Adebayo Okunade: Ode to an Exemplary Teacher

Adebayo Okunade

Adebayo Okunade

Prof. Tunji Olaopa

When Henry Adams, the 19th century American historian, states categorically that “A teacher affects eternity,” he translated his observational experience into what millions of people all across the world today can relate with. According to him, either good or bad, “he can never tell where his influence stops.” Teaching is a vocational calling that radiates through many generations. And this is one grateful member of one generation demonstrating immense gratitude for the gift of many teachers who impacted my coming-of-age. I contend that there should be no memoir that does not dedicate a chapter, at least, to the immense influence of teachers in the formation of anybody that considers their lives worthy of autobiographical projection. I do, and my memoir dedicates such a chapter to the myriad of influences on my intellectual and professional maturation. Prof. Adebayo Okunade—teacher extraordinaire, distinguished professor, erudite academic and astute administrator—is definitely exemplary.

I could almost bet that my old teacher will turn 70 this year. Of course, he is one mentor that I have been looking for the best moment to celebrate for a range of reasons that will be obvious in a moment. It however turned out that his septuagenarian attainment is still one year away, as he clocked 69 and not 70 a few weeks ago. By the time I reached out to him to confirm this fact, I had finished penning this tribute. And why not, he deserves to be celebrated in advance. I am not just celebrating Prof. Okunade’s pre-septuagenarian achievement, I am also wrapping that together with our shared clan affinity. We both hail from Aáwé town in the Afijio local government area of Oyo State. For me, there is a way I read the hands of Providence in my sociocultural evolution, my intellectual maturation, my professional path in life and those that have been put on my paths in life.

It is not surprising that Prof. Okunade came from a teaching parentage. But his parents were not just school teachers, but they were one of those who brought the best of their sociocultural and moral experiences into the molding of their children and the wards under their care. Being an ọmọlúwàbì is the best moral and pedagogical framework that the Yoruba allows for the upbringing of children, and the molding of a good society. I benefitted from such an upbringing too, and I know what it means to see the world through that prism. Add that moral package to a sound pedagogy, and you immediately understand how influential Prof. Okunade was to my intellectual development.

I came into first contact with Prof. Okunade at the Olivet Baptist High School, Oyo, easily one of the best secondary schools (in my time) in the entire Oyo zone, stretching from Oke Ogun to Ogbomoso. I had just resumed for my Higher School Certificate (HSC) in 1978. And he was my Government subject teacher. With him, the study of government became by far one of my very best learning formative moments. It was with him that I first became conscious of the Socratic method of interlocution—a pedagogical engagement that enables students to grasp knowledge without assaulting their minds with facts. Okunade’s pedagogical excellence consisted in transforming our numerous engagements in and outside the classroom into seminal spaces for processing discourses, discussions and debates. Given my growing reputation as a bookworm, it was almost inevitable that I would be noticed by this smart teacher who was well-versed in both national and international politics and governmental processes. And so, it became something of a constant ritual for us to gather around him, especially outside of the classroom, to pick up significant items of public discourse or current affairs touching on government policies, national politics or international incidence.

The 1978/80 years were a most significant period in Nigeria’s political development, and the second republic was about to get underway. The study of government in secondary school was also animated by the prospect of a return to civil rule and the much-awaited Nigeria’s greatness. On the intellectual part, there was an ongoing ideological discussion on the nature of the Nigerian state. Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Prof. Billy Dudley were at the forefront of the attempt to unravel what it means to say that Nigeria, despite political independence, was still “a mere geographical expression.” This furthers our discussions in those upper secondary school seminal engagements around the nature and meaning of federalism and the role it could play in Nigeria’s unfolding political development. On the political part, we were witnessing a reprise of the pre-independence rivalry between the Action Group (AG), the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the shape of the Unity Party of Nigeria, the National Party of Nigeria and Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) and others. And Awolowo’s democratic socialism and Azikiwe’s neo-welfarism were already in the public domain as ideological templates.

And we have in the then Mr. Okunade an astute Socratic interlocutor who could play the devil’s advocate with the many contending and contrary political and ideological positions on offer by the different political parties. He would be a Zikist in one session, a robust leftist in the mold of Tunji Braithwaite’s National Advance Party the next, and then go on to defend Awolowo’s democratic socialism thereafter. This capacity to robustly engage with contending ideas and arguments left a very deep impression on me that would come in handy when I made up my mind to study political science at the University of Ibadan, and met him again as my teacher. While engaging us on the subject matter of Government, he had just his first degree in political science, and was already on the academic trajectory, studying for a master’s degree in the same department. By the time I would join the department as an undergraduate student, he was already on his way up the ladder that would eventually lead to his becoming a professor in due season. We did not miss a bit in picking up from where we left off in terms of critical engagement, and even more at an advance stage as an undergraduate student and even at graduate studies. His academic and research profile was already shaping up in terms of public administration scholarship and specifically local government studies, and was further broadened when he went to the University of Essex in the United Kingdom to study for a LLM in International Human Rights Law.

My lifelong relationship from Olivet High to the University of Ibadan means that I would keep drawing on his influence and wisdom all through my professional development. Apart from being critical to shaping my doctoral thesis and my post-doctoral research direction—including facilitating a path-shaping relationship with the late Professor of Philosophy, Olusegun Oladipo—he is also a significant influence and support in the establishment of my pet project, the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) in 2016.

Prof. Bayo Okunade’s scholarship must have been taking shape since he began engaging us in discourses around Nigeria’s national political development in the twilight years of the 1970s. There is no political scientist in Nigeria who would not be drawn into Nigeria’s federal-federalism debacle, and especially those who were there from the beginning like Prof. Okunade. He is very emphatic, for instance, and contrary to the outcry, that restructuring does not constitute the expected panacea to Nigeria’s federalism predicament. For example, he argues, restructuring is not an ideological construct with one objective for Nigeria, conceptually speaking. Different power blocks and elite interest want the concept to achieve different things for them. And this speaks to the fact that even if restructuring becomes constitutionally entrenched, its success will be dependent on concessions that those who have the capacity to manipulate the system for their selfish interest give to the delivery of the Nigeria development project and purpose as give and take.

Here, we begin to see the outline of Okunade’s argument—the subject of is celebrated inaugural lecture—about the leadership challenge in Nigeria. According to him, the resolution of Nigeria’s national question is impossible without an antecedent determination through the recalibration of the leadership deficit. The leadership issue, which he calls on fellow political scientist to elevate to the level of curricular program, significantly encapsulates Okunade’s constructivist perspective on social engineering and how this impact the establishment of a well-ordered society founded on public administration, human right, the rule of law and good governance. The relationship between public administration, human rights and democracy therefore situates Okunade’s research portfolio squarely within the context of Nigeria’s political development. And we are able to see clearly why the leadership deficit constitutes, as his inaugural lecture’s title suggest, a big challenge. And for someone steeped in the studies of federalism and democracy, I suspect it was not too radical to opt for a federal system that empowers local governance as a critical arm of democratic governance that empowers the people. I have like him published lots of opinion pieces on how the principles of social capital and subsidiarity could enable the grassroots as the most proactive context for democratic participation and developmental mobilization. The leadership deficit therefore goes right to the very heart of Nigeria’s constitutional anomaly.            

The near-septuagenarian professor has an influence that spans many generation of students each of whom can write pages about the indelible humanity of Adebayo Okunade and his pedagogical direction. I struggle to accept Michael Morpurgo’s words that “It’s the teacher that makes the difference, not the classroom.” This is because a good teacher can be undermined if the classroom or pedagogical dynamics are not right. An Okunade placed within the classrooms of both the Olivet Baptist Hish School and the department of political science, University of Ibadan, significantly to my academic and intellectual endeavors. And as he climbs on to the seventh floor by God’s grace in the months ahead, I can boast that he does not just wear the medal for my teacher for all time,s he is also my friend, brother and co-conspirator in institutional re-engineering.

*Prof. Olaopa is Chairman, Federal Civil Service Commission

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