Abiku Phenomenon: Nigeria As Cesspool Of Development Ideas

By Prof Tunji Olaopa

THIS contribution is a mix of a development prospecting post-2023, experience sharing and policy advocacy. In recent times, I have been reflecting a lot about the àbíkú phenomenon in Yoruba thought. And specifically, about how that metaphysical phenomenon could help make sense of the protracted opportunity for greatness that the Nigerian state has been forfeiting since it came into existence.

The àbíkú myth narrates the pain and trauma associated with a child who dies at birth, and persistently returns multiple times to the same mother to be born anew in a process of renewed agony. Since the spirit of the àbíkú never really plans on staying alive, it keeps returning to shatter the aspiration of a fulfilled marriage. Once an àbíkú is born, the joy derived from the birth and the hope that attends seeing that child grow are extirpated in a short while.

And the die is always cast, no matter the effort of the parents. Wole Soyinka poetically memorialized the haunting pain the àbíkú inflicts: In vain your bangles cast; Charmed circles at my feet; I am Àbíkú, calling for the first; And the repeated time

I can easily relate the mocking tone of the àbíkú in this poem to the ways by which the Nigerian state has defied all possible remedies to alleviate her governance and development predicaments.

The àbíkú phenomenon becomes for me a metaphor for elusiveness—the deferred possibility that has attended Nigeria’s historical trajectory since independence. The question is why, like an àbíkú, the greatness that lies ingrained within Nigeria’s mandate of nationhood has remained perpetually delayed?


It is easy for me to relate with the traumatic pain of the parents of the àbíkú child. As an institutional reformer, I have witnessed for too long how fervent optimism around reform ideas, paradigms and blueprints have been undermined by several factors and variables that we now call the “Nigerian factor.”

Reform is first a personal endeavor—the reformer is psychologically involved in the reform effort because she invests hope and optimism in ways that draws her into the processes. And successes or failures affect her continuing attachment to the reform.

It seems axiomatic to say that when there is life, there is hope. However, when hope keeps getting deferred, especially in the protracted expectation that Nigeria will yield to governance reforms that will transform her institutions and her citizens’ lives, then hope seems to lose its capacity to inspire further actions.


This is a personal trauma for me, having been involved in the reform business on behalf of the Nigerian state for most of my adult life. And it feels similar to handling an àbíkú child. And I am already gripped by the premonition of another aborted hope with regard to the forthcoming election in 2023, and the prospect of another political dispensation for Nigeria beyond 2023. I, and so many others of my generation, have come a long way from those heady days of potentialities, highlighted by Nigeria’s nationalists and intellectuals.

I refer, for instance, to the emergence of the discourse around the very idea of Nigeria itself. From Chief Obafemi Awolowo to Professor Billy Dudley, there was that patriotic concern to unravel the possibility of the Nigerian nation beyond being just a mere geographical expression.

I was also within the context of my intellectual maturation when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe contributed to the large prospecting for Nigeria’s future with his idea of diarchy that seeks to accommodate into the political sociology of the Nigerian state the emergence of military governance after the 1966 coup.


By the time Chief Obafemi Awolowo would commence his latter-day revision of the governance miracle in the Southwest in 1979, my reform lesson was taking another dimension under the joint tutelage of the late Professors Ojetunji Aboyade and Akinlawon Mabogunje. Both intellectuals explored their patriotic commitment to the development of the Nigerian state through an exploration of rural development via their Optimum Community (OPTICOM) concept.

This concept pushes the boundary of social capital and subsidiarity as the basis for unraveling people-centered and bottom-up grassroots development as the foundation for enlivening Nigeria’s federalism. This would have served as the conceptual basis for Awolowo’s development blueprint had he become president in the second republic. He did not become president. That reform paradigm will, in part, be implemented with limited successes as policy initiatives by different administrations.

But that historical accident did not stop me from incorporating that thesis into my doctoral investigation in the late ‘80s, and the search for strategic development communication OP-ED leverages that eventually led me into the IBB administration and its development policies through MAMSER, DFRRI, the community bank project that saw to the emergence of the People’s Bank, and the primary healthcare project.

The IBB Political Bureau was a framework for ideological reflection that resonated with my emerging reform understanding of the path for Nigeria. I was then juggling my embryonic reform frames with lots and lots of ideological readings in my political science and theory class at the University of Ibadan.

The ideological discourses were conditioned by colonialism, postcolonialism and neocolonialism, with large dose of exciting volumes to read, from Walter Rodney to the dependency theory in our attempt to understand Africa’s place in the international political economy.

Marxism was a fixation in those days, while Nigerian intellectuals, Ola Oni to Bade Onimode to Peter Ekeh, and from Billy Dudley to Claude Ake to Bala Usman provided the scholarly framework within which we could reflect around the possibility of a revolutionary transformation that could push the Nigerian state into a truly developmental dynamics within which, for instance, a civic public could emerge from the primordial loyalty of the ethnic nationalities that make up amalgamated Nigeria.


And this was how my governance and institutional reform teeth were cut within the combination of theoretical political reflection and policy professionalism that fed my expertise in implementation research.

And this was what I deployed as the fundamental reform competence that took me from the policy architecture of one administration to the other, in the attempt to cobble together a solid governance and institutional framework that could transform Nigeria into a democratic and developmental state.

Success was far from assured due to several and serious negative binding constraints, the most fundamental of which is the lack of political will to see implementation through to its logical conclusion.

From 1999 and before my eventual retirement, providence landed me in a series of significant positions, starting with the education sector as a commencement point, and through the Management Service Office and the culmination into the crafting of the fundamental reform document, the National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR).

I eventually became a permanent secretary, and started the campaign for national productivity as the culmination of all governance and institutional reform processes that transform the public service into a performing, efficient and functionally optimal machinery for democratic service delivery. When retirement happened in 2015, I switched tacking by establishing the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP) to continue the task of reform advocacy. My reform efforts over the years have focused on two correlated themes.

The first is the emergence of a transformational leadership that is able to create a change space which not only harness the capacities and competences of a select set of game changers, but also the foresight to create the vision and strategy that takes the civil service through the VUCA—vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—environment into a synchronized mode for optimal productivity.

The second theme is that of a cultural adjustment programme that demands a value reorientation which brings the citizenry to heel on significant behavioral and attitudinal changes that connect everyone to the leadership on the need to transform the Nigerian state.

This carries the fundamental message that institutional reform hangs on the dynamics of value reorientation. In other words, widespread vices among the leadership and the populace, that coalesce into political and bureaucratic corruption, will consistently undermine the power of reforms to transform.


Cultural adjustment requires that we put religious and ethnic affiliations in their proper place that will not displace due respect for institutional integrity. For example, we cannot always set up God as the focal point for our individual and collective lack of responsibility.

With the leadership in the land, showing example through their lifestyles and those of their family members as well as what they value, it demands that the unproductive investment in owambe parties be redirected to cooperative efforts to create jobs and self-help.

This moderate our collective belief that it is only the government, federal, state and local, that we must always look up to for relief from our socioeconomic predicaments. The consumptive malaise, at the expense of a productive economy, must be dispensed to facilitate an industrialized and growing economic base.

Here, vocational and non-vocational education must take its place at the core of government’s budgetary investment, while emphasis on R&D as driver of innovation and global competitiveness is not downplayed.


The government and the governed are both implicated in either the successes or failures of reform exercises. And as we keep focusing on the electoral year just around the corner, I have arrived at a familiar point of anxiety: will Nigerians do right in critically and vigilantly electing an administration which they will then monitor and press into reform service for the sake of good governance?

The reformer in me is very apprehensive due to experiential variables. And yet, the incurable optimist in me also remains eternally hopeful that Nigeria will eventually get it right. This àbíkú child might yet stay this time around.    

Prof Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State, can be reached on [email protected]

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