Tunji Olaopa: A quintessential scholar-bureaucrat at 60
It is said and believed that someone’s destiny can be deciphered from the onset of life. Whilst this may be termed a mere conjecture and not true of everyone, some people have their pathways in life clearly laid out for them and, as with a compass, they are able to chart their own course of destiny.
The different signposts and milestones along life’s way often point such individuals in the direction of their ultimate destiny, and despite the bumps and detours of life, the once revealed destination is eventually arrived at, in every way possible.
Professor Tunji Olaopa falls into the category of men whose lives and ultimate destiny was marked out, and who bared fangs in the face of life, conquered odds and challenges and rose to the summit of their calling and engagements. The life of a man consists of not just the good and desirable things, but as well as the undesirable things, experiences, perceptions, and ethos. It is, therefore, necessary to set out at dawn, according to Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, so that when the harmattan haze settles on the leaves, it is only a veneer over the inexcusable and alluring beauty that lies beneath. The saying goes that some people are born into greatness while some others have greatness thrust on them. Therefore, resilience in tandem with societal expectations guarantees results in the reformed position that is centered around the new position in life.
The life of Professor Olaopa is one that has the rich elements of divinity all over it. His early years in Awe, present-day Afijio Local Government in Oyo State luxuriated with wonderful memories and experiences and he never passes up the opportunity of reminiscing on these. You cannot miss Professor Olaopa’s deep appreciation of, and pride in his profound Awe, that little town of great and mighty men, in his words. He speaks glowingly of his kith, especially the enterprise and acumen of his forebears who are famed for, and guided by, their philosophy of forthrightness, determination, enterprise, and loyalty.
In Olaopa’s Awe, a child is trained to cherish chivalry and truth without reservation. I remember Professor Olaopa telling of his father who worked as a Sanitary Officer, popularly known as WoleWole, in the old Western Region, and how his commitment, devotion, and transparency stood him out and brought much respect and goodwill the way of the young Olaopa even while he was in the civil service. Olaopa’s thirst for knowledge started at an early age and his fascination with the superior knowledge and systems of the Greek civilization and existentialism. Although his fervent romance with words, ideas, and philosophy earned him the sobriquet of Aristotle whilst in secondary school, one of the detours of life re-routed his journey and landed him in Political Science, where he got his first two degrees.
If one had thought that Olaopa’s journey into the public bureaucracy of the civil service was going to be the end of his romance with words and ideas, then no one could have been more wrong because the pendulum of his intellectualism oscillated in both directions. In no time, Olaopa was recalibrated, different from the average apathetic public servant, but one impenitently sold out to knowledge and mental development through aggregated scholarship. Henever saw himself as one to be sucked in by the insipid bureaucratic machinery of the Nigeria Civil Service. For him, his engagements in the civil service, including different assignments and responsibilities were extensions of his learning posts. Thus, the rabidly developed himself intellectually, and he shone excellently as a professional and an expert.
Though he joined the Nigeria civil service when the last flick of its glorious past was almost out, Olaopa carried the torch of professional and personal development, and the system rewarded him for his sterling perspicacity; a rare breed within a system that is famed for its lethargic monotony of redundancy. The fecundity of Olaopa’s thought and mindset are well captured in his inimitable and inexorable writings that produced remarkable scholarly publications and titles, as well as consistent and impacting commentaries, analysis and contributions in the Nigerian social and intellectual spaces. It will not be a fallacy to say that Olaopa has remained one of the most consistent commentators in the Nigerian public policy space in the last two decades.
Olaopa continues to be desired as one of the most in-demand conference speakers in Nigeria whose professional and scientific analysis and contributions in public policy matters are always second to none. One of the things that have stood Olaopa out amongst many others is his dogged and enviable commitment to knowledge production, acquisition, and reproduction. He serves as a mentor and model to many burgeoning minds. His life of public intellectualism has found him in comparison to public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Adebayo Adedeji, Claude Ake, Mahmood Magdani, Simeon Adebo and a host of other public intellectuals who has been able to build a bridge between intellectualism and public relevance.
One would be pardoned to think that all Olaopa understands and knows is only public policy. However, nothing can be farther from the truth and proper assessment of this cerebral mind. Olaopa is an all-round intellectual, and has written extensively on non-policy matters, engagement and subjects including but not limited to education, youth development, nation-building, education curriculum discourse, history, religion and belief systems, gender, poetry, creative art, migration, philosophy, Nollywood, and language amongst others.
A researcher par excellence whose monographs covering diverse topics, and rich with variegated language, seminal ideas and, robust and objective analysis are collectors’ items. Beyond Olaopa’s published works, he has continued to be one of the most sought after conference speakers. Right from his time in active public service and in retirement, his pen has not ceased to disseminate remarkable ideas and objective narratives that continue to enrich the public intellectual space. Olaopa’s involvement in intellectualism is different from what is common in this clime. He founded the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), a private initiative conceived and designed to deploy the twin instruments of research and executive education to deepen policy work in government, build critical and strategic competence and lead defining advocacies, all with a view to getting government to work better for development, good governance, and democracy.
The ISGPP located in Ibadan has continued to be the centre of excellence in terms of public policy interventions, ideas and necessary input into the governance space in Nigeria. The vision of the ISGPP is anchored and driven by Olaopa’s interminable commitment to scholarship, policy discourses, citizen engagement and governance in Nigeria. One would expect Olaopato to be satisfied with this dimension of his existence and achievement but Olaopa never compromises his dream nor settles for less. It is, therefore, no surprise that Olaopa, beyond attaining a doctorate degree and reaching the pinnacle of his career as a public servant, has worked assiduously as an innovative scholar-practitioner to become a Professor of Public Administration.
If it is in writing, Olaopa has published over twenty-five books and monographs, hundreds of newspaper articles and essays, rich number of articles in academic and scholarly journals and a very good number of conference papers. His choice of language, characteristic writing style and prosaic skills mark him different from most mono-knowledge scholars as he deftly maneuvers between disciplines, styles and knowledge field. That Olaopa is a voracious reader, and lover of knowledge is evident in his private collection with a library that boasts of more than 5,000 titles. He draws richly from his knowledge repertoire to give varied dimensions to his writings, thought processes, and world views. As one that leverages excellently on the network, Olaopa is a scholar who nestles with other profound minds across disciplines. Thus, Olaopa is both a student of poetry given his enchantment with Osundare, Ofeimun and Okigbo amongst others just as he is an unrepentant admirer of Falola, Alao, Ikime, and other historians while you will find him a committed crusader for the restoration of history in our education curriculum. He would flow freely with Tolu Ogunlesi, Edem Ossai, Ayisha Oshori, and Japhet Omojuwa and other young and influential figures within the Nigeria landscape.
A reading of Olaopa’s commentaries situates him as an idealist reformer who believes in reforms not just for reform’s sake but for the entrenchment of a working institution and system that will deliver premium mileage, not just to the society but equally lay a systematic foundation necessary for good governance and a better society. Speaking at a lecture in honor of late Dipo Dina in Ijebu Ode, Olaopa said “We cannot give up on Nigeria, no matter how anomic our situation is at the moment. Instead, the present state of the state should be the trigger that we need to pick up this project from where it is languishing and push it to its zenith. Nigeria is the only country we have, and we cannot afford to allow the roof to come down” At a lecture in honor of Professor Niyi Osundare, the celebrated Nigerian poet, he said “Governance everywhere is guided by a moral imperative which insists that government must work for the empowerment of its citizens. Every policy decision must be democratic in the sense that it must be taken within the moral framework which directs the positive consequences of those policies at the well-being of the people.
This is the true essence of the Gross National Happiness Index. In other words, it is only within the framework of continuous governance dynamics that produce good policies that are successfully implemented for the citizens’ welfare that we can say that a nation is indeed happy. The challenge, therefore, is to sufficiently confront Nigeria’s institutional renewal in a manner that strengthens them for infrastructural development”.
Olaopa is a firm believer in the Nigeria project especially the workability of its institutions and that is why he has committed his remote and active resources to ensure that these institutions work and yield sustainable dividends to the stakeholders in the Nigerian states – the citizenry. In realization of this, Olaopa vigorously promotes the need for institutional reforms, even from outside the bureaucratic system of government. The reformation crusade that began whilst he was in active service, has become his cardinal project, and this is invigorated by his understanding and recognition of the latent potentials of the Nigeria Civil Service, to be one of the best and a model to others in Africa, nay the world.
Olaopa’s tripod of dynamism, rich scholarly capacity, and experience are drawn from active public service engagement have continued to bear the heavy weight and frame of the visions and dreams of this enigmatic Nigerian who clocks sixty years yet is very far from putting out his fire to stoke the creative and impacting fire that one can only pray burns brighter and longer into the future, paving the way for many others and illuminating the path to a glorious tomorrow where things work and just as he said“The political and freedom latitude that was part elements of the struggle for democracy have been won. It is now the infinitely more arduous and protracted battle of creating an equitable, just, and humane society in which the promises of peaceful co-existence, human rights, and equality are progressively translated into substantive realities that must be joined and won” Olaopa’s convictions about a workable Nigeria are not premised on conjectures or wishful thought but are firmly situated in the practicability of reforms duly and fully executed to the letter. For someone that was born in 1959, the eve of Nigeria’s independence, Olaopa’s childhood memories of a Nigeria that worked, still drives his optimism in a Nigeria nation that can rise to the limits of its potentials, drawing from its abundant human and natural resources to take its enviable position as a giant in the sun.
Like the Biblical character, Caleb, who at eighty years was neither spent nor weary but asked for newer challenges, Professor Tunji Olaopa is the unrelenting intellectual, still thirsty for more knowledge, and is continually plowing the field of scholarship and is far from resting. This is the type of person that Professor Tunji Olaopa is; a man of huge frame and towering vision of reforms committed to reforming the ancient landmarks of Nigerian Nigeria’s public institutions. This remarkably cerebral Olaopa rises stealthily in the shadows like a crouching tiger ready to pounce on its prey, not with bared fangs but with the agility of one whose life has more than is seen. To Professor Adetunji Olaopa, the gentle giant who strikes the heart of the matter in different ways, I say happy birthday.
Ijimakinwa, wrote from Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan