By Ike Okonta
Professor Patrick Utomi graciously received Chiedu Ezeanah, the poet and journalist, and me in his hotel suite in Rockview Hotel, Abuja, on a rainy Friday evening in early July. Professor Utomi had just come in from the Channels Television’s studio where he had fielded questions from Seun Okinbaloye, anchor of the television network’s politics programme. The subject was the Labour Party and Peter Obi, the party’s presidential candidate. As usual Professor Utomi was passionate, lucid and brilliant, making the case that Peter Obi represented an epochal shift in Nigerian politics, a rare opportunity for the younger generation to set the badly-drifting ship of state on the right path once and for all.
Professor Utomi has come a long way in his career as an academic, public intellectual and politician making the case that intelligent thinking and a careful application of wisdom would see Nigeria banish forever the perennial problems of economic underdevelopment and social anomie. From his first foray in public life as a special adviser to the late Dr Alex Ekwueme, former Vice President of the country, to his stint as one of the prime movers of Concerned Professionals during the turbulent years following the annulment of the result of the June 1993 presidential election to Patito’s Gang, the no-holds barred television programme he anchored, speaking truth to power, it has been a life of selfless service to the nation.
His latest initiative is the Big Tent of the Third Force, a coalition of like-minded progressive politicians and public intellectuals, young and old, working to displace the two major political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and position Peter Obi and the Labour Party as the next government in the country come 2023. It is an awesome undertaking, and Professor Utomi is leaving nothing to chance as he commits all his intellectual resources to galvanizing Nigerians to come and find shelter in the Big Tent.
Displacing an incumbent political party in Nigeria is no mean feat. APC achieved this in 2015, the first time in Nigeria’s political history, by cynically deploying ethnic politics. This was primarily the handiwork of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, now the presidential candidate of the APC. Realising that the then President Goodluck Jonathan was an Ijaw, a minority ethnic group in the Niger Delta, Tinubu stitched together a coalition of two major ethnic groups – the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba, bringing together the Action Congress of Nigeria, his political party, Congress for Progressive Change led by Muhammadu Buhari, and the All Nigeria Peoples Party, to form the APC. Buhari had shown in previous presidential elections that he could command the majority of the Hausa-Fulani votes. All that was needed was for Bola Tinubu to mobilise the Yoruba to join the Hausa and this was duly achieved, propelling Buhari to Aso Rock Villa as President.
It is to be noted that the social, economic and constitutional problems afflicting Nigeria and how they might be tackled were not at issue for Bola Tinubu, Muhammadu Buhari and the APC. The goal was the presidency come what may, and the duo embarked on the journey without a map. This explains why it took President Buhari nearly six months before he appointed his ministers during his first term in 2015, and the incoherence in policy articulation and implementation on the part of his government ever since. Ethnic politics, not public policy, has been the primary platform on which the APC and the Buhari government has resided for the past seven years. The prospect of state failure that is now staring Nigeria in the face is the tragic result.
In their bid to take power from the APC, Peter Obi and the Labour Party are relying on an altogether different strategy. Eschewing ethnic politics, they are making a bid for the youth vote and the 100 million Nigerians presently living below the poverty line. This, in Political Science, is known as the politics of the historically dis-empowered. And Professor Utomi is the chief anchor of this exciting new strategy. If Peter Obi succeeds in displacing the incumbent APC just as the APC, in turn, displaced the PDP in 2015, it will be a landmark in the annals of Nigerian politics because for the first time since Independence in October 1960, the young and the poor and powerless will come into their own as active players in the governance of Nigeria.
However, it is not enough to just state that your primary constituency is the young and poor and powerless. Your campaign manifesto must also spell out in concrete terms what it will do to address the issues confronting them. With regard to the poor, Peter Obi must come out boldly and state that free education up to secondary school, and generous subsidies in higher education, will be a cardinal programme of his government. Further, universal health coverage modeled on Great Britain’s National Health Service must be in place. Third, subsidized social housing and a joined-up strategy to address the scourge of slums in urban areas must be pursued. The example that readily comes to mind is Lula Da Silva, former President of Brazil who, using the platform of the Workers Party, pulled the bulk of the country’s poor out of poverty within a decade using the programmes I have just enumerated.
So far, Professor Pat Utomi has not come out publicly on Peter Obi’s position on these social programmes. This is a lacuna that should be speedily addressed. It is good that he and Peter Obi have emphasized the urgent need to turn Nigeria from a consumption-obsessed country to one in which production will be the primary driver of the economy. However, it needs to be pointed out that it will take several years before policies designed to reflate the national economy will begin to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the poor and the young will have to LIVE. Addressing their urgent needs in education, healthcare and housing even as policies are put in place to get factories working again in the country is the way to go.
Professor Pat Utomi is faced with one of the most important challenges of his long public career with 2023. But he is intelligent, resourceful and above all passionate about getting Nigeria to work again. I am confident he will meet this challenge frontally and with good cheer.
Dr. Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.