Nigeria's Public Space And Reason Embattled

Nigeria's Public Space And Reason Embattled
- Pat Utomi

That, ideas, just as values, are at the heart of human progress, I have never been in doubt. Why ideas have been in short supply to drive our troubled nation-building effort has become clearer to me as I have matured. Some of those reasons have chased people of ideas rushing for safety away from Nigeria's public square. While I disagree with their retreat and often lament it by reminding them of Dante's inferno and the hottest part of hell being reserved for those who take refuge in neutrality in the face of a moral crisis, I recognize their dilemma. Nigeria's public space has a character of the simplistic, devoid of capacity to deal with nuanced engagement, and very often leaving reason embattled.

Whether it be the reporter not being deep enough to see beyond black and white, or the Diaspora based internet warrior raining down vituperations from the comfort of American suburbia, or beer parlor pundit calling everybody a thief just as he is pocketing that which belongs to his neighbor, the need to elevate the public space for Nigeria to make progress has never been greater.

This enthronement of unreason while enough to encourage flight from the public space must be the very reason for patriots to enter that space and reclaim it in the interest of progress lest it be one more excuse for Nigeria to remain a great potential 200 years hence. As I say, for example, had Olatunji Dare abandoned the public space because of abuses he received from people who shared his views but could not understand his satirical writings, imagine our loss. Even though Dare would return to the United States, the profit to us all from continuing to hear his mature voice continues to be value. This is why I have reacted to some of the issues in the public domain from comments I am supposed to have made regarding looking forward and looking backward with the disposition of what can be learnt from the spate of commentary rather than the desire to correct the uncharitable comment or ensure that my voice comes out the loudest even though I have the possibilities to so project my point of view.

What was the trigger of my return to this subject of continuing interest? When the spate of probes into our recent past broke out I was hardly focused on it. From time to time I ran into tales of massive graft in the IPP initiative from those following the power probes. Serious interest in the matter really came to me from visiting with the Lagos State Governor the evening after his meeting with the House Power Probe committee. His view on the power sector challenge which suggested more fundamental reasons than outright graft, for policy failure, got me thinking. The outcome of my reflection on the subject was that we may be getting caught in the drama of probes and fail to hold those responsible today, accountable for tomorrow being better than the current mess.

I made the point in one or two interviews including a lengthy one with the Nigerian Tribune before I heard of the probe into the Central Banks role in setting up the AFC. The simple point was accountability is important but let serious quiet work go on there while we face the emergencies of the moment and tomorrow instead of the theatre of probes inoculating a public so angry it has, understandably, developed an appetite for the shaming of yesterdays tyrants. It should not be so angry that it cuts off its nose to spite its face. Imagine the CBN issue and the damage the approach of the government has already done to the terrible reputation Nigeria already has for sanctity of contracts. If someone who was one of the few associated with the banking industry who has taken a position critical of CBN several times in recent history would say something is wrong here, in the broader national interest, if we want to get away from this recursive economy syndrome you would think remotely intelligent people will see the point. This is especially curious as it is fairly obvious that the central truth of my public life is that democracy is about accountability, not just in terms of financial propriety, but also in terms of stewardship for responsilibility.

I have since been vindicated in the Speaker of the House, Dimeji Bankole berating the House for having underperformed last year by as much as only 11 bills being passed into law this year as against 35 for the same period last year. This validates my point about the need for a legislative agenda as against jumping on every thing that looks good for television. Besides, I have now seen a rash of reports questioning some the motives behind the work of probe committees. But that is not what bothers me. What gets to me is that the power sector performance has been getting much worse but we seem to be more anxious to find out who did what yesterday before we stop the hemorrhage from becoming total collapse. To imagine that anyone can translate that to mean we should not look at yesterday speaks volumes for the quality of our public space. This is more so the case when the central truth of my public involvement, consistent since 1977, is put in perspective.

The more irritating part is that anybody who is familiar with my views will know I have always worried about obsession with yesterday to the detriment of tomorrow. As a business teacher I have almost made a cult thing of the idea of Bourbon organizations. Taken from British business learning and leadership consultant Bob Garratt who uses the concept of a popped bottle of champagne, bourbon, to describe how top team leaders are looking over the shoulders of those who succeeded them in prior positions, and no one is looking forward, with ominous consequences for strategy, I have agonized over the possibility of our sliding into the bourbon state. The probes, their benefit for accountability, which I find desirable, notwithstanding, seemed to me, when the emphasis is on theatre, might accelerate the ascent of the Bourbon State.

In earlier times I would probably have responded, as many people called to urge of me, with angry dismissal of such commentators in borrowed words from Spiro Agnew, as ‘nattering nabobs of negativism'. Maturing has left me the humility that all contribute something of value and must be carefully listened to. Considering that I can be wrong and have been wrong many times, I find the contradicting view worthy of reflecting on. So I am more patient with these views but I still remain keen on establishing the reason for such rush to lack of charity that is so debilitating of the quality of Nigeria's public space, especially when they come from Diaspora types who live in societies where the public space is robust yet civil and better able to cope with nuanced inputs.

Aggravating and demeaning of the public square as the conduct of some of these players may be it is still not enough for it to be the reason many who can elevate the arena withdraw.

Citizenship requires that they engage. The market place of ideas that will allow ideas of progress to prevail has their participation as one of its imperatives. It is also important that no matter how wrong headed some of these comments are, they have value in that at the least, they make us reflect. They can therefore not be good reason for abandoning the public square to those who offer less. I believe that all talent given to man must be used to serve community. To shrink from such citizen duty because you fear being disparaged by people who have not understood you or lack the discipline to understand is to die while you still breathe and to provide history evidence for judging you harshly. So, contest that public space.