Tunji Olaopa

The idea that gave birth to the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) springs from the very obvious fact that government, our government in Nigeria, is not working well, especially at that optimal level that would make it sufficiently democratic to concretely affect the lives of Nigerians. The ISGPP has therefore taken on the mission to harness all available elements—intellectual, professional, practical—within a framework of executive education, research and training to mobilise and motivate government to face up to its democratic responsibility. ISGPP came into existence, in other words, to stimulate a robust interrogation of Nigeria’s governance space in a manner that facilitate active and meaningful participation under a humane regulatory framework that conduces to a democratic service delivery of goods and services to Nigerians.

Democracy and development are the two concepts that stand central to the understanding of how governments all over the world facilitate the betterment of the lives of their citizens. But these are two concepts that we all need to deliberately unpack properly so that we can make it do what we require in Nigeria. One way to do this unpacking is to see how democracy can empower Nigerians. This is crucial because that is what all citizens all over the world demand from democratic governments. Nigerians do not demand less. Democracy, in other words, must be tied to our experience in order to make that experience more edifying in a way that makes us better and facilitate social harmony and progress. However, there is a dimension of our collective experience that poses one of the greatest dangers to the consolidation of democracy and the harnessing of our development potentials. This is the steady weakening of the reading culture in Nigeria.

By reading culture, of course it is normal to reflect first on the tragedy of basic literacy in Nigeria. According to recent statistics by the National Bureau of Statistics, illiteracy level stands at 56.9%. This means that close to 70% of Nigerians are illiterates, compared to a 20% illiteracy level on the globe. This is a frightening figure considering that Nigeria’s democratic experiment requires an enlightened and perceptive citizenry which cannot continually be subjected to the vagaries of demagogues. But the reading culture goes beyond basic literacy level of the average Nigerians. We are referring to an educational tradition that awards certificate and deny depth of understanding.

Most of us, at one time or the other, have been frustrated by the apparent lack of a deep reading culture that could facilitate a fundamental insight into our collective predicament. What frustrates most of us is that the pervasive shallowness not only breeds a rabid anti-intellectualism which passionately only embrace those mundane things that conduces to the satisfaction of base appetite, and reduces critical issues of democracy and development to their unflattering orthodox interpretation that fails to show a sophisticated understanding of their dynamics. There is no one in this auditorium who has not heard the stereotypical statement that Africans do not read. While that statement is as false as all generalised statements can be, the small iota of truth it contains reflects badly in the way our educational and learning capacity has decreased in Nigeria.

Thus, if, according to Dewey, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” it is very easy to relate a substantial part of that education to a reading culture that constantly refreshes the mind and experience of those involved in it. Is it not the case to say that any society which manifests a dismal reading culture like ours may find it difficult to entrench a democratic dynamics grounded on the active collaboration of the universities, the media, the civil society, and other critical aspects of the society? And if this collaboration fails, how then can we deploy the benefits of democratic governance to the transformation of Nigeria’s governance space and policy dynamics? These are fundamental queries arising from the decreasing lack of a viable reading culture in Nigeria.

For one, the policy architecture of Nigeria stands to benefit a lot from an actively reading population that possesses the capacity to confront government policies and proffer critiques and alternatives. In other words, democratic governance and a vigorous reading culture are inseparable. Democracy requires a citizenry which can appreciate what democracy involves while unravelling its complex values and processes. It is in this context that Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist, counsels us: “Read in order to live.” This is wise counsel because reading generates scepticism and insights, appreciation and reservation. Reading is a form of an unending inquiry that points at itself and to other issues. For Umberto Eco, a good book contains certain signs that not only points at other signs but also signifies things, issues, ideas and predicaments.

It is the desire of the ISGPP to intervene in this gloomy statistics through the initiative of the Book Readers Club. This is a dimension of the School’s outreach programme meant to actively engage Nigerians in the discourse and exchange of ideas on the Nigerian project. The ISGPP Book Reading Club is meant to critically bridge this gap by providing a vibrant platform for critical interaction and discourse among crucial members of the Nigerian public on various issues that have some serious bearing on the Nigerian condition.

The long term essence of the exercise is to bring together a critical mass of Nigerians into a constant deliberation with those who have some form of ideas, framework, paradigms that ought to be interrogated and distilled into the policy architecture of the Nigerian state. Those we have gathered here today, and many more who will join them, falls into Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fourth category of readers, those he calls mogul diamonds: rare and valuable readers “who profit by what they read, and reflecting, refracting, and enlarging upon it enable others to profit by it also.” Nigeria needs this kind of high calibre readers, and ISGPP has gathered them, in order to raise the bar of public discourse on anything that concerns the development of Nigeria and her relations to the rest of Africa.

Let me deservedly appreciate all of you who have decided to add your honourable stature to the ISGPP’s quest for a better Nigeria. Many of you are not newcomers to the urgency of the need to make Nigeria work.
You have been at the forefront of these and many other national struggles in different respects. The hope reposed in you all is that you have been involved with Nigeria long enough to understand her challenges and predicament, and you have witnessed so many policy trajectory to understand which are wrongheaded and which holds the promise for a real governance transformation of Nigeria.

Why is the Readers Club commencing with Odia Ofeimun’s Taking Nigeria Seriously? There are two reasons. At the inaugural conference of the ISGPP, the opening mandate is that the School is committed to the task of getting government to work optimally for development and democracy. It requires little reflection that apart from the major operational platforms the School is putting together to achieve this mandate, there is also the need to deploy other significant outreach activities.

The ISGPP understands the critical need to take Nigeria seriously. The Book Readers Club chose Ofeimun’s book, amongst several others, because the book is provocative enough to advance the series of thoughts and insights that were raised at the inaugural conference. What that Conference achieved was to bring together a significant mass of Nigerians who take Nigeria seriously. And here we have a compendium of essays on what it means and what it takes to take Nigeria seriously. Secondly, the author himself is a patriot extraordinaire who through his poems, plays and non-fictions has provided invaluable service to the understanding of the Nigerian project as he perceives it.

We put it before this meeting to help ISGPP decide on the next sets of books to read. Of course, the books must be robust in their focus on the Nigerian Project enough to build on the discourse that commence today. To guide your decision we propose the following: 1. Matthew Hassan Kukah’s Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission; 2. Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country; 3. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Reforming the Irreformable; 4. Stephen Lampe’s Thinking About God; 5. Olusegun Obasanjo’s My Watch; 6. Olusegun Adeniyi’s Power, Politics and Death: An Account of Nigeria under President Yar’Adua; 7. Obafemi Awolowo’s Strategies and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria.

We hope this august gathering will throw up significant policy imperatives, flowing from the interrogation of Ofeimun’s ideas, that can be distilled into the working of the government in a manner that orients the governance space and capacitates it for optimal performance.

––Dr Olaopa is the executive vice chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (tolaopa@ibsgpp.com; tolaopa2003@gmail.com; tolaopa2003@yahoo.com)