TF At 70: A Meditation On Nothingness
By Toyin Falola
On this day, I celebrate the day I came to this world
This day, family, friends, and colleagues rejoice
Do they not know a year older means a year closer to the grave?
Do they not see my grey hair?
Do they not see the frailty in my steps?
Do they not see that I cannot read without a microscope?
Do they not see I am bound to nullity?
Plaques, trophies, accolades sing of my accomplishments
They cover my walls as clouds adorn the sky.
Children and coming generations may fill my house
With every new age, I attain
I am transitioning into nothingness
I have savoured the sweet, the bitter, and the sour of life
I have been called great, and I have sat with the greats
But, I am inch-by-inch, moment-by-moment agbalagba
Daintily transitioning into nothingness…
I have seen it all and have reached the peak
Bestriding all, agbalagba, I ponder:
What is left
So, my cloak of glory,
Shredded by experience
Is a flag unfurled as
I transition to nothingness.
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There will be no celebrations! No gift of objects or words will be accepted! Opportunities to say “Amen” to prayers will not be granted! No Du’a, raising of arms to the chest, and no opening of arms wide for blessings will be given. No recitation of Astaghfirullaaha Allaahumma ‘Antas-Salaamu wa minkas-salaamu, tabaarakta yaa Thal-Jalaali wal-‘Ikraam. (“I seek the forgiveness of Allah (three times). O Allah, You are Peace and from You comes peace. Blessed are You, O Owner of majesty and honour.”)
Why? What came to my mind were ancient words from borrowed traditions across the desert:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 KJV
Let us set the stage: the building of vanity!
Five years ago, a book of tributes was published in my honour for my 65th birthday, and I consider that a great endeavour to celebrate my person. I had no hand in how it happened and was surprised to see hundreds of people at the event. Nothing is more gratifying than hearing and seeing what others think of you and your accomplishments, achievements, accolades, awards, and distinctions. On November 17, 2021, forty years after I got my Ph.D. from the University of Ife in 1981, I received an academic Doctor of Letters (D. Litt.) degree as an expert in the global humanities from Nigeria’s top university, the University of Ibadan. It was a historic accomplishment for this institution, as it awarded the academic D. Litt. for the first time in its history. On December 12, 2022, Lead City University, Ibadan, proclaimed me a Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, a crowning glory.
With over thirty lifetime achievement awards, sixteen honorary doctorates, eight festschriften published in my honour, several essays and two thick books on my scholarship, seven teaching awards, five chieftaincy titles, book awards named after me, and numerous honorary conferences, I have been among the most celebrated figures in academia, both nationally and internationally. I do not take these honours and wishes for granted.
Birthdays are meant to be joyful celebrations filled with parties, cheerfulness, self-reflection, and age-induced introspection. Human beings will always have dreams and aspirations, whether achieved or not. This is true from birth to death. It is part of our evolution, and it defines who we are. Some may question my shortcomings at the age of 70. It is their right to do so, and I am at liberty to dismiss them. My side of the story in most issues is unknown and will never be known as evil is entitled to some pleasure before it burns eternally. I usually feel that I have never met anyone who truly understands me or the depth of my talents.
Most people know the day of their birth, but no matter how long they may live, few can tell the day of their death. Often, our legacy is what people remember us for. I am 70 years old just today, and though I hope to live long and age gracefully, death is inevitable, any time between today and an undefinable “tomorrow”. Books, lectures, presentations, journals, and interviews, not just about academics but also about past and present events, are among my accomplishments. I have goals, many of which I have already attained and others that I am still working toward. I have ten books in the making, enough for five lifetimes of careers.
Let us demolish vanity:
Today should be a day of celebration for me because I have accomplished a large portion of my goals and have demonstrated creative leadership in numerous well-established and new arenas. But on this particular occasion, I am forced to take a realistic look at whom I have become and what has become of my country of origin (Nigeria) and our mother continent, Africa. I have used my extensive knowledge in the humanities and other fields to further the cause of Pan-Africanism. I have spoken at conferences, where the question invariably arises: Can Africa achieve its Pan-African goals? How well have our democratic systems advanced?
The so-called Age of Exploration between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries was when the Europeans began to explore the world in search of wealth, trade routes, and knowledge. The impact of this period would permanently alter the world and transform the later centuries up till now. The Americas were built on violence and genocide, and millions of Africans were enslaved. During colonial rule, the use of forced labour and indentured servitude, mineral extraction regimes, and exploitative peasant agriculture impeded Africa’s development and resulted in contemporary migration patterns within and beyond the continent. Many have fled brutalizing colonial and postcolonial powers, reluctant to relinquish power.
To many of us in Africa, the inordinate intellectual legacies that the colonial masters left behind are not always apparent, even though they have been gone for decades. These legacies continue to influence information and knowledge, as well as how and what we learn, legacies that permeate the way our institutions operate, all of which impact and inhibit how our continent is evolving. For instance, Nigeria is a union of various ethnolinguistic groups with rich cultures, all of which had long-standing autonomous existence before colonization. Consistent and compatible social constructions, orientations, and beliefs had been established in these societies and communities and passed down across time and space through customs, practices, and musical pedagogies.
Based on this, one might concur that these various proto-nations could be regarded as autonomous nations with different histories and distinctive characteristics. However, how well this union has thrived under the democratic system since independence is a question many scholars have tried to answer in different works. However, the end of European rule and the rise of independent states did not bring about the expected growth, peace and justice. Decolonization also created nation-building, and the newly formed African states often faced tensions as they sought to impart a sense of national unity in their ethnically diverse societies within a global economic, political, and military order. But, even now, the reality is that our problems stem from our inability to teach successive generations these political processes. The problems caused by the inability to instil knowledge and transform economic processes in service of the legitimate development of these states have resulted in the massive migration of Africans to the United States
Migrations are part of world history, even if ours are driven by the politics of the belly rather than the much more lucrative politics of conquest. In the twenty-first century, the increasing rate of immigration from African countries has become a major concern in Europe. There is also the growing fear, which fuels xenophobic far-right parties’ paranoia, that the “African invasion” in Europe is gaining momentum. Africa is regarded as a continent of mass migration, driven by unstable politics, poverty, and conflicts. Africans are perceived as people “escaping” poverty at home and in search of survival in an American or European city perceived as “El Dorado”. Millions of Africans are ready to travel to Europe or the United States by any means or at any opportunity.
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I have discussed African futurism as the most recent phase of decolonization. It is a creative movement that emphasizes the importance of Blackness and showcases the genius of our youth in combining technology and performance to reimagine Pan-Africanism in unique ways. African futurism adapts to new developments by embracing enlightenment, reason, and many other legacies and ideas that are in the best interests of Africa. It incorporates ideas and practices from different cultures. One of my goals is to integrate indigenous systems into the formal western educational model in diverse institutions across the globe. What do we own? Our cultures, languages, arts, tales, festivals, rituals, practical wisdom from the elderly, and much more. We must put what we have learned into practice as we play, connect, and create intentional communities. We must not lose our creative inheritances, as the failure to retain them will lead to future tragedies.
According to Thabo Mbeki, “One of the painful realities on the African continent is there is a sharply reduced commitment to Pan-Africanism. That sense of cohesion and togetherness that we must pursue the following outcomes has reduced drastically. I don’t know why Pan-Africanism has declined. It may be because our political leaders on the continent have focused on their own countries and responding to their national challenges. It is unfortunate the loss of pan-Africanist commitment. You see it in the functioning of the African Union”.
I have set foot in all African countries except one. Many I will never visit again, but the memory will remain. Most of my interactions with various African nations are devoted to developing research activities to improve and redefine individuals who comprehend and do not undercut the increased significance of their cultural values and identity. As a result, I have pushed for a liberatory scholarship for Africans in all forms and more Pan-African discussions and dialogues.
As I reflect on what has become of our society and the degree of growth we have attained since independence, I see that Nigeria is not doing so well in terms of economic progress despite having remarkable natural resources and human capital. Even more frightening is that the nation has been selling its natural, material, and human resources elsewhere without preparing for impending disastrous consequences. Today, the continent is still largely a consumer economy; our resources are being shipped offshore in huge quantities, and the emigration rate of professionals and other workforces is skyrocketing. Even though I have accomplished some of my goals, Nigeria’s situation greatly worries me.
I may not know all the causes of the declining commitment to Pan-Africanism; however, when there are overwhelming personal issues, collective interests and issues may not seem as important. The Yoruba say, “Bi ina ba jo ni, to jo omo eni, t’ara eni la nko gbon,” (when oneself and one’s child are in flames, the flames on one’s body are first instinctively extinguished before tackling that on one’s child).
With the myriad problems facing each family, community, and nation on the continent, it is logical that there may not be enough space and purpose to protect the continent’s larger interests. What is Pan-Africanism to a person who has not eaten the whole day and is unsure of what the next day holds? What is Pan-Africanism to the displaced and those in fear of terrorism, banditry, and other untold hardships? If all these problems are happening in most countries in the continent, I believe that “to your tent, o Israel,” should not be too surprising for us to hear.
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Personally, I am transitioning to nothingness, but for Africa, we should bring our core values and leadership system to benefit our society and develop in our own ways. Africa should usher in a renaissance. Pan-Africanism must be an ideology or be able to rise above our ashes and hardships to achieve that united front. We must move Africa away from the individualistic nature of development pursued by most African leaders. We need a united front to channel our progress and development as a continent. But simultaneously achieving this requires the commitment to make Africa as comfortable as possible for Africans, with legitimate opportunities for all. Nevertheless, African leaders cannot pause because of local issues. We must rise above our ashes and hardships to achieve that united front because the thief watches every time we let our guard down or go to sleep.
Modesty to the rescue!
Nothingness is a state of being, an imagination of futurism with realistic survivalism mapped out by Jean-Paul Sartre, that brilliant mind who distinguished between identity and “pure existence”. Written ten years before my birth, Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” generated a long debate. TF is not Sartre and not anywhere near his immense stature or ideas. My nothingness is to attain the status of egolessness, where silence replaces sound and privacy replaces information. The ears are sealed, the eyes are blind; the gaits become unwieldy, the self becomes meek; the body announces timidity, mouth asserts no reproach. Just look. Demure. Agree.
Oh, you, my fair person who wants to lead!
Are you ready to let go of pride?
Will you carry the burden of your followers and let them join in?
Will you let your love rule over your ego?
My dear fair person, leader of people!
Are you sure of the path you want to set your platoon upon?
Even when the sky is cloudy, and the path is enclosed in weed
Will your knowledge of Canaan not fail?
Oh, leader of men and women!
Are you ready to show us that you are a man?
That you have flaws
That you can fall, fail, and make mistakes?
You! Leader of nations
Can you feel the other man’s pain?
What will you do about it?
How will you sail your followers on a troubled sea?
Oh, leader of people!
Have you got compassion?
Where is your ability to break down hierarchy?
And infuse in your followers trust and reliability?
Oh, leader of states!
Will you withstand the pressure and negotiate
To save your people?!
Are you that “classy bulldog” heralding emotional intelligence?
You want to lead?
Breathe answers in actions to these questions
If you make a success of it
You, then, are truly the leader.
Nothingness is not about idleness. I will continue to take to heart the wise words of Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba:
This life is God’s farm, and no one sends anyone to his farm to sleep…
The night is so long; do not shorten it with sleep.
Nothingness is about the relentless pursuit of virtues, the elevation of sacrifices over rewards:
“When a heart lacks virtue and is filled with knowledge, the knowledge only increases its veiling. It is like a bitter tree that is lush, but the lushness only increases its bitterness…. But when a heart has virtue and is filled with knowledge, the knowledge increases its illumination. It is like a sweet tree that is lush and bears sweet fruits.”
— Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba
In nothingness is the secret of a new beginning, the audacity of knowledge to reinvigorate the metaphysics of life, and a quiet quest to receive the key to the afterlife:
“The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me,
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever,
do not forsake the works of your hands…” – Psalm 138: 8
Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.
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Iwuanyanwu And The ‘Political Rascals’ Rhetoric
By Promise Adiele
Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot avails itself of multiple interpretative tools with a compelling grip on the moral imagination of the audience. As a timeless drama, it thrives on the hopelessness of the human condition dramatized by two vagabonds, Estragon and Vladimir who waited for a mysterious, titular Godot that never came. One of the features of the absurdist literary tradition portrayed in the play is the failure of language in the verbal context as a means of communication. The verbal exchange between the two vagabonds is evident of misinterpretation. One says one thing, the other interprets it differently. Thus, it calls to question the potency of language in the verbal medium as a means of communication. The preceding analogy reminds me of Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and his purported insult to the good people of the Yoruba ethnic group. Perhaps, misinterpretation currently manifests as an inexorable content of Nigeria’s absurd credentials.
Last week, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, philanthropist, accomplished businessman, the Balogun Babaguwan of Yorubaland, Ahaejiejemba of Igboland and elder-statesman, while reacting to events that happened in Lagos during the last election when many Igbo people were bloodied and harassed, assured the world that “the Igbo and Yoruba are not at war”. On the heels of that statement came another one “they are Yoruba political rascals”. A syntactic analysis of the two sentences affirms that the Chief never meant to insult the entire Yoruba ethnic group. Rather, he was referring to rascals in Lagos who maimed, killed, and vanquished Igbos, non-Yorubas, and even some Yorubas with Igbo semblance, stopping them from exercising their voting rights during the election. He also said “we know them and we will deal with them”. Language scholars know that Chief Iwuanyanwu did not mean to insult the Yoruba. Sadly, some social nitwits, victims of acute cognitive impairment, went on a rampage to misinterpret and manipulate his statement to suit their treacherous, mischievous purposes. It is absurd.
Anyone who knows Chief Iwuaynanwu’s antecedent will never ascribe offensive rhetoric to him. He is soft-spoken, conciliatory and peace-loving. Like every sensible person around the world, not just the Igbo, he was aghast with lurid photos and video evidence of harm against the Igbo in Lagos during the last election. Unfortunately, people who ordinarily frolic in the whirlwind of ethnic hate have seized the opportunity to insult the Igbo ethnic group while using acerbic words on the revered Chief. These people, in their degenerate and diseased mentality, are trying to install a wall of hate between the Igbo and Yoruba. Let me state categorically that the Yorubas are wonderful people whose spirit of brotherliness, conviviality, and tolerance speaks volumes across the world. I have maintained over time that the Igbo and Yoruba share a cordial, interwoven relationship in marriage, business, friendship, association and neighbourliness. The two ethnic groups can never be involved in a conflict. Many Yoruba people have helped many Igbo people to their destinies and many Igbo people have helped many Yoruba people to their destinies too. An attempt for one ethnic group to harm the other will result in serious harm for the two. It is as implicating as that.
Since the presidential elections, keenly contested by different candidates from different ethnic groups in Nigeria, some people have desperately sought to reduce the entire development to an ethnic affair. It is myopic and at once condescending. Does Peter Obi represent the Igbo? Does Bola Tinubu represent the Yoruba? Does Atiku Abubakar represent the Hausa/Fulani? These candidates all have supporters across the country. Of course, they will have a preponderance of support from their ethnic base. That is the way of politics. Unfortunately, ethnic jingoists have, in the inerrancy of their bleak convictions, reduced the entire political discourse to an ethnic affair especially Yoruba vs Igbo. These people, stranded in the realm of ethnic hate and communal intolerance, have done everything within their powers to inflame ethnic tension to crucible dimensions. It is wrong for anyone to insult a whole ethnic group in whatever guise. In Chief Iwuanyanwu’s case, he has put the records straight by clarifying what he meant, insisting that he was quoted out of context. But the morbid and decadent will not hear of it. They insist that Iwuanyanwu and all Igbo should be roasted alive. As far as these simpletons are concerned, the Chief spoke the mind of all Igbos. How idiotic and harebrained can anybody be?
Recently, some people have also indulged in ethnic slurs. Unlike Chief Iwuanyanwu that clarified himself, Bayo Onanuga offered no apology and insisted on standing by his words. Onanuga spoke for himself and couldn’t have insulted the Igbo on behalf of the Yoruba. MC Oluomo, while registering his socio-political disorientation, spoke for himself when he threatened the Igbo on an election day and went on to make good his threat which the police shamelessly called a joke. FFK has also made inflammatory remarks which were his personal opinion and not the opinion of Yoruba. It is therefore, a function of disabled, primitive awareness for anyone to insult an ethnic group based on the comment of one person. Such insults and abuses expose the quiddity of phenomenal foolishness which, hitherto, was concealed in some people by the façade of education. No, these hate mongers belong to the stone age. Nobody should be deceived by their pretentious liberalism.
The question is, are there political rascals in Nigeria? Definitely yes! These are the particular people Chief Iwuanyanwu referred to concerning what happened in Lagos during the last elections. Of course, all parts of the country have their share of political rascals. It is not peculiar to one ethnicity. Political rascals are those who walk the streets, snatch ballot boxes, stab people due to their ethnic origin and prevent them from exercising their civic rights. They are not educated. They are thugs, street urchins and never-do-wells employed by politicians to advance nefarious objectives. There are also some educated political rascals. They don’t walk the streets, but demonstrate humane deficiency of unimaginable proportions using social media and sundry news outlets. They spread hate, provoke enmity and fan the embers of war. They incite the uneducated, urging them to bay for the blood of ordinary citizens. Their social media handles are replete with expletives and insults. Abusive engagement allows them to flourish. Another category of political rascals populate government establishments like INEC, the Police and different security agencies. These people compromise the electoral process in exchange for financial inducement and material gains. They are unconscionable, desperate and invidious. Are these people from another planet? No, they are among us. We know them.
The ethnic hate narrative is a device enunciated by the political class to keep the people divided, breaking their rank and file to unite and fight a common enemy. The opposition LP and PDP are convinced that the election was marred by sharp, underhand practices and therefore have gone to court. Is going to court to challenge the outcome of an election a legitimate practice? If it is, why can’t detractors of equitable process allow the law to run smoothly? The call by some decidedly frustrated fellows in search of relevance and pecuniary patronage for the arrest of the opposition presidential candidates is from the pit of purgatory. The propaganda that there is a plan to disrupt the handover ceremony is a bundle of falsehood from the depths of Hades. Although many Nigerians regard the judiciary with a pinch of salt, people of goodwill should advocate for a peaceful resolution of Nigeria’s political challenges. Ethnic rhetoric should stop immediately. People should sheath their swords. Let us all close the road to Rwanda.
Adiele, PhD, writes from Mountain Top University.
Olaopa: The Self As A Patriotic Reformer – The Tales Of A Memoirist
By Adeshina Afolayan
Autobiographies and memoirs are very difficult to write. One of the reasons is that they place the autobiographers and the memoirist in a very difficult position that draws the attention, and even the ire, of the public. Once the volume is written and presented before the public, the writer can no longer control its reception. And some or even all of her certainties and verities are shredded by those who must approach the book from different perceptions. But there is an even more daunting challenge. Writing an autobiography or a memoir dances at the very edge of hubris and vanity. This is what Michel de Montaigne thinks. His understanding of the human self is dark and gloomy. According to him, “If others were to look attentively into themselves as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of emptiness and tomfoolery…. Our self is an object full of dissatisfaction: we can see nothing there but wretchedness and vanity.”Now, imagine an act of self-portrait emerging from such a dark view of the self.
In The Essays, Montaigne pens a paradoxical opening statement addressed to the readers of the volume who are not supposed to read it because it is a work of vanity: “Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain. Therefore, Farewell.” If the self is locus of emptiness and wretchedness, then any attempt at a self-portrait is doomed already; the autobiographer or memoirist thinks more highly of herself than she should. And yet, Montaigne subtly invites the reader to peruse the volume through a strategy of dissuasion.
In The Unending Quest for Reform, Tunji Olaopa faces the charge of hubris head-on , and persuades us to plunge into a narrative that connects the self with a larger space of meaning, struggle and fulfilment. This is an even more difficult endeavor since it goes beyond the self-portrait that embroils the self in its own dynamics of maturation. On the contrary, a memoir like the The Unending Quest for Reform, like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, connects the self to nonself, or to its Other. The autobiographer or the memoirist then invites the reader to weigh the significance of the self in relation to its other. Only those who have a strong sense of inner worth and significance can ever achieve such a courageous level of self-ascription.
I think a reformer deserves his memoir or autobiography. I have read the late Professor Akinlawon Mabogunje’s autobiography — A Measure of Grace. It details not only birth, historical trajectories and intellectual maturation, but also the agonies of a public servant eager to see some of his best ideas and insights inserted into the policy architecture of the Nigerian state. He met brick walls at every turn. In The Unending Quest for Reform, Olaopa typifies a more enduring courage to serve and confront the dysfunction of a system that had been rigged to be inefficient since independence.
The public service is not just another vocation. It embodies a double imperative. First, it is a service that transcends any consideration of self-interest. Within the service and its accountability dynamics, the self cannot be placed in contradistinction to what is required of it. The service is therefore a
selfless one that demands that the servant serves. Second public service is a service to public, the public. It therefore requires a different kind of spirit—public-spiritedness—that insists that the public servant must bow to certain logic of service that bend the will of the public servant to the will of the citizens. The task of a public servant therefore becomes a very arduous one: she must bend the self to serve the others. However, serving others becomes very onerous when the system that enables the service is inefficient and dysfunctional. When Olaopa first confronted this dysfunctional system, his first human instinct was to flee. But he did not. This was where his scholarly instinct—to learn, to reflect, to research, to rethink, to reorganize—kicked in. And he had a background in Plato and a mentoring acquaintance in Professor Ojetunji Aboyade to trim his fears and fuel his reform thinking.
The Unending Quest for Reform details the long trajectory that took an Aáwé boy to the Presidency and then the very height of public service status as a permanent secretary. But in each of the fifteen chapters that make up the memoir, you are compelled to encounter and reflect on how ideas and insights emerged from Olaopa’s interaction and engagement with intellectual and administrative forebears, and how both
the forebears and the ideas molded his own original philosophy of reform—with a huge dose of providential intervention.
While Plato’s Republic maps the boundaries of the ancient Athenian city-state and its utopic possibilities, Olaopa’s
The Unending Quest for Reform delineates the circumferences of a
dysfunctional public service, and how it could be rehabilitated within a comprehensive institutional and governance reform blueprint that took years to design, and even many more years to attempt mounting for the benefit of making Nigeria work better. This is where he joins the community of suffering that Mabogunje, and many others, once belonged. At every turn, the system itself frustrated all his well-being intentions and yearning.
Olaopa carries the burden of a man driven by God’s purpose. Or how else does one understand the passion that
drove and still drives him to dedicate his research and professional life to a system that seems too dense to allow self-examination? As an expert-insider, he had to face the fundamental significance of whether the public service can reform itself. That query, for Olaopa, could not have been just an academic exercise; he must have had to face the suspicions and stubborn resistance of those who could have considered him “too know” and obnoxious. There are ways by which a
debilitated system punishes those who would claim diagnostic knowledge. There are several means by which those who benefit from the status quo impede the progress of a reformer. And yet, Olaopa kept at this onerous task, even after retirement,with a single-mindedness that belies any logical understanding.
It was not just Plato and philosophy that gave him inspiration. All through The Unending Quest for Reform, one sees him holding onto a deep understanding of the place and role of the divine in human understanding and trajectories. If God could save him from blindness, as he narrated, then he would dedicate his life to service, spiritual and institutional;
he would commit his expertise to Nigeria and her quest for a world class public service that will be able to transform the quality of life of Nigerians. He has not faltered in that commitment.
But we need to highlight the role of philosophy in Olaopa’s professional and intellectual maturation. Right from discovering Plato and the capacity of philosophy to reconstruct, Olaopa had
remained fixated on the potential of philosophy to both enlighten and enable. He had taken Plato’s Republic far more seriously than I have seen anywhere. The Republic gave him the basis
from which to reenact the possibility of reflecting on dysfunction and reconstructing the parameters for
utopia. While Plato’s Republic was entirely a thought experiment about what could have been, Olaopa’s philosophical, intellectual and administrative exertions were right within the context of an actually existing Nigerian state that combines what he calls “bureau-pathologies” and possibilities for greatness.
The Unending Quest for Reform is therefore not only a paean to the existential exertions and Sisyphean achievements of the self, but also a testament to what reform can make possible for the transformation of the
Nigerian administrative entity. With the memoir, Olaopa is reaching out to
Nigerians, and especially fellow public servants and aspiring institutional and governance reformers,with a manual for technocratic action. The memoir bristles with pain and optimism about the ascent of a self from the obscurity of a small town in Oyo State to the convoluted
bureaucratic spaces of the Presidency, from a struggle to master political science and political theory at the University of Ibadan to the urgency of deploying a range of ideas and ideologies to the understanding and operational optimality of the public service system. In The Unending Quest for Reform, the self and the nation merge in a struggle for realization. And the denouement of that titanic struggle is a finale that is yet to happen. And we will know it when
it happens because that would be the end the reformer has been waiting for. With the new administration, may we not arrive at a tragedy to the high drama of hope and possibilities Olaopa’s memoir has treated us to.
Prof. Afolayan is the Head of Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan
Reflection on The Unending Quest for Reform, Tunji Olaopa’s Memoir
By Eghosa E. Osaghae
Intellectual autobiographies come as absorbing and engaging as other profound academic works tend to be. Professor Tunji Olaopa’s intellectual memoir is not different and certainly ranks as one of the more profoundly intellectual autobiographies to come out of Nigeria. The reflections on the nexuses among public policy, public administration, civil service and governance on the one hand, and how these can be transformed along the paths of the reforms that seek to address the pathologies of bureaucracy – or bureau-pathology as Professor Olaopa calls them – are done in the best traditions of rigorous scientific analysis, normative and empirical. And given the relative leanness of analytical and theoretical scholarship in the field of public administration in Nigeria and Africa, it is obvious that this book, even as an autobiography, has all that is required to be a major contribution to the discipline, especially on the subject of reforms, which is a central theme of the memoir.
From the story of his progression through life as told in the memoir – from being a scholar-in-the-making since the
age of five, to earning the alias, Azikiwe, at the highest level of ‘-isms’ in secondary school, to finally becoming an expert-insider in the federal civil service and professor at Lead City University, only a knowledgeable, visionary, and activist-reformer like Olaopa, with the zest of patriotism and nationalism has the qualifications and credibility to say the kinds of things he has said in this book. His premature and unexpected retirement from the federal civil service in 2015 seemed to have halted the leading roles Olaopa played in the complex arena of reforms; these were roles that his academic pursuits and engagements with The Commonwealth , The World Bank, the UN system, and reforms institutions and processes in Australia and South Africa,continental and global professional institutions, amongst others, prepared him for; but this book documents the hows and whats of those roles and sets a well-reasoned rationale and template for continued reforms. The concluding chapters of the book, which are addressed to the reforms the leadership expected of the Office of the Head of Service of the Federal Civil Service in particular, fill the gap of what might have been. That is, if the unexpected retirement – another
painful reminder of the insecurity of tenure that has plunged the civil service in Nigeria deeper into the recesses of instability, demotivation and corruption, did not happen.
Olaopa engages the more substantial and critical issues elicited by public servicee reforms including those that constitute formidable obstacles in highly perceptive ways. “The public service”, he writes, “was not a place where mere ideas are sufficient to achieve significant transformation. Those ideas have to be immersed in the deep and dirty crevices of bureaucratic dead weights. As a public servant, it increasingly became clear to me that reading was not enough for the reformation of the public service. Ideas and knowledge had to be consciously adopted, creatively adapted, and deliberately owned and domesticated to achieve optimal results”. This was the lynchpin of reforms and transformations buoyed by Olaopa’s continuous research and development opportunities offered by the strategic positions he held especially in the Ministry of Education and the Office of the Head of Service. But the high expectations and ideals are easily brought down by the limits of realistic possibilities: “As an expert-insider”, he also writes, “I was equally confronted by a limitation: Can the civil service supervise its own reform? Can civil servants supervise the reform of their own institution?” Which all goes back to perhaps the greatest puzzle faced by reforms and their drivers: “In a situation where administrative dynamics have already congealed, can we expect the publice servantsto oversee the reform of their institution? How can reforms be jumpstarted by the very people who have vested interests in operating the bureaucratic culture? The obvious answere seems negative. And experience has revealed that most reforms failed because they were undermined by vested interests”. This is the essence of ‘bureau-pathology’ – “a state of stagnancy in which the civil servants protect themselves against any attempt to reform the very system with in which they operate. In this terrible situation, reform becomes the exception rather than the rule”. The pathology also leads to “too many people doing nothing, too many doing too little, and too few people doing too much”.
But these obstacles – and frustrations – which Olaopa experienced firsthand in hugeo tons thanks to the complexities, intrigues, treacheries and politics that climaxed with his premature retirement, do not diminish Olaopa’s conviction, enthusiasm and unending quest for reforms .The decision to set up the Ibadan School of Governance and Public Policy (ISGPP),take up the professorship at Lead City University, become a directing staff member at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, and this memoir (just in case the other platforms are necessary but not sufficient to actualise his vision) represent important milestones in this quest. Olaopa’s analysis also shows that the journey of reforms requires a lot more thanh the individual motivation; that motivation emanates from several other reinforcing anchors: expository reading, such as is found in his reading of Plato’s The Republic and other texts; the benefit of sound education and good peers, such as he encountered in Aawe, Olivet, and UI; the sheer boldness, such as is demonstrated in his forays into radical student unionism; the strategic opportunities that come through postings such as those to MAMSER, Ministry of Education, Office of the Secretary of Government of the Federation and Head of Service; and, perhaps, most importantly, the mentoring, reassurances and confidence-building such as he had from Professors Ojetunji Aboyade and Akin Mabogunje (these two had the OPTICOM modelt that provided a foundation for participatory reforms), Professor Tunde Adeniran and many more.
Although Olaopa engages public service reforms in an intellectually robust and engaging manner, there are issues that he has either left out or not engaged sufficiently. One of these is the cultural and historical specificities of particular reform situations. Surely, reforms have not grown to the level of a science of universals. Is there a need to decolonise the civile service for example? Another is the omission of the age-long debate between generalists and specialists in public service. Is it possible that the decision to bring specialists into the core of the civil service in Nigeria – that led to the appointment of engineers, medical doctors andc accountants for example, as permanent secretaries – has created problems of a different kindf for the civil service? Thirdly, for all the points raised about a purpose-driven public service with substantial federal restructuring, it is a little curious that very little consideration, if any,was given to the subnational spheres of the public service. Would the public service be trulyr reformed if the state and local government domains are not reformed? Should the federal public civil service be the federalist empire/colonial service?
Knowing Professor Olaopa as well as I do, I am sure that these issues will be taken up in his next volume on public servicee reforms– after all, the present volume is strictly a memoir and should not be read as an academic treatise, irrespective of all that I have tried to say.
Although the scholarly insights of Olaopa’s Unending Quest for Reform have the upper hand in this foreword, the memoir is far more extensive and encompassing. It covers his historical progression and, in the process, the several lessons to be learnt from his interesting experiences and discussions on familyhood, marital relations, religion, the role of God in humanl lives, mysticism and human relations in their adversarial and friendly forms. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this memoir and digesting its deeper and very reflective lines. They show that Olaopa’s initial and continuous love for philosophy has crystallised into a way of life.
Professor Osaghae is the Director-General, Nigerian Institute of
International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos.
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