On February 6, 2016, Professor Patrick Okedinachi Utomi clocked 60. The political economist staged a week long seminar, symposium and colloquium in commemorating the landmark age.
The creator of the moribund TV programme, Patito’s Gang unbuttoned his large heart to ENCOMIUM Weekly about his travails and victories.
He made it point blank that he never allowed daunting circumstances to override his judgments. Fielding questions on the financial and political situation of the country, the ever joyous advocate of change in the polity said he has every reason to believe Nigeria will rise again. If for nothing, Africa will go into oblivion without the total emancipation of Nigeria and more…
Congratulations on your 60th birthday, how does it feel clocking 60?
To be honest, there is no difference to how I felt when I was 40. The only thing is that I have more years I can look back at as a reflection. For me, I have been literally around longer than 60 years. I have been active in the public arena for long. So, it looks like I have been around for 80 years.
What I have to look back is nearly 42 years. I first attained national attention as a student leader. I have 42 years I can reflect on in the gaze of the world. But, the most critical thing of all those years is having to be true to oneself. I think nothing has helped me also more than being consistent because it’s the principle that determines my choice. Many things that looked glowing for a moment eventually turned out not to be as glowing for many who didn’t have fortitude to preserve.
Even when boom flashed in front of people, they won’t head long to rush into it, but I chose to act differently and a lot of people said I was foolish. In five years after looking back, I always thank God I didn’t rush into it.
My bones don’t feel any weaker than they felt 20 years ago. I am thankful for the opportunities. More important, I am thankful to the Nigerian people. They are much more generous than people think they are. They are kinder, forget what people say. I think they know the people whose concern is genuine. The most important thing that has been said to me was on the street by ordinary people. I value them because they are profound things they think of you. You cannot be more grateful to God for the privilege of that kind of life.
What other lessons has life taught you at 60?
I can tell you that the business of what people choose to do are often dictated by what is the most glamorous, most paying. The lesson that young people need to learn is to do what makes them happiest. Not what people are prosperous doing. When we were in high school, some things were in vogue. If you don’t go that way, you are not a happening guy. It was being a pilot that was happening. There was nothing you will say to me, I just wanted to be a pilot. Some of my school mates had gone to flying school. I was also desperate to go to flying school but my father applied a very clever trick. One of my friends took school certificate exam. He went to flying school in Florida, USA. A couple of months after, he was already a pilot. He came back to Lagos. There was a party, there were flashy cars, we celebrated, but my father said, flying school is good but it is better to go to school first, adding that the best friends one could count on by the time one is 50 will be made in school.
They were the real friends, just go to the university, make friends, spend one or two years and come back to pursue what you want to do. So, I took the concessional entrance exam into university. There were only five universities in Nigeria then. I wanted to spend two years, come back and go to flying school but that trick by my father worked. Instead of going to flying school, I went to graduate school. It was there I discovered a library and a new love. In the end, I grew up to find out that being a pilot was not the only thing happening in the world.
Those days, when we were growing up, they were the big boys, they rode flashy cars, went to London and came back. But we outgrew that.
It was while we were in the university that there was oil boom. Most students were on bursary, some had two, three scholarships. Everybody was buying stereo, the richest students on campus then were architecture students. People were building houses. They were consulting students to draw plans for them and they were paid. That era came and left. Then, we had the banking boom and everybody started jumping to read the course but the bottom fell off later. Executive directors became jobless. When you look through all of these, you learn one important lesson, find your passion. Do not think of the reward or the glamour that is available out there, look for how your passion will make the world a better place. Even if it looks like a dungeon, just keep doing it. Do it as best as you can. Let your motivation be that the world is changing as you are working. One day, you will have all the money that you want. That is one of the biggest lessons I have learnt.
Attaining 60 is a milestone, people thought you would roll out the drums and party, why didn’t you do that sir?
I thought I had more parties than I should have actually. All though my life, my birthday had been celebrated with lectures and everybody went home. This year, we took several themes. We started on a Sunday with celebrating culture. We had a whole week for it. I have always believed that Nigerians will do well if they depend on culture. I have been saying this for more than 20 years now. Nigeria will thrive more when its food, music, culture is globalised. We need to sell our culture to the world. That was why we focused on culture during the seminar, comediennes performed, Taiwo Ajayi Lycett, also performed. We had an entrepreneurship seminar too. More important, there was a business plan competition opened to young entrepreneurs. Three winners emerged and we promised prizes of N1 million for the best business plan, N750,000 for the second and N500,000 for the third. We had a colloquium on developmental state and politics as well. The following day, we launched some new books I wrote when we had our annual lecture. The vice president of Rwanda, vice president of Nigeria were in attendance. There was policy debate by Nigerian universities, and the winners were picked. On Saturday, we had launch and did some dancing. I think that was a lot.
Do you have any regret at your age?
I have many regrets. I am usually amazed when people say they don’t have regrets. I am glad that they are geniuses. For me, almost everything can be done differently. So, I have many regrets. In terms of the options I could have made by the time I opted to go to the classroom. What I was debating was impact that my life will make. There were possibilities that if I had gone into enterprise, I might be the Dangote type and I might no be as big as that, I could also be bigger, but I decided to invest in other people and they would build big companies, employ more people. I think there will be more impact. From time to time, I ask myself, is this the best choice for you? Sometimes I am happy about my choices and sad about them. Aside that I believe there are many things you can do differently. One thing I have never regretted is that, I have never taken a bribe in my life. You cannot mention the transaction where I took bribe. It doesn’t exist. I don’t give bribe too.
What is the significance of turning 60?
My father died at 52. It has been a race since then. I have always wondered if I will get to 52 but getting to 60 is something great for me. I was always scared because my father lived a more normal life than me. I exposed myself to a lot of dangers. Government has tried to assassinate me. At the back of my head, I used to wonder, will I be around to pay the fees of my children. This year, the fourth of my children will graduate, I still have one more, but it seems I have been able to manage it.
If you could turn the hand of time, what are the things you would like to do differently?
I returned after my Ph.D to the country in 1982. There was a group of us who were passionately discussing what to do about Nigeria. We used to hang out together. The likes of Dr. Femi Aribisala, Babajide Peters, and others. We were research fellows. We debated Nigeria, set up all kind of things. One day, while I was lecturing, I talked about the quality of education in Nigeria in the 60s. One woman asked why we messed up the country if things were really so good. I then remembered my group back then, I told the woman that the people that had education then left Nigeria. I told them the story of our group. And I said, it is only two and a half of us are still in Nigeria, Olisa Agbakoba, myself and half of Femi Aribisala who became a pastor. Half of him went to God and half to Nigeria.
The truth of the matter is I wished I was able to persuade some of them not to leave the country. I wish most of the generation that went outside the country to study returned and worked in Nigeria, the country might be a different place by now.
In 1993, when the military cancelled the election of the June 12, I was furious. I wrote an article, Never Again that started a movement that came to be known as Concerned Professionals. They championed the fight for democracy against military rule. At a point, there was a dilemma in the group. Some members wanted us to transit into a political group and offer leadership to the country, while some said we were professionals, we shouldn’t become politicians. We should allow politicians go for leadership. What we did not reckon with was that the natural politicians did not trust that the military was ready to go, so they didn’t step forward instead some charlatans moved into the space and Nigeria has not recovered.
It was Donald Duke who said he was going to change Calabar and he left to contest. Had most of us chosen what Donald Duke did, we might probably have a different country now. A lot of my struggles since then have been a regret of that moment.
Can you share with us your happiest moment out of your 60 years on earth?
There have been many happy moments. I have been described as a very happy person. I am always happy. One of the jokes one of my colleagues said at the Lagos Business School is that Let us look for a day that Pat will be sad.
I am always laughing and turning things to jokes. I take my work very serious but I don’t take myself serious. I live a very happy life. So, looking for a very happy moment is really very difficult. I have had moments of enormous gratitude. I was in an automobile accident in July 12, 1991. My driver died and I was considered clinically dead at a point because there was no breathing, no pulse. I have been on two near air crashes. I have been seconds away from suicide bomber. The bomber passed in front of me and detonated the bomb in the next cabin. I came out alive. There has been many moments of gratitude to the generous Creator.
What about the most challenging moments of your life?
I had moments which I faced and I wondered if it was a movie or not. I say very often of our country, that one of the troubles of Nigeria which has held our progress is that we have allowed great injustices to rule our nation and it is hard to have peace in such a nation. People who can’t fight back when they suffer injustice, it goes down to the nation. Nigeria is a country where to abuse power is so natural. You look at the policemen the way they bully people, you will think it is naturally right to do such. The same thing when some people get to powerful position, they abuse it. I don’t understand why our culture is like that.
I have been abused a lot. I have been told by someone in position that I shouldn’t think because I am clean that they can hang anything on anybody in this country. The person sent the director of a newspaper to tell me that.
Are you still nursing the ambition of contesting for the president of Nigeria?
The word I don’t like is ambition. I have no ambition for anything besides being a citizen and living my right. If a number of us think that things are not done in a particular way and we can change it, anyone of us can move forward. It is not an ambition, it is a duty. At any point in time, if other things I can move forward to change anything, if it is appropriate, I can go forward, I will have no problem about that but I am not looking for anything. Some people are saying that what does he want again after 40 years. I am not looking for anything. I have rejected appointments because I feel things are not right there.
So long as the context is right, I will have no problem making myself available. In my biography I called To serve is to live. Your life is incomplete unless you give it in service.
There were speculations that your name was on the list as one of the nominees for ministerial appointment, if you were chosen, would you have honoured it?
Of course, I heard the speculation like most people did. Some people also called me that it was time to go and practice all I have been saying, while some said I shouldn’t go. There were different perspectives but for me, it wasn’t a big deal. Almost every cabinet reshuffle in Nigerian history since I was 30 had my name speculated. During Babangida’s regime, he appeared on television and was trying to explain the speculation that my name appeared on the list. I got to know when I got to Benin. I had an accident and my car was towed, some people stopped and told me about it.
I never had any conversation with anybody about my name being on the list. I was part of the people who canvassed for this government. At that time, I thought we were all in one movement to change the country. I thought everybody was there to change the country. If that is still the case, I would have said yes, I will go but people have other agenda.
What is your opinion about the current political situation in the country?
Nigeria is in a transition. I have been in a change vanguard for years trying to ensure a few things happened. If we can establish a proper democracy, that was my first goal as a transistor. 2015 was a huge victory for me. What I worked so hard for was a strong opposition that could change the government. The next movement in changing the value system of our country. One of the values that has crashed is the value of integrity because of problem of corruption. That is another aim of this change that is taking place and I think it is good.
I think we are not there yet in the aspect of quality leadership in Nigeria. Leadership is a big heart that has long sight. You can see tomorrow very clearly. We don’t have that capacity right now. We have small town boys with personal grudges. Nigeria still needs desperately the big heart guys who see tomorrow very clearly and as grownups without any fear of others, my hope and prayer is that we will see it happen.
What is your take on the situation of the country, for instance, look at the dollar exchange rate going at an alarming rate?
It is predictable. I said it five, six years ago, it is on record. The finance minister said some politicians this and that. There is nothing surprising about where we are. I expected it to happen. But Nigeria will rise up again. I think that God loves this country that we will get to the brim, and still find our way back.
Black race will not have its dignity without Nigeria finding its rightful place. I think that will propel a movement that will make that happen.
The young people should have faith in this country. If they are given the right guidance, they will move Nigeria forward.