Utomi @ 60: He who can’t be gagged with piece of meat – By Louis Odion, FNGE

It was undoubtedly a
bizarre way to greet. A decade or so ago, he ran into yours sincerely on the
sidelines of a public lecture in Lagos. Instinctively, Professor Pat Utomi
thundered at me, pointing at an imaginary bowl of soup: “Louis, see
meat!”
Moving closer and
finger still pointing into the void, he repeated dead-serious: “Yes, that
meat, take that one”, before we were clasped in a bear-hug amid raucous
laughter that turned every eye in our direction.
After Prof had walked
away, an onlooker, eyes dilated with curiosity, stepped over and sought to make
a meaning of the spectacle that just unfolded. Unprepared to divulge a dark
secret, least of all to a complete stranger, I chose to reply rather
dismissively: “Oh, never mind, it’s just a little joke Prof likes sharing
whenever we meet.”


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Louis Odion

But truth is: beneath
that joke is a real-life story of power and denial. Earlier, a governor in one
of the South-South states was dining with a visiting top media executive in the
state capital. Either out of a Daniel-in-lion’s-den daring or simply having the
tongue loosened by too much wine, the guest soon reportedly uttered something
that pushed their over-the-lunch banters to a dangerous bend.

“Lest I forget,
Your Excellency,” he began earnestly “What’s this story circulating
in town that you’re not performing; that your administration is not very
active?…”
Gamely, the governor
cut him short. He responded by drawing the attention of the wayward guest to a
choice bribe in the soup bowl, “John (real name withheld), you see that
meat”, directing with a finger, “Take that one.”
The host’s generosity
here was no doubt meant to subvert. So, the meaning read to it was roughly
this: well the impudent inquisitor had the temerity to pry, the space to speak
only because his mouth was empty!…
Ever since that epic
encounter was narrated to the hearing of Prof, yours sincerely and a few others
at a privileged get-together, its sheer hilarity, fueled by a shared desire to
keep the memory alive, led both of us to adopting it as a way of greeting
wherever we meet over the years.  In Prof’s mind, I imagine this
allegory is taken not as ordinary joke; but more as a sacred injunction, a
covenant by anyone so positioned never to allow the moment pass without
discharging the patriotic obligation of speaking truth to power.
Anyone who has tracked
Utomi’s odyssey in the last three decades as a public intellectual as well as
moral evangelist replete with tales of uncommon sacrifice and unstinting
fidelity to high principles will hardly be left with any option than
acknowledge that he, with force of personal example, perfectly illustrates an
efficient delivery of that promise. Not many can be counted as having had as
much access to people of power in the past three decades like Prof. But only a
few would still be recognized today as retaining that independence of thought
and action like him.
Indeed, as the Prof
joins the exclusive club of sexagenarians tomorrow, celebration bells will
certainly chime rapturously. From the mangrove of his native Ibusa in Delta
State to the arid effulgence of Kano, his birthplace, where his umbilical chord
was buried. Down to the cosmopolitan Lagos, his place of residence. Not
surprising, the fluency he renders Hausa language is only rivaled by the
clarity of his Yoruba and mother-tongue Igbo.
 To be sure,
Prof’s edge is not so much by the sparkles of a prodigious scholarship in the
very restricted territory of political economy. (Indeed, being the most
populous, if not the most affluent black nation in the world, it follows that
Nigeria boasts the highest population of doctorate holders and professors in the
negroid universe as well.) What indeed sets Utomi apart from the multitude is
the character he has consistently shown over the years in an environment where
many an intellectual has been exposed to be either counterfeit or plain savage
hooded by drooping mortarboard. As immortal Mahatma Ghandi forever cautions,
education without character is a social sin. Physicist Albert Einstein puts it
differently that “Don’t strive to be a man of success, but a man of
value”.
With the continued
vandalization of the nation’s moral edifice today in which almost everybody
that is somebody across all the national divides is directly implicated or
remotely tainted, what better time can there be than now to salute the few
exemplars who have kept the faith. The few who, by resisting the forbidden
apple, have continued to demonstrate that the historic duty expected of public
intellectuals alongside their allies in the progressive province ought not to
just be limiting themselves to merely salvaging what is left, but also finding
the energy and audacity to push the frontiers even further by re-erecting the
moral universe entirely.
In an age when the
nation seems mired in a dark tunnel, where the preferred statesman is a conman,
where the anointed cleric bears false prophecies, where father and son are
caught in the abominable web of Dasukigate, when the bearer of communal memory
is a drunkard, what Utomi’s exceptionality then offers is a flicker of hope
indeed.
And then the haunting
irony. For a man who has enriched national conversation in the past three
decades with a unique brand of scholarly activism, a big puzzle then that the
Nigerian state is yet to recognize him. At a time certified crooks and pimps
are yearly decorated lavishly with national medals. In a way, this leads to yet
another sordid revelation: the jarring story of the bankrupt philosophy behind
the prevailing national leadership recruitment and training template.
By any standard, only
very few would equal Utomi in terms of personal commitment to mentoring the
young ones to become better citizens. This writer can attest to Utomi’s
exemplary exertions here. He is always at home in any company regardless of
age, creed or class barrier. My association with him began when I was
“conscripted” into the “Patito Gang”, a television
talk-show he conceived in the 90s. Essentially, the weekly programme was the
academic equivalent of a coliseum where gladiators of varied
tendencies/ideologies would lock intellectual horns on topical issues with the
vision to proffering new prescriptions and perspectives to the national
condition. I recall we used to rendezvous at a modest studio tucked in a no
less nondescript neighborhood in Surulere, Lagos. The roll-call could as well
be a national parade as faculty members were drawn from across the country.
Once the “gangsters” began to assemble each Wednesday, the
pre-recording sessions were sometimes even more giddy and thunderous, with Prof
himself having to occasionally blow a terminal whistle once tempers began to
tip above tolerable limit.
Coming during the
military era when national impulse seemed increasingly stifled by authoritarian
vacuity, “Patito Gang” was undoubtedly a modest attempt to rekindle
the culture of robust debate last witnessed by the nation in the 1970s. By mid-80s,
the death-knell was apparently sounded with the philistinism of the Babangida
junta which did not find it shameful at all to officially proclaim fatwa on
ideological opponents, particularly those embedded on campuses, derogatively
accused of “teaching what they are not paid to teach”.
It is a testament to
Prof’s enduring passion for the pursuit of knowledge that for all the long
years the programme was syndicated on some television stations, he was the sole
financier. Corporate sponsorships were rare. If they came at all, they were few
and far between.
The scholarly
intercourse was not restricted to the hidden Surulere studio. From time to
time, Prof made it a duty to regularly host yet another tribe of young writers
alongside other young turks from the corporate world, either at his private
residence on Lagos island or any choice restaurant in town. The sole item on
the agenda: Nigeria. Over sumptuous meals and free flow of wine, we would
laugh, argue, disagree and gossip until there was nothing else to discuss. In
fact, it was at one of such gatherings that the story of “Take that
meat!” was first told.
Such fellowships were
usually even more electrifying whenever any of Prof’s age-mates/contemporaries
happened to be in the house. Then, you were sure of endless recollections of
Prof’s exploits and escapades in their younger days. One of them was the late
Pini Jason, a celebrated journalist in his own right. Given Prof’s acclaimed
prodigious tongue and prolific pen, Pini once teased that his only rival would
be the peripatetic “Obioma” tailor in Igbo folklore. To him, it
explained why Utomi hardly ever turns down any invitation to speak, to engage,
anywhere, any time. Indeed, in the nation’s fecund lecture circuits, he is
reputed to be one of a few who could seamlessly keep multiple  high-profile
speech-making appointments within a day, without loss of flavor or depth at
each stop.
The last time we met
was late last year at a function in Benin. Typically, Prof arrived anonymously
just before serious speeches were to be made and sneaked out just before the
disc jockey resumed with his own profanity. Despite the near chaos of the
atmosphere, Prof still created time to field questions from a pesky reporter.
Outside the marquee, I had to arrange for my driver to drop him off at the
airport to catch ARIK’s last flight to Lagos. Later that night, when finally I
had time for my cell-phone, I discovered I had missed five calls from Prof. My
heart skipped a bit. What could be the matter?
Immediately, I called
back. Ever so graceful, he began by apologizing if he had disturbed my night
with the torrent of calls. Just that he had forgotten something so dear behind
in Benin. From the grief in his otherwise usually boisterous voice tonight, you
would imagine a huge bullion van stuffed to the brim with mint-fresh dollars
(that would make even the industrial ATM ascribed to Dasukigate look miserably
small) was stranded somewhere in Benin. What exactly? It turned out the source
of Prof’s intense lamentation was no more than a missing book! Tucked inside
was something much more precious: a piece of paper on which he had begun to
write some thoughts to form a lecture he was billed to deliver two days later.
Eager to put him out of
that misery, I personally went to the garage to conduct a clinical search of
the car that had ferried him to the airport. Finding nothing, I called the
event planners first thing in the morning to comb everywhere in case they might
still locate the book and the loose sheet. In short, the only step remaining
for me to take was announce in the most widely-read local newspaper as well as
radio and television stations a tidy sum as handsome reward for anyone with
even the minutest shred of clue that could possibly lead to the recovery of
Prof’s missing prized assets.
Before the middle of
the following day, I finally summoned the courage to announce the futility of
all my own forensic search. He took it with accustomed equanimity, announcing
he had since drawn up a contingency plan by making another sketch for the
impending keynote address. His only consolation was that, at least, he could
always pick up another copy of the missing book during his next trip abroad.
Such is Prof’s near
maniacal obsession, not with matters of gold or silver, but with the written
words and the ideas they define.
So, will Patrick
Ikedinachi Utomi then step forward and take a bow.

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