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‘The National Conference lacks the ability to engage the future’: Pat Utomi In New Interview (READ)

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Acclaimed scholar, economist, 3 time presidential candidate, and one of the leading voices for social change in Nigeria, Professor Pat Utomi recently spoke with Vanguard Newspaper on a range of issues including the on-going National Conference and the role he played in bringing it to life, Sanusi’s banking reforms, and why Nigeria may not be a prime destination for investment. We reproduce excerpts of the interview below. Read the full interview HERE.

On the National Conference

I have made it part of business to keep challenging us about what our consciousness should be. In recent times, we have begun to focus on two sets of activities to deal with this matter. The first has to do with the hope that was raised that a national dialogue could result in a certain understanding of what has kept us back and how we could look at the future so that we could make the progress that is deservedly ours given the endowment of our country.

In that regard, I was the convener of the National Summit Group which began the formal canvassing for National Conference. But I am deeply sad at what came to be known as the National Conference. It’s a tragedy for Nigeria that we ended up with how the body was constituted.

On the promise the National Conference Holds

It is incapable of engaging the future; it is talk on the past and the personal quarrels of yesterday. It lacks the capacity, in terms of many of the people who are there and in terms of their endowment not because they are good or bad people, to engage the future. And so, many people are now dismissing the conference as a waste of good time, good money and all kinds of motives are now being imputed on how it was constituted, why it was constituted, and all of that.

That’s far from what we had in mind, I think there’s an obsession, given the place many of the members are coming from, with perhaps issues of structure and power completely oriented by several decades of primordial politics, the politics of sharing.  So how do we share better, how do we share more effectively?

Whereas I think the biggest things that challenge Nigeria today are the issues of national character, rethinking the vision of ourselves, our values and indignity, corruption. Structure matters but, in the opinion of some of us, it comes a very distant place compared to some of the things that hold Nigeria down and we are going to end up with this obsession of sharing power and all of that with a dead document.

On Youth Involvement In The National Conference

Interestingly, in the last two weeks, I have received calls from people who try to hold some of us accountable for pushing for this conference. And we are actually in deep consultations with professional bodies, even with some ethnic nationality groups, especially with the youth groups because young people were significantly marginalized in the process of constituting a group to look at the future. And these are very smart young people. People think when you say youth groups; you’re talking about ‘area boys’, that’s not what youth groups are. Indeed if there’s anything anybody understands about this economy, the new growth in this economy is significantly driven by those who are about 30 years old without us being aware of it.

In other words, nothing good is  likely to come out of the conference.

When you exclude that kind of people from discussing the future; then you don’t understand the future that is coming. And this is what this conference has fundamentally done and so we are in consultation with all these groups. There just might be an alternative National Conference that can engage the problems of Nigeria.

On Transforming Delta State

I have always thought of Delta as the new UAE where, literally, you can create a Dubai, an Abu Dhabi and all of that. Yet it remains ravished with poverty in the midst of so much. Of course, there have been talks on ‘Delta Beyond Oil’, that oil can bring savings that can help to advance other sectors the way Dubai is.

I am particularity pained because I have been a part of a process of looking at Delta’s prospects.

Former Governor James Ibori constituted a think-tank on Delta State development chaired by Deacon Gamaliel Onosode. I was a part of that think-tank; we marked Delta State. For those who might have followed my writings on matters of political economy, factor endowment, driven value change into global market, those are the basics to grow Nigeria. That is, mark the endowment of Nigeria at the national level. And this has been well marked in all the works of the Delta think-tank on Vision 2025.

But I don’t see change principally being developed to create the opportunity for growth. And so we talk so much, whether in the civil society or in government, but the problem is how do we walk our talks; what can we do to begin to translate our public or private resources, because there are so many things you can do even with private resources? Let us look at the example of the Second Niger Bridge.

What’s The Big Deal About The 2nd Niger Bridge?

Any time somebody wants to run for election, he will promise to build the bridge. But what is the big deal about a bridge across the Niger? (Governor) Fashola (of Lagos State) built one from Ikoyi to Lekki that is not shorter than the Niger Bridge. We can have three new bridges across the Niger built by the private sector and they will be profitable. I frequently cross from Onitsha to Asaba which is now a nightmare, there are people who live in Asaba and are actually working in Onitsha. So it is like crossing a creek bridge from Onitsha to Asaba with only one bridge. And yet we play football with something which simple creative application of the mind can solve.
I can guarantee anybody who wants to try me that three Niger bridges are easy to formulate and execute.

Look at the Australian bank which has become the greatest financier of infrastructure in the world, how they built that expertise; we have the money; the will and all we need to do to show we are serious, trust worthy and will follow laws. This is why a National Conference is not just about how many states and federating units do we have or whether we adopt a British type Westminster parliamentary model or the presidential system; it is national character that can make it easy for an Australian bank to think of coming to build a bridge across the Niger knowing that it will not have the problem of a governor coming it two years’ time to say ‘I cancel the deal’ which is what happens routinely in our country.

What he thinks about Abuja

I don’t want to talk about how much I have tried to push these issues privately with people who have been in the leadership in Delta State over the couples of years, that it is not a big deal; you stimulate the agricultural economy of the state by simply collaborating with farmers who will provide the food that will feed the children to attract more children to school; and then ensure that you give them the best possible education and training and retraining for teachers by using remote teaching possibilities that technology made possible to ensure that the best education get to kids across the state. You can also create this competitive economy where you can create a new city not far from Bomadi that will grow not like Abuja; if I have my may, I will bomb Abuja out of existence because it is a major part of Nigeria’s problem.

That point I am making is that, nearly 39 per cent of the federal revenue goes to Abuja. North-east takes1.6 per cent of the revenue and you are talking about Boko Haram, why will it not happen? South-east of Nigeria 2 point something per cent; so why won’t you have kidnapping in there?

A federal administrative capital does not grow the way Abuja has grown. It is because of the huge channeling of resources into Abuja for the comfort of the administrative elite that you are creating exactly those conditions that Robert Capland talked about in his anticipation of the West Africa of the future.

What is holding Nigeria’s economy back from real growth

Property right constitutes a major part of the constitutional arrangement that makes an economy advance. Now, until the people have a philosophical understanding of what property right means, that country is going to work very hard to make major progress.

For a long time, I was in a position to be called and I still get called by people who want to invest in Nigeria. Before IBM decided to re-enter Nigeria, I spent time with their executives around the world. As the discussion went on, on whether they will be coming to Nigeria with any significant strength, I was contacted from London, Washington and all of the calls I received were laced with skepticism about the system and I kept on persuading them on why they couldn’t afford not to be in Nigeria.

Investors are scared of Nigeria

People are scared about Nigeria because there is impunity, and property rights are not certain. Later IBM decided to come into Nigeria, and also GE. So many came to me and said if they have any trade dispute in court, they will never get a resolution. On the basis of this, their thinking is, ‘I would rather go to a place where the challenges of doing business are lower and there is a higher certainty’. Because of this, I wrote a book in 1988, entitled: ‘Managing uncertainty; competition and strategy in emerging economies’. Because of the issues of institutions and economic performance, properties rights are so fundamental and that is why people don’t understand when some of us raise some fundamental issues.

The massive robbery that was Lamido Sanusi’s banking reforms

For instance, when this banking thing came, it was a grievous infringement on people’s property rights. And what did the media do? They were cheering, saying “catch those thieves” but Vanguard was exceptional because it was the paper that projected the plan and that it was a conspiracy to do what was done in the banking industry.

This famous reform has set Nigeria back by 20 years, I assure you. Peoples’ banks were stolen to their face. But we celebrated the deception and created one more reason people should not invest in Nigeria because property rights are violated. A Peruvian economist wrote this book on the mystery of capital and the essence of his thesis is that the problem between the rich and the poor is that the poor has assets but it is dead capital, not fundable and not translatable into capital.

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