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Pat Utomi: Framing The Issues, The 2015 Elections

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Elections are in the horizon but the issues do not seem to be aligned with the real trouble of the moment. Why are we in such a trauma of poverty and so much unemployment and we are caught up with a thousand unrelated issues. Is it life imitating. Art as we seem to have found all kinds of jokes about our condition. Is the political class trying to prove the jokes. Sometime I wander if it is a bad dream.

Perhaps we can get to the really serious issues but begin with the jokes. The first one is credited, I hope correctly, to Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. It goes more or less like this: Africa’s education system produces some incredible outcomes. The brightest, first class minds go to University and study medicine, Engineering and such others. The next best go to Business schools and boss the ones who went to study engineering and medicine, as ceos; then the 3rd class materials enter politics and rule over the smarter ones.

But the ones who could not make it to University become criminals and politicians are beholden to them because they make the abuse of elections possible. So they become the true bosses of the politiciansFinally the drop outs who could not even find the courage to try crime become prophets and all from the engineers to the politicians and criminals follow them.

Truth about this is that it seems an anecdotal reference to our reality; just that some of the Doctors descend to be politicians and some of the ceos end up as prophets so it is a little more fluid than the joke makes out.

In the second joke the criminals and politicians are threatened with arrest for not paying their taxes. They pay their taxes promptly and the Pastor announces that to thank God for the tenth anniversary of his Ministry he has bought a private Jet and A Rolls Royce and the entire church including the policeman guarding him and the chairman of the Inland Revenue service in the Congregation rise to bless God for His doings which is marvelous in the their eyes. None as much thinks of tax.

This may not be the best of humor even though we laugh quite loudly about it but does not point to why a country of very talented people manages to underperform so spectacularly? Many doubt it. But that could be a ticking time bomb.

So we enter an election season that should be a single issue election because of how much that subject threatens the future, yet there is hardly any sign the issues are being framed or that this issue will loom large in the campaigns.

That issue, of course, is unemployment. In any normal country nobody running for office today who cannot show how their seeking office will be leading to significant job creation, or incumbents not defending their job creation records should even as much as get a listening from voters. But, as if to prove the point of the joke that we in the political class are the Third class people governed by the criminals the unwillingness to frame the issues and encourage debates makes the normal feel nausea welling up inside.

The lie about the level of unemployment, compounded by the significant phenomenon of disguised unemployment and an unproductive enterprise called politics as the most lucrative business in town, make a mockery of the election process and the main issue we should all be focusing on still desperation to ‘win’ persists. And you ask win to what. See how many died and how many sustained issues in local government election held in Delta state a week ago.

The triumph of politics over leadership and serious care for a viable future for the generations to come can be seen everywhere, from five Group Managing Directors of NNPC in as many years, and the wobbly state of Oil and Gas sector. Yet no one is taking on these challenges as part of the elections process. Except in Agriculture and one or two other areas the story is more or less the same, worse at the subnational level that should be the real drivers of development than at the centre.

What are the effects of the choices being made in Oil and Gas for our collective well-being and how can elections help us discuss them and make that enclave sector that hardly creates jobs yet has the potential to be a source for hundreds of thousands if not millions of quality jobs.

The NNPC revolving doors reminded me so much of how we make objects of international ridicule, our ways, making a serious conversation critical to an election year. In 1996 a departing World Bank country Representative, Gerald Flood remarked at his going – away reception how the Nigerian assignment was without a dull moment. For example, he said, he had the privilege of working with six finance ministers in the three years he spent in Nigeria.

I thought it unlikely. Then I began counting, Kalu Idika, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, the other Alhaji Abubakar who was succeeded by Oba Oladele Olashore, Aminu Saleh… oh my God, it is true.

Let me tell you of one damage that did to the economy. Banks we predominantly government owned at the time. Each minister, wanted to appoint his own Managing Directors of Banks and Executive Directors. The banks became revolving doors of graft and the shocks reverberated across the economy.

Why is this not part of the electioneering campaign so that institutions can emerge that set boundaries to such unwelcome conduct. Can the effect of such instability around which I wrote the 1998 book Managing Uncertainty, not so obvious in poor economic performance, job loses etc?

There are many questions arising down this path and if our politics cannot address such the process will just be a never ending joke on us.

As the jokes suggest we have managed to reverse the order of things compared to societies that are making progress. Styles and images of leadership follow these patterns in my reflections; three emphasized in the Christian Biblical tradition; servant, Shepherd and Steward; and a typology I have called solicitor leadership based on advocacy and building followership into a movement from stoutly arguing a point of view, as Ralph Nader does, in consumer rights issues, and Mohandas Gandhi did for matters of rights of the colonized.

As we look at 2015 do we see leadership that can help with a myriad of problems confronting us even in the face of potential. But will the 2015 elections process, because of machine politics allow a leadership to emerge that can address today’s pressing challenges?

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Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.

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