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An evening with Prof Pat Utomi

October 20, 2010

The eponymous hero of the evening, Prof Pat Utomi, sauntered onto the stage: a sitting room at a residence in Victoria Island. Professionals who live there had invited colleagues and friends to a monthly get-together on entrepreneurship and leadership. Awaiting Pat Utomi was a motley of young professionals, itching to douse their thirst for learning at the fount of a sage.


That evening, he devolved his experience: from government house, as special adviser to President Shehu Shagari; to the classroom, as professor of Entrepreneurship and Socio-Political Economics via the boardroom, as chief executive of Volkswagen. He’s described, alas, by some, as a political upstart; often mistaken as the owner of Lagos Business School. He is now, after several failed attempts, referred to as a director at the School. Utomi was once rumoured to be one Nigeria’s richest men – he only had $2,800 to his name at that time.


His speech was animated, laced with self-deprecating anecdotes. Names kept dropping. Lee Kuan Yew, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Daniel Patrick Moynihan etc. Intellectual and political heavy weights he had read, met or admired, .


During the question and answer session he would listen with uninterrupted attention. His answers revealed the congruence of his words, actions and motives – the investment of his reputation and knowledge, buoyed by a never say die mind-set, in public and private ventures.


Earlier, an all too familiar dismal situation, the resource curse, had formed the backdrop of the evening’s get-together. Increasing oil wealth is surging Nigeria’s reserves towards $60 billion – it’s projected to hit $100 billion by year end. Contrasted with the palpable poverty in the country, a disruption of the ideal sets the stage for a tragicomedy.


Social restraints are declining: kidnapping in the Niger Delta is a boon for the hunter and a bane for the hunted. Rancour over the new allocation of the federal account distracts attention from failing infrastructure. The health sector starved of funding; the ministry’s surplus was blithely distributed as booty in 2007.


What then, is the catharsis that will purge or wean the economy off oil wealth dependence? Certainly not the current grab and run culture, a corollary of values, which today is marked by what Prof Utomi calls the ise kekere, owo nla (small work, big money) mentality. A compulsive hustle for lucre or money making (what then is the function of the mint?) is in fashion. There’s movement without motion.


Nigerians, particularly those at the get-together, caught between the tragedy depicted by the condition of Nigeria’s prisons, and the theatrics of ‘Mr Rule of Law’ are far from amused. Rather, there’s that unsettling option to siddon and look. In the absence of locally generated electricity, we’ve been tapping current from the Obama phenomenon. But, sooner than later, it will result in either high or low voltage – burn out or waning enthusiasm, which returns us to reality.


Bleak, cold reality?  Prof Utomi did his best to thaw the audience’s frozen perspective. He sees a sunny future, so bright he needs sunshades. Yet, from the searching gaze and questions, the audience yearned for more; a formulaic anodyne to be constantly injected after going through the throes Nigeria keeps subjecting people to. Prof Utomi’s prescription: deferred gratification, ditching an instanta or fiam (quick fix) outlook to life.


No mean feat. Our worldview is stacked up against a prevalent me, myself and I mode, which is as old as the hills. Shakespeare describes self-love in his play, All’s Well That Ends Well, as

“… the most inhibited sin in the canon.”


Now we were being urged to be consumed by an entrepreneurial spirit. A tough sell. The audience bemoaned how conventional wisdom espoused get-rich-or-die-trying. But Prof Utomi’s conviction held sway; entrepreneurs, purveyors of value creation, go against the grain, are honest, frugal and prepared for the long term. In summary, what sets them apart is the knack to identify and bridge, along the continuum of Maslow’s pyramid, society’s unmet needs.


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