Philosophy and an Unending Quest for Reform


By Tunji Olaopa

As blows of increasing fatalities from Covid-19 and untimely death of many close friends, especially intellectual colleagues, weigh in lately, I have found myself retreating into my study to engage in largely philosophical reflections, simply as a form of escape. I had asked myself that if revered colleagues continue to be ravaged at this rate, how many eulogies and tributes could one possibly write with a troubled mind that wonder more about meaninglessness and one’s mortality. In this philosophical state, I found that, even in the midst of the woes, there are people to celebrate. Indeed, at the very depth of my heart, I am a philosopher. This is an admission that is so easy for me to make. It comes from the realization that my failed attempt, when preparing to enter the university, to professionally become a philosopher does not stop me from being one in practice. In other words, philosophy is not only a scholarly pursuit but also a way of life. I of course took my lifelong vocation from the motivation invoked in a philosophical statement. According to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It is that fascination with the relationship between thought and reality that has kept me in a love relationship since I read Plato’s Republic many years as a secondary school lad.

Why have I returned to my persistent pursuit of the philosophical? Just last week, the University of Ibadan announced the promotion of some of her scholars and academics to the professorial cadre. One of them is Adeshina Afolayan, the brilliant scholar and philosopher whom I have known since 2006. This piece is meant as a celebration of an enduring intellectual romance between the reformer in me and philosophy, between intellectual vision and administrative renewal. I am very pleased to be associated with the newly minted Professor Adeshina Afolayan of the UI department of philosophy as a friend, a brother and a philosophical sparring partner with whom I have been in continuing conversation over the years, and who had, in the process, bore my philosophical tantrums.

The journey that led to my providential meeting with Prof. Afolayan commenced in 2006. I had just completed my doctoral programme, and I was involved in the herculean task of purging the dissertation of excessive jargons and theories to make it a readable and functional public service reform text that will eventually become a valuable addition to Nigeria’s public administration scholarship and literature. While I was refining my manuscript, I approached my teacher at the Department of Political Science, Prof. Bayo Okunade, to suggest a critical reviewer for the proposed volume. I was extremely gratified when he recommended the late Professor Olusegun Oladipo of the Department of Philosophy. This turned out to be a most fundamental suggestion that would embolden my numerous embryonic thoughts about launching my institutional reform efforts on a sound philosophical basis, and with an even more significant African continental contextual foundation.

Professor Oladipo turned out in the long run to be an insightful technical adviser and intellectual partner. There are two distinct issues in my manuscript that sparked prolonged debates and discursive iterations between us. The first concerns my initial attempt to outline the value foundation of Nigeria’s inherited colonial institutions and structures. I had found Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction a useful methodological instrument for determining, exhuming and reevaluating the western value assumptions about Nigeria’s administrative realities. These assumptions have led to vast institutional contradictions and structural dysfunctions that ought to ignite the culture change essential for governance and institutional reforms that public administration and the public service in Nigeria urgently demand.

The second issue revolved around my deployment of the critical insights in Max Weber’s definitive work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, towards the theoretical understanding of how institutional values—founded on religious dynamics—could be squared within what Ali Mazrui rendered famously as Africa’s triple heritage of the Islamic, the Christian and the traditional African. The proper iteration of these ideas in administrative and philosophical terms brought me and Professor Oladipo together many times in deep intellectual exploration of the nuances embedded in worldviews and argumentations. How, for instance, do we begin to reckon with the supposedly Protestant values of hard work and frugality within the context of traditional African ethical worldview about a good society? Or: how does the “spirit of capitalism” function within a continent subjugated by capitalist exploitation? How does this “protestant ethic” actuate the reform of the public service in a postcolonial context?

On one of these occasions, Prof. Oladipo made the perceptive decision to bring in and introduce Adeshina Afolayan, who was then a freshly minted doctor of philosophy, to the regular discursive meetings. In retrospect, it was as if Oladipo had an intimation of his demise, and did not want to leave me philosophically forlorn and desolate. By 2009, I had made up my mind to concretize my reform mission and thoughts about establishing the Centre for Public Service Innovation—which later metamorphosed into the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP)—as the structural arrowhead for my governance and institutional reform research. The Center was supposed to be in partnership with Prof. Oladipo’s publication outfit, Hope Publication. The whole structural set up was modeled after my mentor, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade’s Development Policy Centre (DPC). And as all these institutional dynamics were taking shape, Dr Afolayan was also increasingly being thrust by Oladipo to the forefront of this whole conversation. However, 2009 was a very sad year because the excitement of the institutional and intellectual rapport between the three of us was suddenly interjected by the demise of Prof. Olusegun Oladipo.

Prof. Oladipo’s death played a key role in my decision to postpone the establishment of a think tank inspired by my then growing attachment to Nigeria’s National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. But Afolayan was already around to step into the intellectual gap left by the brilliant and formidable Oladipo. At this point, my pursuit of sound philosophical basis around which to situate my administrative, governance and institutional reform dynamics was already manifesting most definitively. When I finally arrived at the moment in time to establish the ISGPP, it was only natural that Prof. Afolayan would be invited to come on board. And the opportunity presented itself in 2016 when he took out a one-year sabbatical to bring his philosophical and academic expertise on board the ISGPP management team.

Let me confess that I have been immensely influenced by Prof. Afolayan’s strategic blend of African philosophy, philosophy of politics and the philosophy of culture, with an especial emphasis on Yoruba philosophy. He drew me into the nuanced and significantly ideological debate into whether Africans possess the humanity, and indeed the rational capacity to propose a unique “African philosophy.” Afolayan’s attempt at deploying postmodern insights into the understanding of Africa’s struggle with the colonial and the postcolonial also inspired my political theory- rekindled interest and excavation of the reconstructionist intent in the critical works of scholars like Claude Ake and Peter Ekeh, and especially the yeoman anticolonial and historiographical efforts of the Ibadan School of History. Ake’s Social Science as Imperialism and Ekeh’s Colonialism and Social Structure became critical theoretical launchpad from which to continue distilling the dynamics of Africa’s and Nigeria’s institutional and governance revival and rehabilitation for the wellbeing of Nigerians.

Prof. Afolayan’s abiding interest in the interplay of cultural and philosophical elements between Africa and the West also played a role in my continuing attempt at understanding and conceptualizing the interesting theological and historical relationship between Christianity and African spirituality and cultural practices. I have often found my Christian affiliation in conflict with my cultural affirmation as an African and a Yoruba person with a full understanding and appreciation of my cultural beingness. I have therefore been involved in finding a common point of intersections for my being Christian and being Yoruba. Prof. Afolayan has refused to be a mere sounding board for my biases. On the contrary, he would interject critical questions and queries that I would sometimes find irritating but cogent to my need for self-reflexivity.

Most refreshing, however, is the fact that my growing fascination with Christianity and African traditional spirituality led not only to my increasing understanding of public service as a calling in the Levitical order of priesthood, but also my interest in outlining spirituality as a fundamental reform element in the institutional reform of the public service. Prof. Afolayan facilitates my critical engagement with the significance of Nigeria’s plurality, and how the iteration of a spiritual dimension to the reform of the public service could de-emphasize the ethnicization of such a critical institution and its governance value in transforming policies into an implemented tool for making the lives of Nigerians qualitatively better. The spirituality of service therefore complements the professional imperatives required of anyone who truly wants to be called a public servant. And such a concern plays out within a larger intellectual interest in national values reorientation and cultural adjustment programme as critical component of governance reform to change the mind of the nation, to birth a new generation of leaders, especially a new crop of public officials and managers who will be able to manage the emergence of a new public service democratically recalibrated to achieve an efficient democratic governance and service delivery.

It is a fundamental understatement to say that Professor Adeshina Afolayan has been a critical partner in my enduring pursuit of philosophical understanding. I salute his philosophical depth and intellectual foresight. And I toast many more years of productive collaboration.

  • Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos (