Pat Utomi: “Before someone says the same thing to Gbenga Sesan, Chude Jideonwo and others”

 

The generation that left town provoked an opportunity to put straight the blame for my generation.

Richard Branson is one of the world’s most highly regarded entrepreneurs. His call can colour a lot of judgment in making investment choices. He recently gave a verdict on Nigeria, especially its leaders. As if the effects of Boko Haram, kidnapping in the South-East and South-South, militancy in the Niger Delta and good old Advance Fee Fraud, 419, were not enough, Branson’s verdict was damning.

In summary, he thought Nigerians were good, but their leaders, who must hate them, are a bunch of crooks. He vowed never to do business again in Nigeria.

Branson’s experience was predictable and to be fair, quite objective. It is the legacy of 45 years of a leadership culture that left Nigeria unable to win a medal at the Olympics and made a generation leave town.

By an interesting twist of fate I eavesdropped on Richard Branson’s early days in business in Nigeria. I had gone to dinner, in London, with a friend, Mallam Bello Gwandu. It was a restaurant in Bayswater, not far from where I lived while on cross posting in the UK. I was still flushed with embarrassment that I had never been in a restaurant barely 5minutes walk from my old flat when we seated in the very crowded room, right next to Richard Branson. Our clothes practically touched most of the evening. With his friends he talked excitedly about Virgin Atlantic planning to fly to Port Harcourt. He was so animated about it all. Even though I never said more than hi to him that night I could tell he thought well of Nigeria. His harsh verdict had to be the product of a nightmare of an experience.

Ironies ever seem to get the better of me. At a time I was getting ready to set aside the book of lamentations and talk up the signs that the wane of Afropessimism and challenges around the world was making Africa a compelling proposition an innocuous question about education, leadership and intergenerational anger leads me to generation analysis. The generation that left town provoked an opportunity to put straight the blame for my generation. But it has attracted requests for reflection on the generation that made them to leave town. Now my privately held labels will enter the public domain. Sometimes that makes a person feel like he is naked in a concert hall.

Instead of celebrating Africa rising I am now struggling to help generation Y understand why we are so perfect a mess that a flop at the Olympics so total is only a symptom, in ways a metaphor for the cumulative legacy of a generation. To write this up was surely scripting an epitaph for the perfect ruin.

It is ruination so complete because the generation that has dominated Independent Nigeria has unwittingly, and sometimes consciously knocked down two pillars fundamental to human progress, institutions and culture, the values that drive progress.

A fitting summary of the essence of the generation that forced excellence to leave town came alive to me recently in a conversation with the chief executive of a multinational company in Nigeria. He had recently been at a meeting with a former president of Nigeria. Taking advantage of the fortuitous meeting he had asked the president’s opinion of why Africa was prostrate.

The former president was so long in responding the executive thought he may have committed a big faus pax in asking such a precocious question. But he was quickly assured the delay was to find the right words for an honest answer. The typically aggressive former Nigerian leader finally framed his response: Most of us leaders made the choice to make ourselves rich and our countries poor.

I could not believe such candour was possible from the man. Such a response should provoke anger from citizens. Instead all I felt was pity. Pity because it captured the error of intention that produced double jeopardy. In choosing to make themselves rich they not only impoverished the nation they set themselves up for poverty even if for a while their bank accounts were swollen because their conduct stoked the revenge of the poor which Robert Kaplan captured well in Sierra Leone early in their civil war from which he predicted the coming anarchy. All around us today we see the signs and symptoms of the coming anarchy in the revenge of the poor. The mindset of that authority figure captures the generation that betrayed the dreams of the Independence patriots or founding fathers. Ironically their journey started on ideals of correcting the ills of the founding fathers. The great paradox is they would in their legacy construct a ‘perfect ruin’ of the Nigerian dream.

They came as twenty something and thirty something year-old soldiers with friends in mufti in the mid 1960s with little of the benefit of the quality higher education Sir Eric Ashby had praised earlier in that decade. In my view they created the perfect ruin not so much, as one of them has said, because they wanted to get rich themselves at the expense of their country, but because their limitations led them to destroying institutions and polluting culture. This is why what I feel is more pity than anger at how they managed, without realising it to erect perfect damage to the future of the generation next.

More painful, in their working well the recycling mill, you would think a second chance would provide benefits of yesterdays hindsight and opportunity to make good on past errors but something in the powerful pull of the culture of that generation makes the next round more tragic in the 45 years of their iron grip on power, directly or via surrogates. A personal tale to illustrate. In late September 1998 as General Olusegun Obasanjo awaited a phone call from the Holy Spirit about whether he should seek to be elected president he invited who is who in the political and civil society firmament to an Independence day dialogue at Gateway Hotel, Ota. Most of the invitees came from the generation now between age 70 and 85.

A sprinkling was in their forties, enough to fill only one small table at lunch. For some reason they sat together. There was Bilkisu Yusuf, Olisa Agbakoba, Clement Nwankwo and myself. The host made his way to our table and sat with us for a while. Then he volunteered an unsolicited opinion. His greatest regret was that he did not seek out people like us on his first go around as Head of State, prepare us and hand the country over to us. Some are still trying to find those who filled the pipeline on his second swing. My mortal fear is someone may soon gather Gbenga Sesan, Chude Jideonwo, Toyosi Akerele and say the same thing to them. The same people who said same to their parents.

If anything, the scary part is that the generation of the perfect ruin expresses its genius best in constructing pipelines of mediocrity. Try to remove the top person they have installed because you fear for damage to several generations from his incompetence and you find his deputy is so bad you will need vigils to pray for the good health of the top man lest greater tragedy befall the unborn.

 

*Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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