Review of Olaopa’s The Unending Quest for Reform: An Intellectual Memoir - (2023)

Review of Olaopa’s The Unending Quest for Reform: An Intellectual Memoir - (1)

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

By Tunji Olaopa

My name is Fatai AyindeAremu, professor of political science, and founder, Research Enterprise Systems, (RES), anindependent and non-partisan research and capacity development outfit based in Abuja, Nigeria.

In less than 20 minutes, I shall be presenting a review of the book, The Unending Quest for Reform: an Intellectual Memoir, an autobiography written by Professor Tunji Olaopa, a retired federal Permanent Secretary in the Nigerian civil service.

Before I proceed, Your Excellency, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen kindly permit me to remind us that an autobiography is a unique category of literature in that it contains an account of a person’s life written by the same person. A memoir is a special genre of autobiography in which the person (i.e. author) writes about a specific part of his/her life. In this literary masterpiece, The Unending Quest for Reform: an Intellectual Memoir, Professor Olaopa is giving us a bumper harvest of ideas, stories, theories, experiences and lessons drawn from his very rich personal database from cradle to date. Trailing the path blazed by Chief Simeon Adebo, Professor OjetunjiAboyade, Jerome Udoji and Professor Akin Mabogunje, all legendary statesmen who documented their lived experiences in the worlds of intellect and practice, Olaopa set out telling his story to inspire a new generation of public managers on the need to understand the necessity and intricacies of institutional reform.

Carefully crafted in elegant linguistic style by an intellectual colossus, a philosophical giant and administrative icon, The Unending Quest for Reform was animated by Professor Olaopa’s desire to meet five obligations. One, generate narratives that highlight the contributions of frontline “public administrators to the understanding and amelioration of Nigeria’s postcolonial predicaments.” Two, sustain the legacy of intergenerational mentorship which the author benefitted from. Three, address the dearth of trans-generational manual to forestall the tendency of new reform managers reinventing the wheels. Four, present an account of his stewardship. Five, present a testimony of God’s benevolence as exemplified by the author’s miraculous recovery from loss of sight at the peak of his career as a permanent secretary in Aso Rock Villa, Abuja.

This takes me to major highlights of the Book

In order to meet the goals set by the autobiographer, the 258-page piece is structured into eighteen chapters with a coda in-between chapters four and five. Each chapter begins with a powerful philosophical quotation that captures the theme of the chapter followed by the content and a collection of pictorial evidence at the end of chapters five and sixteen.

(Video) Obasanjo: “2023 Election Is A Painful Show Of Shame” Warns Nigerian Leaders, Says 'Youths Are Angry'

Professor Olaopa’sobsession with books was the focus of chapter one aptly captioned as “Books and Becoming.” His love affair with books earned him sobriquets like “-isms,” “A-Level” and some friends and classmates called him “Azikiwe” because of his love for Philosophy. According to him,

“I was being defined by an inquiring introversion which focuses more on an inner world of insights, ideas, possibilities and thoughts sometimes to the point of being inflexible …Reading for me, facilitated an ongoing conversations with many unknown others in near and far-flung places who could stretch my learning capacities beyond what I learnt at home or in school.” (p.3)

But being an “Alakowe,” (a book person) didn’t come without a cost, which in addition to the unfavorable public perception of him being someone detached from reality of life, extends to periodic misunderstanding with his wife when the little apartment space got cluttered and littered with books. According to theautobiographer,

“I would dump my books near the bed and my wife would pack them all and take them to the study. And before she could take a breather, the books were back where she picked them from. Peace was restored when she made her peace with my obsession.” (p.4-5)

In the chapter devoted to Books and Becoming, Olaopa takes his reader on a fascinating trip into the evolution of a scholar-practitioner whose early life was defined and shaped by addiction to knowledge acquisition that went beyond mere fact-finding. Hence, his life and career as a staunch insider-expert champion of reform stemmed from his philosophical interrogation of the purpose of knowledge right from the outset.

In chapter two, the book takes us to the “Origin,” from Okeho to Aawe, the author’s birth and formative years. Born into the family of Pa Festus AdeyemoOlaopa who hailed from Ile Alaja compound of Aawe in Afijio Local Government of Oyo State and Mama Beatrice OkebolaOlaopa from Sado Compound in Oyo town, the youngOlaopa moved between Okeho and Aawe for his early education and socialization. By the way, Aawe is a community noted for its dedication to educational pursuits. Aside its value for education, religious tolerance was also one of the hallmarks of the community. These virtues had influence on the maturing mind of young Olaopa. Above all, there were many Aawe personalities who served as role models for Olaopa. These include Dr. Adegbite, Professor OjetunjiAboyade, Professor LatundeOdeku, among others. His early education took him from Aawe High School to Olivet Heights in Oyo where his latent endowments as a writer and debater began to manifest.

Plato and the Intellectual Mentors was the focus of chapter three. Here the author demonstrated the nexus between the political events of the time, the crises that rocked the Western Regional Government and indeed the entire nation to its foundation, and postulations of Plato and other philosophers. This was the period when the seed of his intellectual inquiry into the connection between social harmony and institutional reform was sown. Striking an analogy with Plato’s question, “how can we build a city on the foundation of justice?” he juxtaposes the socioeconomic reality of Plato’s Athens to postcolonial Nigeria. According to him,

“And from ancient Athens to modern Nigeria, it is the case that those who wield power maintain the status quo that sustains their interests and class preferences. This is where Plato’s blueprint for a republic founded on justice becomes reform dynamics that hold immense lessons for Nigeria.”(p.25)

Plato’s classic treatise, The Republic, left an indelible imprint on the philosophical trajectory of Olaopa’s thoughts and ideological inclination. Plato’s famous assertion that, “unless philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers no political community will know peace or even development” resonates with him.

The story of how the author’s journey to intellectual maturation took him to University of Ibadan was the focus of chapter four. His academic sojourn in political science department and accidental foray into student unionism led him to further interrogate the tenuous faultline between philosophical ideals and reality of politics, first in the skirmishes with Oyo State Government over unpaid bursary allowances and later his loss to a less competent candidate in the student union elections. It also got him close to the inner working of policy making when he was coopted into the strategic planning development committee of the university. In this chapter, the author made insightful statements on the future of higher education in Nigeria, thus,

“To return higher education to its original mandate of sound learning and character development requires an urgent return to policy dynamics that would rethink the task for the university in the unfolding 21st century Nigeria.”

Chapter four was quickly followed by an emotional interlude, “in the valley of the shadow of death.” This short piece (coda) shared Professor Olaopa’s close shave with attempted suicide. He was afflicted by a strange brain ailment which started in 1976 during his secondary school days in Aawe High School. It lasted ten years. Respite came when Dr. Aboyade got him tablets from England. In his words, “While I still do not know what caused it, I am glad I have never had to go through such an agonizing experience again.”

Family life was the focus of chapter five. In this chapter, the author took his reader on an exciting journey into how he met his heartthrob, Funlola, at Oyo State Secretariat in Agodi, Ibadan in Oyo State. How did it happen? Without much ado, Tunji went straight to the point in addressing Funlola,

“Both of us are young and probably have no time for preliminaries.” He continues, “you look every inch lovely in measures that fits everything I have conceived of a good wife-to-be. I am going to ask you for a relationship and I advise that you say no. But if you say ‘yes’ to my proposal, the you will be my wife.”

(Video) 14th Inaugural Lecture - Professor James D. Olowokudejo

Long story short, Funlola and TunjiOlaopa are happily married with children and grandchildren.

But the chapter also contained interesting stories of their struggles with balancing Olaopa’s obsession with books and quest for knowledge alongside financial obligations to family upkeep which sawFunlola stepping in to foot the bills as a good and supportive wife. After a gripping narrative of their early struggles, the author concludes the chapter on a positive note when he said, “I strongly believe that the stability in our home, despite the various existential challenges was due in large part to our godliness and the constant reminder that we do not have to externalize whatever problems we encounter.”

Chapter six is of particular interest not just because of its caption, “Christianity and the Spiritual,” but because of the melodramatic experiences embedded in it. Of course the story of Ali Mazrui’s Triple Heritage and its manifestation in how Western Nigeria finds harmony between Christianity, Islam and traditional worship is not farfetched. And this was clearly illustrated by the author.

However, two stories are noteworthy. The first has to do with and encounter the author had in the dining hall as Food Prefect, the only prefect in lower six at Olivet Heights. He narrates his experience thus,

“One day, while in the dining hall, I had a reason to cane a tiny-looking boy. As I was flogging him, I suddenly felt a sensation went through me and I became instantly very uneasy. I had to stop the act of caning the boy and I left for my dormitory. Later that day, the same boy sought me out and asked for permission to speak with me. The boy’s first sentence shocked me beyond words. It was as if out positions were suddenly reversed and I was a boy being spoken to by an elderly person: ‘Senior Tunji, be very careful in life. This is because it’s not everyone you see or relate with that should be taken as an ordinary human…i am a mysterious child. Senior Tunji, even my parents will dare not beat me. But I have forgiven you because I love you dearly. You noticed the discomfort when you beat me, If I had been provoked and wanted to harm you, you would never have forgotten the experience all your life. So, please be careful!’” Olapoa concludes, “I cannot now remember how long I sat rooted in my bed after the tiny young boy left me”

In his characteristic display of naiveté, Olaopa ran into another ditch when again in the dining hall, one Wale Odunayo, a star footballer was pestering him for food having missed dinner. The tired Olaopa jokingly warned Wale, “Wale, if you do not stop troubling me, I will invoke an incantation and you will be in trouble.”

But Wale didn’t take it as a joke. According to the author’s narration,

“Wale took it seriously, went to the side of the dormitory and commenced some real incantations. DipoOjedeji and DipoOtegbade who were also footballers and friends of Wale and I saw what had transpired. They immediately come to me and DipoOjedeji gave me a really serious slap. ‘Go kneel down before Wale right away and beg for forgiveness!’ As I hesitated, a second slap landed on my cheek from DipoOtegbola who also screamed at me: ‘Go and beg Wale now!’ I went to Wale and pleaded with him to stop. He stopped”

The two experiences caused the author to reflect on the relationship between Christianity, mysticism and occultism. He asked, “is there a mystical side to God? Does God approve of Occultism?” True to his nature, whenever confronted with worries at an intellectual level, he turned to books for answers! The chapter went deeper into his spiritual evolution and unflinching commitment to Christian faith. He concludes, “Reforming the church requires that the priesthood must take its place on behalf of Nigerians and the Nigerian state.”

Chapter seven is an extension of the author’s spiritual journey spiced with further philosophical reflections

In chapter eight, he takes his reader into the transition from multidisciplinarity to professionalism. Here, the connection between the Optimum Community (OPTICUM) model championed by Aboyade and Mabogunje in Aawe and his early job description in MAMSER as well as his academic maturation in the field of political science and public policy were beginning to coalesce. Hence, his classic thesis,

“My initial assessment is that the postcolonial public service in Nigeria has reached a bureaucratic stage where it has been crippled by a debilitating bureau-pathology. My specific assessment of this administrative pathology is, too many people doing nothing, too many people doing too little and too few doing too much.”

This diagnostics paved the way for specific administrative deficiencies he itemized as policy gaps, capacity gaps, process gaps, performance gaps and resource gaps. He concludes the chapter with an emphatic statement that “it is only its structural and institutional reforms that could make the difference in Nigeria’s postcolonial and post-independence reconstruction.”

In chapter nine, the author invites us into “The Making of a Public Servant Reformer.” Drawing on his long term frontline experience in reform management, the author admonishes his reader that the complexity of the reform process requires that a reformer is tasked with the responsibility of thinking politically and acting strategically. This requires a delicate balance between the need for reform to be technically sound and politically feasible. This becomes imperative because, according to the author, “a reformer is not only perceived as a traitor, she is also faced with so many temptations, doubts, second-guesses, hindrances and demotivation.” And in most cases when reform eventually happens, the reformer might not be around to be given the due recognition for thinking outside of the box.


Chapter ten chronicles the author’s quest for reform at the center of power in the Presidency while chapter eleven deepened the “Quest for Reform” by zooming in on his sojourn across various ministries departments and agencies. Here the reality dawned on him when he realized that contrary to his ardent enthusiasm about reform, people were more concerned with positions, postings and appointments than being compelled by larger ideal of transforming the service for improved delivery. A classic case was how he helped midwife the establishment of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) only for another person to be appointed Director General while he was made to serve as Director of Programmes, where he stagnated for many years as a Deputy Director. In his words: “What other way to punish me than to deprive me of the top post in the reform agency I had “conspired” to take out of the confines of the civil service.”

The anti-climatic story of how he became the Permanent Secretary and his sudden retirement from the federal civil service was the focus in chapter twelve. He summarized his experience poignantly thus,

“And yet, in retrospect, it seemed I was administratively naïve and I underestimated the system and its capacity to dig in structurally against reform efforts.” After serving in various ministries OHCSF, State House, Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, Federal Ministry of Youth Development and Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, “retirement came suddenly and without any warning on 10th November 2015,” just ahead of his 56th birthday.

Chapters thirteen and fourteen interrogate a reform philosophy for Nigeria by examining first the Socratic Imperative and subsequently setting the reform agenda. Both chapters dwell on the analogy of the Nigerian civil service being a Rolls Royce in the immediate post-independence era. However, series of policies including Nigerianization, regionalization and representation meant that the Rolls Royce eventually ran on Beetle engine

Administrative leadership and the politics of reform is the centerpiece of the discourse in chapter fifteen. Here the author, an insider-expert (or expert-insider), posed some thought-provoking questions. Can the civil service supervise its own reform? Can civil servants supervise the reform of their own institutions? Irrespective of the answers to these questions, according to him, “in the final analysis, the issue returns to the critical factor of leadership.” This highlights the responsibility of the OHCSF in ensuring coherence in the implementation of reform.

In chapter sixteen, the author shared his post-retirement experience with think tanking from Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) to the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS). Taking a cue from the South African Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI), the foundation for the establishment of ISGPP started in 2011 as if he had premonition about imminent sudden retirement. No sooner had retirement kicked than he transited his first love, academics where he got professorial appointment at Lead City University, Ibadan.

Traversing the boundary between theory and practice and the promise of synergy for greater common good is the focus of chapter seventeen.

In the last chapter, the author embarked on a prognosis on the prospect of Nigeria as a nation. In his words, “Nigeria lacks a vision.” He put forward a thesis that Nigeria’s affairs have been piloted by two brands of leadership. The first one includes those who adopt wholesale the West’s Washington Consensus with neoliberal conditionalities attached to development assistance. The second set comprises of those with neo-patrimonial vision whereby self-interests override public good. The absence of shared vision results in collapse of active citizenship with attendant consequences for effective social mobilization from below which is required for inclusive and sustainable development.

This brings me to the next goal of this review; Evaluation

Beginning with the Strength of the Book

  1. Only few writers can put together such a compelling piece based on primary data collected from over three decades of participant observation at close range. This will leave traditional ethnographers research methodology arean green with envy!
  2. The author’s background as a philosopher, theorist, frontline practitioner, expert-insider, reform champion andadvocate of social justice, is reflected in the deeply analytical content of the book.
  3. The logical sequencing of the chapters and vivid chronological layout of the events makes it easy for readers to connect the dots from beginning to the end.
  4. The boldness with which the author took on complex and controversial issues gives the reader enlightened perspectives on issues mostly misunderstood by the public and hardly voiced in the public domain
  5. The author brought to bear a rare combination of practical skills and intellectual endowments. In the book, I find the voice of a philosopher, political theoretician, a policy anthropologist, a literary critic, a political scientist, and institutional ethnographer, a strategic communicator and above all, a spiritual enthusiast.

I think you will all agree with me, Your Excellency, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen that PofessorTunjiOlaopa, like his father mentioned to him that ‘Aboyade was a genius,’ ‘Einstein was a genius,’ he Olaopa is indeed a genius.

Are there additional pullouts from the review aside the strengths?

Well, in the second “Foreword,” Professor EghosaOsaghae, Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), drew attention to three important points. First, are there cultural and historical specificities to particular reform situations? Is there a need for instance to decolonize the civil service? Second, even though this was touched tangentially at some point in the book, is there a need to further interrogate the debate on the generalists versus specialists in the civil service? Third, given the federal nature of the Nigerian state, can we talk about a truly reformed civil service, even if we get it right, without bringing on board simultaneously or sequentially the state and local government services? These are issues the reading public might like the author to bring to bear his unique blend of towering academic credentials and superb frontline experience in reform management.

Aside this, all I can say to the autobiographer is that, the reward for a good work is more work! Please, we still need to learn more and future generations will appreciate additional documentation of his rich repertoire of knowledge and experiences. As he himself rightly surmised, “I take this autobiography to be without an end even when you reach the epilogue…An autobiography carries within its narrative a huge and lifelong trail of debts that cannot be adequately paid.” Hence, to the general public, please stay tuned….

The second point I would like to flag is, giving the compelling nature of the content, its analytical rigour and impressive rendition, in other climes, this amazing piece will be a strong candidate for enactment into a movie. Perhaps, this could be an idea worthy of consideration.

Your Excellency, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, kindly permit me to go spiritual here. Not to worry, I will not do incantations like Wale the footballer. Indeed, The Unending Quest for Reform is an outstanding collection of real life stories of how God Almighty works in extraordinary ways. From beginning to the end, the reader will find several episodes in Professor Olaopa’s living history where one would say, it can only be God!His entire life is indeed a testament to the power of the Almighty, from his miraculous recovery from a strange brain ailment that almost led him to committing suicide to regaining his lost sights at the peak of his career. These are powerful testimonies. My third special message to the autobiographer therefore is taken from Book of Isaiah 60:15, “Although you have been forsaken and hated, with no one traveling through, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.”

Concluding Thoughts

The Unending Quest for Reform: An Intellectual Memoir is not only a narration of Professor TunjiOlaopa’s lifehistory,it chronicled the pathologies of the Nigerian state, its civil service and the society. It highlights the dilemma of postcolonial predicaments that continue to clog the wheel of progress at systemic, structural, institutional and attitudinal levels. In its unending quest for reform, the Nigerian civil service, rather than serve as the linchpin to a developmental state, continues to wallow in its own bureau-pathological meddlesomeness.

Nevertheless, we must not fail to acknowledge the commendable efforts being made to ensure that those concerns expressed by reform enthusiasts of whom Professor TunjiOlaopa stands shoulder high, are already beginning to crystallize. The Federal Civil Service Strategy and Implementation Plan (FCSSIP25) appears to have incorporated the performance management system and other innovative ideas advocated for all through his career as shown in the autobiography. We can only wish for expedited implementation of all the pillars of FCSSIP25 in order to deliver on the overarching goal of engendering a civil service that is capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

For students of public administration, public policy, political science, political theory, philosophy, administrative history, development studies and anyone who is desirous of understanding the complexity of managing institutional reform, innovation and change in fragile and challenging contexts, I strongly recommend this Memoir as a must-have and must-read.

This brings me to the end of my presentation.

God Bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Thank you all!!!

Professor Fatai A. Aremu

Executive Director

Research Enterprise Systems (RES)


+234-703 277 9635



Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Pres. Carey Rath

Last Updated: 17/09/2023

Views: 6224

Rating: 4 / 5 (41 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Pres. Carey Rath

Birthday: 1997-03-06

Address: 14955 Ledner Trail, East Rodrickfort, NE 85127-8369

Phone: +18682428114917

Job: National Technology Representative

Hobby: Sand art, Drama, Web surfing, Cycling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Leather crafting, Creative writing

Introduction: My name is Pres. Carey Rath, I am a faithful, funny, vast, joyous, lively, brave, glamorous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.