How would posterity judge my generation?
Let me begin by borrowing the words that William Shakespeare committed into the mouth of Bolingbroke, a character in Richard II:
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.
I am such a soul today, and it is my delight to advertise my extreme joy and fulfillment at the promotion of my two friends, Prof. Bunmi Olapade-Olaopa and Prof. Sade Ogunsola (nee Mabogunje). Bunmi has just been appointed the Provost of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan while Sade now occupies the same position at the University of Lagos, for a while now. These two instigate some serious nostalgia for the moments that define our time together at the University, Bunmi at UI and Sade at Ife. Since hindsight is our only perceptual access into the past, I could say categorically that the frenetic academic pace we kept back then was the only indication we had as to how our future individually would turn out.
And in that recollection, I cannot forget Bunmi and Sade as the very personification of indignant restlessness, especially when it comes to the duty of righting what is wrong. Together with all the others who have survived the Yorùbá proverbial 20 years, we have all come a long way, and justifiably scattered across all the human endeavours both in Nigeria and in the Diaspora.
However, apart from felicitation, I suspect that a greater honour to the achievements of these two would be to tie their promotion into a dynamic reflection about the larger concern with institutional transformation and national greatness. Their promotion is significant because they now head colleges whose significance for the recalibration of our medical education and health institution cannot be underestimated. Institutions require commitment and foresight to be transformed into optimal functionality. But transforming an institution is not just a function of commitment and foresight; it is a function of competence with a solid touch of patriotism. But ask yourself: What happens if the entire endowment, competences and talents of an entire generation like mine, specifically highlighted in achievements of my two friends, were to be patriotically injected into the national development strategy for Nigeria? I could populate a list of all those in my generation who have reached the very top of their careers. I could outline many more whose competences are transforming their endeavours in many unique ways.
But such an exercise always leads me to one query: Would posterity judge our generation on our individual achievements or on what those achievements cumulate into in terms of national development?
I have been an advocate of a generational understanding of Nigeria’s predicament and greatness. In other words, we can get critical insights into where we are and where we can get to on the basis of generational commitment, or lack of it, to the Nigerian national project. It is the trepidation borne out of my remembrance of Wole Soyinka’s judgment of his generation as a wasted one that stimulates beaming the searchlight on mine too. Soyinka’s generation might still be around but, to all intents and purposes, the generation is technically gone; but mine is still around and kicking. But what have we done for Nigeria. I ask that question in the light of John F. Kennedy’s admonition: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” There is a philosophy behind this profound statement. One strand of it is simple: No one works for his/her endowments; we are all essentially blessed with them, and some more than others. Second, there must be a providential reason why some specific individuals with some specific critical endowments are specifically born as Nigerians within a specific generational timeline.
Like all the other generations before mine, this generation constitutes a critical mass of endowments that could be deployed to the rethinking, rehabilitation and reinvention of the Nigerian nation-state. That successive Nigerian government had to contend with the tragic and accumulated national burden of the past is a damning report on what has gone before.
But it is so easy to pass judgment on the past. What happens to the present? Most people in my generation are in their late 40s, in their 50s and 60s. I am in my mid-50s too. And the clock has not stopped ticking—Tick tock; tick tock. Posterity is also getting ready to pass the same judgment we eloquently passed on the past and its ambivalent generations of Nigerians who had so much but could deliver so very little.
Today, we talk strenuously about human capital, social capital, moral capital, and so on. Generational capital is equally fundamental, if not more so. The downside to deploying generational capital is that it requires a touch of patriotism, and that is in a critical short supply in Nigeria. In many cases, patriotism kills. Ask Aboyade, Saro-Wiwa, Ransome-Kuti, Fawehinmi, etc. I suspect that Achebe died very bitter about Nigeria. And yet, we could have made a lot of national recovery if we have paid attention to his masterly diagnosis of The Trouble with Nigeria. We did not. And our trouble remains.
Nobody wants to be patriotic in Nigeria today. It does not seem to pay any longer. But it is this patriotism that becomes the first condition for an enthusiastic deployment of generational capital. Generational deficiency is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. The first generation of Awolowo-Bello-Azikiwe failed in terms of leadership; the second failed in terms of deploying its intelligence and status to the crisis of national development. My generation is the next in line, and the jury is still out on our success or failure. I do not know whether my generation possesses the vast patriotic quotient of the first and the second generations. But I know their professional competences are unrivalled. At least, it is unrivalled just yet.
But our responsibility has trebled; as accumulated and complex-ified infrastructural, institutional and value deficits. That is to say, we carry the burden of failure of the two preceding generations. And the additional task of rejuvenating the framework and dynamics of a value-based national institutional platform for achieving a globally competitive economy that can backstop Nigeria’s democratic governance experiment. This generation is the productivity generation, and thank fate for ongoing recession; a test for our creativity and innovativeness. It is equally the infrastructure generation. And lastly, it is on this generation that the burden of democratic consolidation rests. How far have we gone? I doubt we have gone far enough. How long do we have for any truly energetic interventions? Maximum: twenty years.
Back to my friends. Since we are kindred spirit, restless and often grossly discomfited by disequilibrium, they will immediately grasp the logic of my discomfiture. I have no doubt how they will perform as provosts. But where are the others? It is time for my generation to come alive.
• Olaopa is the executive vice chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).