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Alex Otti: I don’t do politics


Alex Otti: I don’t do politics

by Alex Otti

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors” – Plato (428BC to 347BC).

Those were the wise words of Plato donkey years ago. If those words were true in those days, they are even truer today. Today’s title is derived from a conversation between two bankers. A management staff of a bank was trying to get the attention of his director to join him in prospecting a big government business for their bank. The director retorted: “I don’t do politics and would not visit the politically exposed person”. The younger banker was very disappointed wondering if his boss appreciated the enormity of government and that it is the largest spender in the economy. His contention is that anyone who ignores government, does so at his own peril. But what could the poor guy do if his boss had declared that he doesn’t do politics? Even in the era of Treasury Single Account (TSA), the money must still leave the central bank to pay vendors, contractors, suppliers and salaries and eventually end up in a commercial bank. You may not like government but somehow, someday, somewhere, if not everywhere, you must encounter government.

There is a story told by one of the very wealthy politicians in the South-east about how he joined politics. The chief had travelled to the US where he met with a business associate and major politician in that country. His host wanted to know his take on the political situation in Nigeria. Our chief was at the verge of dismissing the topic with the response, “I don’t get involved in politics, I am focused on my business” when his host laughed him to scorn. “You don’t do politics? Then politics will do you” Just one policy made by a politician may send you out of business. Our chief reflected on this encounter and could not wait to return to Nigeria, to join politics. Don’t ask me how his business is doing, but I can confirm, he has remained an influential politician.

A few weeks ago, I was a speaker at a panel of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Section on Business Law, 10th Annual Conference at the Hilton Hotel, Abuja. The Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, who was on the same panel with me, made a very brilliant presentation on the state of the economy. She concluded her remarks by calling on all the lawyers in the room to endeavour to join politics at any level to ensure that the current system is rescued. She lamented the quality of skills in the public sector in Nigeria and argued just like Plato that the refusal by those who know, to join politics is responsible for the poor quality of governance across the country. It was as if the minister read my mind as that was the same message I had planned to pass on to our “learned gentlemen” in the room. It is the message I have also been giving at several fora where I have an opportunity to speak.

I must make an attempt to share part of my little experience in politics with readers. I had had a very prolific and successful career in the banking industry spanning over two decades and a half, rising from clerical positions to my final job as group managing director and chief executive officer. I had just started on my second tenure when I voluntarily resigned my position to contest for the governorship of my state in the last general election. It was as if all hell was let loose. I received calls and visits from friends, family and other concerned people, trying hard to dissuade me from making what some termed a suicidal move. I will share two very interesting encounters. An uncle of mine (and you know how a close older person who may or may not be related to you is called uncle) called me and went into a tirade. What are you planning to do? Are you out of your mind? Do we need to send you to a psychiatrist to have your head examined? By the way, who gave you approval to resign your job to gamble with your future and that of your many dependants? Responding, I simply asked him if I sought his approval before taking on the job in the first place. That question helped remind him that he was delving into a territory that he was not competent to handle. He quickly retreated and apologised.

The next was a delegation of concerned friends who came to plead with me not to leave banking. They argued I was still young and had several more years to give to the industry, given the resounding success of the transformation I led in the bank within a period of less than four years. Besides, they reasoned that it was a very risky environment that I was going into, where they maim, kidnap and kill people and it did not make sense to leave my comfort zone for uncertainty. Finally, they went on, I was not a politician and would not be able to play the game that is required to ensure success. As I responded, it was clear to me that none of them was listening as they seemed to have made up their minds, so I adjourned the meeting. But before they dispersed, I left them with the words of Charles De Gaulle to wit “Politics is too serious a matter to be left with politicians”. The rest of my experience thereafter, is a story for another day.

When I see some people struggle to separate themselves from non-politicians and make a lot of fuss about being politicians, I always try to find out what their professions are. Most of them to all intents and purposes, do not have a job and that explains why they can do anything to remain relevant or win elections. It also explains why some of them do not consider that in any career, there is progression. We have situations where a former National Assembly member would accept an appointment as a commissioner in a debt ridden state. There is a story of someone who was a governor in one administration accepting a job as a local government acting chairman in another. We also have a situation where a former minister would become a local government councilor. To them, it is about survival.

You may now want to ask what these politicians were doing prior to the return of democratic rule in 1999. This question also takes us to how we ended up with the style of politics and the kind of politicians we have been “blessed” with since 1999. When Sani Abacha died in 1998 after the unending transition programme of the Ibrahim Babangida years, General Abdulsalmi Abubakar promised to hand over to a democratically elected government in 1999. Many serious politicians did not want to participate. The reasons included the fact that most of them were tired of the circus of endless transition to civil rule. The other reason was that a lot of the politicians did not believe that Abdulsalami was going to hand over after one year. But alas, he kept to his word and handed over.

In a lot of places, the people that emerged could not be said to belong to what I may for want of a better term refer to as the “first eleven”. Having emerged, these fellows used the first four years to, not only empower themselves and their cronies, but also consolidate their hold on power to the exclusion of others. Securing a second term for most of them was almost automatic. After eight years, they used both the resources they had amassed and the coercive forces they had built to determine who would succeed them in the case of the executive, while taking shots at the National Assembly. Opposition was silenced either by brute force or by economic emasculation. For instance, some people had their properties either destroyed or seized while others had their businesses taken over by government or outright castrated. By the time they were through with picking up the pieces, elections would have come and gone. So we had a situation where incompetent mediocre politicians entrenched themselves as politicians and leaders at different levels of governance. In not a few states, the only people that seem to be doing well are scarcely educated charlatans and thugs who parade themselves as “honourables”. It has become so bad that some of our young ones will drop out of schools to swell the ranks of “honourables” since it had become the fastest route to wealth. The unfortunate thing about situations like this is that they become self-reinforcing vicious circles. Because poor quality people are in power, they give poor quality service or no service at all which translates to poor quality results which in turn produces poor quality resources that can only produce poor quality manpower which in turn gives rise to poor quality “leadership” who will succeed the outgoing poor quality people in power.

So how can this vicious circle be broken? Can we really get out of it? To proffer solutions to this, it is important to understand that just like Isaac Newton propounded in his first law of motion, “every object remains in its state of rest or uniform motion unless impressed forces act on it”. There is no doubt that we need impressed forces to break the mediocre leadership that has seized our body politic. When you drill into the quality of the people representing us, you will agree with me that many of them have no business with the places that they had invaded. Some members of our national and state legislators are like sitting docks, making no statements day in day out. Some simply warm the benches while others have converted the assembly into their bedrooms, snoring from one session to the other. The executive arm is not left out as some have no clue about why they have taken leadership positions while others simply lack vision and direction. Some don’t even understand the jobs they have signed on to and are simply unprepared for governance. Meanwhile, we all agree that many of the people leading or representing us are not fit for the roles that they have assumed, but we seem to be handicapped. Still, it is said that every society gets the type of leadership it deserves. It therefore behoves those who know, who hitherto had refused to participate in politics to show interest in how they are governed. This is exactly what took me into politics. This is what should take you into politics. Elsewhere, politics is not where people go to look for money. It is a place where accomplished people go to contribute their wealth of experience and knowledge for the benefit of the larger majority. If that is not why you are in politics, then I’m afraid, you’ve boarded the wrong bus.

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