Heart of Arts

A City and Its Citizen: Awe and Professor Tunji Olaopa

Toyin Falola


I was inspired to compose this piece after witnessing the event at Awe, to rejoice with Professor Olaopa over his appointment as the Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission. He is an Awe celebrity. The Alawe and the kings of the adjoining cities came together to honour their distinguished citizen. The testimonies are extraordinary, with depth that reached far to his father, his ancestors, and his mentors. A gracious man, he paid tremendous gratitude to those who facilitated his mobility and success. He was moved to sing choruses of blessings. I was fascinated.

As usual, I converted data to theories. I had mental agonies posing and trying to answer three questions:

  1. If the citizens and the cities claim him, is it not a huge debt for Olaopa to pay?
  2. If you cannot meet the expectations of the citizens, what then happens? Do you become a bad person?
  • As some people are asking me to speak to him, what matrix do I use to determine whose request I should communicate?
  1. Suppose one of the guests who travelled there was kidnapped on the way; who pays the ransom?

The mind of a scholar is fertile, and I convert even the minute data of an event into a reflection. Yesterday at the University of Lagos, I asked a friend of over thirty years, “What are the names of my children?” He does not know. I smiled.

Professor Tunji Olaopa’s rise to the limelight is always celebrated as evidence of commitment and determination but that story itself is preceded by an awe-inspiring history which deserves observations. Birthed into a middle-class Awe family, the trajectory of the man already predicted choices that could be made. Under such an origin, it is often easier for individuals to get carried away under the illusion that their graduation into the higher class or retention of the current one is automatically achievable. Such erroneous assumptions have often prevented many individuals from reaching the optimum standards for which they are ordinarily capable of attaining if they were serious and in charge of their actions.

But for Tunji Olaopa, determination is nonnegotiable as he would rather remain courageous than feed his fears. A critical examination of his growth indicates he has made up his mind to model his life after some other Awe celebrities, irrespective of what he encounters, knowing full well that the path requires sacrifices. This is underlined by the form of courage and zeal given to his engagements and involvements from the beginning of his career to the current time.

Young Olaopa defied the gravity of odd experiences that students are confronted with before graduating from the University of Ibadan as one of the shiniest and most promising products of his time. His precocious academic capabilities are demonstrated in the stellar success and performances associated with him from that moment up to a place where he registered his presence in every one of his engagements. No wonder latter-day bagging of his Ph.D. degree is the icing on his cake.

Far different from individuals whose intellectual contents are not reflected in their lives and engagements, Olaopa has continued to use his intellect to redefine public relations through the provision of ideas that are themselves professionally excellent. This brings us to his most loved activity, political science. Without mincing words, he has shown that the most important thing that humans can invest in is their political system. I have noticed, perhaps from keen observation, that this mindset comes from his ability to relate well with people, irrespective of their diverse cultural backgrounds and their irreconcilable beliefs.

Olaopa is popular for his exemplary qualities in channelling his intellectual energy to produce quality and productive relationships. I am not privy as to how he internalized this attribute, knowing first that well-bred Yorùbá people are educated about the importance of solid relationships and that bonds should be maintained for optimum use. Although I am confident that his expertise in the field of political science has further strengthened this orientation, it could never have been sufficient to accumulate social knowledge and education from childhood if one does not garnish it with more practical knowledge that would expand the horizon.

I say this because I am aware that experts in political science and public administration firmly understand the place of leadership in building a nation. But more importantly, they understand that the road to building such leadership is inundated with the need to build a positive relationship with the populace, as that will be valuable in synergizing their aspirations and giving room for the actualization of all. But reality is always an impediment in some ways as it is generally known that although one might be an expert in political science, not having access to political representation would signal the finitude of one’s capabilities to make an impact. It should be mentioned that the ability to make meaning and transform the human world does not automatically evaporate the moment one is unable to represent in any political capacity. What I mean here is that the knowledge and understanding, intelligence and sophistication of a policy expert and public administrator scholar, among others, would be maximized more when they can be put into practice.

Meanwhile, representation here is a fluid concept. One can represent by offering one’s knowledge to someone who holds political power. And this is what Olaopa has done considerably well, especially during his time as a Permanent Secretary. He remains an excellent figure who has spearheaded efforts to re-brand and redefine the public image of the country by offering necessary intellectual solutions in important places.

His history as a policy analyst and speech writer in the State House, Abuja, was one defined by extraordinary inputs that have magnified the reorientation of otherwise blanketed public officials who have either isolated themselves from the basic responsibilities associated with their office or are blandly unaware of what is expected of them. On many occasions, Olaopa has transferred his knowledge contents that can revolutionize the public space for the enthronement of ideas that would redefine public relations, political participation and responsible leadership. During all these engagements, he has been the unrelenting voice that makes the case for the reformation of the public sector through practical ideas.

No wonder that his continued upward trajectory in his career had been a subject of conversation for those without similar commitment, a thing of pride for those of us who have shared a dream about functional Nigeria; and an inspiration for the ones who have identified a model in him. For about two decades consecutively, it would be difficult to find conversations that bother on the reformation of public relations and policy-making space in the country without seeing those areas where the input of this intellectual featured considerably. He has never given up and has always been up and doing, especially in affairs that concern the image of the country.

Something interesting about Olaopa has been his ability to multitask. Regardless of his investment in the political corridor, which apparently has fetched him the recognition and significance attached to his name today, would it not be surprising that this man has also made contributions to academia? The fact that he became a professor in his career path is an attestation to his relentlessness. Meanwhile, the contributions he has made to educational services and systems in the country cannot be dwarfed by the input made while serving as an analyst. The intensification of his efforts depicts a mindset that is interested in changing the world and the reformation of the engagements in it. On serving as Coordinator, Education Sector Analysis and Head of Policy Division, Office of the Minister in the Federal Ministry of Education, Olaopa not only demonstrated exemplary qualities, but he also ensured that he assisted the sector with impregnable ideas that would further strengthen the system in order that it would become competitive globally.

On many occasions that I am aware of, he has argued for an educational system that addresses the challenges of the country, which means that he has been an advocate for curriculum redesign in ways that answer the demands of the primary consumers of knowledge who are themselves in the country. Without stopping, he has come to be identified as a determined individual who, by the conviction of his intellectual judgment, has represented values that are celebrated the world over.

This is why I have always maintained that success is a natural product of a hard-working individual and that if success is derived through contrivances, it would not have the ability to sustain itself. In essence, the appointment of Olaopa recently by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu as Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission serves as a testament to the continued renewal of his quality contributions and zeal to continue in that regard but also an opportunity to put to test exemplary intellectual capabilities in redefining that area of responsibility.

At the city of Awe, no one doubts that Olaopa is capable enough to transform the Commission especially knowing that many have witnessed his stellar accomplishments in similar roles. His people recognize the appointment as a national challenge. Olaopa was reminded that his appointment was another opportunity for the political class to improve the civil service. It is often assumed that we lack the practical experience that defines political urgency, which inspires us to make decisions at some critical points. Of course, they are sometimes proven right by academics who gain opportunities to function in public offices yet are unable to show that they are ideologically different.

The great man of Awe, please be an outstanding performer that the people of Awe know you to be. I left Awe with questions that I must answer.

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