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Who is thinking for us? (1)


I am honoured to be invited to speak at this retreat of the National Institute’s Board and Senior Management. If you can brave our treacherous roads and the dodgy drive up the mountain, Obudu – our own version of the Swiss Alpine region without the icecaps – is always a refreshing experience. I salute the foresight of former Cross River Governor Donald Duke for modernizing the ranch and resort into the tourist haven that it is today. You would also, I hope, agree with me that taking a ride in the cable car – the second longest in the world – is an exhilarating experience in itself.

It is rather intriguing that this is the first ever retreat the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies has ever organized in all its 37 years of existence. I have been asked to speak on the research and think tank role of the institute within the framework of the overall conference theme of, “Repositioning the National Institute for Improved Effectiveness”.

I’m no stranger to many of you. I joined the National Institute in February 1982 as a Junior Fellow, rising to position of Fellow and sometime Acting Director of Research. That fateful year of 1982 registered the coldest weather on the Jos Plateau in fifty years! To echo the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times. I had a new job and all my future before me. But we were also in the throes of our ill-fated experiment with democracy under the second republic. I plunged into the intellectual ambience of Kuru like fish in water. We had a resplendent library and the on-campus accommodation was of excellent quality.

The great Simeon Adebo was Chairman of the Board during those early years. The Harvard economist Professor Wolfgang Stolper who worked on our first National Development Plan during 1959-1961 described Adebo in his memoirs as “one of the greatest human beings” he had ever met. A sober economist with no-nonsense Germany ancestry, Stolper was never given to hyperbole. Adebo, you would recall, was the head of the Western Region public service under the venerable Obafemi Awolowo. He went on to serve as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Adebo was not only a great public servant and statesman; he radiated greatness. In my early twenties, I felt proud just to be able to hold his bag whenever he was on campus.

One of the attractions of Kuru is the availability of sporting facilities, from squash and badminton to snooker, football and lawn tennis. There are also ample pathways for jogging. I regret that some of us did not always take optimal advantage of these facilities. During occasional weekends, a young general and commanding officer of the nearby Rukuba Barracks used to come and play snooker with us. He was a tall, bespectacled officer and gentleman in the best traditions of the Nigerian army. On December 31st 1983, a military coup overthrew the lacklustre Shagari regime. To our astonishment, our snooker-loving senior colleague was announced as the new Head of State. After his first ill-omened innings at the head of the High Magistracy from 1983 to 1985, destiny would bring him back to reclaim his honour under a new democratic order in May 2015.

I need not remind you that thinking is the single defining quality of our human species. Ideas, indeed, govern the world. Folly often rules the world, as the American historian Barbara Tuchman reminds us, but ideas ultimately reign supreme. The famous statement by twentieth century’s greatest economist, John Maynard Keynes, sums up the power and force of ideas in the making of our civilization: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
But thinking is far from easy, as the philosophers would tell us. The great American genius and inventor Thomas Eddison famously declared: “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

America is the greatest nation that humanity has ever known on account of its creative, entrepreneurial and highly innovative culture. Its universities are the greatest in the world. Harvard has kept its number one place in the ranks of world universities for almost a decade, thanks to its capacity to attract the best talents in terms of students and the professoriate, with an endowment that gives it a spending power more than the annual operating budget of the United Nations.

Several decades ago the Israeli strategist and policy scientist Yehezkel Dror wrote a seminal essay on the concept of the “Central Minds of Government”. He propounded the notion that leaders who are busy running a government need the support of topnotch “central minds” that can help them think through some of society’s most complex and intractable problems. I would like conceptualise policy and research think tanks as organizations that can play that kind of strategic role in governance.

As you all know, the National Institute was created by military decree in 1979 as a high-level centre for reflection and dialogue on matters of national strategy and public policy and also for training of leaders in government, the civil service and the armed forces and security services. There is a bit history that many people may not know. General Yakubu Gowon became Head of State in 1966 at the tender age of thirty-two. Pitt the Younger in eighteenth century England beat him to it by becoming prime minister at twenty-four. By that age, Pitt had already come down from Cambridge as a world-weary intellectual.

Gowon, unfortunately, had no such pedigree. Challenged in terms of both experience and intellectual capital, he relied on people such as Obafemi Awolowo and so-called super-permanent secretaries such as Phillip Asiodu, Allison Ayida, Ahmed Joda and a few others. Obafemi Awolowo eventually left the government. Gowon increasingly relied on private advice from university people. Two of these were prominent, Ishaya Audu and James OConnell.

The first, late Professor Ishaya Shuaibu Audu, was the longest-serving vice-chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. A medical scientist, Audu won all the prices in Medicine at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School London. A brilliant mind that crisscrossed what C. P. Snow famously termed “the two cultures”, I fondly remember him advising me in private conversation to study political theory as the foundational discipline for understanding the science of government. The other private advisor to Gowon was the British-Irish scholar Professor James O’Connell. A failed Catholic priest, O’Connell taught me Introduction to Government as a green first year student at ABU. He was, without a doubt, one of the most renowned political scientists in the world. When Gowon was overthrown in 1975, the fate of both men was sealed. O’Connell was deported and Audu lost his position as Vice-Chancellor.

The Murtala-Obasanjo regime did not bring into its governance the kind of men and women of calibre that Gowon did. Instead, they relied mostly on university people, most of them from ABU Zaria. The famous January 1976 OAU speech made by General Murtala Mohammed was said to have been crafted by the Jamaican sociologist Patrick Francis Wilmot and the historian Yusufu Bala Usman of blessed memory.

Among these “Young Turks” was a genius by the name of Mallam Ayuba Kadzai. Kadzai was a doctoral candidate in Military Science at the University of Chicago. As the story goes, instead of concentrating in finishing up his studies, Ayuba Kadzai allegedly joined the Black Panthers, working in their underground to overthrow the American government. When his activities were discovered, he was deported from American shores. Ayuba Kadzai taught Military Science at ABU and also doubled as an honorary colonel and instructor at the Defence and Staff College, Jaji. Ayuba Kadzai was an intellect of the highest order. His lecture at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) in February 1976, “Nigeria’s Global Strategy”, provided the framework for new strategic thinking in our country. Kadzai had advocated the design a grand strategy for our country and advised on the need for creation of an institution to drive that process.

In subsequent years, a National Policy Think Tank was established in the Presidency and was headed by political scientist Uma Eleazu. It was this outfit that was to metamorphose into the National Institute as we know it today. In 1977-78 Major-General Timothy Ogundeko was appointed pioneer Director-General. Ogundeko and his team visited several countries – USA, Britain, Belgium, Pakistan and India – for inspiration in designing the organizational set-up of the National Institute. He also brought in the architects and contractors who designed and built campus as we know it today.

Being the text of a lecture delivered during the retreat of the Board and Senior Management of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, held at the Obudu Ranch and Resort, Obudu, 11-14 January, 2016.


Obadiah Mailafia