Herohood and the Nigerian Project


Odia Ofeimun

Iwas thrilled to be invited by the author, Tunji Olaopa, to write a Foreword to this book. Let me be quick to add that I was trapped by the surprise of discovering that the Nigerian Civil Service, so egregiously demoted to a rather ‘dysfunctional trench’ in Nigeria’s struggle for development, has produced a major writer, a truly sagacious intellectual of the public sphere, who happens to be intent on correcting the ills of the system.

Among his earlier books, I had found four – The Nigerian Civil Service of the Future; Public Administration and Civil service Reforms in Nigeria; Managing Complex Reforms; and Innovation & Best Practices in Public Sector Reforms – Ideas, Strategies and Conditions – among the most thoughtful, hard-headedly ambitious and admirable engagements with the public sector in our times.

His best-advertised book, A Prophet is with Honour – The Life and times of Ojetunji Aboyade, belongs to a very special class. It takes off from being a biography of the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University, an old teacher of mine at the University of Ibadan, and a much-tested economic adviser to successive Federal Governments in the seventies into the 90s. But it is more than being a mere biography. It is a painstaking exposition of the travails of managing change in a society quite desperately in need of prime movers.

The desperation, as a virtual fabric of the whole society, is clearly the reason that the author is ready to grant the outstanding performers in our midst, the feat-makers, so to say, the status of culture heroes. Otherwise, truly evident and uplifting, across Olaopa’s many books, is that he has turned his own admiration and worship of our heroes past into a means of personal, communal and national pursuit of organizational effectiveness. In an environment so much in need of seminal and constructive orientations, he has, I would argue, done enough to be placed among the heroes that he has been so keen to showcase and celebrate within a paradigm shift in the workaday study of leadership in our part of the world.

I may well note that, over several seasons, I had been quite fascinated by Tunji Olaopa’s articles in the newspapers which have yielded the chapters in this book. As an irredeemable partisan on the side of the Nigerian project, I had taken each of the entries, path-breaking work in every sense, in the spirit of an almost occult pursuit of Nigeria The Beautiful. That is, even before they could be added up, each of them formed quite a respectable bid to alter the staple attitude to leadership, general social creativity, and the need to reconstruct our society.

The good deal is that the author has made a shift, easy to appreciate, away from the patterns of the early literature on post-independence Africa. The bulk of that literature gave unbounded space to the discussion of leadership by focussing mainly on so-called charismatic leaders who were the celebrated heroes of the struggle for independence. The leaders were ritually lionized for taking their people to the promised land athwart poverty ignorance and disease. Their tenures were presumed to enjoy a freely given devotion by followers, empowering them to make innovations, through hard choices, and to draw more conservative elements in the society into a new sense of citizenship and public address.

The qualities of individual leaders were assumed to be so refreshingly sanguine that, even if based on reaching for what Ali Mazrui described as a royal historical identity, they tended to be motivated in directions that would help to build modern institutions through the routinization of the leader’s charisma, in Max Weber’s sense of the term.

Unfortunately, the expected eventualities, never quite materialized. Many of the leaders were adept at manufacturing their supposed charisma, outside a freely-given devotion. They created a format of leadership around themselves which encouraged echeloned social features that led to graft, patrimonialism, and cronyism. Especially in the ultra-glorified days of the one-party chieftains – the days of the founding fathers that led to regimes of force and graft in the age of the militariat – African leadership fell from the grace once credited to it. Nation-building, as a result, was wrong-footed.

It soon began to be haggled that something was fundamentally wrong with African leadership, if not with the African. The problem with Nigeria, as Chinua Achebe famously put it, is the failure of leadership. This became a shorthand way of precluding the discussion of core values that could determine and shape how potential leaders navigate the social givens of their generation. It prefigured much discomfiture, but no real escape from the social political and economic issues that overlaid the inordinate search for messianic and charismatic leaders.

The paradox is that the overconcentration on the charismatic leaders at the top of the political pyramid not only displaced concern for other decision-makers in society, but led to a rampant disavowal of their heroic qualities once they began to tumble from power, accused of corruption, tyrannical rule, and sundry malfeasance. The general disappointment it caused may be seen as justification for the position taken by Professor Claude Ake in his Foreword to A Prophet is with Honour, to the effect that “The country has no heroes, acknowledges none, and it devalues and derails those who could be”. Ake took an even more hardline position when he added that “The project of nation-building and development which Nigerians espouse is a journey without maps, undertaken in moral anarchy towards an uncertain destination”. This position happens to be so easy to slip into when the high rating of Nigeria’s potentialities in the scheme of development is set against the roundly distressing performance of successive administrations. It has led to a loss of faith in the possibility of transcendence and produced unyielding pessimism that makes a reversal of Ake’s verdict quite an uphill task.

All the same, this book, quintessentially, is braced for a reversal of the verdict; and to bring grand visibility and acceptance to those whom the author considers deserving of acknowledgement as heroes. By memorializing their feats , up-raising the heroic status of people like Claude Ake himself, and deploying the values and standards that he and others have upheld in sector after sector, a corrective is emplaced against the rudderless, morally anarchic devaluation of outstanding performers.

Thus, a categorical shift from the old focus on charismatic political leaders takes place which grants leadership as a factor across other vocations and walks of life, and helps to set out a social narrative whose parameters are broader, more catholic, more universalistic. Quite heartily, it engages a Pan Nigerian landscape in which religious and political leaders, academics and intellectuals, entrepreneurs, philosophers, physicians, scientists and creative writers, actors and filmmakers, musicians and community leaders, are placed in the same force-field, as heroes. Politics is not thereby downgraded or degraded but visualized, in context, as one of the theatres in which leadership may manifest within a contingent network of outstanding performers .

In effect, this book is laid out as a commingling of legendary entrepreneurs like Dantata, da Rocha, Ojukwu the elder, Dangote, Omolayole and an Onosode with maverick social consciences and educationist like atheistic Tai Solarin and lawyer-activist, human rights crusader Gani Fawehinmi, Pentecostal pastors like Enoch Adejare Adeboye, and Oyedepo, all in the same feast of herohood with Bishop Hassan Mathew Kukah, a catholic priest pursuing an ecumenical programme of dialogue between diverse creeds, on the same counterpane with Wande Abimbola, a virtual Babalawo, who is toasted for removing the libel and rudeness of the bad sciences that once consigned traditional religion, and specifically Yoruba Ifa divination system, to a zone of fetish, if not barbarism.

By the same token, we are enabled to deepen acquaintance with great minds like Professor B.J. Dudley, one of Africa’s most rigorous political scientists; and Professor Ayodele Awojobi, a professor of mechanical engineering with specialization in vibrations, an inventor, social critic and futuristic thinker; and the savvy economist, Pius Okigbo; the mathmatician, politician and folk hero, Chike Obi; and scholar and gender activist, Bolanle Awe, writers and artists Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, D. O. Fagunwa, Hubert Ogunde and the much younger Chimamanda Adichie – all of whose achievements may be consensually upheld as building blocks for the ultimate national edifice.

Among physicians, Adeoye Lambo, Oritshejolomi Thomas, Umaru Shehu and Oladipo Akinkugbe are duly celebrated as are the great denizens of the Ibadan School of History for incomparable practice and research. The consequence is that the country is presented or delivered not as a place of discordance or anarchy but a site of vibrant, earthy conversations, absorbing diverse forms of creativity and worldviews within a shared knowledge industry. Squarely, by canvassing a common sense of values across disciplines, careers and vocations, the perfectly correct verdict bodies out: that this is not a land without heroes. A recourse to heroes of other lands, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, and the scholar, intellectual, Ali Mazrui is made virtually as a form of authentication of values and extension of rationale for this book .

Still, many may question the grounds for embossing one or the other with heroic qualities. Or, wonder why in spite of the outstanding qualities of the many successful people on display, Nigeria may still be described as a failed state and country. As a civil servant, well seasoned, Olaopa exercises admirable gumption in letting objectivity and balance foreclose partisan accounting as to who is, or is not a hero or heroine. Getting the unacknowledged to be better known is turned into a means of advancing the national project itself.

Across a broad canvass, over fertile swathes of national life, the inventiveness of those chosen for celebration cuts a representative grain across various fields whose cumulative impact is what, arguably, makes Nigeria truly a country of great promise. Besides, the author does not merely romanticize the qualities of the individuals but relates them to the concrete project of nation-building: a case of priming the feat- makers in every sector and at every crossroad by celebrating their contributions to a living project. The strength of the eventual narrative lies in the power packed into drawing a correlation between the high quality of individual persons, and the features necessary for keeping the National Project as an ineffable reality.

Insistently, the project is visualized as a factor of national integration, bringing the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious groups closer to coalescence. What was once described as a mere geographical expression is presented, quite correctly, in my view, as a cultural expression, formalized in terms of an agenda of trust between different geo-cultural groups and social classes whose origins lie as much in modern socio-economic interactions as in the fixtures of old feudal and slave-hunting societies overtaken by common citizenship. The point is that, in spite of differences, a united nation, a common community, with a common morality is made obvious. The gravest threat to such a society lies, proverbially, in the tendency to segment and apply disproportionate standards to different groups and nationalities as in situations where, for instance, writers like Achebe and Soyinka are celebrated but by deploying over-subjective, non-literary and subtle ethnic criteria in assessment of their work and progress.

This is the lacuna so well pictured by the political sociologist, Peter Ekeh, one of the heroes celebrated in this book, who has viewed with some consternation the tendency for the primordial, ethnic, realm to overcome the civic public and corner loyalty away from modernization and development. The salutary part is that the consequent practice of a benign morality for self and a pernicious one for others is so often contested, if not defeated, by the heroes in our midst who as agents of change continue to advance the cause of merit and hard-work as guides to recruitment of leaders and choice of policy directions.

One of the triumphs of the LABOUR OF OUR HEROES PAST, in this regard, is that it identifies with the activism of groups of irrepressible defenders of popular causes, entrepreneurs in their own right, who do not give up and have thus helped to ward off negative depictions of the national project. Although, ill-cultured groups of regime enforcers may succeed now and then in determining who gets what when and how without meeting the standards of democratic governance, the point is that they are antonyms to the heroes in our midst who question and speak truth to power, in writing, music, life-style and the sheer refusal to be cowed by authority or adverse circumstances.

To their credit is the creation of a basis for popular welfare, as a form of generational capital, across regional, ethnic and religious divides. Nothing in this regard may be accounted as shoring up the National Project better than their pursuit of mass education and other welfare and civic programmes which advance commonalities in terms of social economic and cultural rights, mounted at every turn on a relentless promotion and defence of the knowledge industry.
I must concede, in this respect, that the successes so far attained in forty six years of colonized existence and five decades of independence, appear poorly acknowledged only because of the tendency for disaster reporting to overtake reality with inordinate, pessimistic speculations. Nor should one feel so intimidated by such reportage as not to be able to see the gravity of commonalities and even coalescence across over-advertised diversity. What cannot be fairly denied is that successes so far achieved have enlarged the room for artifice, and for redesign and restructuring, towards achieving harmonious relationships between diverse segments of the population.

So to say, the advances made have helped to set a homely, deep-rooted foundation upon which stands a country, whose undeniable ethnic, ideological and religious differences, are being turned from disabilities into assets as witnessed by sensational manifestations in music, literature , the arts in general. The distance so far travelled, irrespective of or even due to, the shenanigans of militants and religious bigots perpetrating a propaganda of arms, clearly posit a heightening of the art of learning to live together without hurting one another.

It is a great good, in this connection, that the labour of our heroes past is not one of those romantic nationalistic discourses or undertakings seeking to ignore, forget or simply disavow differences that exist in order to assert national wellbeing. It comes in the spirit of Ahmadu Bello’s quip that we need to understand rather than forget our differences, and without devaluing Nnamdi Azikiwe’s wish for untrammelled nationalism or Obafemi Awolowo’s insistence that no ethnic nationality and no citizen ought ever to be placed in subjection to another.

The effect is to offer a basis for seeing well-appreciated differences and shared commonalities as sources of strength requiring only the enhancement of the capacity to manage relationships. This underlies the strong sense of community and development that runs through this book especially in relation to religious mobilization, cooperative movements and the camaraderie of academic forays into local politics and development planning.

Quite fortuitous, in this regard, is that the author comes from and identifies with a hometown, Aawe, a community lucky to have had High Academy practitioners like the economist, Ojetunji Aboyade and the world-class geographer, Akin Mabogunje who conjointly helped to craft a programme of community development, with the acronym,OPTICOM, for optimum community. A national political party, the Unity Party of Nigeria, adopted it as part of its plank in the Second Republic. Assuredly, I can attest to it as Private Political Secretary to the Party leader that the Party adopted the OPTICOM concept within its integrated rural development optic, not as a mere figment of the Nigerian Project but its mainstay. The aim was for every community to have a self-motivating force, as a production unit, linked to others in a national grid that enhances cooperation rather than self-immolating and fratricidal competitions. The party leader, Obafemi Awolowo, quite an exemplar of how Nigeria has tended to traduce real heroies in our midst, happens to be one of the truly great political thinkers across generations in Nigerian politics.

One of three founding fathers, he is grandly representative of the moral and, more or less, disciplined helmsmanship of his generation. In his lifetime, he was most successful in transforming personal values into public platforms and in a way that made him the closest that Nigeria has come to having a saint as a politician. No exaggeration in this although it challenged opponents to seek to prove him wrong rather than standing to outclass his prowess.

None the less, as Premier of the Western Region in the colonial era, a leader of opposition in the first independence parliament and a treasonable felony graduate after independence, Awolowo’s hero-hood, although complicated by a mis-reading of his advocacy of a Federal system based on a forthright recognition of ethnic nationalities, was unparalleled. Nigeria’s foremost economic manager in peace and war, he was given no befitting or due acknowledgement until his image appeared on the One Hundred Naira currency note. His legacy as a constitution-maker has triumphed however over the antics of those who ritually sought to limit him to being a mere regional or ethnic champion. His books, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution and The People’s Republic, written mostly in prison , have been adopted although without due acknowledgement as the very spine of the 1979 Constitution.

His insistent proposition of grand social welfare programmes like free education, free primary health care and full employment across all Nigeria’s regions, have proved it that, apart from being a great manager of men and materials, he had a deep understanding of what it takes to unite a country rived by differences. It is all quite evident in the fact that, seeking to make the programmes justiciable has remained at the centre of the struggle to entrench the Fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy in Nigeria’s Constitutions . Incidentally, the programmes were still bones of contention in the virtual scuffle between President Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly in the transition to a new Government in 2015.

At the risk of overstatement, it may be noted that the idea of fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policies has been a prescription for a Nigerian child from any part of the Federation to to be granted commodious welfare in every part of the Federation. This chimes with Awolowo’s proposals for Presidents, Governors and Local government Chairmen to be voted for by the whole constituency over which they wish to exercise authority. A geographical spread of support as an indicator of acceptability has since been written into the Nigerian constitution as a very firm plank of this advocacy. Across geo-ethnic and religious divides, it is a sure-fire pitch for a Pan Nigerian order that, any day, will put regionally and ethnically distanced groups within the same system of welfare. What counts, from the standpoint of celebrating Awolowo’s hero-hood is that, his advocacies are virtual emanations from personal attributes of honesty and integrity.

For that matter, he was, sensationally, an unreconstructed and rigorous observer of his marriage vows who paid his tithes and taxes to church and state with phenomenal diligence. As a Premier or Minister he lived, not in government quarters, but in his own self-built or self-rented house. He sent his children to the same local free education schools that he designed for the Western region. He gave scholarships to children of his domestic work force who also enjoyed housing grants and, on retirement, pensions that never petered out, after his own demise.

He could brag, throughout his life, from quadrupling the minimum wage to creating free education and free health programmes, that he never made a promise in his public career that he never fulfilled. A wealth of ethical values issue from his life-long advocacies that must be said, without fear of contradiction, to have provided the basis for the faith that many have in the Nigerian Project. His book, Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria was written to attest to the vitality and viability of the project.

It is therefore not surprising that in LABOUR OF OUR HEROES PAST, a book dedicated to the prosecution of the Nigerian project, there is a strong commitment to strengthening the structures of collective performance across the country as it was actualized in Awolowo’s Western Region. Tunji Olaopa’s concern for organizational effectiveness comes out quite fervent, in the chapters that cover the great civil servants Jerome Udoji, Akilu, Sule Katagun, Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, and of course, Simeon Adebo who is toasted as ‘father’ of the Nigerian civil service. The concern makes it plain that nation building is not about one big act of political gamesmanship but everyday choices in streams of decisions that different people make and out of which a strategy emerges that shapes the past into present and future.

Hence the necessity to pay serious attention to the means of achieving collective goals rather than relying on slap-dashedly structured organizational formats, or bureaucracies . Or, how maintain a nation in good order and accountable governance where the builders are indeterminately reliant on chance and the supposed magic of out-sourcing; not to mention the antics of development fashionistas who, these days, advise third world countries in economic jam to stop planning and to hand over control of their economies to market forces that are ritually controlled by identifiable groups of monopolists and monopsonists in the international marketplace.

Surely, as no serious country watches her affairs so easily ceded to ill-cultured forces of the market without exercising control, the rigour of training in competence, accountability and genuine goal-orientation such as marked the patriarchs of the golden age of the Nigerian civil service is roundly covetted. When shall Nigerians ever be able to stand again with the Premier who once boasted that : ‘our civil service is exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum,and utterly devoted and unstinting in the discharge of its many onerous duties’
This question advises the need for the countries pulverized by the era of no-holds-barred undertaker economics , to learn to master their own fate .

Essentially, it is about getting multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to desist from pursuing the virtual removal of spine from affected countries. Anyone who can recall that the Lagos Plan of Action was peremptorily abandoned by Nigeria, its custodian, and has watched the New Partnership for African Development NEPAD, set down protocols that make it more critical for African countries to relate through multi-lateral institutions than directly between themselves, must know what it means for a country to strive to be for itself by promoting and adjusting to her heroes. Olaopa’s prescient position on the Nigerian Project aligns him, in this connection, with heroes who laid the basis for endogenous theory-making and policy designs that once animated the struggle for political and economic independence.

The pity, and part of the crisis of development in Nigeria is the centrality to governance of people who, never enthusiastic about social transformation, become its unseasoned drivers. If this does not explain the grand failure that has dogged attempts at development in the country, it suggests why there is need for a new hermeneutics, such as this book provides, to show people on the corridors of power, and beyond, that investments in human capital development is part of what it takes to develop not only the consumers but the producers of the very goods and services that industrialization and the development of agriculture make possible.

Essentially, the great value of this book is that by celebrating outstanding performers, the feat-makers, it upholds the resilience of those unspoken factors that, even if unacknowledged, prevent looming disaster , no matter how close, from happening. This is not to make a song and dance of calamity physics avoided. It is a counsel against downgrading the creativity of individuals, the capacity builders of the National Project. It makes this book, written in a language that is serious, accessible and roundly programmatic, a book for anyone who is not afraid to think outside the box. It is also for those within the box who must know that heroes are, in every walk of life, to be cherished, as a way of meeting and maintaining standards and the common morality that a country needs in order to hold together for the crafting, pursuit and realization of goals.