…with PAT UTOMI [email protected]
There is a sense in which love of self turns out to be undiluted hatred of self. The trouble here is that the self-lover does not realise they have become Masochist. Think of this. There is consensus that the dominant element of popular culture in Nigeria today is the love of money-often pursued with a passion that disrespects all rules-yet poverty has continued to increase with most Nigerians, and the few who escape its scourge suffer the great discomfort of loss of privacy from those who constitute their security, and from among whom will come those who may plan their kidnapping tomorrow.
In a world of paradoxes, the paradox of the damage to self in the relentless, selfish, and self-serving pursuit of narrow self-interest appears to me as the most fascinating phenomenon of the Nigerian Condition, a strange narcissism, which consumes self due to ignorance or short-sightedness. Even more interesting and ironical is our determination not to learn from experience elsewhere. You see the penny wise and pound foolish elements of our popular culture in the dichotomies between laissez-faire and buccaneering we are engaged in today and those who see collectivist traditions as the solution, what parts of Europe is suffering from.
So why does more manage to yield less in our wealth-obsessed culture?
Why did all of society make more progress, relatively, in the early 1960s when the politicians were not the ‘richest men’ in town and flaunting wealth meant you were a low life of sorts?
Many agree that the rise of corruption is a major outcome of a wealth-at-any-cost popular culture. That way has meant short changing society to give unmerited advantage to someone. So the corrupt official leaves underdevelopment as signature tune of the norm, but because the road was not well done, given the misapplied funds, the joy of the ride, and the discomfort from lack of progress because of poor infrastructure, generate animosity towards those in fancy cars such that one day the predicted coming anarchy consumes him.
Whether this anger is properly articulated today or not, history is replete with how it happened where it was imagined unlikely. We somehow seem to be living out a script to validate Lord Lugard’s contemptuous remark that the black man seems unable to see beyond now and take a long-term view of his self-interest.
How come it is so difficult to realise that our troubles came from an enemy so close by? If we walked to the mirror, we would see him staring at us. Yet the image in the mirror, of us thinking so short term, like Dracula, manages not to appear.
I was moved to reflect on this from a recent honour. The Convention of Business Integrity (CBI) honoured a few men. The list of the honorees were Mr. Akintola Williams, Dr. Michael Omolayole, Dr. Christopher Kolade and post-humously, the erstwhile DG of the NIIA, Prof Gabriel Olusanya, and Mr. Adekunle Kukoyi, who led the institution of surveyors and was active in the chamber of commerce.
The least of these honoured people was myself. As Professor Yemi Osibajo teased me at the event, the average age difference between me and the others was a good quarter of a century. But beyond that, it was evidence that delayed gratification matters and that if we can conquer self for this moment, we may gain much for self later. To be listed in so extraordinary a company was no doubt flattering but the real lesson was what got me the good fortune.
When the CBI team came to persuade the Council of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce to take a public stand up and undertake not to offer or take bribes as businesses and as individuals, a dead chill fell over the chamber. More than 60 of the top business leaders in the country who sat in that Chamber that day, 18 years ago, seemed uncomfortable with such a proposition.
As Dr. Kolade recalled on the night of the honour, I rose and made an impassioned plea to the members to recognise that a collective commitment would serve us well in the long term as it would make doing business easier. I stepped up to sign up. Dr. Kolade gave his support and that was it. Nearly 20 years later, many of the businesses represented in that chamber have suffered decline or disappeared because of the lack of integrity in the environment.
Could we not say that in rejecting integrity so as to obtain business opportunity at a time of much corruption under Abacha, those men shot themselves in the foot?
Yet, we see these patterns repeat themselves today. The received wisdom is that if Abacha’s time was corrupt, the corruption of these times makes his era a parade of saints. And somehow, we expect much progress. A few seem to appropriate much of what is the commonwealth through scams like the so-called fuel subsidy, inflated contracts and abusive application of discretionary authority. It leaves the scourge of poverty so deep, not so much from what they scam off but from the cost of the system not working well as a result.
If progress is to come to our country and the great promise of Nigeria is to be claimed, we must quit living the lie, and learn from those who effected a change of culture and have found ways of prosperity since. Singapore is of course, an always ready example. But Hong Kong and its reform of the Police Force remain classic examples as well. The self that dies when bribes are refused is the self that thrives when the environment of business is afflicted with lower transaction costs and becomes more competitive in later years.
You can make the same case with elections. The current cash-and-carry politics assures that only few capable, committed and caring types will get elected.
The trouble from that is a class of political actors steeped in transactions and sourly lacking in the capacity for transforming the human condition because of the deep trust and sense of service imperative. The result is the polite snobbery that comes with US President Obama’s choice of where to go in Africa.
As we observe yesterday’s 419 kingpins, who threw cash out of windows of moving cars, fading into meaningless obscurity, the people we collected money from to vote into office become the nemesis of our hope for progress, just as those who sold community land for their self-enrichment become social cripples.
What lessons are there to be learnt about who the enemy is and how to stop him? This is work for all of us to do as we look at the person in the mirror.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.