Stoic Philosophy, Resilience and Nation Building Project in Nigeria

Professor Tunji Olaopa

By Tunji Olaopa


In this piece, I want to indulge my love for philosophy by dabbling in the thoughts of stoicism as a theoretical frame for coming to grips with the national project in Nigeria. The Nigeria Project is the urgent and necessary national task of nation-building that seeks to transpose the myriad ethnic loyalties of the Nigerian state into a civic loyalty around which Nigeria’s nationhood can emerge as a unified entity. Since independence, and due to the amalgamation effect, Nigeria has concentrated efforts more on state building that secures the national border of the Nigerian state and as an entity, than its internal unity. The effect has remained the deeply divisive nature of the Nigerian state. And we are seeing this in the way the various aspirants for the highest offices in the past and forthcoming elections are arrayed in religious and ethnic terms.

As the popular motivational nugget puts it, “there is no gain without pain.” This maxim speaks immediately to the lexical understanding of stoicism or being stoical in the face of adversity. Now, before I am misunderstood, a clarification. The stoic message is targeted at both the leadership and the followership in the Nigerian political and governance space, as we approach post-2023. The deep reform architecture that I am hoping will characterize the governance and change agenda of the incoming government if it comes in a transformational mode, must be one that will bring lots of unease at first, in existential and socioeconomic terms. This is just as it is impossible to make an omelette without cracking eggs! The change that the reforms are expected to herald, and the change management frameworks that are expected to facilitate the transformation of the Nigerian infrastructural space, will demand a stoical mindset, buoyed by the firm belief that the administration is well-meaning in proactively jumpstarting a trajectory of policy strategies that will bring about what the stoics called eudaemonia, or personal (or national) well-being.

Stoic philosophy, founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens, combined three philosophical elements—ethics, logic and natural philosophy—to demonstrate how the practice of virtues can serve as the basis for initiating human flourishing. To achieve a good life, for the stoic, is to live by the dynamics of nature. Epictetus began his Enchiridionwith a graphic statement:

Some things are in our control and others are not. In our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever our actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions….But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you.

Within this, we can identify three critical beliefs of the stoics: one, virtues—wisdom, courage, moderation and justice—are all that is required to achieve happiness; two, to live a good life means being indifferent to any other external goods, like wealth or pleasure; and three, nature is providentially ordered.

Let us just outline briefly the critical idea of resilience, as an instance of the stoic belief that speaks to the concern of this piece. The stoic philosophy provides rich psychological insights for building human resilience against calamities. The idea is to be prepared to meet these unforeseen circumstances as best as one could. Resilience, therefore, derives not from events happening to us, but from human interpretations of those events. And so, to build one’s resilient muscle, the stoics ask: (a) what is the worst that could happen? (b) what are my priorities? (c) should I react emotionally or rationally to these issues I am confronted with? (d) how do I live according to my values to achieve fulfilment? (e) what can I learn from my present circumstances? (f) how can I help others?

A resilient philosophy is especially crucial for governance within the context of a VUCA—vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—administrative world. With the stoic understanding, we can immediately key into the courageous capacity of Nigerians to keep wading through the enormity of underdevelopment while carrying on the herculean task of eking out a living that becomes most difficult over time. In 2018, Nigeria ranked the fifth happiest country in Africa. In 2022, twenty African countries ranked higher than Nigeria. This tells a story: Nigerians’ capacity to withstand hardship is failing. This implies that we need to look for the element of that resilient governance philosophy elsewhere, rather than in the suffering capacity of the people.

And that “elsewhere” lies within the capability of Nigeria’s governance institutions and processes to plan for, absorb, recover from and adapt to adverse predicaments and circumstances. Resilience, therefore, enables a state to build into its development framework, through strategic and preemptive policymaking intelligence, specific institutions, dynamics and structures that both anticipate and preempt disasters while enabling infrastructural development. This, in stark terms, is the expectation placed on the post-2023 Nigerian leadership. This is the point of conjuncture that brings into strategic communication the incoming leadership, its change managers and the anxious and expectant Nigerians who are hoping 2023 and beyond will finally bring existential flourishing. What is incumbent on the incoming administration to do to build resilience and governance success? Let me outline a few of these strategy queries.

How might the incoming administration facilitate the emergence of a policy-engaged action and future research that mobilize scenario planning as the basis for strategic policy intelligence to present a clear picture of what constitutes the best or worst-case scenarios? Or would it just be business as usual: maintaining the unsustainable cost of governance rather than going the whole hog of an urgent restructuring that converts the trade unions from adversaries to development partners; holding on to white elephant wasteful assets and projects; delaying governance and institutional reforms that unbundle Nigeria’s dysfunctional federalism; continuing to undermine meritocracy in diversity management through an unreflective federal character policy; maintaining a foreign policy with Africa as the centrepiece when Africa, and Nigeria, lacks economic capabilities?

How might Nigeria initiate a governance change management that moves her from national wastefulness to efficient productivity? How can we re-engineer the national governance away from a prebendal culture into a resilient framework that privileges performance management, maintenance culture, and deep respect for a strong constitutional order? In other words, how might the incoming leadership work in facilitating a cultural adjustment programme that will reorient its workforce about deferring gratification in a patriotic spirit? How can the institutional reform that is critical for transformation encode reflective learning and culture change? How do we make the critical connection between the capacity readiness of the Nigerian workforce and the urgent imperative to move from consumption to a more efficient and productive economy?

Given that the national project must be simultaneous with national development, how can we start learning to live together despite our ethnonational and religious differences? How does elite nationalism in Nigeria begin to connect to the national imperatives that divest national goals from elite greed and the impulse for primitive accumulation? The political class must be willing to commit elite suicide to achieve a patriotic mobilization of Nigerians around civic oneness.

A decisive change in the configurations of the public service requires an institutional reform that will invigorate the workforce with an efficiency quotient that transcends its bureaucratic dysfunction. This demands systematic, systemic, and structural changes that re-engineer the institutional paradigms into a value-based mode that links service to development. What is the role of spirituality in this transition from bureau pathology to performance efficiency? How might the institutional configuration of the public service be reconstructed to make the government more open, transparent and accountable in the service of good governance that articulates eudaemonia, or human flourishing, for Nigerians?

Finally, what will the incoming administration do with Nigeria’s youthful demography? Out of the 217 million Nigeria, the youth population constitutes 151 million, or 70% of the total. This youth bulge represents a distinct socioeconomic and generational human development capital that could translate into development gain for the Nigerian state. And yet, the youth unemployment rate stands at 19.61 in 2021. In 2022, the rate of youth drain in the Nigerian socio-economic space has become alarming. This implies that the Nigerian human capital framework is becoming eroded at an alarming rate. How might the incoming administration put policy intelligence and strategies in place to fortify Nigeria’s higher education architecture and undermine the unemployment trends through a smart diversification of the economy in ways that achieve production and productivity?

Nigerians want answers. They want a strategic reassessment of Nigeria’s present condition and a pragmatic understanding of the way forward. They are tired of being left in the cold to face the harsh realities of the time, from insecurity to poverty. They want a leadership that can build resilient institutions. They want governance reforms that can rejig performance and productivity. They want a new Nigeria they can believe in and love. Will the incoming administration be able to achieve a leadership that can take Nigeria into the future?

*Tunji Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is a Professor at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Plateau State.