Olaopa: From Civil Servant to Public Governance Professor

Emmanuel Ojeifo

My esteemed friend and mentor, Dr Tunji Olaopa, one of Nigeria’s most brilliant public intellectuals, has just been appointed to the distinguished rank of professor of public administration at Lead City University (LCU), Ibadan. This elevation, which comes three years after the end of his illustrious career in the Nigerian civil service, spanning nearly three decades, will see Dr Olaopa returning to the classroom, not as a student, but in a professorial capacity in which he is expected to stimulate critical thinking while also imparting his innovative ideas in public governance scholarship to his students. Were it to be in one of America’s top colleges, Dr Olaopa would have been conferred with the title of ‘Professor of Practice’ in Public Administration, an academic honour reserved for a select group of scholars who combine exceptional intellectual accomplishments with high level real-world experience in their chosen careers. Nonetheless, this appointment by LCU is a testament to more than two decades of Dr Olaopa’s prodigious contributions to public education and nation building in Nigeria.

My first encounter with Dr Olaopa was in 2013 and it was on the pages of four Nigerian national dailies – Thisday, The Guardian, Daily Trust, and Leadership – where he regularly churned out scholarly articles to address critical issues in public administration and management, education, and national development. At this time, Dr Olaopa was serving as permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Communications Technology, being the fifth post he was superintending in that capacity, between 2010 when he was first appointed as permanent secretary and 2015 when he retired from the federal civil service. Within a space of five years, he had served consecutively as permanent secretary in the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, State House, Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, and Federal Ministry of Youth Development, before ending at the Federal Ministry of Communications Technology. Despite his enormous responsibilities, Dr Olaopa still maintained his columns.

I finally met Dr Olaopa in person later in 2013 at a public discourse on good governance organised by The Kukah Centre, a public policy think-tank, in Abuja. Bishop Kukah was the one who introduced me to Dr Olaopa. Until then I had only maintained contact with this prodigious intellect by email and telephone. After our first meeting, I began to follow Dr Olaopa’s academic, and intellectual engagements with near keen mindedness. Reading his brilliant commentaries on national issues in the dailies always left me wondering how a senior civil servant with immense responsibilities could still have the time to produce such intellectual masterpieces. I concluded that there must be something about what Chinua Achebe calls “commitment” running through Dr Olaopa’s mind. In his stimulating memoir, There Was a Country, Achebe asserts that, “it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest.” Achebe’s idea of commitment is a moral imperative to put one’s literary and scholastic gifts at the service of nation building, while his idea of protest is dictated by the decadent state of much of postcolonial African society at the time when he cut his literary teeth in the public domain. For Achebe, every writer is expected to take this postcolonial disposition into consideration, with the state of health of his society dictating the style of his writing: “if a society is ill, the writer has a responsibility to point it out. If a society is healthier, the writer’s job is different,” Achebe states.

It seems to me that it was on the basis of Achebe’s wise counsel that Dr Olaopa chiselled the orientation of his public intellectual engagements, which was tailored to “protest” against the bureaucratic inertia and decadence in Nigeria’s civil service after a vicious legacy of military bastardization. Thus, Olaopa’s overriding desire was to see progressive leaps in the overall performance of the nation’s civil service in line with global best practices in a modern political economy. Even though he was operating within the confines of a decadent environment suffused with the politics of lamentation about poor and inefficient public service delivery, he cut out for himself a different path. Instead of joining the bandwagon of artisans of complaints, Dr Olaopa chose to rise above the suffocation of the moment. By wielding the radical cudgel of scholarship, he became an active change agent and a catalyst in Nigeria’s civil service transformation. He clearly understood the fundamental role of the intellectual in nation building and fashioned his art in response to this arduous task.

In his preface to his book, The Labour of Our Heroes (2016), this is how Olaopa conceptualised his intellectual mission: “When I began writing in the public sphere, I had just one objective – to critically highlight those issues that I consider germane in our collective attempt at coming to terms with the objective existence of Nigeria.” In this way, he shows the remarkable commitment that runs through not just his writings but also his entire civil service career, namely, heeding the summons of the first stanza of our national anthem, “Arise o compatriot, Nigeria’s call obey. To serve our fatherland, with love and strength and faith.” He simply wanted to contribute his own quota towards Nigeria’s betterment. I believe that when at a future date the high court of history sits in judgment over Dr Olaopa’s legacy, it is against his radical decision to heed the sublime patriotic invocation in the first stanza of our national anthem that his prodigious contributions to nation building will be rewarded.

Born on 20 December 1959 at Awe in Afijio LGA of Oyo State, Olaopa studied at the premier University of Ibadan obtaining a BA in Politics in 1984 and an MA in Political Theories in 1987. When he entered the Nigerian civil service in 1988 in Lagos, he was already well groomed intellectually to understand the critical role of the civil service as the engine of national development. Within this understanding, Olaopa applied himself assiduously to his tasks. After almost two decades of active civil service and rising through the ranks, Olaopa decided to pursue doctoral studies. In 2006, he completed his PhD in Public Administration at the Commonwealth Open University in the UK. During the course of his doctoral research, formulated against the backdrop of his civil service experience, Olaopa arrived at a profound diagnosis of the ailment stalling the efficiency of the Nigerian civil service: “Too many people do too little, too few people do too much, and too many do nothing.”

With this new knowledge, Dr Olaopa returned to the civil service with new zeal and new commitment to combine scholarship and the strength of ideas in the context of his professional career. He set again for himself the task of pulling up Nigeria’s civil service by the bootstraps so as to reposition, re-engineer, rebuild, and transform it for world-class performance in the modern knowledge economy. He planned to achieve this ambitious task in three ways. First, through the generation of serious intellectual conversation on critical issues and challenges facing the Nigerian civil service and governance space and how these issues are to be resolved. These conversations took place through his newspaper commentaries on national issues, essays in academic journals, critical monographs, and lectures at classrooms, boardrooms, seminars, and conferences. Any perceptive reader who takes up Dr Olaopa’s writings will immediately spot at least three critical qualities: one, a breathtaking grasp of current theories in philosophy, politics, and public policy; two, a thoroughgoing mastery of the subject matter of his discourse mediated through a well-honed writing skill that makes his articles and essays comprehensible to the scholar and the ordinary reader; and three, a consistent effort to bridge the gap between theory and praxis. In this respect, there are tons of volumes that attest to Dr Olaopa’s notable scholarship in public service reforms and public administration and management in Nigeria and Africa.

The second way Dr Olaopa set out to achieve his mission was by putting his vast breadth of knowledge and expertise at the service of the nation through his civil service career so as to contribute his own quota to national development. He discharged his duties in the various offices and posts he served with high diligence and never turned down any task assigned to him that was geared towards the good of the nation. At different moments in his civil service career, Dr Olaopa was tapped to head or supervise think tanks on public service reforms in several different MDAs where he designed, reviewed, and monitored the implementation of strategic action plans on civil service reforms and institutional and governance restructuring. Because his innovative ideas were constantly sought-after at different levels of government bureaucracy, Dr Olaopa was regularly transferred from one MDA to another where he used his expertise to resolve complex dilemmas. For the first time, it seemed that the Nigerian government understood the meaning of the words “merit” and “competence” and thus decided to tap into Dr Olaopa’s intellectual assets for the benefit of the nation’s civil service.

The third way that Dr Olaopa set out to achieve his mission in the civil service coincides with his insider understanding of the dynamics of our national development project, and the role of the civil service in the actualisation of that development agenda. This led him to intervene through well-researched published books. In this area, Dr Olaopa’s scholarship spans a wide range of concerns such as: civil service reforms, public administration and management, politics, leadership and good governance, and the role of education and educational institutions in improving Nigeria’s public sector efficiency and performance. Seeking to ground these concerns in the moral vision of societal transformation, Dr Olaopa also produced inspiring hagiographical narratives on the contributions of critical patriots – past and present – to the renovation of the entire fabric of our national development project. Books on these areas are: A Prophet is Without Honour: Life and Times of Ojetunji Aboyade (1997), The Joy of Learning (2010), Public Sector Reforms in Africa (2011), Public Administration and Civil Service Reforms in Nigeria (2012), Innovation and Best Practices in Public Sector Reforms (2012), The Nigerian Civil Service of the Future (2014), Civil Service and the Imperative of Nation Building (2016), The Labours of our Heroes: Thematic Narratives on the Nigerian National Project (2016), Reforming the Reformable: Post-Retirement Reflections on the Nigerian Civil Service (2016), Reforms, Governance and Development in Nigeria (2017), and Transforming the African Public Service (2017).

After an illustrious civil service career during which time he gave birth to about a dozen books that were a crystallisation of his innovative ideas on public sector reforms, Dr Olaopa took his patriotic commitment to scholarship and nation building further and set up the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), situated on the famous Awolowo Road in Bodija, right behind the Catholic Seminary of Ss. Peter and Paul where I studied for the priesthood for eight years. ISGPP (isgpp.com.ng) is the first of its kind in Nigeria and it is devoted to cutting-edge research and scholarship in government, public policy, public administration, and human resource development in Nigeria. Its graduate programmes are structured to respond to multidisciplinary approaches to the theory and practice of public governance as is found in many top academic institutions around the world and are taught by world-class faculty with international and cross-cultural experience.

In the course of his civil service career, Dr Olaopa traversed the globe delivering keynote lectures, attending executive courses, moderating international conferences, and sharing his expertise with a diverse body of international scholars, institutions, and groups. To peer at his curriculum vitae is to zoom in on an impressive yet intimidating résumé of a refined and cosmopolitan intellectual soul. In 2016 when I brought together a few intellectually progressive young minds to set up a book club devoted to promoting a culture of reading and intelligent public conversation on issues of leadership, politics, governance, and human development amongst Nigerian youth, Dr Olaopa was one of the few accomplished public intellectuals that I approached to sit on the club’s board so that we can draw inspiration from his wellspring of scholastic endeavours.

Dr Olaopa is a member of several professional bodies in Nigeria and across the globe and is also a distinguished recipient of several honours, notably the Thabo Mbeki Award for Public Service and Scholarship (2018), Award of Excellence of Historical Society of Nigeria (2016), Award of Excellence of Nigerian Institute of Physics (2015), Senior Fellowship of the Nigerian Leadership Institute (2015), Nigerians of Reputation–Thisday Newspaper (2014), 50 Most Exemplary Alumni of the University of Ibadan (2013), Dr Kwame Nkrumah African Distinguished Public Service Order of Merit (2012), and 50 Nigerians of Integrity– Profiles of Nigeria at 50 by Guardian Newspaper (2011). In August 2015, three months before Dr Olaopa’s retirement as federal permanent secretary, President Buhari conferred on him the National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM), a special recognition reserved for outstanding Nigerians who have displayed a high level of patriotism, creativity, performance, innovation, integrity, discipline, and efficiency in contributing to Nigeria’s national productivity.

To this day, Bishop Kukah’s regret, which he has shared with me several times, is that such a brilliant scholar and fine public servant did not become the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, a critical role that would have afforded the nation the opportunity of effectively tapping into his expertise in public service reforms. Fortunately, Dr Olaopa’s brain is not lying fallow. He has been summoned by providence to put his scholarship and professional experience at the service of the nation’s next generation leaders through his magisterial office in the university, just as he has done in the last three years through ISGPP. If anyone is looking for the incubator for Nigeria’s next generation public servants, Lead City University Ibadan is the right place to turn the navigational compass.

When I informed Bishop Kukah through text a few days ago that our mutual friend, Dr Olaopa has been appointed professor of public administration at Lead City University, Kukah replied immediately with a one-liner “He more than deserves it.” It is a measure of Bishop Kukah’s wit that he chose to recognise the greatness of Dr Olaopa and of his notable contributions to expanding the frontiers of Nigeria’s intellectual firmament in five simple but profound words. I believe, as I have said elsewhere, that Dr Olaopa’s appointment is a plus, not to him, but to Lead City University that was smart enough to pull him into its ivory tower. I have no doubt that both the faculty and students of Lead City will benefit immensely from Dr Olaopa’s three decades of unparalleled scholarship and professional experience in the public service arena in Nigeria.

Paraphrasing Odia Ofeimun in his foreword to Dr Olaopa’s book, The Labour of Our Heroes, let me be bold to say – even though I know that Dr Olaopa’s sense of modesty will resist it – that he truly belongs to the pantheon of the all-time Nigerian greats because he has done enough for this country to be placed amongst the heroes that he has been so keen to celebrate as a paradigm shift in purpose-driven leadership in our part of the world.

Congratulations our new Professor Tunji Olaopa. May your stars never dim!

Ojeifo, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, is a student of Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, University of London.

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