Olaopa: The Indefatigable Public Intellectual at 60

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By Abiodun Taofiki Okunola

The onerous task of building an efficient and functional society requires the right mix of vision and pragmatism, focus, accountability and resourcefulness on the part of the leadership and the ability to put in place the right institutions. Today, a good number of nations are success stories because they have been able to achieve a perfect blend of all outlined strategic factors. Whilst some societies have become posters for good system and governance, many countries especially in the Global south are still grappling with the challenges of building working societies. Most African countries including Nigeria continue to rank very low on all indexes of development in the world. There is a surfeit of people who put themselves forward for leadership offices but there still exists a yawning gap of vision, focus, efficiency, accountability, good governance and direction. It will be blue murder to conclude that Nigeria’s leadership crisis stems from the dearth of people whose thought processes are aligned with national development and good governance. Instead, the problem has been getting or identifying the right to lead us.

The fact that we live in a very dysfunctional society which squanders flamboyant praises on mediocrity is well understood. But I am most grateful to have had the rare opportunity if being mentored by some of Nigeria’s best, rarest and informed intellectuals such as Professor Wole Soyinka and Professor Olaopa. I have long come to the understanding that humanity benefits immensely from the gifting and skills of many people, especially intellectuals and this is provable from history. Iron sharpens iron. Albert Einstein was mentored by Alfred Kleiner, a Professor of experimental physics at Zurich and Einstein went on to influence science. Olaopa was mentored by Nigeria’s best public policy experts and intellectuals like Simeon Adebo, Ojetunji Aboyade, Akin Mabogunje, and others. One of the fundamental issues with most societies, especially like what we find in Nigeria is the wide disconnect between intellectualism, which are produced in the ivory towers, and the society.

Thus, public intellectualism, which can be described as social application and relevance of intellectualism, is the way in which the ivory tower can bring itself into relevance in every way. Foremost scholar and public intellectual, Edward Said said “it is important that the uncommon gift in the very few must be amplified to benefit the larger many. No society respects what does not yield benefit even when it is exotic. Society will only turn its lens towards intellectualism when it can get more than the worth of the association”. Said’s position rests very well with what has become the life mission of Professor Tunji Olaopa, an intellectual who has been able to successfully blend intellectualism with social impetus and relevance. Olaopa, as a graduate of Political Science and Theory joined the Nigeria Civil Service, rose to the pinnacle of his career and after twenty seven years of meritorious service, constructive engagements, selfless responsibilities and remarkable accountability; he retired as a Permanent Secretary. Yet, he is far from being tired as he has redoubled his engagement with the Nigeria nation through diverse engagements.

Olaopa’s engagement with intellectualism casts him in a different frame, away from the norm, as he applied himself diligently and irrevocably to the task of reforming the glory of the civil service from its gory state. One time leader of defunct Yugoslavia, Joseph Tito said “public expectations can be controlled, public reception can be managed, but public opinion is left to the impressions that are created, perceived and managed all from inside to outside”. As a rabid proponent of the town-gown connection, Olaopa believes that knowledge produced in the ivory tower becomes like effluent, in the consideration of the society, if they are not properly situated and made to address social questions and needs in the heart of members of the society.

In most societies, ancient and contemporary, the town has had a long standing pattern of dissonance with the ‘exclusive’ world of intellectuals, seeing them as “nose in the ear’ chauvinists. Olaopa’s involvement, as a practitioner, took a new shape with his retirement from the civil service, as the insights and experience have helped him in his campaign and mission for public service reforms. He has become more prolific with his pen. His writings are focused on celebrating the ideals of an ideal civil service, locating policies as key to development and consistent application of intellectualism to the overall development of public institutions and the society. Not a politician, yet he has words for those in politics; not a development practitioner but he draws from global best practices to write and speak effectively on public policy and institutional reforms. I find Olaopa between the lines of Soyinka’s poem Mandela’s Earth And Other Poems, and for me, the sounds from your pen frightens me – your ink crystallise into building blocks for a society that understands how to weave them into effective policies. Olaopa is not just an intellectual but one of the very few intellectuals who have successfully created a perfect blend of the innovations of the ivory towers with the social necessities of the town. It is not unusual to see Olaopa’s thought and ideas straddling knowledge spaces and disciplines. His ideas are reconcilable with and relevant to stereotyped and peculiar societal needs.

Professor Olaopa has shown that great minds need to do more than just theorizing to captivate the public as they once did, because the university has become too insular and academic thinking is too narrow. The intellectual who will find relevance must be public oriented. I can also say academics no longer possess the privilege of complacency, of choosing to remain cloistered within the walls of the academy, of engaging only with the members of their disciplines. They must assume greater roles as agents of change and effects, and perform services that promote the public good. That is what Olaopa does very well, as he has, by his strides and remarkable engagements in civil service reforms.

No matter what their discipline is, academics must assume integral roles in contributing to the public good. As Professor Linda Adler-Kassner argues that by engaging with the public, intellectuals can shape public perceptions of their work and worth. “If we do not tell the stories of our disciplines, journalists are more than happy to fill that void, and the results can be less than satisfying. Academics need to do more than simply offer a few workshops or write a certain number of articles”, she pointed out.

However, it is important that the intellectual must be able to cover the space between the laboratories, research towers and the society. The intellectual must be able to bridge the divide between the gown and the town; a long standing problem in our clime. That is where the public intellectual becomes relevant today.

Although the work of public intellectuals may not be easy, it is crucial. By engaging with the public, academics can strengthen democracy and bolster the position of education within a democratic society. Through such engagement, they tell stories of their disciplines and institutions as they want them to be told rather than as people outside the academia would tell them. As public intellectuals, they have the opportunity to help shape the future of higher education and to make an impact in the communities in which they live.

Professor Olaopa is a scholar par excellence. His commentaries and engagements on national and international issues are as strong as they can be and his involvement has not been tainted in any way. Professor Olaopa is very cerebral and his contributions to knowledge and practice in Nigeria is becoming legendary and with his incisive and poignant commentaries, he has cemented his place as a public intellectual whose theories and postulations are not high and above the heads of many.

Olaopa’s success in managing the town-gown connection as a scholar- practitioner speaks of his inventiveness and firm belief in that which can be regarded as the rebirth of the Nigeria nation albeit from the premise of public institution reform, policy framework architecture, policy realignment and research.

Thus, in his view and school of thought, everyone who has practical engagement experience should be able to apply same as base material that can be developed upon for the betterment of the society. As a reformer, he has written books and published articles that can guide the present and next leaders of our country in delivering our dream state.

Olaopa’s reforms goes beyond paper works into developing models and use same to properly and sufficiently answer pressing questions in the public sector space with designs and engagement for organizations and society at large. According to the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, “Strong and ready, defined and capable institutions are good. Human resources; prepared and made ready with intellectualism are desirable. But ready institutions and efficient minds will produce excellent system and that is the future of the world”. If so, then, I dare say that Professor Olaopa is indeed filled with the rich experiences of yesterday, fit for today and perfect for tomorrow. As he clocks sixty, Nigeria has a good prospect of a better tomorrow if we hearken to the wise counsel of a great and indefatigable public intellectual like Professor Adetunji Olaopa. Congratulations.

*Abiodun Taofiki Okunola writes from University of Westminister, London