An accomplished professor of Political Economy, Pat. Utomi, has today explored the story of his meteoric rise to global prominence, alongside some other topical issues, of which is the radical clamour of Nigerian regional groups for secession.
This was in an interview with Tunde Akingbondere of Reference Daily News
What Is Your Name
I am Pat. Utomi
To start with, I think I must come to actually point to a few interesting things about you and that I have come to respect. While I was reading about you, I got to discover you have featured in a lot of great places, even as a youth. You secured two Masters’ Degrees, including a Ph.D. at the age of 26. You were also a member of the Presidential Advisory Council at age 27. How were you able to go that far at the ages mentioned?
I think it is a matter of the culture of the times, things have changed a little. I have seen a lot of young Nigerians who have done more than that at that age. The irony of two Master’s Degrees and a Ph.D. at 26 is that I actually did not want to go to a University.
I went to Federal College, Ibadan back in the 60s. Just two of us were reaching School Certificate age in our class. What was most popular was to be an airline pilot. I had a very good friend, we grew up in the same neighborhood. Then a man called Olumide Lawal, we call him Olu P amongst ourselves and Olu’s mother was a rich textile merchant. So, immediately Olumide finished School Certificate Examinations, he didn’t even wait for school’s results to come, he left for the US to go to a Flying school.
Generally, American Flying schools treat flying almost like learning to drive a car. So, all the certifications did not seem to be an issue hence, he didn’t wait for school’s results.
He took off to go to a Flying school, ten months later, he was back in Nigeria as a Certified Commercial pilot in Nigerian Airways and it was happening big time. Olu P and I used to drive around Surulere in his car, just be the nuisance as kids are, taunting people with fancy cars. So, it was such fun that I couldn’t think of anything else but to be a pilot. I said to my father, “Flying school or nothing.”
Anyhow, to cut the long story short, my father had a very nice negotiation with me that, “okay, you are so young, you have done School Cert. Go to a University for one or two years. Make friends mature a little. Then you can go to Flying school and join your friend, Olumide. So, I said, “okay, good idea. Why not?
In a very funny way, I said, “It is okay. I am just going to the university for two years, to enjoy myself. What would I even study? I will close my eyes, put down the pencil. Whatever it crosses, I will fill that in.” That was how I decided what I was going to study in the university because it was fun for me. Someone having fun for two years and then, I will go off to Flying school.
In those days, there were five or six universities in the country, and competition for getting into them was very strict. You take the Entrance exam, not like the “Man know man” of today.
You take the Entrance exam and wait. One day, they will publish the results in a newspaper and parents will call each other, “Ah! Your son passed into Ibadan or any of the other universities, stuffs like that. I passed to go to UNN, a close friend and classmate of mine, Gbenga Sadipe had entered UNN already to study Engineering. So, I said I am going to join Gbenga in Nsukka. I went to Nsukka, gave myself two years of ecstatic undergraduate life, and then out and off. But I was affected very much by some exposure in Primary school. My father used to work for British Petroleum and was transferred a lot.
Sir, yours must be a rich family?
Not really, my father was of average-middle class………
Most of these multinational oil companies must have grounded rich people?
I was not poor. We were not poor but we were not rich, it was just like being a Civil Servant in those days, being of the Middle-middle class. But anyway, my father was transferred around northern Nigeria by the British in the 60s and I went to Catholic school.
All of my primaries, secondary education were in Catholic schools. I actually started primary education in Kano in 1960, at Saint Thomas’s Primary School. Then, I was transferred to Gusau and I went to another Catholic school, Our Lady of Fatimah. At that time, John F. Kennedy was the president of the United States. He was newly elected. He was the first Catholic to be elected president of the United States and the American priests were enormously taken by Kennedy’s mystics and we became the recipients of their passion and excitement and all of that. So, everything that John F. Kennedy said, I had to succor as a 7, 8 year old. At age 9, I read books that 30-year-old have never heard of because these priests just kept giving me all these books. In competitions every Sunday, I typically will win and the prize will be booked. So, I began to get that kind of exposure. By the time I now ended up at the University of Nigeria, I had a deep culture of service, services, sacrificial giving of yourself for the good of others. All of Kennedy’s principles have come a lot. “Ask not what your country can do For you but what you can do for your country” and all of That. That was coming out of my nose, ears, and everywhere. So, the years immediately after the Civil War, the University of Niger was significantly destroyed by the Civil War, so there were a lot of needs. Buildings have been blown open, universities, libraries. Lack of enough personnel or sources.
My Head of Department called the students together and said, “look, we can’t afford a librarian, people are donating books from all over the world to us as part of the Post-war support. So, we have all these fantastic books in the library but we can’t afford a librarian. So, you students, organize yourselves and I will give you the key to the library and you can then decide who mans the library, when and how.”
Students were as usual very selfish, they didn’t want to take the responsibility of spending their time at the library. Obviously, one of the thoughts of those Catholic priests in Gusau came through to me and I said, “Oh! God! Someone like me does not even intend to graduate, I am just here to have fun and you people can’t see that this library is for your own good.”
Just to make them regret their selfish action, I went to the Head of Department, volunteered to run the library. So, the Head of Department gave me the key to the library and so nobody could use the library unless I was there. A sense of responsibility to allow others to use the library overcame me and from being one of the serious (as we used to say) Ilari boys on campus. They go, play around, knowing that they had no plan to graduate. I found myself in the library and since I was doing nothing, I began to read all those books. Shortly after, I found out that when I spoke in class, the lecturers were embarrassed. They had not read half of the books I have read and that was how I did a U-turn from Flying school to Graduate school. On graduating, I went for Youth Corps. The same day I left Youth Corps, I was in Graduate school. That is why at 26, I managed to have those degrees. I do not think there was anything extraordinary about them though.
While you were responding to my earlier question, you made mention of the Civil War. You talked about some adverse effects of this particular war on you as a person and your university. So many Nigerians are actually feeling that you should be part of people drumming support for Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB. That is the stead of actually rolling with secessionists clamouring what Igbo people will always seek, you have chosen to pitch your tent with the Nigerian State, including its politicians, what is the reason behind this, Sir?
This is very simple logic as far as I am concerned. The civil war was most interesting. I was one of those who experienced the Civil War from the two sides. I was inside what became Biafra when the war started. My father was in Lagos, British Petroleum transferred him to Lagos after the crisis in the North in the year 1966. But I started Secondary school in Onitsha in another Catholic school.
So, I was in Biafra but for just for few months. Eventually, I crossed over to the Nigerian side and with the help of an Army officer who was a friend of my father. A colonel who was in Asaba. I ended up in Lagos and reunited with my father and I started schooling in Ibadan, Loyola college in early 1968. So, that was how my Civil War story ended.
But interestingly from Ibadan, we didn’t even know Civil War was going on. That image comes back to me anytime I see Boko Haram stuff and how those of us in Lagos go and say “those funny people are having problems in the far North of Nigeria. That was the way we in Ibadan saw the Civil War in those days, “oh! There is something called the Civil War going on in the East.
Anyhow, being in Ibadan during the Civil War obviously created a different kind of consciousness.
Another thing you would note from the way I grew up and traveled. I was born in Northern Nigeria. I actually was baptized in Jos. My father was posted to Maiduguri. So, I lived in Maiduguri as an infant. He was posted to Kano. I attended a Catholic school in Gusau and then started secondary school in Onitsha and left of course shortly because of the Civil war. I did the bulk of my education in Ibadan and lived in Lagos. Not many Nigerians have that Pan Nigerian background. One of the things that kind of thing will do to you is to make you recognize that humanity is shared humanity. There is nothing differentiating an Igbo man from a Yoruba, Hausa or a Kanuri man. We have a shared humanity.
Unfortunately, because we have very poor leadership. Our leaders have not enabled us to see that essence of our reality. In fact, one of the things that I am very active in is what is called the “Handshake Across The Niger: South-West, South-East engagements. Whenever I see Yorubas and Igbos quarreling, I consider it such a silly thing. Because if you read History, Yorubas and Igbos are cousins. One of the best writers in our global history, he is an American called Diamond, the author of a number of books. One of them is called “Gems, Gums and Steel.”
The second book is titled “Collapse,” it borders on how human societies have failed through History. Diamond’s thesis, not even looking at Nigeria, Igbos, he was talking about the globe. That is how you know that humanity started in West Africa and with those that migrated Northwards. The weather affected their Jellutine and they began to look pale. They became white men.
In the social movements in Africa, people were going West, East, along the Coastline of West Africa. The way you know people who are related is the living evolution of human beings. They were very simple. The first things they learned to identify were parts of their bodies, things around them as the language evolved. So, if you look at the Igbos and Yorubas for example, they still have the same words more or less for the nose. Imun is Imi in Igbo. Enu in Yoruba is Onu in Igbo. Eti in Yoruba is Inti in Igbo. Yoruba’s Igbo is Ugbo in Igbo. So, the very earliest symbols in life are still exactly the same Yoruba, indicating that Yorubas were one people. That some of them then move further East and became more sophisticated and created new worlds that now make the two languages look different.
One of the benefits of the exposure and education that I have been privileged to have is a better understanding of human nature, which is why I take a different attitude to these things. We will thrive and prosper more as a bigger nation than an as a small nation. However, if trying to thrive as a big nation leads some people to think that they can make slaves of others then, you can justify, rationalize breaking down or up.
What’s your perspective about how Igbos are being treated in Nigeria?
That’s my point. Just issue of leadership. People who have led Nigeria have not been smart enough to realize that they are not leading Nigeria properly. Why do we have a melting pot in America, where you can come from anywhere and sue, none even remembers where you came from in America.
I was leaving in America when the Boat people began to arrive. One generation later, they have all become rich, they have been integrated into the American society and all of that. I believe in the melting pot concept of society. If you look at how the Greeks saw human beings, they categorized them into three: the basest level of human beings are people who just think of themselves. They called such a group of people idiots. It wasn’t an interview insult but just a categorization. Those who think of only themselves were identified as idiots. Typically, these people see anybody different from them as an enemy and so, they are called tribesmen or tribalists. The fourth level of human development is citizenship. Citizenship in any person is the humanity that they carry, not the language they speak. This is how I like to see people.
Your final word and counsel to our audience at home?
Progress comes from how we as human beings see tomorrow more clearly and how we educate ourselves to make for human prosperity. Education is central to how human society prospers and many times in our country, we don’t give the emphasis we should give to education. Two things are critical, two things that the government should do are healthcare and education. If you find out, the kind of poor leadership we have across the country will not make us to focus enough on these two social sector issues.
So, my counsel to a lot of young people is that you should educate yourselves. It has never been easier in human History to educate yourself than today, with access to the internet and everything you want. Educate yourself. Once you are educated well enough, you can change the world.