Prof. Tunji Olaopa
The public administration community of practice in Nigeria is a closely knit one, albeit with a fastdiminishing membership. And so, when one of us is retiring, it is an affair that fills me with dread. Of course, I have a long story, both personal and professional to tell, about almost all of the pioneers in the community through my various interaction.
The list is a long and illustrious one: Adebayo Adedeji, Mahmud Tukur, Ladipo Adamolekun, Humphrey Nwosu, Y. A. Aliyu, A. D. Yahaya, Augustus Adebayo, George Orewa, N. U. Akpan, E. A. O. Oyeyipo, Alex Gboyega, M. J. Balogun, S. B. Ayo, Mufu Laleye, Kyari Tijani, Victor Ayeni, I. B. Bello-Imam, and many more. These are all brilliant scholars and pioneers who have had tremendous influence on the professional maturation of public administration scholarship in Nigeria.
I cut my professional teeth learning theories and practices at their mentoring feet. In my public commentaries, I have told stories about Adedeji and Adamolekun, Yahaya and Gboyega, and how these dedicated scholars and patriots combined humanity with scholarship in training younger generation in the science of public administration. However, once it dawns on me that these scholars and professionals are leaving the scene, either through retirement or due to advance age, there is an anxiety about the emptying of that public administration space of its seminal spirit of engagement that fired the achievement of the civil service and public administration education in the 70s and the 80s.
This is where my celebration of Prof. Claudius Bamidele Olowu commences, at the juncture of anxiety and appreciation. First the appreciation. Professor Olowu belongs to the generation of public administration scholars who provided the needed corpus of intellectual, scholarly and academic materials that fed my development first as a student of politics and administration, second as a professional civil servant, and third as an institutional and governance reformer. Indeed, from the year 1999 when I was gradually introduced into the continental and global knowledge networks and communities of service and practice—CAFRAD, CAPAM, NAPAM, AAPAM, IIAS, etc.—Prof. Olowu and his band of mentors were always available to ease my way into these illustrious networks. It was not too long before I began sharing these same platforms with this Corps of scholars who nurtured my administrative and reform energies.
But it was not until 2003 that I began having even closer professional interactions with Prof, Olowu. The most notable of these contacts and engagements was at the roundtable at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, Pall Mall, in London, in January 2003. This was to present and thoroughly discuss a series of diagnostic studies that were to backstop the baseline national public service reform strategy during the Obasanjo administration. Prof. Olowu was not just one of the global experts who participated and gave the roundtable a solid grounding, he was the rapporteur who delivered the report of the meeting. He would later be instrumental, together with Prof. Adamolekun, in providing the critical technical support to my team at the Management Services Office at the Presidency which produced the 2003 base reform strategy document that was finally iterated into the landmark and irreducible National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) in 2007.
And finally, when the document was set for strategic implementation, Prof. Olowu was on hand again to facilitate a major benchmarking study of the civil service commissions intended to guide the reprofiling of service commissions in Nigeria, necessitated by the urgency of reforming the governance and gatekeeping of the public service in Nigeria. But the influence of Prof. Olowu on my maturation transcends the professional and the academic. He was also, at a critical point in my spiritual journey, my pastor. That was in 1993. I of course knew at the time that Prof. Olowu had joined Prof. Isawa Elaigwu when he assumed the headship of the National Council on Inter-governmental Relations (NCIR) at the presidency. My spiritual trajectory was just gravitating out of my Baptist grounding in search of a spirituality I could call mine. But at the juncture, when I met Pastor Olowu, I was at the borderline between faith and faithlessness. My intellectual curiosity had taken me to that point where some dimension of seminal agnosticism was becoming fascinating.
Of course, I had a lot to still hold on to in terms of the basic elements of Christianity that had been ingrained in me while growing up—from the family devotion to the regular Sunday school, as well as the doses of Christian teaching I got as an undergraduate and postgraduate while attending Orita Mefa Baptist Church and avidly listening to Rev. (Dr) S. T. Ola Akande. And yet, there was a deep yearning that could not be satisfied by the elementary teachings. Thus, when my wife joined me in Abuja much later in 1992, I had reached a dangerous point of agnosticism where I would only drop her and the children in church while I return home to read newspapers. I would only attend church if I am assured of an intellectually enlightening and spiritually edifying message. All this continued until my son rebelled against following his mother and siblings to church. His small brain concocted the principle that since daddy was not always following them, churchgoing must be for women.
When I heard his voice protesting that fateful Sunday morning, I had to make a quick decision about presenting a bad example for my children and family. I promised him I would take him to church the following Sunday. And that following Sunday was to be a critical spiritual turning moment for me. That was at the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Central Parish, Abuja which my wife had joined in the absence of my spiritual leadership. And Professor and Pastor Dele Olowu was ministering that day. As was to be expected, the sermon was not only intellectually erudite, it had all the elements of spiritual depth that moved me beyond my agnostic confusion. That was the beginning of a new level of spiritual recommitment for me. Providence had brought me in contact with a scholar who carried an incredible grace with an overflowing anointing. This is unique in my personal and professional journey—that one unusual person would impact my life in such a fundamental way, and at two different levels. This then gives a double sense of anxiety to his retirement.
My anxiety around the retirement of Prof. Olowu is the familiar lamentation of why the scholarly inputs of intellectuals like Olowu are allowed to stagnate, even by the public administration community. This lamentation reaches far back to the hey days of public administration in Nigeria when there was a formidable synergy between the administrators and the academics on the relationship between town and gown. The town called on the gown for theoretical insights; and the gown humbly reflected on the intricacies of professional practices in the civil service. Now, town and gown have been fractured. But my anxiety goes deeper into the framework that ought to relate public administration scholarship to the imperatives of nation building in Nigeria. And this is where the immense scholarly contributions of Prof. Dele Olowu becomes a fundamental indictment of the commitment of Nigeria’s leadership to making Nigeria work. Dele Olowu is a scholar of local governance. Local governance is founded on the principle of localism; the fundamental argument that if all politics are local, then all development must be local too. The decimation of the local governments, the structural bastion of local governance, within what Prof. Ayo Olukotun had called Nigeria’s “feeding bottle federalism,” has remain key to Nigeria’s continuing underdevelopment. This is because local governance speaks to a philosophy of grassroots development that leverages on social capital and subsidiarity to enhance the development of the people. Prof. Olowu’s arguments relate to the relationship between local government and local governance, and the policy and constitutional processes that facilitate service delivery, local level development, the strengthening of intergovernmental relations, and citizens participation. The perceptive reader will immediately begin to see the import of local governance, especially from the perspective of Nigeria’s political history, first, with colonialism, and second, with the centralized mindset of the military eras.
The constitutionalization reform championed by Prof. Olowu for entrenching local governance into the constitution has failed to work in Nigeria because of the unitary dynamics of the Nigerian constitution. But this is not to say that constitutionalization is wrong. From Chief Obafemi Awolowo to Prof. Dele Olowu, the argument that Nigeria’s nation building aspiration can only be addressed through a genuinely functional federal system that facilitates local governance through the local government remains solid. And this is why Prof. Olowu continue to dedicate his entire scholarly contributions to pushing the fundamental significance of grassroots development that deepens the very essence of democratic participation. And now, this scholar is retiring, slowed down by encroaching age. And yet, even while his intellectual output is reducing, I am certain that he remains unflagging in his belief that God has a purpose to fulfil in Nigeria; a purpose that God himself has distilled through his scholarship, and those of many others that God has strategically situated within the Nigerian state. Despite my anxiety, Professor and Pastor Dele Olowu—extraordinary human being and a servant of God— made my life better than it could have been, spiritually and professionally. I am glad to say that I remain a part of his legacy—one of the many others that have been capacitated to carry on the reform task of transforming the Nigerian state.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa Retired Federal Permanent Secretary &
Professor, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State. firstname.lastname@example.org