Permit me to preface this piece by celebrating two of my friends whose promotions provided the occasion for me to reflect again on an issue that keeps returning to my attention, especially on the Nigerian conundrum of development and progress. I am indeed (just like very many in different forms) obsessed with Nigeria, and often frustrated as to how we could be so blessed and yet so impoverished. Almost any issue communicates significance for me on how Nigeria can regain its greatness and empower its citizens. And in celebrating one of these two friends of mine, Prof. Olubunmi Olapade-Olaopa, in Ibadan recently, this whole generational issue resurfaced again in my remarks at the occasion. The issue having been a subject of a prolonged inter-generational conversation which the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy – ISGPP, had listed as a flagship, I had invited Prof. Akin Mabogunje to make a statement, thereto, at the reception. He had to leave unfortunately, as we could not gather ourselves together to commence to time, again, a generational concern which remains an issue with my generation.
Let me begin by borrowing the words that William Shakespeare committed into the mouth of Bolingbroke, a character in Richard II:
I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.
I am such a soul today, and it is my delight to advertise my extreme joy and fulfillment at the promotion of my two friends, Professor Bunmi Olapade-Olaopa and Professor Sade Ogunsola (nee Mabogunje). Bunmi has just been appointed as the Provost of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan while Sade now occupies the same position at the University of Lagos, for a while now. These two instigate some serious nostalgia for the moments that define our time together at the University, Bunmi at UI and Sade at Ife. Since hindsight is our only perceptual access into the past, I could say categorically that the frenetic academic pace we kept back then was the only indication we had as to how our future individually would turn out. And in that recollection, I cannot forget Bunmi and Sade as the very personification of indignant restlessness, especially when it comes to the duty of righting what is wrong. Together with all the others who have survived the Yorùbá proverbial twenty years, we have all come a long way, and justifiably scattered across all the human endeavours both in Nigeria and in the diaspora. I have no doubt that Professors Olapade-Olapade and Sade Ogunsola would succeed immensely in their respected positions as the change agents I have always known them to be.
However, apart from felicitation, I suspect that a greater honour to the achievements of these two would be to tie their promotion into a dynamic reflection about the larger concern with institutional transformation and national greatness. Their promotion is significant because they now head colleges whose significance for the recalibration of our medical education and health institution cannot be underestimated. Institutions require commitment and foresight to be transformed into optimal functionality. But transforming an institution is not just a function of commitment and foresight; it is a function of competence with a solid touch of patriotism. But ask yourself: What happens if the entire endowment, competences and talents of an entire generation like mine, specifically highlighted in achievements of my two friends, were to be patriotically injected into the national development strategy for Nigeria? I could populate a list of all those in my generation who have reached the very top of their careers. I could outline many more whose competences are transforming their endeavours in many unique ways. But such an exercise always leads me to one query: Would posterity judge our generation on our individual achievements or on what those achievements cumulate into in terms of national development?
I have been an advocate of a generational understanding of Nigeria’s predicament and greatness. In other words, we can get critical insights into where we are and where we can get to on the basis of generational commitment, or lack of it, to the Nigerian national project. It is the trepidation borne out of my remembrance of Wole Soyinka’s judgment of his generation as a wasted one that stimulates beaming the searchlight on mine too. Soyinka’s generation might still be around but, to all intents and purposes, the generation is technically gone; but mine is still around and kicking. But what have we done for Nigeria. I ask that question in the light of John F. Kennedy’s admonition: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” There is a philosophy behind this profound statement. One strand of it is simple: No one works for his/her endowments; we are all essentially blessed with them, and some more than others. Second, there must be a providential reason why some specific individuals with some specific critical endowments are specifically born as Nigerians within a specific generational timeline. Add all these together: If you are endowed and are a Nigerian, does that not essentially place a certain generational responsibility on you to be up and standing on behalf of Nigeria—the specific society that Providence has placed you in? Of course, there is no sin in translating your talents, competences and endowments into individual promotion; but then there is a moral issue involved if that is all one does.
Like all the other generations before mine, this generation constitutes a critical mass of endowments that could be deployed to the rethinking, rehabilitation and reinvention of the Nigerian nation-state. We have public intellectuals, engineers, scholars, medical doctors, provosts, professors, clergies, architects, business men and women, civil servants, military personnel, diplomats, managers, and lots more. All these were equally present in generations past. We had the Awolowo-Bello-Azikiwe generation; there was the Soyinka-Gowon-Ojukwu generation too. There were a lot of other generations before and after. Given the state of the Nigerian predicament and the enormous endowments that these preceding generations were blessed with, the conclusion could only be that there is a saddening proportionality missing in correlating endowments to national progress. That successive Nigerian government had to contend with the tragic and accumulated national burden of the past is a damning report on what has gone before.
But it is so easy to pass judgment on the past. What happens to the present? Most people in my generation are in their late 40s, in their 50s and 60s. I am in my mid-50s too. And the clock has not stopped ticking—Tick tock; tick tock. Posterity is also getting ready to pass the same judgment we eloquently passed on the past and its ambivalent generations of Nigerians who had so much but could deliver so very little. Do not get me wrong. Generational analysis of politics and development involves a complex analysis that cannot be understood in terms of white and black. There are a lot of grey areas that one must thread very softly so as not to sin against history and political sensibilities. Take Awolowo, Bello, Azikiwe, Adebo, Akilu, Eni Njoku and Okigbo on one hand; Soyinka, Achebe, Obasanjo, T.Y. Danjuma, Saro Wiwa, Bolanle Awe, Ayida, Fawehinmi, and Ahmed Joda on the other. These two strands combine politics, scholarship, activism and professionalism. In Awolowo alone you have politics and professionalism. Awolowo was a lawyer and a politician. Soyinka was an intellectual and an activist. Bolanle Awe, Mabogunje, Billy Dudley and Bala Usman were scholars and public servants, Tejumade Alakija, Francesca Emanuel, Joda, Asiodu were technocrats and civil servants and Gowon, Obasanjo, T.Y. Danjuma, and Ojukwu were soldiers and administrators. What united these people and their generation is an intricate relationship with the Nigerian state that begs for a delicate interpretation. Would anyone dare say that these ones were not committed to the Nigerian cause? That seems obvious, even if you are duly concerned about the ethnic dimension that Awolowo, Bello and Azikiwe introduced into the Nigerian polity. Or, the provincial turn that led some away from an otherwise national concern about Nigeria’s post-independence evolution. I doubt, for instance, that Nigeria appreciated Idika Kalu, Aboyade, Alhaji A. Alhaji (Triple A) and the significance of their national development economics.
Yet, Soyinka considered his generation a wasted one. Wasted in what regard? It is definitely not in terms of individual talents and endowments. In their own right, other individuals were as great as Soyinka and Achebe in their own personal endeavours. But then imagine that the activism of Soyinka has been multiplied several times into a thread of collective generational reaction against the Nigerian predicament? Imagine that the most endowed in these generations have the boldness of Soyinka and Saro Wiwa to engage Nigeria, the courage of Achebe to interrogate her, the vision of Aboyade and Mabogunje to propose alternative economics and spatial dimensions for her? Imagine we can abandon our self-centered pedestrianism and imbibe a sense of history and how our collective competences could facilitate social engineering. Unfortunately, generational capital is not working for Nigeria. I quake when I think of what the coming generation will (not) do? Horace, the Roman poet, already sees ahead.
Back to my friends. Since we are kindred spirit, restless and often grossly discomfited by disequilibrium, they will immediately grasp the logic of my discomfiture. I have no doubt how they will perform as provosts. But where are the others? It is time for my generation to come alive.