Tunji Olaopa at 60: The man of faith sans the collar
When they pass through your streets and your highways, they demand your bodies be laid across their paths for their smooth passage. At their destinations, they request your soul so they can hump out of the car and perform their usual acrobatics without shame. In their homes, concubines’ suites and offices, they ostentatiously display ill-gotten wealth like the yahoo boy that found a human ATM card online. On top of all these deprecations of your humanity, they still insult your being by claiming to be your “most obedient servant.” They might even claim they are the “chief servant of the people”! Nigeria befuddles so much that the great Fela once said that the one that laughs in wonder is the perceptive citizen. Indeed, there is always a point where the pain of the daylight robbery no longer triggers tears.
It was the rising star philosopher at the University of Ibadan, Dr Adeshina Afolayan, who told me while walking with him in the interior of Ondo city, that if a person was shot on that street, the first instinct of our people would be to run, not just to escape from being shot but from the police accusing them of being responsible for the killing. The budding scholar did not know that I later composed a short essay later on that day from Olori d’ori e mu ati Ijoba bilisi!
In all of these daily assaults on our Nigerian humanity, some citizens still find the mouth to talk. In Nigeria, and indeed Africa, there are very few of them. Their common traits are humility, commitment and brilliance. One of them, a touchstone of public service of which any society should be proud, is Dr. Tunji Olaopa. Ask me and I shall tell you about Professor Tunji Olaopa, a relatively lonely, unarguably fortunate, and yet, apparently unfortunate public administrator with outstanding excellence. Well, he is not alone in this paradoxical complexity of the life of a few in a society where excellence is measured by a conflicting barometer. The fortunate Olaopa is the one who rose through infancy to adulthood without betraying the motions of a quintessential omoluabi. The unfortunate one is the Olaopa whose indefatigable efforts in reforming the Nigerian public service are consistently met with monstrous cogs and immeasurable leviathans. Sailing through some fulfillments in the operationality of these reforms has become the needle and camel telling-tale for him at 60. Indeed, this is a misfortune of the society in which he found himself, albeit without his choice.
Ask him in person or through his numerous publications as well as his write-ups in newspaper columns, journal articles and the likes, the veracity of this kaleidoscopic picture is not lost to him. Believe me, this has been the point of my greatest admiration of this noble man who became a public servant—not by accident—but by advertent human and superhuman designs, a trajectory that separates him from many. This admiration is not because his brilliant ideas of policies and reforms in the Nigerian public space have largely been ignored by the state, but rather, because of his ever-refreshing energetic hope in the Nigerian project at a point many of us have already lost such tenacity. Surely, I can’t be accused of gainsaying if I add at this point that Professor Olaopa exhibits the Mosaic zeal and faith in the Nigerian project.
At any rate, no one could be in doubt that to have such a load of faith I am talking about here in the Nigerian project, as this scholar-administrator does, is to be a priest without a collar. Yes, this measure of faith is scientifically proven to be the point where the supernatural meets the natural. As such, my very good friend is not a mythologist, but a realist whose passion for change in Nigeria is ever blazing. I once heard that when an Ulama talks and the heavily pregnant cloud coincidentally thunders, the Ulama is relieved that somewhere beyond the clouds, even the Supreme Being himself affirms and attests to the veridiction of his sermon! The affirmation of my epistle here is not by the sound of the pregnant cloud, but the witty remarks of Professor Olaopa himself in the first paragraph of his latest publication. The book, titled, Reforms, Governance and Development: Administrative Experiment in Reform and Reform Thinking, is, to me, an indication of the hand of God so you don’t call me an oriki chanter, who mixes reality with fantasy to impress his subject and astound his intended audience. Hear him: “Reform is and will always be a serious and significant business. It is not something that one stops talking about. And all the more so when the conditions that warrant reform are still glaringly obvious and troubling. There is no conscientious reformer who will confront the Nigerian or African predicament and remain apathetic. If such a reformer is not overwhelmed by the intractable condition, then the alternative option is to keep sounding the drum of reform, and hoping that the message would get to the ears of those who have the interest of Nigeria at heart one day.” Lobatan! What an incurable optimist he is!! It will be well if at this point, I take us through some highlights in the world of Professor Olaopa so as to have a peep into the trajectory of the man I am talking about here, at least for the few non-initiates who might want to pretend they have never heard of him. Born into the family of Pa Festus Adeyemo Olaopa and Beatrice Okebola Olaopa, at Awe, in the present-day Awe Local Government Area of Oyo state on the 20th of December, 1959, the young Olaopa went through the elementary level of Western education to be admitted to the prestigious University of Ibadan, the first and the best, to study Political Science and Political theory; first at the undergraduate level and later at the postgraduate level. Despite the comfort his career in the public service heralded him, his increasing thirst for more knowledge acquisition and the zeal of making more strides in the public service led him to pursue his doctorate degree at the Commonwealth Open University, in 2006, where he dealt with what he described as a “under-capacity utilization” problem in the Nigerian public institutions and service.
Before this time, he had already served at different positions in the highest echelon of the Nigerian Civil Service at the federal level. In fact, his first appointment with the Federal Government of Nigeria was as a Chief Research Officer in the office of the President of Nigeria, where he doubled as Policy Analyst and Speech Writer in the same office. This was in 1988, some years after his postgraduate studies at the University of Ibadan.
At various times after, he served as the Coordinator, Education Sector Analysis, and Head, Policy Division, Office of the Minister Federal Ministry of Education; Deputy Director/Head, Technical Secretariat, Reform Strategy Team, Management Services Office and many more. Time and space do not permit me to recite his impressive CV here.
From the massive wealth of his experience and exposure which he has brought to bear on his scholarship, Olaopa’s message in all of his publications and public engagements can safely be summed under the central idea that: No state can ever attain meaningful development without an efficient and pragmatic civil service; an essential component which Nigeria and other African countries are largely lacking, hence their retarded progress.
Therefore, to attain a reasonable height in the comity of nations, Olaopa concludes, we can’t afford to stop talking about reform in Nigeria’s public service and its space. This idea he framed under the cubit of “cultural adjustment chain.” So, after his retirement from the Civil Service as a permanent secretary in 2015, he went on to establish the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy in 2016 where he hopes to continue his public reform advocacy, policy critique and awareness through training, conferences, seminars and other forms of intellectual gatherings. The organization, which brings together the very best in various relevant fields to its vision and goals, focuses on issues of governance, public administration, public policy, and other critical issues that are needful for the development of the country.
This stellar record is too conspicuous to be ignored. So, in 2012 he won the Dr. Kwame Nkrumah African Distinguished Public Service Order of Merit Award, which was followed by the Senior Fellowship of the Nigerian Leadership Initiative (NLI) Yale University Fellowship in 2015. In the same year, he was conferred with the honor of the National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) Award by the present administration, while the Lead City University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) in Public Administration in the same year. In 2016, he was given the Award of Excellence of the Nigerian Institute of Physics and the Nigerian Historical Society Fellow, while at the time he became a fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of Nigeria. The University of Texas at Austin, during its conference held at the University of Texas in 2018, recognized him with the conferment of the Thabo Mbeki Award for Public Service and Scholarship.
Celebrating their illustrious alumni, the University of Ibadan on the occasion of its 70th Anniversary honored him with prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. All these are in addition to other numerous honors bestowed on this honorable man in his humble lifetime. I need to sing, as the celebration of a birthday is incomplete without a song. I, Isola, Omo ‘Badan on loan to the world, sing for free! The Awe people of Oyo State are praised in Yoruba panegyric as a people who eat dead chickens. We all eat dead chickens, but while the rest of us at least slaughter ours before we eat them, the Awe ask death to first of all kill theirs and make them rotten by the road side. That way, the Awe can avoid the criminality of committing murder. Perhaps, that habit explains why Olaopa is full of wisdom and size!
There is more to the praise poetry of the Awe, known only to a few, tracking their ancestors, their past history, their heroes, their character of war and courage:
Aáwẹ́ ọmọ Ọyatolu
Aáwẹ́ ọmọ Ọ̀ladokun
Aáwé ọmọ Oláwóore
Aáwẹ́ Erelu, ìlú àwọn akọni
Aawẹ, ọmọ olódò Sògídí
Táìífẹja rẹ̀ šebẹ̀ kó jinná
Táìfẹja rẹ̀ ṣebẹ̀ kò jújẹ
Sògídí olómi àmuyè
Sògídí olómi rere
Àwọn ẹnì tí kò gbọ̀n
Àwọn ẹnì tí kò mọ̀ràn
Wọn bú Aáwẹ́ lájòkúdìẹ
Ṣáwọn rénìyàn tí ń jẹ tiè láàyè?
Aáwẹ́ lọmọ ajòkúdìẹ, afààyèṣọrọ̀.
The Awe were part of an empire under the hegemony of the Alaafin, and directly sharing in the glory of Oyo and the flamboyant words that define power and its privileges. Yes, I, Isola can sing it, to make the head of Tunji swells bigger than what it is, to restore the fractured memory of his past, to rekindle the history of a glorious past. Follow me:
Ọ̀yọ́ Aláàfin òjò pa ṣẹ̀kẹ̀rẹ̀ ọmọ Atìbà
Ọ̀yọ́ ló ni kárìn ká sánpá
Ọ̀yọ́ ló ni ká gbẹ́sẹ̀ kó yẹ̀ẹ̀yàn
Tí tiiri méje là á kí ọba yín aládé
Ilá tiiri, ilá kó
Ìkàn tiiri wẹ̀wù ẹ̀jẹ̀
Ìkóǹkòṣó tiiri peku
Ìwọ̀ tiiri pẹja
Òkè tiiri má wò ó
Ọkàbàbà tiiri wọ olóko lójú
Bọ́mọ kéékèèké ilé bá máa bá àgbà jẹun tí tiiri ni wọ́n ń tiiri
Ọ̀ro ni mo yàn, ń ò ní yan ikú
Ọ̀rọ̀ ni mo yàn, ń ò yàn ọ̀ràn
Ọ̀rànmíyàn yẹ̀ wẹ̀rẹ̀ ó foyè sílẹ̀ lọ́jọ́sí, orúkọ ló mú lọ, kò mú Aláàfin Ọba lọ
Ó tún dáyé Odúnewu, torí ayé Odúnewu ni Ọ̀yọ́ ilé tú
Ayé Olúkúewu ni Ọ̀yọ́ tún gbésẹ̀
Atìbà lo gbé ọba de Ọ̀yọ́ o jàre
Babaláwo ló dífá lọ́jọ́sí pé ibi ile gbé yọ̀ lààyè wọn
Both at Awe and Oyo, we repeat the words, as in fractals on their women’s head, to create a wholeness:
Ọ̀ro lo yàn, ò ní yan ikú
Ọ̀rọ̀ lo yàn, ò yàn ọ̀ràn
You chose words, not death
You chose wisdom, not trouble
I shall have to stop here. Permit me to. I have more in my mouth and even a lot more about him in my big belly, not as big as Olaopa’s, but time will not permit me to write everything I know about this public servant who exemplifies the very best of public service. But as I’m forced to hang my inkpot at this point, today, I join hundreds of others to celebrate this man whose intellectual stature and administrative sagacity make him one of the brightest stars in the African firmament. Happy birthday, Tunji Olaopa, may the faith and hope that push you to keep advocating for the country be realized in your lifetime. And if not, even the Heaven needs its reformers where you and my best friend in the world, Bishop Hassan Kukah, can send angels to Nigeria to plead with the politicians to do please have mercy on us!
• Falola is a professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.