Besides being an admirer of a Christian group, Promise Keepers, I hate it whenever I fail to keep a promise. In the heat of the run up to the gubernatorial elections my name was caught in a surreal outpouring of passions regarding remarks by the Oba of Lagos. I chose to keep from responding after a few tweets. But I promised to respond the day after season of emotions had gone past and my prayer and purpose for a tranquil atmosphere in which none was lost to rupture sprung from tensions associated with rumpus flowing from the remarks. Thankfully my prayers were answered on the peace the day after.
It should be helpful to first present a factual chronological sequence of how I came to be involved with this matter, then I will challenge on the welfare and wellbeing of Ndigbo in Lagos pull off the gloves on character, as the language of the internet seems to be uncivil conversation.
On the morning of Easter Monday I had several scheduled meeting at my home. As I chatted with some concerned Professional friends Chief Festus Odumegwu and some others arrived, complaining as they walked into the living room, of a remarks made by the Oba of Lagos. From the I -pad of one of those who arrived in his company, read the front page of a newspaper trumpeting it and collectively lamented the remarks and the prominence the newspaper had given it. We decided to call the Oba and express our displeasure indicating we would be heading to the palace to suggest how to make plans for erasing the impression.
As we got set to go to the palace, some people for the next meeting arrived. We then agreed that I stay back while the others go on to see the Oba. The next day I was at in a meeting in my office when a call came through from a friend in Abuja. The friend, Ubong, was neither, Igbo, Yoruba, or a politician. He said that he was calling to say to me that hate-laced exchanges in the social media around the remarks were getting out of hand and if not managed could result in a small spark on Election Day producing tragic outcomes.
All through the campaigns I had written, condemning hate speech, from all sides of the divide. Was my worst nightmare about to play out in the one place I did not manage to think it was likely, Lagos. My instinct was to do something to calm nerves and douse the flames. I quickly tweeted a view that the remarks were unacceptable but that familiarity with the Oba suggested it was in character to crack expensive jokes so the remarks should be ignored. I went back to work thinking I had made a modest contribution to ensuring that none may come to any harm with an escalation of barter of hate talk.
Two hours later I got a call that I was in the eye of a storm in social media. I could not imagine why. I thought which of my many foolish remarks has started this one. The last thing that crossed my mind was that something motivated strictly for what I at least thought was the common good. Could cause this I tried to read. The amount of poison was incredible. I immediately realized I had unwittingly played into the hands of those who wanted to make political capital relative to the vote of a few days ahead.
In a tradition of using hate to accuse others of hate, a few themes were evident. I had to be an Ibophobe, someone acting a surrogate for another to make light something grievous. I thought then it made no sense to provide more ammunition to those trying to make hay from polarizing the community, with little thought to how it was warming the keg of gunpowder. Surely if the Oba was wrong, I said so, why would I still attract such attacks? If the person, the Oba was wrong and going after that person so viciously could make the thing horribly feared, happen, there had to be unwisdom here. But politics and the emotion of that moment is not given to thinking things through so I decided to wait till after nerves have calmed.
Later that day I got another call from Chuma Okolo a corporate executive who is a chief of Asaba. He said he was berating some people on what he called the hypocritical quarrel with the Oba’s remark when someone said are you taking the Utomi position, and he asked what my position was. He had not seen the tweets. He said that what the Oba said would be said by the Asagba of Asaba if he was pouring libation days before voting if someone from elsewhere was contesting for local government chairmanship against his ‘son’ and that any traditional ruler in the East who did not do act similarly would be unnatural. And that those complaining were hypocrites. I told him that in truth I had not even thought about all that, and only had the safety of the same people who were abusing me in mind when I sent out the tweet.
But his remarks set me thinking about context and understanding. In traditional prayer forms we often say things which people outside the context could read differently. I recalled that just three weeks before, the President of Aka Ikenga had called me to host a meeting he was arranging for the APC team of the Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola and the now V-P elect, Prof Yemi Osinbajo and the now Governor elect Akinwunmi Ambode to meet the Igbo elite in Lagos. Even though it was not convenient for me I acquiesced, as duty, to host the meeting of nearly 200 in my home. I had the duty to break the Kola. Speaking in Igbo as was the tradition, I called on the gods; onye na chu anyi, ada. Onye anyi nachu, ada. Which translates those chasing after us will trip and fall, and those we chase after, will stumble and fall. There was rapturous applause. All it really says is may we prevail in the storms of life and in our pursuits. But it could be taken out of context to mean a prayer to dominate other peoples. I thanked Chief Okolo for his call and realized that even though my aim was quite narrow the lessons from this brouhaha for living together in peace was much broader. The great old Igbo mantra was Egbe belu, ugo ebelu. Nke si Ibe ya ebena… roughly live and let live. But I wonder if in the collapse of culture which I referred to when I introduced Prof Chinua Achebe for his Valedictory at the Ahajoku lecture. In Owerri shortly before he joined the ages.
But it did not stop my amazement at suggestions of ill-will or even Chamberlain-type appeasement on Igbo matters. Me? Could it be ignorance or mischief that anyone would dare suggest that? I would like here to pull off the garb of modesty and challenge anybody to show me six Ibos in the last thirty years in Lagos who have done more to advance the Igbo cause in Lagos than myself. I will be willing to go toe to toe in evidence based debate. Just on institutional arrangements I was in on the base year of the founding of Aka Ikenga. Could be wrong but I doubt anybody has chaired more working committees of Aka Ikenga than myself. When the challenge was media disposition to Ndigbo in the 1980’s I was requested to chair the information and culture committee. I believe men like Professor Joe Irukwu, Chief Hilary Onokogu, Dr. John Abaelu can give personal testimonies of the work we did. When the concern was educating the merchant class I was asked to chair the education committee, and when it was which way for the economic wellbeing of Ndigbo, I chaired the Economic and Finance Committee. The latter committee produced the blue print of the Niger Basin Project, a plan for private sector based development of the South East/South South Zone into the industrial hub of Africa. I believe Dr. Ken Ife who reviewed the document at the World Igbo congress in London in 1998, when coming of politics overrode the agenda, may still have words for that effort.
I served repeatedly as Vice-President of Aka Ikenga and remain till date perhaps the longest serving member of the Board of Trustees of Aka Ikenga.
Surely many of the leading Igbo merchants will recall that it was into my Living room they crowded as Chris Asoluka and I worked shuttle diplomacy when Port reforms aimed at crippling them, were being implemented. It was in that same Living room that an Ikenga General Meeting decided Ndigbo in Lagos needed to have an Apex, Umbrella platform different from Ohaneze. Someone then quickly suggested the task be mandated the ‘bridge’, as I was considered the one from this group of then 40- something year olds who was well wired into the Igbo elite in their 70s and was much accepted by the youth and at the same time the one Igbo as at home in the core South East as in his birthplace of Igbo bi nuzo, therefore able to pull together the Igbos of the South East and those in states like Delta, Rivers, Cross River, Benue etc.
On that mandate I called Odu Arthur Mbanefo, now Igwe Green Nwankwo, Admiral Ndubisi Kanu, Admiral Allison Madueke and a few others. In that same living room, with Odu Mbannefo presiding the formation of Ndigbo Lagos started.
Among the more intriguing things about the so called storm on the Oba’s remarks is that elements involved with TAN and its objectives stoked the fire. Interestingly Ifeanyi Uba of TAN is one of those who has repeatedly acknowledged, along with people like Chidi Anyaegbu of Chisco, my sacrificial giving of time, talent, financial resources and network to advance the wellbeing of Ndigbo in Lagos. To his credit Uba has on occasions sent cartons of premium alcoholic beverage and gifts, to support what he calls the non-stop traffic through my house on Igbo issues. Indeed, six years ago this month Ifeanyi Uba and others came there for a private dinner to introduce them to the newly elected President General of Ohaneze Ndigbo. Thankfully there is record of the President-Generals tribute to my efforts at the World Igbo Congress in Orlando Florida a few years ago. This is why I put the social media sentiments aside as pure politics and took no offense.
All of these people have been aware of my mantra on how to engage with host communities. It is a theme often reflected in my speeches at Igbo day celebrations as I have been consistently keynote speaker at the Lagos event, year after year. At the one of last year, my dear friend Jimi Agbaje was sitting a few places from me.
In these position I have often cited the writing of Filipino Professor at Yale, Amy Chua, whose book, World on Fire, explores how globalization is expanding the coast of “market dominant minorities” and stoking ethnic hatred against them. Her illustrations include the Jews, Chinese across Asia, Igbos in West Africa, etc. And my proposition always has been that such groups should develop strategies for building goodwill and mutually beneficial interdependence relationships with host communities.
Even though we know of some who run off to Aso Rock and other centers of power in the name of Ndigbo and get due personal reward, none can relate my service to anything but selfless giving as duty. Yet to think that the descent into incivility is so complete in our social media culture that some suggested I was bribed by Senator Bola Tinubu to make light of the Oba’s comment, is to talk of the pits.
I dare here to repeat a boast I have made before. Even in this country of systemic corruption where I have heard testimonies at a fellowship of thanksgiving for being posted to a lucrative desk, I can invite anybody who knows of any occasion where I have used position to demand of another a bribe, what is not my due, to make something happen. Not in my entire life, no matter how difficult things were at any point in time, grace, which is more than sufficient, has enabled me never ask or take a bribe.
The last time I made this claim and invited anyone who disputes it to come forward I said the person did not need to provide proof. Just indicate the transaction, even if it is a false accusation. I am pretty confident even the nature of the transaction will show up such a person.
I may be many things, naive, careless, even incompetent etc. but have never taken a bribe. My relationship with the APC leader has quite a history, but certainly one in which no material benefit has ever come to me. I first met him at an event in the National theatre in 1998 when came up to me to say that while they were in NADECO exile my writings provided them a compass from which they took positions. A few months later he was elected Governor and I was invited to chair one of the working groups of the transition. As the Tinubu cabinet got in place I was asked to lead cabinet retreats. Those services were pro bono but as Yemi Cardoso who was commissioner for Budget and Planning would know I charged the bank he was an ED at, Citizens, and clients like National Maritime Authority, between 7 and 10 million Naira for similar services in 1999. As part of my citizenship duty I was literally donating tens of millions of Naira to the Lagos State government, not getting something from Tinubu.
The one effort to show appreciation in return was an unsolicited gift that was eventually not actualized. One day, the then Deputy Chief of Staff to the Governor saw me and said, ‘I have been holding something for you’. It was a letter awarding me a parcel of land on the Lekki Foreshore. In the end the government could not reclaim the land from the sea for budget reasons, and the allocations were cancelled with promise of reallocation. I have never asked what happened. Since I am not a contractor I generally have never asked for a contract in Lagos. I know I have been told I am foolish, and being used, many times, but it’s just that people think your goals and theirs match. My goals have often been around institutions that will leave tomorrow better than yesterday. When it dawned on me that Governor Tinubu was best located to make my dream of a two party democracy in Nigeria come through, I stayed close and kept the pressure on him. Seemed impossible, but it has happened, and I am pleased to walk into the sunset and beg for God’s mercy and history’s kindness. The gift of contentment, and love for my people and all of God’s children have caused action sometimes not understood, by people of different values. But in all I take to Jack Welch’s famous words: Leadership is not a popularity contest, so lead. Igbos say Ada eji mgbagbu ayologu. Will never shirk a just battle because people die in war. Besides mgbele ka eji ama dike. Ability to respond to the unexpected shows the strongman. To be of service elected appointed or even self-appointed you sometimes have to ignore what gets you claps and do what your conscience tells you is right no matter how many are ready to pour scorn in an age where abuse is considered public conversation. So I take no offense and apologize to those who truly misunderstood me. To those who choose to hold on to what they conjure up I respect it as their right but urge that they find a place for the ethos of decency in how they advance their judgmental disposition.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.