NO SWAGGER FOR THE DEBTOR by Pat Utomi

Posted on

I have a sense that if you truly seek, and get to know some of the sources of your many weaknesses and some of your possible strengths, you may be some way down the path to the solution of your problems. I got a chance recently to see a stacking of what is probably my main strength source when I got a call from the Chief Executive of the Silverbird group, announcing I would be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. What was remarkable about the timing of the call and my location was that I was in a car on the Lagos -Ibadan expressway, in the company of a man who has mentored me for 43 years, Otunba Tunji Lawal-Solarin. I did not have to think much to know that people like him have made it easier for me to get many things done. People are top of the list of my blessings.

A few days earlier, Meryl Streep had received such an award for her trade from the Foreign Press Association. Her remarks as she received the award stirred something in President-elect Donald Trump. He fired back with a weapon he loves, Twitter. In describing Streep as overrated, Mr. Trump may have voted with a minor minority. I think she is probably one of the greatest actresses of all time. But Trump’s remarks may have been more appropriate, aimed at me. I have no doubt that I am much overrated. But to be rated at all, over or under, is good fortune, and I wondered how I got the chance. It hit me straight in the face that but for the privilege of much Grace, the luck of men like the one sitting by me and those whose lives influenced mine even though they never met me or even heard of me, my time of being could probably have been one big mess with nothing to be remembered for.

On the trip to Ibadan, we had stopped to visit with an old secondary school mate from there in Ibadan who had just been elected Governor of a state. As I do with friends, I had taken the time to counsel the Governor- Elect that victory is no invitation to triumphalism but an opportunity to seek immortality through the impact of the time of the person’s watch over the lives of the people one is privileged to lead. The reward, I had assured him, was immortality and for which a debt of gratitude should be owed to those who provided the opportunity to serve. That debt is better paid through sacrificial service for the advance of the Common Good.

At that moment, in the car, on that highway, thanks to the long story of the friendship with the man travelling with me, I could begin to imagine a long line of giants who stopped to lend me their shoulders so I could stand and see more clearly. The man in the car with me was a young Economist at a multinational oil company when as a 17 year old undergraduate when I came for vacation job in Lagos. But I knew too that it took quite a few shoulders to get me to that fateful and eventful vacation that did much to help frame how I would see tomorrow. It was clear to me there and then in that car, that the phrase “of my own I can do nothing” is not just an expression of faith from words of scripture but a truism. Who can do much without others, and grace?

Beginning from a work ethic imbibed from parents both of whose disposition to work were exemplars, and American Catholic Priests of the Dominican Order who soaked me in the mystic of then US president John F Kennedy and service as the essence of life, when I was 7, I have accumulated debt I cannot possibly amortize. To be invited to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award is to be reminded that the time for accounting has come.

How do you give an account for the generous gift of love and tolerance from a spouse who fuels you and pretends your inadequacies can be tolerated; children who ignore their right to make a greater demand on you that is their due; and teachers, friends and a society that over rates you and generously responds to the little you give as if it is magic. If the truth is told all that this can do is truly make you feel inadequate.

Appreciation to these many mentors and role models of my life and to those who decided it was worth their time to honour me. Models matter and I have taken to lots of them, just as I have had mentors. There were close mentors like the Dr. Christopher Kolades and Dr. Pius Okigbos, and far away like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, David Stockman, Mahathir Mohammed, Julius Nyerere, Michael Okpara, Obafemi Awolowo and the Madiba. The mentors like Ajie Ukpabi Asika and Pius Okigbo who gave me literally weekly routine, “free post-doctoral lectures” on the science of politics, economics and society and the eagle-eyed who spotted me from far off like Dr. Alex Ekwueme and Alhaji Ahmed Joda, and Odu Arthur Mbanefo, who pointed to the path of wisdom. Mother figures like Mrs. Omobola Onajide and Chinyere Asika proved formidable sources of encouragement and, in fact, cheerleaders.

I must admit, though, that I have an awkward handshake with honour for achievement. On the one hand, I think it is a good way to socialize a generation by pointing young people to “The Right Stuff”. This is why I deploy it as a tool, notably through the “Leader Without Title” (LWT) tribute series of CVL. In a country in which people chase titles and would bribe Civil Servants for one, the CVL was designed to give young people a credible source of role models. Yet I am a little ambivalent about celebrating achievement because I genuinely believe that there are always many more people more deserving of each honour I receive than myself. Beyond false modesty, I truly feel that those like me whose calling provides more of a public voice or a bigger slice of ears, tend to be more fairly acknowledged than those who work more assiduously in the ivory towers or “Aso Rock of their contemplation” in the words of Reuben Abati. The all-over-the-place public intellectual like myself, by contrast, gets to be called L’homme engage – the intellectual as a man of action. I dash from one speaking place to the other and get given two or three plaques a week for contributing to the public good, leaving table tops and suitcases in my study with more than a thousand plaques from nearly 40 years of talking and doing regarding the Nigerian condition. But there are Still …

When years ago the Lagos Chamber of Commerce nominated me atop the list of private sector people for the national honors list I politely told then LCCI DG Sir Remi Omotosho that I did not think I required one, especially as I felt it inappropriate to sign a nomination form. A true award should come the way the call from Guy Murray-Bruce’s came; the honoree being taken completely by surprise. When Omotosho pressured me and I eventually asked my PA to apply my electronic signature an hour to the deadline, my point was proved.

The day before the formal announcement, as one presidential aide told me, the           President struck the name off because he was told Patitos Gang members had referred to his government as Kabiyesi democracy. When the subject came up in a chat with a former minister who also came from academia, he said the same President had done a similar thing when he was nominated. People had to intervene with him to restore his name the following year. I begged that no one do such on my account as I would reject it if they did.

Yet, I cannot but feel good about the call from Guy just as I felt when in 2009 Silverbird Television and Vanguard newspapers nominated me among “Nigeria’s Living Legends” to be voted for by the public. To my shock, I ended up in the top 10 along with the Wole Soyinkas, Chinua Achebes, two former heads of state, and Pastor Adeboye who polled tops.  Nobody even hinted me such a thing was in the offing. It was as satisfying as Prof Sam Aluko in Akure and Prof Wole Soyinka in Lagos calling Press Conferences to announce they were endorsing me for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2007. All I have for generosity so undeserved is gratitude beyond measure.

To get such honours without holding positions of public office Nigerians seem to like to adore says there is much more to the Nigerian spirit than we often acknowledge. Today, as always, I feel so proud to be a Nigerian. It is pride that is nourished by the diversity of my upbringing, having been born in Kaduna, baptized in Jos and raised in Maiduguri, Kano and Gusau before secondary education in Onitsha, Ibadan and University education in Nsukka at the University of Nigeria.

Gratitude in this autumn of my time of being is something that is recurring because I see much clearly with dimming sight the love in the tongue of people who stop you at airports, malls and in places of worship to say a thing of kindness or commendation. Even in the admonition of critics or vetuperation of those who despise one had gained in nice lessons, proof positive that all things work together unto good. I have scooped much more than just a good feeling from some of these kind comments. One such ended my search for an appropriate epitaph, the fitting words on my tombstone. It came from Prof Juan Manuel Elegido, Vice-Chancellor of Pan Atlantic University. He had been in management meetings just about every Monday for the first 15 years of the Lagos Business School.

I was to give the last of the two yearly Goddy Jidenma Foundation lecture series and as has been the tradition, from Ali Mazrui down, a dinner to honour the speaker precedes the lecture. Guests tend to make comments about the speaker there. When Elegido rose to make remarks I was taken up by how much his remarks summed up what I hoped I could be rather than what another had observed. I was not surprised he talked about my work ethic and how being able to manage with few hours of sleep has favoured my output. Then he hit a home run when he said: it should be no surprise that Pat is in high demand for boards and positions of collegial decision making. Having been on a management team with him for many years, I can say that Pat is “completely without ego”. All that matters with him are building consensus to get things done. Would love that on my tombstone.

I guess we all have egos but the benefit of many who have impacted me is that they have helped my struggle to push the ego to decrease and drive purpose to increase. The pursuit of a purpose-driven life has meant little craving for titles. Its no surprise I promote Robin Sharma who wrote the book,  The Leader Who Had No Title.

I have also been fortunate to learn that titles do not translate to legacy. My great teacher was the resistance to Military rule after the annulment of the elections of June 12, 1993. I wrote the article “We must say Never Again” which triggered the founding of the Concerned Professionals. Few realize that the first Chairman of CP was Sam Oni, the second was Tola Mobolurin as the third was Theo Lawson. I was a member of the Steering Committee who was willing to sign documents when others feared the Abacha regime which “took no prisoners” would come hunting for them. In later years, I saw that the books that highlighted the heroes of democracy had recognized my role, even without the title. I have used this often to encourage young people to avoid the Nigerian trap of power replacing purpose. Same for money.

There have been many who have lamented my seeming inability to use my so called connections to cumulate the lifeblood of today’s Nigeria, money.

If I may dare to say, the founder of the organisation offering me the Lifetime Achievers Award, Ben Murray-Bruce, Senator of the Federal Republic, had about a decade ago asked me pointedly, Why do you hate money? I assured him it was difficult for a man that has been called the ultimate for evangelist of free enterprise to hate money. He told me most people could point to a few who were tycoons off my coattails, yet I lived so modestly. I told him about delayed gratification and how if my effort gets much more to create wealth, I and society would be better off than if I just created a bubble of my own comfort. Ubuntu, I told him, ruled. I am because we are. That conversation inspired a book of cases of companies I helped to found and build: Business Angel as a Missionary. In all, there were too many people to whom I was indebted. When you owe so much, swagger is foolishness.

It is clear, therefore, that a person with my level of indebtedness cannot dare to find swagger. I am owned, almost in the manner of medieval serfdom, by those listed above and many more not listed. I can only hope for and pray for a jubilee year so I can say that my liberation is near at hand. I trust that the yoke and burden of this debt are light.

I am thankful for the simple life of a teacher, manager, social entrepreneur, business angel and citizen. If such a person can be so honoured there is hope for all.

Patrick Okedinachi Utomi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *