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BusinessDay

Who is thinking for us? (2)

OBADIAH-MAILAFIA-2
I was a staff of the National Institute from 1982 to 1989. During those years we registered some major strides in strategic management and public policy analysis. I recall a study on the Maitatsine riots which I co-authored with the geographer and planner Timothy Gyuse in 1983. Early in the following year, the new Buhari/Idiagbon regime implemented our report verbatim as national policy. It gave one a sense of profound fulfilment that one’s work had received recognition from the highest levels.
I recall initiating a project on Graduate Unemployment and Entrepreneurship which received generous funding support. Thousands of young graduates benefitted from the scheme. There were several other projects that we did – in public finance, local government reforms, the steel industry, central banking and international economics. Since some of these reports were not for public consumption, under our “Chatham House Rules” of non-attribution, my readers will have to excuse me.
During our time the National Institute reigned supreme as the apex centre for strategic thinking and public policy in Nigeria. The growing alumni body, with their prized MNI trophies, were also becoming a highly influential constituency in their own right. It was my fate and privilege to have met and worked with many great Nigerians during those golden penkelemes years.  During my time the eminent sociologist Justin Iornbee Tseayo was director-general. He was later succeeded by the gentle giant General Charles Bebeye Ndiomu, now late. The administration was headed by highly competent technocrats, first, Ambassador Isa Modibbo, and later, Gidado Idris.
The Senior Executive Course (SEC) was directed by outstanding people such as Eme Awa and the saintly Elijah Soladoye while research enjoyed the guardianship of Adedotun Philips and, later, Eghosa Osagie. Among the senior fellows were men of distinction such as Ignatius Olisiemeka, Tommy Imobighe, Christine Obumselu, Nathaniel Adeyemi, Moses Nwulia and Samuel Chime.
The Institute brought in a glitterati of stars from within and outside our country to deliver lectures. There were the likes of Charles Issawi of Princeton University and the jurist Yassin El-Ayouty. A five-star general from the defunct Soviet Red Army began his lecture by pointing out that he became a lieutenant in 1942, at the height of World War II, the same year our then director-general, Charles Nidomu, was born. The late Moshood Abiola was surprisingly a very entertaining speaker. Over dinner, he regaled us with deeply moving tales of his poverty-stricken childhood, when he had to carry bags of palm kernels on his head in order to pay his way through school.
One of the most impressive lecturers was the late Olikoye Ransome-Kuti. He was fond of me as though I were a long-lost son. The neuropsychiatrist Benjamin Oluwakayode Osuntokun was a brilliant lecturer and a world-renowned medical scientist. He was also a bit of an eccentric. He would ask you a funny question and before you could think out an answer, would burst out into hilarious laughter.
Pius Okigbo, historian, jurist, national chess champion, erudite and witty scholar, was the doyen of Nigerian economics. I thought him an extremely clever man, but also humane and compassionate. His younger brother Christopher Okigbo is my favourite among all the poets.
Claude Ake, the political economist, had an aura about him. By his total devotion to the life of the scholar, he was the first person who ever reminded me of Max Weber’s famous disquisitions on “Science as a Vocation”. During his graduate years at Columbia, he was known to have been the first person ever to get published in the venerable Review of American Political Science whilst still a student. He became a full professor at twenty-eight. He was the quintessential “organic scholar” as depicted by the Italian Marxist political philosopher Antonio Gramsci. I once asked him how he would respond if the government offered him the post of Ambassador to the UN to make up for all the bad blood. His reply: “God forbid!” It was rumoured that his death in a plane crash in November 1996 was masterminded by the Abacha military junta.
The late Ojetunji Aboyade was another remarkable character. He lived and breathed economics, as befits the worthy student of the remarkable Joan Robinson of Cambridge. It was said by the eminent economist Wolfgang Stolper that what Aboyade did not know in industrial economics was not worth knowing! He passed away prematurely in December 1994.
There were also a number of remarkable women. Grace Alele Williams, the first woman professor of mathematics in Nigeria and a former vice-chancellor of the University of Benin was feared as an “iron lady”. In close proximity, she was a soft-spoken woman of high intellect, beauty and grace. I also remember Elizabeth Ajakaiye, the first woman to be made professor of physics in Africa. She is a world-renowned and much-consulted authority in her specialism of geophysics.
Of the jurists associated with the Institute, one of the most impressive by far was the late Justice Akinola Aguda. A former Chief Justice of Botswana, perhaps his mild radicalism denied him the ultimate judicial prize in Nigeria. An intellect of the order of Taslim Olawale Elias and Sir Udo Udoma, he reputedly completed his 1,000-page doctoral thesis at London University in one year, living in the manner of John the Baptist, on biscuits and black coffee. The supervisors had to beg him to withhold presentation at least until another year, so as not to set the ‘wrong’ precedent. In the summer of 1987 Claude Ake organized an international conference to mark Aguda’s 60th birthday in Port Harcourt. I was invited to present a paper on that memorable occasion. Justice Aguda complained that the military were haunting and persecuting him at every turn.
The late Owen Feibai was a lecturer of erudition and moral force. A Rivers man, he made a flourishing career at the Bar in Jos before joining the Bench. During one of those hot afternoon lectures, while vehemently decrying the constitutional abuses by the military, to our consternation, he suddenly collapsed at the podium and had to be rushed to hospital. The atrocities of misgovernment in our country clearly weighed heavily on this great and good man. I became close to him and his wife. We once drove together from Kaduna to Jos. With a severe frown, he counselled never to ever receive or give a bribe in my lifetime. When he passed away a few years ago, I mourned for him sorely.
On a personal level, my mentors at the National Institute were Eme Awa, of blessed memory, who later became chairman of the National Electoral Commission. Eme Awa was a giant of political science and a renowned scholar in his field. The economists Adedotun Phillips and Eghosa Osagie had a profound influence on my career. My deference and love for him would not prevent me from politely disagreeing with the approach that his Phillips Public Service Commission took on the reform of the civil service. A great economist whose name is engraved in the students’ hall of fame at Manchester University, he did not fully grasp the fundamental principles of public administration.
There was also the late Samuel Chimelu Chime, a brilliant political economist who did perhaps the best piece of work that I know of in regionalism and development in Africa. He was a PhD of Stockholm University, Sweden. Sadly, I do not think he ever lived up to his fullest potentials. In the forties and fifties his father had been the second-richest man in Igboland following Sir Louis Ojukwu. Sam Chime grew up in a world of affluence, which may have had its impact in the way he did things.
My other director to whom I became very close was the Cambridge-educated geographer Ukwu I. Ukwu. We would spend long nights in the weekends playing scrabble. He won most of the time! He kept a long beard and told me that it was based on a vow. Was it a Nazarite Vow? I was never to know.
I shall not forget my other senior colleague Christine Obumselu, granddaughter of Herbert Macaulay and estranged wife of the great literary theorist Ben Obumselu. She was in charge of the Institute’s publications. Even in her greying years, she was a woman of beauty and elegance; highly cultured, with a quiet mien and a razor-sharp intelligence. Her daughters are as beautiful as their mother. Her first son, Ebele, became a lifelong friend.
Those were the days! Today, we hear that the National Institute has become the ‘graveyard’ of illustrious careers – the Siberia where government sends people it wants to get rid of. You would recall that Nuhu Ribadu was sent there after he was unceremoniously removed as chairman of the EFCC. A gaggle of public officers have been sent there on their way to retirement. Sadly, the Institute has lost a great deal of its lustre. The glory has departed.
The reasons are not far-fetched. In our day and age, leadership matters more than anything else. No organization, be it in government or the private sector, can afford to rest on its oars. You must either move forward or stagnate and perish. Unless we are hungry for greatness, nothing of importance will ever happen. We must not wait for history to happen; we must be the history that we want to happen, the actors in our own scripted Greek drama of Olympian heroes.
Under the current leadership of my good friend Tijani Mohammed-Bande and his senior management team, the National Institute is gradually regaining some lost ground. But we are not yet by a long haul – still unable to attract men and women of quality. The work environment is neither inspiring nor elevating. The organization is grossly starved of funds. Many of the new capital projects being implemented are from donations from CBN, NDIC and UNDP. The government and public no longer accord the institution the place of eminence in national strategy and policy that it once did. Without being judgmental, one feels that some of the fellows prefer to see themselves as civil servants rather than thinkers with innovative ideas through evidence-based research and analytics.
According the ancient Ashanti people of Ghana, “When a king has good counselors, his reign is peaceful”. There are more than 5,000 policy think tanks across the world, of which over 1,200 are in the United States alone. A nation aspiring to greatness needs multiple sources of independent knowledge and ideas. I fear that there is no-one really thinking for us – making it his life-mission to look out for the welfare of our people and the safety of our fragile democracy and ship of state in this benighted twenty-first century of ours. If any institution has that purpose cut out for it, it is the National Institute. But we cannot do so until we reinvent it as a forward-looking organization anchored on excellence and virtue. If not us, who? And if not now, when?
 
(Being the concluding part of a lecture delivered at Board and Senior Management Retreat of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, held at the Obudu Cattle Ranch and Resort, 11-14 January, 2016).
Obadiah Mailafia