NIPSS: Comment on Publication by Tunji Olaopa

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By Olusegun Obasanjo

Nigeria is an experiment in democratic governance that requires astute and critical leadership. Even as a military Head of State, I already had this understanding while being at the helms of affair. Nigeria is a complex and complicated entity that can task even the most visionary of leadership anywhere in the world. But it is also a context of national possibilities that inspires hope and compels visions of nation building and from this I found that Nigerians are not impossible to lead if all the ingredients of leadership are in place and employed. And it is in this sense that I nostalgically recall the ferment of ideas and visioneering that led to the birth of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in 1979.

The immediate post-independence period was one that was tense, as we all know. Independence unleashed lots of internal tensions that had been brewing while the nationalist leaders were struggling to liberate the country from the colonial clutches. The Nigerian Civil War – a most tragic experience – was regarded in some quarters as the culmination of all the tension. But after the war, there was still huge unfinished business: in order to avoid another tragic war, Nigeria needs to deeply reflect on its governance and development policy architecture in ways that will transform the lives of Nigerians. Military rule in Nigeria commenced as an attempt at arresting the drift of good governance. And this was the fundamental thought in our minds when we got to power in 1975.

The idea that gave birth to NIPSS was meant to articulate an institutional capacity that will facilitate a governance direction for the government in terms of constant policy reflection and dialogue that the government can tap into for its policymaking process. I have watched the trajectory of the birth and gradual institutionalization of NIPSS since I left office, and except for some missteps in its growth, I am still very proud of the thought process that went into its conception. I am a firm believer in institutional capacity. That is one dimension of leadership that Nigeria, and Africa, urgently needs in this knowledge age. It is essentially the reason why, after leaving office, I invested in the establishment of the Africa Leadership Forum and the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library to serve as an institutional repository of ideas and discourse that consecutive Nigerian and African leaders can draw upon to keep iterating good governance and its dividends for Nigerians. It is the reason why I have inserted myself in the many ideas’ fora across the continent and indeed across the world to facilitate the critical conglomeration of ideas and persons that could be drawn upon to make Nigeria and Africa better and better, and greater and greater.

I was, therefore, very delighted when, earlier in the year, retired Federal Permanent Secretary, Professor Tunji Olaopa, informed me that the Director-General of NIPSS had invited him to join the Institute’s faculty. Tunji has come a long way. And I appreciate him. His fertile ideational mind that became obvious through the many fora at which I had watched him at close range over the years, led to my inviting him as part of an advisory group of Nigeria’s professionals that provided significant policy reflection during my second outing as Nigeria’s President. I, therefore, have no doubt that NIPSS will provide Olaopa a most vibrant home to incubate his numerous ideas and insights about the way forward for Nigeria. And he will, of course, do this while still continuing with the onerous task of building the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy which, for me, is a great seed that must – like NIPSS – be nurtured constantly to yield its fruits in terms of the required values, ideas and evidence-based analytics in the dynamics of policy making and implementation with the necessary discussions, debates, dialogues and interactions.

Nigeria needs more think tanks and research institutes, not less, as it needs authentic places for interaction and dialogue. And NIPSS still has a long way to go in coming to terms with the deep and dimensioned institutional backstopping of Nigeria’s development and democratic governance. First, how does NIPSS integrate itself as a think-and-do tank into the ideational and research ecosystem that could launch Nigeria’s crucial entry into the knowledge age, with its fundamental requirement for policy intelligence and problem-solving oriented praxis? It is in this sense that the existence of NIPSS and its optimal functionality becomes more significant for realizing the Nigerian national project than in 1979 when it was established. Second, if NIPSS is this critical as Nigeria’s foremost policy ideas and knowledge management institution and a unique one at that on the continent, how fervently committed have its stakeholders been – Federal government, State Governors, political party chieftains, captains of industry, the intelligentsia, development workers, statesmen, philanthropists, civil society, etc. – in ensuring that it not only achieves, and remains on, the cutting edge of research, executive education, policy dialogue, etc. but also enabled to keep functioning as a veritable national fountain and hub for policy problems solving in the mold of the Brooking Institution, Kennedy School of Government, Council for Foreign Relations, Lee Kwan Yew Policy Institute, and so many other significant think-and-do tanks around the world? Indeed, the rudest shock I received in the growth of NIPSS is an attempt to politicize it and remove its autonomy. Third, why would the Federal Government keep funding NIPSS and not optimize its potentials through an active interest in its growing profile as a Nigerian institution that deserves to be elevated to world-class status? And lastly, how much impact is the rigorous policy work in NIPSS having on the Nigeria’s development process? The last two points go together – high standard and utilitarian value.

These are some of the critical questions that Prof. Olaopa explored in this deep seminal attempt to benchmark NIPSS in the tapestry of African and global think tanks, all within a research objective to create perspectives that should serve as touchstone for NIPSS’ repositioning into a world-class institution. I sincerely hope this attempt will be a fundamental addition to the entire corpus of reform initiatives that the leadership of NIPSS and the Nigerian government has been incubating in their fervent desire to make NIPSS what it is meant to be and what it deserves to be – the ideational source for transforming Nigeria’s policy architecture in ways that will make the dividends of democratic governance available for qualitatively transforming the well-being of Nigerians and the greatness of Nigeria.

*Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is the founder of NIPSS, wrote this Forward of a new book written by Prof. Tunji Olaopa titled ‘The National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies – NIPSS: Conception, Operation and Framework for Repositioning’