Tunji Olaopa’s Vision of Nigeria as a Nation

Tunji Olaopa’s Vision of Nigeria as a Nation

Sunday, April 2, 2023 9:36 pm

Professor Tunji Olaopa, right, and his book, The Unending Quest for Reform


By Isaac Megbolugbe


“Nigeria has refused to leverage her endowment to step into national unity and greatness.”Professor Tunji Olaopa

 “The project of nation-building and development which Nigerians espouse is a journey without maps, undertaken in moral anarchy towards an uncertain destination.” Professor Claude Ake


“The Nigeria project is a simple one: there is a need to achieve national integration through a sustained effort to translate Nigeria’s ethnic capital into a framework of civic nationalism that brings everyone into a clear vision of what Nigeria is and what it could be.” Professor Tunji Olaopa


Professor Tunji Olaopa declared in the concluding chapter of his fabulous memoir, The Unending Quest for Reform, that Nigeria has failed to become a nation as at 2022. Will 2023 be the turnaround year that we have longed for? A lot depends on what and how the tremendous political power in the hands of the incoming administration is used. Will the president-elect, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, inhabit the spirit of the late Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore who chose to make his country arise and join the constellation of first-world nations instead of putting his family on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world? Will he play for glory and an immortal legacy and be the historical leader who finally got it right for Nigeria? Olaopa offers him a tremendous gift in the form of his recent memoir. Professor Olaopa asked for a reset and return to the fundamentals. The foundations of every country that has joined the world of developed nations in the last and this century seem uniform; they all started with the establishment of a developmental state which then served as the platform leveraged to build the architecture of a nation-state. I agree with him. It is doable. It should work. Olaopa’s corollary to a capable developmental state is a functional and efficient public service. Here, he is superbly prepared to help the country realise this capability.

Going back to the fundamentals is akin to the post-independence expectations of Africans, including Nigerians, from their anticolonial nationalists. Olaopa captures this succinctly in his memoir:

It was the hope that independence would be accompanied by the emergence of a capable developmental state that could deliver the strategic framework to (a) implement sound macroeconomic policies that could alleviate poverty, create employment, and grow a strong, sustainable and competitive economy that could facilitate the well-being of the citizens; (b) promote popular participation that can lead to the indigenous ownership of the development agenda; (c) build a sound institution of public administration that is professional, citizen-friendly, technology-enabled and meritocratic with a ready capability to efficiently achieve service delivery; and (d) mobilise state resources, administer budgets and manage public finances productively, transparently and accountably.

Olaopa’svision of a functional and efficient public service involves the founding of a civil service system that is well-informed by the prompting of a comprehensive and coherent reform agenda. This reform agenda is impressively explained, justified, and described in professionally-laden terms in the memoir. He molded himself in the image of the late Professor OjetunjiAboyade both in essence. Aboyade was the master and Olaopa was the apprentice. Abayodemodernised Nigeria’s policy architecture and produced a master national development plan in the form of The Second National Development Plan (1970-1974). Olaopa wants to do a similar thing for Nigeria’s civil service system and thereby modernise the national development and governance management architecture which will complement Aboyade’s template for policy and planning for national development. Olaopa has also attained impeccable professional maturation and he is poised to lead his country into joining the rank of world-class public administration systems.


Isn’t Olaopa amazing? He was initiated into Nigeria’s public service as a knowledge-driven bureaucrat. He became an expert-insider and later mastered the Aboyade scholar-practitioner model which embodies a distinct relationship between the personal and the professional.In a way, Olaopa’s memoir narratesthe bricolage of his life, both personal and professional,that is marked by his unifying identity and commitment to the scholar-practitioner praxis of public administration. I believe that Professor Olaopa is a gift and a blessing for the country, a once in a generation talent that providence has superbly prepared for a time like this. It is ironic that a nation that holds a large assembly of such exceptional visionaries has undergone the immense rascality and depravity thatpostcolonial Nigeria has experienced in the area of public governance. Olaopa is not under any grand illusion.He worries about the reality facing the country and considers the challenges before her to be much more daunting and complicated. While his vision for the country is clear to him, he does find the journey confusing. Given the professional competence of his generation, the task of crafting a value proposition forthe immediate transformation of Nigeria into a developmental state should not be too daunting to accomplish.

Before outlining a portfolio of initiatives capable of constituting a transformative programme that could surely and quickly produce a developmental state for the country which the president-elect touched on during the recent presidential campaign, let us review how Olaopa discusses how we got here. One more thing. Olaopa is concerned thatthe debate among political elites concerning the future of the country has degeneratedinto choosing between restructuring and self-determination.The risk of Nigeria breaking up is no longer theoretical but a practical possibility. In the private sector, when a company is failing or has failed, the board of directors typically press the emergency button and bring in a turnaround team. This turnaround team puts the company on a sure footing, offer it up for sale or seek a merger. Similarly, the incomingadministrationneeds twoteams. First, a turnaround team that can focus on redirecting the nation and putting her on a sure footing as a developmental state is needed. The second is agovernance team to attend to the business of governing the country and ensuring the well-being of citizens. Both teams report to the president-elect, each with its own focused agenda. In essence, the administration must turnaround the economy and clarify the essence of this country as a state to regain broad-based credibility and a mandate to resolve the Nigerian factor that has bedevilled the performance of the country for so long. With such a mandate, the administration will be well-positioned to transform the developmental state into a nation-state and put her on the road toward greatness among the league of first-world nations.

Back to Olaopa’s journey,Olaopa locates himself at the forefront of the narration abouthow Nigeria has struggled to emerge as a capable developmental state. He believes that providence had placed him at the epicenter of public governance in the Nigerian state. ProfessorAdeshinaAfolayan, Head, Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan, agrees with this position. In his commentary on Olaopa’smemoir,he observed that Olaopa’sself and the nation have indeed merged in a struggle for realisation.Olaopa’s quest for deep-rooted reform crystallisedin 1992 when providence and reality fused to land him at the center of political gravity and seat of government in Nigeria. He was already prepared because of his research and the reform tasks that he had set for himself. His sense of mission is captured in the following statement in his memoir:


The new republic, to use my platonic metaphor, could only be rehabilitated and reconstructed right from within the center of the old one. I told myself, right from the beginning,that I had to walk as circumspectly as I could manage and that was not only in terms of knowing my way around the city alone but also knowing my way through the corridors of power. Abuja then became, for me, a metaphor for so many things, positive and negative. Itbecame the very center of my reflections about Nigeria and what could go right for her.


Next, Olaopa was transported from the center of gravitywhen he was summoned by The Presidency during GeneralIbrahim BadamasiBabangida’s administration to be right within the vortex of governance and governmentin Abuja. This was when Olaoparealised that the speechwriting skills he had could serve to facilitate strategic communication between the government and the governed.More importantly, he learned how speechwriting could be used as a tool for policy management and enhancement of leadership in public governance. It was at The Presidency that God’s favour located Olaopathrough the intervention of his age-long mentor, Professor OjetunjiAboyade, who was, at the time, the Chairman of the highly powerful and hugely influential Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) and who promptly requested Olaopa’s redeployment to PAC.


Olaopa’s quest for the reform of Nigeria’s government got a substantial boost when he was posted to the Personnel Management Department of the General Services Office in the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. This was where he served as the desk officer for the implementation of the 1995 White Paper Panel on Public Service Reform which was headed by Allison Ayida.Olaopa became the secretary of the White Paper Panel on Public Service Reform and he was also able to build his absorptive capacity to formulate a deep understanding of the public service that later enabled his doctoral research.Olaopa’s doctoral research reminded him of what he had perceived earlier in the course of writing the biography of Professor OjetunjiAboyade. Substantial and deep understanding of policy and implementation comes from an integrated interrogation of both theory and practice. The complexity and difficulty of discerning the content and context of Nigeria’s civil service system demand a comprehensive, robust, and coherent understanding of the issues, concerns, workings and challenges of the civil service system in Nigeria.


As an aspiring reformer, herealised the need to build up his administrative management acumen so that his ideas and proposals could accurately correspond to the reality of the Nigerian situation.  A coherent and robust rejuvenation of the civil service system in Nigeria demands nothing less.Olaopa had numerous opportunities, both within and outside Nigeria’s civil service system, to accomplish his mission of personal and intellectual understanding about how the public service worked and how it could be redeemed from the weight of its own debilities. His memoir presents, in extensive details, elegant prose and beautiful poetry, cogent pontificationson hisextensive experiences and insights.


In conclusion, Olaopa’s doctoral research into the public service system and his practical experience of its inner workings have prepared him intellectually and professionally.He got validation of his ambition and mission to reform Nigeria’s civil service system from both the late Professor Emeritus Akin Mabogunje and President Olusegun Obasanjo. President Obasanjo actually gave him an order in one instance as follows: “Go there and give the required technical support to get the best institutional reform strategy for the country. Good day”. Also, the head of the civil service of the federation approved the establishment of the Bureau of Public Service Reform (BPSR) that was proposed by Oloapa. The BPSRwas tasked with the responsibility of coordinating and reporting on ongoing reforms and their implementation. It was designed to be an engine room institutionally positioned to foster the required linkages with concurrent reforms. The BPSR was inthe Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation for overall strategic oversights.


On the task of building a developmental state,Olaopa’s vision of what he called the Nigerian national project in his memoir has the stated purpose of integrating Nigerians into one integral whole and facilitating their well-being. This project is at three levels: a vibrant economy, a world class civil service system and a vigorously dynamic civil society. In his memoir, Olaopa outlines the three components of the Nigeria Project as follows:


  1. the material/infrastructural level which include the system of production, distribution, consumption and exchange;
  2. the institutional dimension involving the system of institutions, organisations andprocedural mechanisms underlying democracy; and
  3. the social relations, cultures, values, beliefs and attitudinal orientations of the people.


We here briefly outline a program of initiatives that can address the first componentfor therealisation of the country as a developmental state. This is the foundational platform for any authentic nation-building, a sort of Promised Land. This will imply that the country has indeed crossed the metaphorical Jordan River. Nigeria left Egypt in 1960 but has been wandering in the wilderness since then. From 1960 to the present-day Nigeria, various military regimes and civilian administrations established and implemented their own economic development policies to mixed degrees of success and failure. With each regime came a new programme or initiative to transform the national economy. It was not until the Obasanjo administration, beginning in 1999, that the first effective framework to manage the economy took effect. Known as the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS), it incorporated value-based governance and institutional reforms as crucial partof the process for achieving wealth creation, employment generation and poverty reduction. Before the President Buhari’s Administration, the importance and wide acceptance of NEEDS was evidenced in its use by the subsequent administrations within their own policy and programme reforms for managing the economy.


Unfortunately, the desired outcomes for the national economy have not been fully achieved. We summarise the drivers behind these missed expectations usingthe acronym, ‘13 cs’, below (the first 3 were from the Goodluck Jonathan administration):


  1. As asserted byPresident Goodluck Jonathan’sadministration, “Nigeria’s development efforts have, over the years, beencharacterised by lack of continuity, consistency and commitment.”
  2. Concentration: There has been a lack of concentration of efforts over time, place and people to achieve the critical mass needed to transform the economy and impact a group of people.
  3. Coordination: Lack of coordination across policies, people and places to achieve a targeted objective or objects of development also accounts for policy failure.
  4. Collaboration: There has also been alack of collaboration among the relevant stakeholders within a community of development.
  5. Community: There is also a lack of specific focus on places or regions as objects of economic development, not welfare.
  6. Comprehensiveness: There is a dearth of comprehensivepolicies, programmes and projects to accomplish the holistic task of developmental transformation. Too much emphasis is placed on partial lists of problems, with the set of problems to be solved changing from administration to administration. All aspects of a problem must be addressed untildevelopment takes place.
  7. Cooperation: A lack of cooperation among stakeholders such as the government, private sector, civil society and communities is also present.
  8. Convergence: Lack of a pathway toward the convergence of efforts and processes in the total development of placesor their economies also distracts from development. Policies must be in place to ensure that development is considered and addressed across all sectors of the socio-economic environment.
  9. Concurrency: There is no dedicated orchestration of policies, programmes and projects based on a structured understanding of what it takes to unleash development on the different targets of development.
  10. Consolidation: Mechanisms to achieve consolidation and prevent leakages of development’s benefits are not put in place. Consolidation is essential for the accumulation and agglomeration of efforts to induce development.
  11. Capitalization: There is a lack of socially constructed markets to ensure the capitalisation of development efforts into different categories of wealth such as community, market and financial capital.


We propose a bifurcated approach, one for the long-term and one for the short-term. The short-term is for the duration of the first term of the incoming administration. The long-term is for the governance team to figure out. We expect that there will be a convergence once the developmental state is established and a mandate is secured from the Nigerian people. Meanwhile, the turnaround team should be tasked with simultaneously formulating and implementing four initiatives that constitute a portfolio of development projects in the service of Nigeria’s transformation into a developmental state. Two will be designed to connect Nigeria to the global economy as a participant and contributor, not only as a consumer. One will be anchored by an economic base of financial services, innovation and technology. It will transform Lagos into a global city and the financial hub of Africa directly connected to a network of global financial centers including Wall Street, London, Tokyo and Singapore. The other will be to accelerate and enhance the Calabar Deep Seaport, otherwise referred to as the BakassiDeep Seaport. This is to be built in Idua-Inwang village in the Esighi community of Bakassi Local Government Area of Cross River State downstream of the existing Calabar seaport. It would be the deepest seaport in Africa upon completion.It will have a 16-meter draft and a key wall of 680 meters that would allow all sizes of vessels to berth. The project is still in the pre-project implementation stage so the opportunity still exists to enhance the project and make the proposed seaport the port city capital of Africa capable of serving the whole of Africa and the Middle East. The biggest ships will be able to come from Europe and Asia to berth so that lighter ships can come from different parts of Africa to serve Africa and the Middle East.


The other two projects will anchor regional economies. The first is to bring back the Lake Chad Basin as a vibrant regional economic footprint. Lake Chad of today is a shadow of and a far cry from its magnificent origin and size at its apogee about 7000 years ago. The Chad Basinwith the Lake Chad, as we know it today, as its focal point, extends over the area covered by its primordial inland sea and beyond and is estimated to be about 2,434,000 square kilometers. Lake Chad is a freshwater inland lake, a large oasis in a part of Africa’s northern semi-arid Sahel zone. It is well-endowed with huge reserves of groundwater, crude oil and gas, and mineral resources, including salt, gold, uranium, titanium, and bauxite.Nigeria can provide the innovative leadership, under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, to recharge the basin with a transfer of water from the Congo River basin, via a 2400-kilometer long canal. Obviously, there are major political, economic, financial and technical challenges, and the political will and executive capacity to execute such a huge project are also possible obstacles. But that is the kind of project management capability that a turnaround team can deliver in the service of the president-elect to project courage and leadership capability toward the transformation of the Lake Chad Basin into a vibrant regional economy covering many of the countries that are members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and even those that are not.

The second is to choose a state to serve as a prototype of how to develop a regional anchor economy.  The late Professor Mabogunje once illustrated the need for every region or state within the country to build her own economic base on its own resource endowments or ingenuity. He compared the State of Texas to the State of Nevada. Texas has oil resources. Neveda is in the desert but chose to build her economy on entertainment and gambling. Both states are flourishing based on their different economic base.  In the 21st century, every state should be able to build an anchor regional economy. Nevertheless, first things must be considered first. The state must establish a robust social overhead capital through the development of natural resources, the capacity for processing resources, manufacturing of products and optimal service delivery. Then, it must seek the application of knowledge across sectors and evolve into a knowledge economy. This way, such a state will be able to transform her local economic base into an anchor regional economy. An anchor regional economy can be compared to a rocket economy. It is a regional economy that is operated in the orbit of economically advanced regions in both national and continental contexts.

Using Ondo State for illustration, one sees a state which local economic development practices tend to follow standard protocols forregional economic development. There has been limited creativity and opportunity for value creation. What Ondo State seems to have done to date is seek economic growth through investment promotion that will create jobs. Consistent with other economies that receive large revenues from national resource endowments, there has been less emphasis placed on expanding the local tax base as incoming investors are provided with all kinds of tax incentives. The state seems to have been partially behaving like the industrial developers of the US South during the 1950s and 1960s whose main preoccupation was to sell the locality and its industrial sites to prospective investors seeking locations for manufacturing facilities. The developers use various analytical tools and techniques not so much to understand the economic base but to advertise, market and sell locations to industrial prospects. The developer focuses on promotion and recruitment efforts in lieu of the long-term economic development picture.Modern economic development practices encourage a macro-strategic view of the regional economy in all development actions. It requires comprehensive analysis and creative problem-solving skills in conjunction with marketing and salesmanship efforts. The turnaround team, under the direction of the president–elect and led by a master economic developer, canstudy Ondo State as a prototype and develop a tailored methodology to be employed as a guide for the practice of economic development at the national level and in other states of the federation. Master economic developers have concerns for the entire economy, not just for the agricultural, mining, manufacturing or healthcare sectors. This implies that the master economic developer must be equipped with state-of-the-art analytical skills as well as access to modern and creative problem-solving capability to be able to create a programme of investment opportunities that could be communicated in a manner that will attract global capital into the locality.

To transform Nigeria into a developmental state, I have briefly outlined a few strategies in which the incoming administration must invest its political capital. The size and scope of the proposed project portfolio are necessary to yield the kind and scope of development dividends that would make a difference. Fromwhat many said were impossible, possibilities that have attained the height of confounding and breathtaking successes have emerged. What we have witnessed to date is a parade of troubled and failed ventures at attaining national development. I know that the late Professor Claude Akeonce affirmed that“The project of nation building and development which Nigerians espouse is a journey without maps, undertaken in moral anarchy towards an uncertain destination.” Olaopa, in his wonderful memoir, has offered the nation a map and a compass. The incoming administration must not present itself as a politically diffident team. It must rather have courage and display a high level of dexterity in itsdeployment of political power and the strategic utilisation of talents and human capital. May God grant the wisdom required to turnthe countryaround to the president-elect. Amen.



*Isaac Megbolugbe is a former practice leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is also a retired professor at the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, and a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He resides in the United States of America.


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