Prof. Pat Utomi is a rare breed. Ever simple and always ready to be of assistance, especially to the young ones, our joy at YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine knew no bounds when he agreed to an interview at his Balarabe Musa Street, Victoria Island, Lagos office. The erudite scholar who was born on February 6, 1956 and hails from Ibusa in Delta State ensured there were no protocols with our YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE. Taking away all the road blocks and bumps that could have stood in the way of that early morning session, the happy and contented father of five made everything so simple and smooth…
Why is it that in spite of the fact that Nigeria is hugely populated, we still have a problem of finding men and women of integrity?
Well, because the people are defined by culture and tend to act in accordance with the accepted norms in our culture. Sadly for us, culture has been in a very significant decline in Nigeria. Since military rule, it just seems to get worse and worse. Very often, I quote from a book on corruption and development in Africa. That’s the title of the book – Corruption and Development in Africa. It was edited by Ronald Hope, Snr. and Bornwell Chikodo and the first paragraph of the book runs a little like this – That corruption runs the spectrum in Africa, from rare in Botswana to widespread in Ghana to systemic in Nigeria. So, where corruption is systemic in a country, it then take extraordinary force of character for people to have integrity. And I give you a simple example, everything about the Nigerian environment forces you to compromise. First of all, to live a decent quality of life is extremely expensive in Nigeria because we have a state that malfunctions. So, you need to have your own local government – light-Today is the 15th day without light in my house, because a small storm blew through Ikoyi (in Lagos). Today is the 15th day that we have not had any power supply. But it’s not unusual for me. We’ve spent two, three months without light. Not the usual four to five hours or total loss for at least one week. When you ask them they say oh, in that part of old Ikoyi, the cables there were laid in colonial times, so it’s impossible to change. We get that excuse every time. So, you provide your own power, your own water, your own security, your own this, that. It makes upfront what it takes to live a remotely decent quality of life very, very expensive. Now, you then put on top of that a society where government has cornered everything. To be able to function, you therefore seem in Nigerian way to have to suck up to people in power and so it takes extraordinary character to speak the truth to power. Because those people are usually small-minded people. A lot of people who have had power in Nigeria for sometime are very small-minded people. And they would go after everything they can of yours to prevent you from functioning. So, many people find that they have to compromise and you have fewer and fewer and fewer people of integrity. But you see, most people don’t have a force of character to even try, so they all fall into it or join them to become part of it. That’s why we have so few people with integrity.
Why is it difficult for the few good men in Nigeria to get into power and change things?
It’s part of the same question. People who are in power tend to regenerate themselves, have their types around them. They tend to fear people who are committed to service to the people because they think those people will betray them. I mean, as you and I are speaking, James Ibori has just pleaded guilty to a court in England. He’s going to spend the next I-don’t-know-how-many-years-of-his-life in jail in England. But the Nigerian judiciary shamelessly kept finding him not guilty of anything. That’s the kind of country we are in. thankfully, the President of Nigerian Bar Association himself last week was able to speak very stoutly about the fact that the Nigerian judiciary is very corrupt. The last bastion of the common man, the judiciary is very corrupt. So, what do you expect? The fundamental thing that went wrong in Nigeria, I think with our politics, happened in 1998/99 when people like us put ourselves on the line to force the military out. I was on Abacha’s assassination list. For a variety of interesting reasons, the hand of God, I managed to get away. The same people who shot Ibru (The Publisher of Guardian) were supposed to shoot me and all of that. And after fighting all that fight, we felt now, okay, now that the military has been forced out…but the truth of the matter was that many of the people who should have gone into public office, should have run for office, who are the natural leaders of the people, were not sure the military was really going to stay out for long and they didn’t want to risk their reputation, disrupt their careers and lives. So, they were reluctant to go in, 1998/99. In the main, I mean, there were few good people, no question, but in the main, the kinds of characters that rushed into the political space were criminals, were charlatans, were people who had nothing else to do and once they entered power, because the system is very weak, they used the state to begin to accumulate money and redefine politics as money. In that kind of environment, it’s going to be very hard for decent, honest people to break in. But that fight must continue otherwise the country is lost completely. It cannot be salvaged.
Why do you think a lot of people respect and reckon with Prof. Pat Utomi?
I don’t know. I don’t even know that they respect or reckon with me. I just live my life, a simple life, according to the dictates of my conscience, with commitment to service. I believe that the most important thing is the dignity of the human person and that there’s a piece of God in every human being and that, needs to be respected. And it is in struggling to deal with other human beings in that sense that my world is defined. I believe that man is created as a gift, one to the other. I mean, if God intends us to be gifts, one to the other, and so I see my place in life and the meaning of existence as acting out that role as a gift to other people and maybe out of respect, I don’t know.
Most people believe that Prof. Pat Utomi is a genius, do you agree with them?
Far from it (Laughs). In fact, I’ve got a second class brain. It’s a funny thing, but this goes back to 1997. I can remember clearly because I was on my way to the World Bank annual meeting in Hong Kong and at Murtala Muhammed Airport (in Ikeja, Lagos) somebody said to me ah, I like the story on you in This Day today. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t read the paper. So, I went to one of those stores at the airport and bought a copy of This Day. It turned out to be a report in the style section on me. It was a pull out in the style section. An interview by Max Amuchie and this lady, Jumoke Rowland and the title of that section of my interview was ‘I am not a genius’. Because this very question you asked me, they asked of me and I said I’m just an ordinary guy, who had ordinary average grades and I remember meeting the former oil minister of Indonesia, he’s now dead, Prof. Mohammed Sadli, and we were talking about Nigeria and I brought out a Nigerian newspaper and it was that newspaper that I had. And he saw the headline, ‘I’m not a genius’ and he said to me, what’s your problem? They think you are genius, leave them (General laughter).
Prof. Pat Utomi is perpetually engaged, how do you juggle all these things?
Man’s time on earth is short. The Purpose-Driven Life, in fact, makes as a point that the average life span, and this is for Europe, America, not here that things are much worse, man, it’s only 25, 250 days. Very short! Man’s life is extremely short. Look at how one day passes so quickly and by the time you count 25,000 of it, most of us won’t be around. So, why waste it? You got to do as much as you can within this short life; manage your time as well as you can, but let the time you spend here count. We have a rent to pay to spend on God’s part, this part of God’s real estate and part of that rent that we pay is in making sure that we are used up completely. There’s a book I like to refer to people to help them understand leadership, written by a guy called Robbin Sharma. The book is titled The Leader Who Had No Title. And one of the things that he talks about is, if you want to die empty, use up all your talents. So, why die remembering that your potential was not used? Somebody else who likes to refer to that actually is Myles Munroe. Dying empty! I recall the anecdotal joke about the Noble Prize winning physicist who died, a Nigerian politician who died, the American entrepreneur who died and at the event, they were trying to sell the brains of these people. For the Noble Prize winner, they offered five dollars. People said how can; this man was a Noble Prize winner, they are offering five dollars? The American businessman who built this huge empire, people offered fifteen dollars for his brain and the people went, are you crazy? Then, the Nigerian will be free of charge. But when it got to the Nigerian, somebody priced the thing 10,000 dollars. Ah-ah, what do you people mean? They said look, these ones are used up, this one has not been used at all (General laughter).
You’ve been a Special Assistant to former President Shehu Shagari, the Deputy Managing Director of Volkswagen, the chairman of Platinum Bank, and so many things. What more do you want to become?
Becoming is not my thing. Being is my thing. Being is to be a human being who affects the world around you and hopes that because he passed through, the world will be different. Titles don’t really win anything, just like hood don’t a monk make. But if there’s need to have a title, the bottomline is what you are going to do with that title. So, I am just trying to live out my days. On twitter, just in the last two days, I was saying that as I approach the autumn of my being, that I feel a need to use up very rigorously every week to focus on one problem that we have as a people, to see how ideas can be brought to solving those problems. This week, I’m dedicated to power, tweeting on power this week as one major problem. Next week, I will turn to another major problem and every week I will turn to a problem. And somebody tweeted back and said what do you mean by approaching the autumn of your being? And I said my existence, autumn of my existence, I’m in middle age now, I’m going. Very little is left of my life, so there’s great pressure on me to utilize what is left to affect people for greater good.
Why do most businesses fail in Nigeria?
There are many reasons why businesses fail. Of course, the most given, should I call it problem, is the environment. Manufacturing failed in Nigeria significantly because there’s no enabling environment. Power was one of the biggest challenges. And there’s also the attitude of the entrepreneur. Our country is a country of sharing and then it’s also the country of the big man. If you start a business today, first of all, in your mind, you want to tell people you have arrived, because if they don’t see you as having arrived to start with, your business may be considered not strong enough to be dealt with. So, you want to project strength and how do people project strength in this country? Big car, big house! So, once you buy that big car, you move into that house, every launching in your village, they will bring you invitation card – chief launcher, chairman-and you begin to deplete your capital and before you know it, the business begins to stumble. Another reason is that a lot of people have built their businesses on economic rent. What in some parts of Nigeria they call I.M, Ima Mmadu, that is, your connection. So you go, this man gives you something, you take, give to another, you make money. But you are not creating value? And then suddenly that man who used to help you is no more there, then you dry up. So, people will need to realize that business is about creating value, something others are willing to pay for because it makes a difference in their lives, not because somebody gave you a break.
Why do most people fail in life?
Because, first of all, they donn’t start with the end in mind. You know, with life, it’s important to ask yourself very early, like Wole Soyinka titles his auto biography, setting forth at dawn. You got to start early in life and as you start early, you got to have an end in mind; where you are going? Then, you got to have certain fundamental values that act as your compass, guiding you towards that end that you have in mind. I think Stephen Covey better illustrates this in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People when he says that you should imagine that you are attending a funeral, imagine that you are on a queue to pay respects to the person in the casket, imagine what all the people who are filing past that casket are thinking about this man and then you get to the front of the casket, imagine you are the one inside, imagine what you will like all these people to be thinking when they file past your casket and work like such that they will think those thoughts when that day comes. Begin with the end in mind and you will move towards something that satisfies you. Let me give you, with all the modesty in the world, because this is for me a function of God’s grace, not anything special about me. I started out early. You’ve pointed out what positions I had. At age 27, I had that presidential advisory position. At 26, I had two masters degrees and a PhD and the next year I was already in government. A coup takes place not so long after, the government dissolves. If you look at many people in Nigeria, they’ve been hanging around government all their lives. Once they get into that government circle, they are in. So, they don’t have any dignity, they have to crawl around whoever is entering power but when my initial entry into government ended, the coup came, I took my quick lesson from it, which is, look, if you are going to be in government, it must be something that will affect people’s lives fundamentally. So, don’t just accept a position in government just to wear a title or don’t go to government because you want the prestige of a title or you want to make money from government. It has enabled me to remain useful, if you want to call it that, for 30 years, without being seen as a parasite, hanging around government. Because when I look at most people around government, the kind of contempt I have for them is…all these guys are parasites! All their lives, they will just be hanging around. If they are not ministers, if they are not this, you will see them in Abuja. Imagine that people will finish their tenure as ministers in Abuja and they don’t return to where they came from. They still are hanging around Abuja because they’ve not found independent ways of living and the temptation for them to misbehave in government is very high because they don’t know when they will be out and how they will survive. I have also had the good fortune of the spirit of contentment in a country where it’s your Mercedes is bigger than mine. I mean, I was forced to begin to drive big cars. Not because I’m a socialist. I will never be a socialist. But as far as I’m concerned, food is fuel. So, I eat anything that keeps me going. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the top Chinese restaurant or in the buka. Car gets me where I’m going to. So, I was driving a Jetta until I went to a meeting when we were trying to set up a bank 15 or 16 years ago and the people who I came with, I was going to be or I was the chairman of bank, said how can you come with a Jetta? Look at the people we are inviting to come and invest, they all came with Mercedes 500, S Class, they will think we don’t have money? So, the next day they went and brought me a Mercedes. It doesn’t make a difference to me! You drive Mercedes, I drive Jetta, as long as it gets me where I’m going.
What is your definition of success?
I actually saw a very interesting definition yesterday in something I was reading – it’s how your children describe you to their best friends (General laughter). So long as your children are happy with you, you are successful.
The Almighty God has been very nice to you, what more do you want from Him?
That in spite of my many sins that He will allow me to see Him face to face. I mean, material comfort is good and let’s be frank, I’ve had my fair share of it. I live in…and I’ve typically lived in centres of town. Even to have a decent roof over my head, being able to get around to wherever I want to go. I’ve been everywhere literally. I’ve been to all the continents of the planet. In fact, one of my illustrations is 2008. The first three months of 2008, I was on the planet, every continent of the planet. Been to Sydney in Australia, several places in Australia, in Singapore, in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in Dubai, in Germany, in London, in U.S, all within three months. First three months of 2008. Not chasing anything, just living my normal life. People inviting me to do this, do that. So, if you consider those things the kind of things that a good life constitutes, well, I’ve had the good fortune of many of those. But really, what’s for me the important thing of life is to have peace and joy at home.
You’ve also been scandal-free, how have you been able to do it?
It’s not because I’ve not done terrible things, it’s just because God is looking after me (Laughs). Try and have a decent conscience, try to form your conscience in a continuing basis. You know, forming ourselves as humans is a life-long thing. It’s a struggle. I’m not a saint! And I just manage to remind myself that I must struggle to overcome my shortcomings.
Who is your closest friend and what does friendship mean to you?
In many ways, the concept of close friend is a challenging one if you really want to be close to your nature, and the point I made earlier of man as gift to the other. It means that on the one hand, you try to be in good standing with just about everybody you are dealing with. But invariably, your best friend has to be your spouse. The person you are with. You have many burdens. They say that the family is the bus stop of no condition. Unconditional love! In my language, we say Nwanne Ozu na enie. Your family is ultimately the place where you can get that unconditional love, so it’s got to be your spouse, your children.
Your wife, Dr. Ifeoma Utomi, has been with you now for 27 years, what will you say has sustained your marriage thus far?
Mutual respect and you got to recognize that you both have strengths, you both have weaknesses and it’s very interesting once in a while we sit down and have a conversation on these kinds of matters. I mean, nothing is perfect, without challenges. I hear there’s a lot of domestic violence in this world, 70 percent. The thought of pushing my wife out of the way, not hitting her, pushing her, get out of my way, has never crossed my mind, not to talk of the possibility of doing it. There’s never been any such occasion in 27 years of marriage. Of course, we disagree over many things, but we talk about them. If somebody is getting particularly upset, the other must realize that it is time to cool down. I usually think it’s my duty to walk away whenever tempers are rising and then come back few minutes later to discuss that matter.
Why do most marriages fail? Why do we have too many marriages falling apart?
I think there are too many of us on big ego rides. Me? Me? How can you do that to me? Me? Do you know who I am (Raises voice). And who are we? Just a piece of dust! I think there’s too much pride in the place and because of it marriages are not as they should be. I think humility is a very important part of getting the marriage thing to work. Two people should never be crazy at the same time. If one person goes crazy, the other must realize they have a duty to ride out the storm and then get things back if they care enough about each other to have gotten married.
Who do you admire most in Nigeria and why?
Living or dead?
It could be either way?
I admire many people. You would have to create a composite in some ways. I admire immensely Dr. Michael Okpara, who was premiere of Eastern Nigeria, because of his hard work and integrity and strength of character. Imagine a man who more or less carved out GRA Enugu and didn’t give himself one plot. People like Akanu Ibiam, I have great admiration for. In a lot of ways, I admire Chief Obafemi Awolowo very, very much for his own strength of character and commitment to serving his people…
How about those that are still alive?
In contemporary Nigeria, some of the people I admire, they come from corporate life. I just had the occasion to review a book, a biography written on a man that I’ve been quite friendly with for more than 20 years, Felix Ohiwerei, former chairman of Nigerian Breweries. I admire him. He’s a person of character and commitment and conviction and his beliefs… I was very pleased to read in that biography the motto of his alma matter, which I really find remarkable and worth adopting as a personal one – Government Secondary School, Owerri (in Imo State)…
What’s the motto?
Work hard, play hard. When wealth is lost nothing is lost, when health is lost something is lost, when character is lost, all is lost.
NB: First published March 2012