Politics without the people
By Pat Utomi
MANY years ago Frank Olizeh threaded the path of legend when as television panorama show host he set out in search for the Common Man. It was not exactly similar track I sought when months ago I began to traverse the length and breathe of the vast terrain of the blessed spread of Nigeria from the coast line, and its forest belt, through the Savannah heartlands, and to the edge of the Sahara Desert. My mission was simple. It was to find the Nigerian people, ask them about how they see the Nigerian condition and share with them ideas on how to make Nigeria a mirror of their dreams.
Gusau in Zamfara State was a classic stop on the tour. In ways it was special stop. It was here that most of the ideas that drive me till this day were honed. In entering Gusau my team headed straight to my place of nurture, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Even though my visits to my place of birth, Kaduna, and the city I first registered to go to school, and witnessed Nigeria become independent, Kano, have been quite frequent over the years, I was arriving the true city of my early formation, Gusau, for the first time in 40 years. I cannot tell if is because I have grown bigger but the church looked awfully small now. In 1964 and 1965 when I rode my bicycle almost every morning at 5.30 to this church to do my duty as Alter boy the church looked like a cathedral. Now it seemed just like a small chapel. But it was around its grounds that Domican Priests of America descent made me read everything they could lay their hands on that then President John F. Kennedy said or did. Here the man I would become was shaped. What used to be my school now housed Youth Corp members. It was with them I first engaged on the Nigerian condition here.
Those youth corpers of Gusau were typical of the victims of Nigeria's failed promise. The young Nigerian Domican Priest I met had the same earthy disposition of the American heroes of my childhood but I wondered if he could inspire these young people, with the rot they see all around them, as I was inspired by his American predecessors, to believe that I had it in me to change the world. To be sure, Gusau has developed much in the last four decades. The farmland across from the Post Office and Sports Club I could see from the church was now all real estate. I used to do my early morning bike ride to the church on a track that cut diagonally across that field. But there was much gloom and less hope in the future in the air now than in those years of my childhood.
If there was any recurring sentiment as I journeyed from the creeks of the Niger Delta, be it to Prof. Kimse Okoko's village outside Yenegoa, or Warri town, to the streets of Sabon Gari, Kano, where I met a 39 year old man who lived in the same one room face me I face you he was born into. His English was good enough to suggest he had more than secondary school education. Despair as common currency, I thought had no place in a land gifted with the abundance of human talent, natural resources and strategic location. Why is progress so slow in this land. Why have less endowed countries that I have spent much time traveling through in Asia overtaken us by so much in terms of the quality of life of the people.
It was in Birnin Kebbi, where you could visibly see effort by the government to make some difference that it became so obvious to me. Nigeria lies prostrate because in Nigerian politics people do not really matter. Just look at the things we assume about Nigerian politics. They all seem to discount the Nigerian people. Look at the undemocratic nature of the processes of our political parties; the assumption by most Nigerians that voting is pointless because elections are rigged by a political class that think nothing of the weight of the voice of the people; the mindless corruption that leaves the state treasury empty even as the Governors pour the fortune of the common wealth into their private quests for political bounty as aspirants for the presidency. How did we get it so wrong.
In my visit to General Muhammadu Buhari admiration of whose values I have never made a secret, and my calls on Alhaji Maitama Sule, the question of how we came to get it so wrong have been the basis of quite some discussion. We have never managed to hit the nail squarely on the head. It is about how leaders, in integrity, serve the people. But the wholesale discounting of the people, so palpable in what is wrong in Anambra State and the wholesale shredding of our constitution in the quest for control of some states, never assumed the central place they should in why anarchy looms. Indeed when I first read Robert Kaplan's book - The Coming Anarchy - and encouraged some friends to join in founding NUTRA (Nigerians United to Resist Anarchy), I never believed contempt for the people could ever run so deep that some of the people I have met on the road like to pretend that we live in a country without a government.
Why does Nigerian politics not recognise that politics or public choice that discounts the people is not sustainable. In the end the conditions lead to cleavages that provoke social collapse. I have been amazed how my vision of a new Nigeria as a country of people of industry and integrity who live in harmony and prosperity with one another, inspiring an African renaissance in which the dignity of the human person is at the centre of all public choice, resonates with many thinking men. It seemed so simple when I thought it up.
I am persuaded that the only reason a country with the talent pool we have can attract the kind of revenue flows we have had since 2000 and the roads are universally immotorable, with 71 per cent of the population living below poverty line. Traveling across many parts of the country looks like adventure through wasteland. This is because people do not matter, or at least do not take centre stage when policies are made and implemented. This is in spite of the fact that our much maligned constitution demand this of who govern. My relief is that many men and women I respect agree that people matter and that Nigeria is far from its goal because policies have ignored the people. This is why I have to accept that I enjoy being seen as voice of the voiceless.
For Chief Gani Fawehinmi who has been generous in endorsing my running for President it is about my consistent focus on the people. Chief Fawehinmi has always cared about people. I had taken it for granted as the only purpose for a place in public life. For such others as Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, Prof Wole Soyinka whose kindness towards my involvement may come from their intellectual disposition, life indeed must be about service to the people. But there are conservative businessmen and politicians who have been kind to me, whether they be Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, Dr. Alex Ekwueme in terms of disposition to public service and my aspiring to national leadership. The blessing and counsel of Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu even speaks more loudly. The verdict for me is that our statesmen recognise that it is all about people. People matter. But the people I have encountered across the land feel they do not count. Extant policy tells them so.
A duty in public life must be to restore the people to the heart of politics. To do differently will be to court anarchy. So what do the people want? From North Central to South East and North East I hear them saying the same things. It shows how the same we are even if many politicians try to divide us. The people want jobs for their children, education for their offspring, security of life and property and their dignity assured by the rule of law. I cannot thank enough the royal courts whose voices joined ordinary people in assuring me of how it is the same things we desire; from the Oba of Benin to the Sultan of Sokoto, the Obuzor of Ibusa to the Emir of Gwandu; and the Oba of Lagos to the Asagba of Asaba. So I say with a loud holler, the voice of the people must count in 2007.