By Tunji Olaopa
This contribution is a combination of post-2023 development prospecting, experience sharing, and policy advocacy. In recent times I have been reflecting a lot on the àbíkú phenomenon in Yoruba thought. And specifically, how that metaphysical phenomenon could help make sense of the long shot at greatness that the Nigerian state has been missing since it was born. The àbíkú myth narrates the pain and trauma associated with a child who dies at birth and persistently returns multiple times to the same mother to be born again in a process of renewed agony. Since the spirit of the àbíkú never really plans to stay alive, it keeps coming back to shatter the aspiration of a fulfilled marriage. Once an àbíkú is born, the joy of birth and the hope that comes from seeing that child grow are extinguished after a short time. And the die is always cast, regardless of the effort of the parents. Wole Soyinka poetically recalled the haunting pain inflicted by the àbíkú: Your bracelets melt in vain; Enchanted circles at my feet; I am Àbíkú, calling the first; and the repeated time
I can easily relate the mocking tone of the àbíkú in this poem to the ways in which the Nigerian state has defied all possible remedies to alleviate its governance and development problems. The àbíkú phenomenon becomes for me a metaphor for elusiveness, the deferred possibility that has accompanied Nigeria’s historical trajectory since independence. The question is why, as an àbíkú, the greatness that lies embedded in Nigeria’s nationhood mandate has been perpetually delayed?
I find it easy to relate to the traumatic pain of the parents of the àbíkú child. As an institutional reformer, I have witnessed for far too long how fervent optimism around reform ideas, paradigms and blueprints has been undermined by various factors and variables that we now call the “Nigerian factor”. Reform is first a personal effort: the reformer is psychologically involved in the reform effort because he invests hope and optimism in ways that draw him into the process. And successes or failures affect his continued adherence to reform. It seems axiomatic to say that when there is life, there is hope. However, when hope continues to be deferred, especially in the protracted expectation that Nigeria will concede to governance reforms that will transform its institutions and the lives of its citizens, then hope seems to lose its ability to inspire new action.
This is a personal trauma for me, having been involved in the business of reform on behalf of the Nigerian state for most of my adult life. And it feels similar to manipulating an àbíkú child. And already I am gripped by the premonition of another dashed hope regarding the next elections in 2023, and the prospect of another political dispensation for Nigeria beyond 2023. I, and so many others of my generation, have come a long way since those days. heady with potentialities, highlighted by Nigerian nationalists and intellectuals. I am referring, for example, to the emergence of the discourse around the very idea of Nigeria. From Chief Obafemi Awolowo to Professor Billy Dudley, there was that patriotic concern to unravel the possibility of the Nigerian nation going beyond being just a mere geographic expression. It was also in the context of my intellectual maturation when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe contributed to the great prospecting of the future of Nigeria with his idea of diarchy which seeks to accommodate in the political sociology of the Nigerian state the rise of a military government after the 1966 coup.
When Chief Obafemi Awolowo began his review of the final days of the miracle of governance in the Southwest in 1979, my reform lesson was taking on another dimension under the joint tutelage of the late Professors Ojetunji Aboyade and Akinlawon Mabogunje. Both intellectuals explored their patriotic commitment to the development of the Nigerian state through an exploration of rural development through their Optimum Community (OPTICOM) concept. This concept pushes the boundary of social capital and subsidiarity as a basis for unraveling people-centred and bottom-up grassroots development as a basis for animating Nigerian federalism. This would have served as the conceptual basis for Awolowo’s development plan if he had become president of the second republic. He did not become president. That reform paradigm will be implemented, in part, with limited success as policy initiatives by different administrations. But that historical accident did not stop me from incorporating that thesis into my doctoral research in the late 1980s, and the search for OP-ED levers of strategic development communication that ultimately led me to the management of IBB and its development policies through of MAMSER, DFRRI, the community banking project that saw the birth of Banco Popular, and the primary health care project. The IBB Political Bureau was a framework for ideological reflection that resonated with my understanding of emerging road reform for Nigeria.
So I was juggling my embryonic reform frameworks with lots, lots of ideological reading in my political science and theory class at the University of Ibadan. Ideological discourses were shaped by colonialism, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism, with plenty of exciting volumes to read, from Walter Rodney to dependency theory in our attempt to understand Africa’s place in the international political economy. Marxism was a fixture in those days, while Nigerian intellectuals, from Ola Oni to Bade Onimode to Peter Ekeh, and from Billy Dudley to Claude Ake to Bala Usman provided the academic framework within which we could reflect on the possibility of revolutionary transformation. that could propel the Nigerian state into a truly developmental dynamic within which, for example, a civic public could emerge out of the primal allegiance of the ethnic nationalities that make up amalgamated Nigeria.
And this is how my governance and institutional reform were shaped within the combination of theoretical political reflection and political professionalism that informed my experience in implementation research. And this was what I deployed as the fundamental reform competition that took me from the political architecture of one administration to another, in an attempt to cobble together a strong government and institutional framework that could transform Nigeria into a democratic and developmental state. Success was far from assured due to several serious negative binding constraints, the most fundamental of which is the lack of political will to see implementation through to its logical conclusion. Since 1999 and before my eventual retirement, providence placed me in a series of important positions, starting with the education sector as a starting point, and through the Office of Management Services and culminating in the preparation of the document of fundamental reform, the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR). I eventually became permanent secretary and started the campaign for national productivity as the culmination of all governance and institutional reform processes that transform the public service into a functioning, efficient and functionally optimal machinery for democratic service delivery. When he retired in 2015, I changed course and established the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) to continue the work of promoting reform.
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My reform efforts over the years have focused on two interrelated themes. The first is the emergence of transformational leadership that is capable of creating a space for change that not only harnesses the skills and competencies of a select set of game changers, but also the foresight to create the vision and strategy that leads the civil service to through VUCA, a vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment, in a synchronized mode for optimal productivity. The second theme is that of a cultural adjustment program that calls for a reorientation of values that leads citizens to significant changes in behavior and attitude that connect everyone with leadership on the need to transform the Nigerian state. This carries the fundamental message that institutional reform depends on the dynamics of the reorientation of values. In other words, widespread vices between the leadership and the population, which coalesce into political and bureaucratic corruption, will constantly undermine the transformative power of the reforms.
Cultural adjustment requires that we place religious and ethnic affiliations in their proper place that does not displace due respect for institutional integrity. For example, we cannot always put God as the focal point of our individual and collective lack of responsibility. With leadership in the land setting an example through their lifestyles and those of their family members, as well as what they value, demands that unproductive investment in owambe parties be redirected into cooperative efforts to create jobs and self-help. This tempers our collective belief that it is only the government, federal, state and local, that we should always look up to for relief from our socio-economic problems. Consumptive malaise, at the expense of a productive economy, must be dispensed with to facilitate a growing, industrialized economic base. Here, vocational and non-vocational education must take its place at the center of government budget investment, while the emphasis on R&D as a driver of innovation and global competitiveness is not minimized.
Both the government and the governed are implicated in both the successes and failures of the reform exercises. And as we continue to focus on the election year just around the corner, I have reached a familiar point of anxiety: will Nigerians do the right thing by critically and vigilantly electing an administration that they will then oversee and pressure to be reformed for the sake of good? governance? The reformer in me is very apprehensive due to experiential variables. And yet, the incurable optimist in me also holds out the eternal hope that Nigeria will finally get it right. This àbíkú child could still stay this time.
.Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and a professor at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies.
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.
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