the performance of the party, some question the essence of the good showing without winning the presidency?
First and foremost, there was a movement for a new order in Nigeria. The Labour Party was adopted as part of that movement. What was on showcase in 2023 was not Labour Party, it was the movement. That movement came from a very clear understanding that the All Progressives Congress (APC), which I was part of founding, cannot bring Nigeria to any progress. I will give a little history about why I am certain they cannot bring Nigeria to any progress. The reason some of us canvassed that the APC was encouraged by some of us was that there was a certain recognition by some of us that transaction politics in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had created a certain self-love among politicians that it was all about transactions and what people get and in the middle of it, there were some elements that you just need to massage to get result of elections and you go and share booty as you like. So, there was the need for a political party that will respond to Nigerian people that were falling back and back. Some of us canvassed this and in 2012, I gave this lecture at the Leadership Newspapers Annual Lecture on political parties, at Ladi Kwali Hall, Sheraton Hotel, Abuja. Every member of what is now APC was there: Bola Tinubu, Muhammadu Buhari, Bisi Akande were all on the high table. I remember when I finished giving the lecture, the late Dr Paul Unongo, standing next to uncle Sam Amuka, ran up to me on the podium. As Unongo was reaching to me, Amuka was saying, you are really deep o and I was joking and saying, do you think I was shallow? Unongo said, I want to lock the doors of this hall, you people should not leave here until you do what you are calling for and save Nigeria from this PDP. The APC went through all kinds of processes; there was that of Tinubu and Akande going to meet Buhari but I deliberately chose not to go to those meetings for other reasons that I have written about. I used to be a for-Buhari kind of guy; Chief OluFalae led an effort to engage with Buhari under the Progressives Movement and something happened after 2011 that made me give up on Buhari and I have written about this elsewhere.
What was that, that made you give up on Buhari?
It has to do with the 2011 election and his reaction. There was the British Deputy High Commissioner who came to see me, he was so distraught about Buhari’s response to their effort as British government to get him to make a statement to stop the killings in 2011 and he basically said to me that, this Buhari is not a leader. After that I became negative towards Buhari. So, when Tinubu invited me to come to the meeting, I didn’t tell him why but told him that if you succeed, I will support. I was the one dragging Tinubu to go and see Buhari and Tinubu was dodging earlier. He eventually did and they worked out something.
At what point did your support for the APC begin to wane?
Anyway, when APC started and Chief John Odigie-Oyegun took over as chairman, I told him that to rescue Nigeria, there are fundamental problems facing the nation. There is need to educate anybody getting elected about these problems; it was a clearly predicted problem that failure to educate in the North was going to create the coming anarchy that we are seeing today. We now have a whole generation of people in the North who did not go to school, who do not have parents because their mothers died at childbirth, Almajiris and stuffs like that. In the history of every country, when you get to that kind of point, these guys have no connection to anything social, no values, so anybody who wants to make trouble just has to give them a meal. I remember telling the late AlhajiMaitama Sule, when I visited him in Kano in 2005, that if a young boy of nine years does Almajiri, does not get enough food to eat at night, sleeps under the tree and can survive, when that young man can 40 years, he cannot beg for that food and nobody gives him, if he gets an AK-47, he will shoot anybody. The American, Robert Kaplan, had written the book, “Becoming Anarchy” and I thought it was important for policy makers to read this book. I bought copies and distributed them; among those who got copies from me were the National Security Adviser, General Aliyu Gusau, the Director-General of the DSS, Colonel Kayode Are. I was pointing to where Nigeria was going, a clear road to Afghanistan if we do not do anything dramatic. I said to Chief Oyegun that we need to put everybody who is going to be elected under this party to a basic drill on a number of things: one, a general idea of what this party stands for in terms of organising society, values; two, we need to define the kind of economies of liberating the people, we need to show them how political institutions evolve so that they can do the right things. I told Chief Oyegun, let us provide trainings for the political actors on how political institutions evolve. Chief Odigie Oyegun said there is no money, I said to him that I would give my time completely free of charge, in Abuja, for one month. I said I will even pay for my accommodation; I only asked him to gather the elected public officials at the APC headquarters in Abuja. I said not just me, I can get my friends from political science to do this for me and for the future of Nigeria. Chief Oyegun said there isn’t money, I said, but this is free; I realised that there were not interested. Politics was machine to grab power. I gave up since I realized that there wasn’t any serious interest in creating that platform to educate political office holders. And, I decided that we were not going to go very far because of that general disposition, it was just about power. That was when I lost interest in the APC within the first few months of the 2015 election that there is no interest in doing anything for Nigeria. I am not surprised that the APC was a disaster in terms of progress in Nigeria. My old group, Concerned Professionals, Femi Falana, MuizBanire, myself and a couple of others would meet, virtually, every week, to discuss what it was possible to do. Meanwhile, I, working on another dimension with Wale Okunniyi, identified as critical for the process, the role of the Labour Movement, that is, the NLC and the TUC. So, we began to have meetings with these labour leaders. On the 6th of February last year, at a colloquium in Lagos in which Ayuba Wabba gave a big speech where he said that all these things before, that this is the time to implement them. We decided that we will use a party as a platform to actualize that movement. Femi Falana said the labour movement needed to retrieve the Labour Party which it had become alienated from, that Labour Party can be a vehicle. I was more keen on bringing several parties together and the one I was most focused on was the African Democratic Congress (ADC). Femi Falana loved the Labour Party option. We put these things under the Big Tent involving some political parties collaborating with Civil Societies Organisations. We discovered very quickly that the people were desperately looking for a way out. So, we began to look with curiosity at this emerging effort. As it was developing, the general thinking was that they would push me to be the candidate but it was about collaborative effort to rescue the country. When Peter Obi got fed up with PDP and came himself to us, and said this is a good thing asking that we work around his candidacy to achieve the same result, that initiative exploded unto the sea and the youth of Nigeria, who were looking for an outlet, adopted Peter Obi.
The Labour party campaigned more than any other party has campaigned in Nigeria since the last 20 years. It has been the best issue-based campaign of a political party in Nigeria in two decades. We got to every part of the country. When we started, they said four people in the room tweeting, then people were on the streets everywhere, then they said we don’t have acceptance in the North. We began to move into the North and the rallies were so huge. Of course, the old order was doing everything to fight back and trying to fight back, they did some very terrible things, they went ethnic and they went to those things that kept Nigeria down. In the end, we did not have an election. It was a complete mess. INEC promised the world a lot and gave nothing. Many people had stopped voting in Nigeria, many had given up. If you follow the barometer which measures interest in democracy, it has been declining in Nigeria. This movement suddenly woke people up and we know what happened. So, the party or movement performed well.
What things made you arrive at the assertion that there was no election?
Insincerity of INEC, which has now peaked with the Adamawa mess, it was a clear demonstration of what INEC came to represent. Of course, ethnic profiling was a very deep, disheartening part of the process. All my life, I have never been able to understand ethnicity. I have always seen a shared humanity in people. Look at my politics; my politics is always a politics of ideas, fairness, justice. For the first time in Nigeria, there was heat with fascism evolving. I was seeing Adolf Hitler and the same things that produced Hitler and things that happened under him that was evolving in Nigeria. Ordinary Germans, when the whole Hitler thing was evolving, ordinary decent Germans did not know when they got caught up in it, it was like decent ordinary people suddenly finding themselves in the name of ethnic and all kinds of sentiments exactly what can become about a horrid, fascist state. We all know how it ended up in Germany, I don’t expect that it will end any differently in Nigeria. This is rise of fascism; I saw it coming; I predicted this was coming four years ago. This is not because I am smart but because trends are there to be read.
Amidst all, don’t you consider BVAS, Electoral Act positives in our electoral process?
They were supposed to be but they were abused. If BVAS simply just worked, everybody saw clearly the results, nobody tampered with them, they were uploaded, even if it was the devil that won, everybody will know that the people wanted the devil, that is democracy. But, people had reason to doubt that what happened was what the people wanted. So, you have this crisis of legitimacy that would follow whoever comes out of this process. Nigeria is not making progress already, compounded with a crisis of legitimacy. Government does not function currently; there is mass disaffection; there is insecurity; there is economic depression; there are all kinds of problems, then you add this crisis of legitimacy. That is why most smart people are just packing and leaving.
Knowing that it has never happened for the tribunal to nullify the election of a president, is the decision of Mr Peter Obi and the Labour Party to challenge the emergence of Senator Bola Tinubu as president-elect an exercise in futility?
Let us watch and see; I do not know what will happen. Peter Obi says that he has a history of quietly going to court and being vindicated, three times now. But, the truth is that many people have gone cold on Nigeria right now and that is not going to help where Nigeria is going; many people don’t trust the electoral system in Nigeria. So, it’s really a struggle to rebuild; these deep cleavages have been deepened. The last eight years made Nigeria a divided country; nepotism added to a very toxic electoral outcome. We have a country in the throes of crises.
But, President Muhammadu Buhari has asked for forgiveness from those he might have hurt in his past eight years government. Would you accept this plea and forgive the president?
First of all, I do not know what he has done to me to forgive or not. All I know is that we had eight wasted years under him. If you know you don’t have capacity, why disturb us? I have nothing against him so there is nothing to forgive; it is just that he wasted everybody’s lives.
You were at the founding of the APC and had close relations with Tinubu back then. Knowing Tinubu’s trajectory, can he inspire the desired change in the nation’s fortunes?
Change is more complex when there is the crisis of legitimacy, then I am not so sure how the change will be brought about.
Are you saying Nigerians should not expect anything different under a Tinubu presidency?
I do not know. As student of Man and Society, my concern is to spend time trying to understand what has happened in Nigeria; why a country with great potential has become the laughing stock of the world. That is what I am hoping to commit what is left of my time doing. Nigeria is a country that I have been extremely passionate about, almost all of my adult life and I see it is almost gone for many people, and I am trying to understand why it happened. That is what I want to commit my time to.
Tinubu is described as a leader who is good at spotting potentials and having intellectuals around him to give him good governance. Would you want to leave your country to continue this way, what if Tinubu calls on you to offer some help?
I will not accept. I said that in an interview about two years ago. Our character matters.
We’ll soon mark another Democracy Day after the May 29 inauguration of a new president. How would you describe our democratic progress?
One of the great authorities on democracy and modernity is a German philosopher called Jurgen Habermas, generally referred to as philosopher on the public sphere. He identifies the nexus of democratic progress as the point of rational public conversation. Part of the problem that has afflicted our democracy is that we have not had rational public conversation. Instead, we have this champions of abuse, people who think democracy is about insulting their opponent. There is another person called Jacques Ellul who wrote the grand book on Propaganda. Even Jacques Ellul will be scandalised by what the so-called spokespersons of Nigeria, both in government and many of the political parties actually say in the name of democratic exchange. I just found it very problematic to engage the level of insults rather than discuss issues that affect the lives of people. I said it repeatedly during the campaign that the way that APC and PDP were insulting each other’s principal was such that they had totally devalued the Nigerian presidency. If you are a foreigner and a man that has been called the names they called each other shows up to see you after he has been ‘sworn in’, will you have regard for him? This is what our democracy managed to do. So, they made progress very difficult for the country because of their understanding of the process as a game in which insults and propaganda were the central issues. That is not what democracy is. The disconnect between the people and power has become so huge that most ordinary Nigerians do not think people in power are there in the interest of the people. For many people in Nigeria, democracy that they know is a government of politicians, for politicians, by politicians. The naked truth is that government has not been much useful to the Nigerian people. Government does more to prevent business from bringing progress than facilitating it which governments do elsewhere. The biggest risk of doing business in Nigeria is regulatory risk. You are more likely to fail in business not because of market problem but regulator problem. When you look at all of these things, you say to yourself, there has to be a better way. Right now, Nigerians are worse off this thing we call democracy. So, as a social scientist, my personal inclination is how can we better understand why democracy is not working for Nigeria and what can we do to connect the people to those who seek public office.
As someone who has great passion for Nigeria, what would you advise Tinubu to prioritise on assumption of office?
Quite, frankly, I am not sure how to offer advice in the circumstance. Nigerians have to sit back and ask themselves if they need Nigeria to continue like this and agree on a new modus Vivendi. Where Nigeria is, it does not matter what anybody does, unless there is a dramatic healing of the wounds and liberation of bad policies, we are going to be Afghanistan. Nigerian leaders have to come together, sit down and ask themselves what country they want themselves, if not, it is over. They can only have state capture, people take advantage of being in power, steal as much as they can for a period and it will consume all of us, you and I.
The Labour party is in some leadership crisis; there are Abure and Apapa factions. This is a party that enjoyed the support of several Nigerians. Is the Labour Party not already disappointing Nigerians who believe the party?
These things are created deliberately to add to the confusion. People from outside are fuelling the confusion so that they can use it to say exert what you have said. Eventually, there will be a convention and there will be new leaders.