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A life and a mission: A personal reflection at 60

By Tunji Olaopa
25 December 2019   |   3:33 am
At 60, I cannot but remember a crowd of people who have played various roles in my becoming who I am today. These are people who inspired me and some of who are still around and continue to encourage me on the journey...

Dr. Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government & Public Policy (ISGPP).

“We often take for granted the very things that most serve our gratitude.” -Cynthia Ozick.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude”. – G.K. Chesterton

At 60, I cannot but remember a crowd of people who have played various roles in my becoming who I am today. These are people who inspired me and some of who are still around and continue to encourage me on the journey of life that has become obvious to me today as God pre-ordained. Starting with my late parents who sacrificed immensely for me to realise my potential and who actually saw this potential before I did. In spite of their financial challenges, they ensured that I got the right kind of education both formal and informal which started me well in life and helps me on life journey. To this class of people belong my siblings and other members of my family. Today this group has increased to include my immediate family: my wife (a woman of great Christian faith, who has been a great stabilizing force for me), my children and grandchildren. At 60th these constitute a rich memory and presence that nudge me on.

There is another group of influence that has been very critical to what I am today. This group consists of the different and amazing people that served not just as role models but more like angels that God positioned at crucial junctions of our lives. They are treasured for the immeasurable values they add. These are the giants on whose shoulders I rode when I started this journey. People like the late Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, Professor Akin Mabogunje, Chief Simeon Adebo, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Prof. Adebayo Adedeji, my Awe townsmen and forebears such as Dr. J. A. Adegbite, Prof. E. Latunde Odeku, Africa’s first Neuro-Surgeon, Amb. Omolodun, Rev. (Dr.) S. T. Ola Akande, Dr. Ojefemi Aboyade, Mr. Taofeek Ademola Bello, Profs. Adesola Ogunniyi and Adebayo Okunade, Dr. Tunji Bolade, and many more. Added to these great minds are a number of very impactful formal and informal teachers who have helped in shaping the learning component of what has turned into a lifelong mission.

These basic lessons were complemented by a range of political theory, policy-oriented literature and thoughts in philosophical discourse to which the following and many others contributed: Thomas More, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Karl Popper, Rudyard Kipling, John Maynard Keynes, T. S. Elliot, Mahatma Gandhi, John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Bernard Shaw, C. P. Snow, Nelson Mandela, Pandit Nehru, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Thomas Paine, Cervantes, J. J. Rousseau, Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Rupert Waldo Emerson, Karl Marx, Che Guevara, Lopsang Rampa and the mystics, Jean Paul Sartre and the other existentialists. Other great minds that attracted my attention were the likes of Tai Solarin’s “May your road be rough,” Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, Ali Mazrui’s “African Triple Heritage,” Tam David-West and Sanya Onabamiro’s “Philosophical Essays,” Dag Hammarskjold’s “Markings,” James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, the public affairs commentaries of the likes of Aiyekoto, Pat Utomi and Olatunji Dare; Ebenezer Obey, Haruna Isola, Yusuf Olatunjis’ philosophical musical renditions and those of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton & Desree; Areoye Oyebola’s ‘The Black Man’s Dilemma’, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe, whose little book of irreducible wisdom on the Nigerian condition, The Trouble With Nigeria, specifically, inspired one of mine titled, The Joy of Learning.

My mentors and seniors in the civil service, including Alhaji Lele Muhtar, M. Yayale Ahmed, Alhaji Moibi Shitu, S. B. Ajulo, Senator Ibrahim Ida, Prof. Oladapo Afolabi, Dr. Goke Adegoroye, Barr. Dauda Kigbu, to name just a few. As I was maturing as an intellectual, I had the likes of Ladipo Adamolekun, M. J. Balogun, Pat Utomi, Ray Ekpu, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Rev. Fr. Ehusani, Tola Adeniyi, Felix Adenaike, Odia Ofeimun, Toyin Falola, Femi Otubanjo, Eghosa Osaghae, Egem Odey, Babajide Owoeye, among a long list of people, as grand interlocutors to study for all that is meant by mentorship.

I have also been blessed with a very rich complement of contemporaries in different categories. The likes of the late Olusegun Oladipo, Ayo Olukotun, Yemi Dipeolu, Gani Adeniran, Festus Adedayo, Segun Ayobolu, Bunmi Fabamwo, Gani Ojagbohunmi, Tunji Irelewuyi, Bert Odiaka, Joe Abah, Tayo Aduloju, Edward Enejoh, Chike Ogbechie, et al. These have continually been time-tested iron that has helped to sharpen this iron. Another category of this group is a group of younger minds with whom I have had very productive engagements, including Olajumoke Jacob-Haliso, Adeshina Afolayan, Isaac Shittu, Edem Ossai, Feyi Ijimakinwa, among others. These upcoming ones are shaping up so impressively that one could gaze into the future and say with confidence that our tomorrow holds some hope. Therefore I have a lot to be thankful for: the circumstances of my birth, the angels in my life in the form of models and mentors, my companions, my education and my health.

Under God, my health is top on my list of things to be grateful for. Whilst I have had many encounters and experience in this aspect of life, I vividly recollect an incident that happened in October 2011, few months after my appointment as a Federal Permanent Secretary. I was posted to the Presidential Villa and as is my practice, I always have a prayer session once I resume in a new office. It was during one of such sessions that one of the men of God that led the prayer session saw a vision of an impending disaster, the magnitude of which not only unsettled him but made him to request that a prayer band be raised to support me. Few months after this prayer session, I had retina detachment and technically went blind. By the mercy of God I overcame this health challenge and thereafter went on to publish six (6) new books, dozens of monographs and over 200 articles in the newspapers.

In all of these and above them all is the undeniable God factor. Like the ancient hymn says, it is “Amazing Grace…that never ceases to show up for us”, even if it is simply to keep us on the path of righteousness. Without sounding churchy, I am a man of strong spiritual convictions. I have seen so many inexplicable divine interventions to know that, as the book of Proverbs says, “The heart of a man devises his ways but the Lord orders his steps”. One of such divine orders is, as I recall how, what appeared as foolishness at the time but which became defining, the events that led to the establishment of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) and later my professorship. I started planning for my retirement immediately I was appointed Permanent Secretary in 2010. I had planned to set this off with the publication of some public education series and articles for about three months but this went on until my untimely retirement in November 2015. Indeed, it was the research activities that took place during this period that supplied materials for those articles that inspired the establishment of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) and later my professorship. Therefore, contrary to the observation of Cynthia Ozick and G.K. Chesterton, I cannot take for granted the very things that “most deserve” my gratitude. I for one take all of these with gratitude.

Now at 60, it is confounding that most of the questions that troubled my young mind while I was growing up; the questions to which I have spent sixty years trying to find answers and for which reason I looked up to so many great minds that have crossed my path and impacted my life, are still unanswered and in some cases, are now more puzzling than ever. These disappointments and miseries that troubled the Mabogunjes, Bolanle Awes, and Aboyades, which found a voice in the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, who confessed that theirs is a ‘wasted generation’, are still very much with us today.  So, going by this sad admission, and being mindful of generational capital as a critical block in the Nigerian nation building process, it is safe to nudge ourselves into facing the superfluous questions at the heart of the Nigerian predicament. We must ask that self-probing question: “when will Nigeria help itself or be successfully helped, to take itself sufficiently seriously to stem the tide of these disturbing and dismal generational wastages and desecration?” I am speaking of disturbing realities – where the best in class; the nation’s intellectual and professional assets must look up to the third best for solace, to realise themselves. It is a reality where even the least complicated models, tested and proven in virtually all sane climes, never work in Nigeria. As such, one cannot shy away from asking, “When will the Nigerian elites and the corps of leadership be united in shared vision, to confront the obvious problem of lack of firm direction regarding the envisioned great Nigeria of the future that we are building?”

It is truly sad that in our 60 years as a nation we are yet to have a nationally shared vision regarding the Nigerian of our dream to which the leadership is committed, in spirit and in truth. Rather, Nigeria is being piloted metaphorically by three pilots in the cockpit. While one is looking to Saudi Arabia for vision, the other is looking to Israel in a manner of speaking. The third pilot, however, wishes that the plane would crash after he has escaped using the parachute. His uncanny dream is borne out of a desire to appropriate unto himself whatever is left as the ‘biggest contributor’ to the commonwealth. The consequent sociology, from these confused ideological underpinnings of the envisioned Nigeria, is contrived in the dubious behaviour of a political leadership class that repeats the same old game of playing chess with the destiny of the Nigerian nation. It is this failure of the leadership to come up with a shared vision of the direction towards which they are leading the nation, which makes it difficult for them to promote an active citizenship in Nigeria despite such brilliant initiatives and policies like the Quota system, Federal Character, National Youth Service Corp (NYSC), Ethical Revolution, MAMSER, the rebranding Nigeria project, and “Change Begins with You” amongst others. That would be the kind of citizenship that encourages individuals to work beyond their personal interests, in thought, speech and action, and to take their civic responsibility seriously as a common national aspiration that the political leadership is trusted in all its actions to achieve.

Looking back ten years at my 50th birthday today and about four years after I left the civil service, I cannot but notice how many things have changed. Five years ago I was a permanent secretary at the heart of public service practice and reform efforts and within the Nigerian civil service system. Today I am a Professor of Public Administration with the mandate to teach, to research and to mentor a new generation of Nigerians who should be able at the end of the day to form part of a critical mass of people who will be willing to work towards bringing Nigeria out of its current quagmire and into realizing her great potential as the power house of the Black race. However, either in the civil service or in the academia, one thing remains constant: I am in the business of reform. I am still in the pursuit of a vision of how Nigeria can bring her rich human resources and potential into the practical service of national development, and public gains. My vision has not changed and my mission remains the same as it was ten years ago. I am still working at how to marry the intellectual capital and, consequently, the theoretical resources of our ivory towers on how to move Nigerian forward and the practice of public service and national development. The only difference, however, is that in addition to the academic space, I have the benefit of another critical space which is actually meant to be the meeting point of the gown and the town. This is the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP). ISGPP was established in 2016 to interface several sectors in a multidisciplinary institutional framework and to engage the theory and practice of public policy discourse and problems in a professional, sustained and systematic manner. It is within these spaces that I am willing to devote the rest of my professional life and investment and hope to join many other gifted Nigerian intellectuals and policy advocates to move Nigerian towards true democracy and development and to stop the perpetual wastages of generations of Nigerians.

Incidentally, the Nigerian project is equally 60 years old. I can only hope that in the next ten years at 70, my positivism and cheerfulness will not have been dampened into the same disappointment that haunts the generation of the Wole Soyinka, Kenneth Dike, Bala Usman, Emeka Anyaoku, Akin Mabogunje and Bolanle Awe today. I hope my enthusiasm will have the benefit of a nation already taking full advantage of its rich human and natural resources and which has successfully broken the spell of arrested development. I hope to be able to tell such a worthy story to my grandchildren at the end of the day.

By the grace of God, we shall overcome.

Prof. Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Bodija, Ibadan, Oyo State.