My Memoir and the Paradox of the Nigerian State

Professor Tunji Olaopa

Tunji Olaopa

Let me start with a statement that all Nigerians feel in their existential struggles to find meaning and fulfilment. Nigeria is a paradox. We all experience the paradox in the larger sense of how Nigeria is such a blessed country and yet it seems so ill-fated in term of the enormity of her postcolonial challenges. The natural and human capital resources that Nigeria has to deploy are sufficient to alleviate her infrastructural and economic woes. And yet she is crippled by a leadership deficit that has consistently failed to harness these resources and translate them into a development framework that can improve the lives of Nigerians. However, an institutional reformer—or even anyone who struggles to make Nigeria a better place to be—will experience this paradox rather differently. It is the extent to which Nigeria, as a postcolonial entity, generate both inspiration and frustration in equal measure.

Only few people will understand the deep challenge of knowing so much about the Nigerian condition and the postcolonial predicaments that have inhibited growth and progress of the Nigerian state, especially in policy management and institutional terms, and not having the opportunity or the capacity conferred by a strategic position to translate this vast knowledge into a framework of action that enhances institutional and developmental strength. Those who have been taken with Nigeria’s underdeveloping condition and have had the opportunity to do something about it, and kept running into stone walls, will immediately understand the acute sense of helplessness.

But then, Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, once exclaimed quite prophetically: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” What appears confusing about Bohr’s statement becomes apparent once we note that contemporary physicists have to keep confronting and making sense of the paradoxical nature of the quantum universe, as both wave and light. And what is the progress that is expected to be made about the nature of the quantum universe? Harold Evans, the late British-American journalist, provides a glimpse: “Actions are always more complex and nuanced than they seem. We have to be willing to wrestle with paradox in pursuing understanding.” The keywords here are the willingness and the wrestling—the willingness to wrestle the understanding out of the paradox.

The task of the institutional reformer is clearly expressed. In making sense of the paradox of frustration and inspiration, the point is to wrestle with the implications of either giving in to the frustration or continuing to track the path of potential breakthrough for the inspiration. It is this latter path that leads to the multiple mapping of the quantum world by the great physicists, from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking. It is the same path that defines the great institutional reforms that have transformed the western liberal societies, from the United States to Germany.

And it was that same path that I perceive Plato took in the Republic, despite the significant depression occasioned by the state murder of his teacher, Socrates. He was able to overcome his frustration with a politics that was so close-minded as to fail to see the significance of the Socratic engagement, and initiated a sociopolitical reconstructive reform that is only matched by Thomas More’s Utopia in terms of the breath of innovative reflection on how better human society can become. All institutional reformers would easily associate with the befuddlement of Martin Luther who saw so much potentialities in the capacity of the Catholic Church and yet could not fathom the waywardness of an institution that ought to be transformative. Maybe Wole Soyinka feels this pain more than anyone else too, given the promises of a nascent post-independence Nigeria that have turned into nightmares in terms of the capacity of the Nigerian state to empower her citizens. And Soyinka keeps advocating out of the belief in the possibility of Nigeria as a great nation.

Philosophy and political science prepared me to not only make sense of the dysfunction which I encountered when I started knowing theoretically and practically.It also enabled me take up a responsibility as an interlocutor in the public sphere of national discourse, driven by what I have called the Nehemiah complex of rebuilding the broken walls of the Nigerian state. This, through the multiplex angles of governance and institutional reform, and development and implementation research that draw on the methodological tools from public administration, management science, strategic communication, and the elements of social research. Chief Simeon Adebo, Prof. OjetunjiAboyade and Prof. Akin Mabogunje—all of blessed memories—prepared me in mapping the reform path that enabled me to toe a principled line without ever thinking I am a saint. All these were instrumental in keeping me sane and focused when I eventually ran headlong into the development-constraining dysfunctional space of the federal civil service when I made my entry in 1988.

How then should my assumed mission be taken forward, given that I was not able to take far enough, the desired objectives of my institutional reform mission? Having reached the point for instance where my mentor, late OjetunjiAboyade, reached when he passed on the baton and shortly thereafter, passed on to the great beyond; how should my generation pursue its mission so it does not get thrown into the thrash can of history as a “wasted generation”? And when my children raised this same issue, in the backdrop of my 60th birthday celebration, and asked for a narrative of my journey so far, I had to do something. The result is The Unending Quest for Reform: An Intellectual Memoir.

My most difficult decision was not in writing this memoir; it was in publishing it. And the reason is not far-fetched. Who will be interested in my narrative of my journey, reform philosophy and strategic dynamics for enhancing Nigeria’s productivity paradigm? All through my over twenty-seven years of active professional life, I had to struggle against a system where politics—more than competences—play a fundamental role in determining professional placement. And against a system that has become so bureaucratic as to fight against its own institutional transformation. But then, I got some incredible feedback from those who read the manuscript and urged me to publish it. But my most significant motivation was the hopefulness generated in late 2022 by the unraveling electoral processes in Nigeria and my increasing belief that 2023 might be the revolutionary moment Nigeria has been waiting for. And it therefore was not too difficult to be energized by the suggestion of the indefatigable Patrick Okigbo that the book should be radiated by its seminal objective of setting the tone for the new government through its first presentation in Abuja—organized by Nextier—around the theme“From Election to Governance and Performance.”

I have the sense that this memoir constitutes my critical distillation of the current of the future that I want to sincerely believe is right here with us, with this new administration. And that distillation starts with the understanding—and an incontrovertible one at that—that the public service is fundamentally key to any development the Nigerian state will ever hope to achieve. It is at the level of reforming the public service—through a conscious and conscientious political will to modernize this institution—that the Nigerian leadership can even begin to make sense of the Nigerian paradox. This references the irrefutable role that the public service makes in the status of a democratic developmental state, a status that is supposed to be the next stage for Nigeria in the developmental trajectory. Nigeria’s reform agenda, as I see it, revolves around jumpstarting a productivity paradigm, motivated by a performance management dynamic, that transformed the infrastructural framework of Nigeria’s development agenda. And this productivity paradigm shift, in turn, demands—as an imperative—a regenerated workforce reinvigorated first by a new higher education institutional reform; and second, a rejigged human resource management dynamic that monitor the recruitment into a public service that in itself need a re-professionalized reformation that prepares it for the new public service on its way to moderating Nigeria’s functional entry into the fourth industrial revolution.

Part of the objective of my reform philosophy—all encoded in this memoir—is to translate my reform philosophy into a change management framework that connect the entire dots in the dysfunctional and suboptimal system into a coherently functional one. the change management framework I envisage is formulated into five reform questions:

  1. What kind of public service is appropriate for us at this level ofour development?


  1. How can we get the MDAs’ operations to be restructured to deliverresults and outcomes?


iii. How can the MDAs’ skills deficit be corrected in a manner thatwould achieve a mix of re-skilling, regulated injection of fresh newskills and some measure of rightsizing or reducing redundancies ifunavoidable?


  1. What would be the contingent changes to personnel policies, paystructure and operational cost ratios that are most cost effectiveand consistent with the optimal productivity level of the national



  1. How would the service be more sensitive to the political objectivesof the government and at once accountable to the stakeholders without its independence andprofessionalism being undermined?


These five questions, from the perspective of institutional reform, serve as the fundamental fulcrum for any worthwhile prospecting into Nigeria’s democratic future. In moving Nigeria away from—in Awolowo’s perception—as a “mere geographic expression” and from our collective experience of it as a paradox to a land truly flowing with infrastructural milk and honey, Nigeria needs a leadership with a vision and a change space to enact a change management strategy that can take her out of her development doldrums into the light of a functional and optimal, performance-oriented and technology-enabled to enhance the well-being of Nigerians.

Beyond anything else, I am hoping that this memoir—at least the reform agenda embedded in my narrative—will serve as a torch that lights the way for an administration whose opening policy salvo has started generating deep interest and optimism about what is possible, after many years of walking aimlessly in the wilderness of governance and institutional listlessness. It is my own way of making sense of the Nigerian paradox by pushing the boundary of hope and optimism and understanding especially for other institutional reformers who have similar objective of seeing the Nigeria of our collective dream.

Permit me to end this short response with the last paragraph of the memoir:

There is no gainsaying the fact that I believe in the possibility of Nigeria. My public service credentials and lifelong dedication to the business of institutional reforms are sufficient proofs of that belief. I have written this memoir to narrate my fascination with the Nigerian story, my attachment to the historical responsibility of the civil service and my understanding of how that responsibility can be achieved. I hope posterity will judge my commitment fairly. Here is one member of a generation who refused to walk away and be brain-drained but stayed to fight and is still fighting for the possibility of Nigeria.


*(Statement at the ISGPP Public Presentation of The Unending Quest for Reform: An Intellectual Memoir Held at the University of Ibadan Conference Centre on Friday, 23rd of June, 2023)

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