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Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje: Thoughts and Legacies on Fixing Nigeria


The breath of the contributions of the late Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje to development policy and governance reform is so breathtaking that one cannot ever think of exhausting its deep nuances. From the personal to the public, Prof. Mabogunje embodied every element of a fulfilled life lived not only for self but also for others and for Nigeria; a country he loved with the very essence of his public service, as nothing less than a spiritual calling. He was a quintessential patriot like no other. And that became a quality that also translated into a mentoring passion. From my first meeting with Mabogunje till he became the chairman of the governing board of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), I had learnt a lot about governance, public policy and policy-engaged research from him in ways that impacted my advocacy for institutional and governance research cum reform. Professor Mabogunje was inflamed with the passion of getting Nigeria to work. And he struggled with the apparent dysfunction of a state that spurned all forms of reform efforts from her committed patriots. In this piece, I want to add to the growing list of eulogies trailing Mabogunje’s demise by outlining his major legacies that essentially bother on how Nigeria can become functional in governance and development terms.



Mabogunje came to prominence from an unlikely disciplinary perspective—geography. The story of how he came about geography as a disciplinary focus is narrated in his autobiography A Measure of Grace (2011). To cut the long story short, is to say that at a time when the intellectual ferment in the field, as early as the 1960s, was at the point of a global disciplinary revolution focusing geography on the cusp of quantitative and theoretical revolution, being thrown providentially right into the orbit of this revolution made Mabogunje “the African focal point of the revolution” in geography. His entrenchment in historical geography at the university came to shape Mabogunje’s focus on development and policy formulation, with a depth and breath that affected the way problems in these fields are conceptualized for the benefit of the state. In his words, “it was the luck of the first that made it possible for me to begin to impact on development policies and programmes within Nigeria.” Of course, there was the luck of the first; but it was a determined focus that kept Mabogunje locked to unraveling Nigeria’s development challenges. He would then ride on being first to become the first African president of the International Geographical Union, first African to be elected as a Foreign Associate of the US Academy of Science, first and only African to have won the prestigious Vautrin-Lud Prize, the highest honour in the field of geography, to name just a few.


No scholar and development planner concerned with Nigeria’s development would not eventually be forced to confront land reform. As a factor of production, land plays a critical role in development policies. And that is where the Land Use Act of 1978 came into Mabogunje’s focus. As a policy of its time, the Act became necessary to highlight government’s statist ideology of assuming the “commanding height” of the national economy in development planning. Under the force of Keynesian macroeconomics of the time, it seemed normal to see the government and governors as the custodians of the land in their state; hence the Land Use Act. However, this Act hampered a lot that could motivate economic development, like mortgage financing that allows individual transactions. In terms of capitalist wealth creation dynamics, the Act requires urgent revision that allows for individuals and communities to achieve land holding without having to go through the bureaucratic hurdles demanded by the Act. Mabogunje’s recommendation is simple: make Nigeria’s land assets a significant part of the economic aggregates that define her wealth and development. This makes it imperative to achieve a coordinated surveying and regularizing of the lands to make for ease of landholding and doing business. We are still far from this policy commonsense.


Mabogunje gave the same short-shrift critique of the Local Government Reform of 1976. This reform got it wrong from the beginning because, for Mabogunje, it conflated “economic with administrative efficiency.” This translates to thinking that the population and size of a local government area determine its efficient returns. By focusing on population, the 1976 Reform ignores the agential capacity of these settlements to effectively mobilize and deploy their social capital and subsidiarity values for internal development. Furthermore, the uncritical rate at which local government areas were proliferating implied that they would not be able to access the same level of funding from the Federation Account that depends on unequal access even for states. The lopsidedness of Nigeria’s federation makes it inevitable that the local government reform would not achieve what it ought to in terms of making the local government the real third tier of governance; the grassroots where development ought to take hold and take place for the citizens. Mabogunje held on tightly to the federal idea of making the LGAs a consolidated point for development. He insisted that while a truly local government must be managed and administered by representatives of resident population, it should be mandatory that in response to the democratic imperative, every LGA must report its activities and budgets to a town hall assembly of stakeholders, including the ward or neighborhood heads or leaders of various local economic organizations and trade associations, religious and traditional leaders, leaders of women organizations, NGOs, etc. This is the basis for administrative efficiency and democratic accountability: ensuring that the local government authority see to the development imperative represented by each settlement and town under it. This is the very essence of the OPTICOM initiative championed by Mabogunje and Aboyade at Aawe in Oyo State. This initiative deploys the idea of civic engagement and social reciprocity to facilitate organization, technological innovations, credit institution and market access towards rural development.


A detailed focus on land reform and rural development seems to lead inevitably to a deep reflection on poverty and the policy dynamics that would facilitate its amelioration. Mabogunje’s patriotic concern for development drew him down all the way to the policy implications of his research. What links rural development and poverty reduction for Mabogunje is the idea of popular participation that is critical to democratic governance. The Ijebu Development Initiative on Poverty Reduction (IDIPR), championed by Oba Sikiru Adetona, provided Mabogunje with the context to relate popular participation to rural and infrastructural development and poverty alleviation. The IDIPR demonstrated the need for a multipronged stakeholder participation that transcends the bureaucratic reliance on the public sector alone. The strategy must fundamentally achieve a synergy between state resources and the social capital and other availabilities inherent in the communities. The concerted and coordinated strategic plan of action demand a focus on critical pillars as basic infrastructure and social overheads provisioning; enterprise development; employment generation and skills enhancement; promoting traditional activities in the local economy; promoting tourism; pushing for attitudinal change and cultural renaissance; intensification of cooperative activities; and institution building.


Even though the public sector requires the highest level of support to achieve the level of development strategizing Nigeria requires, it also means, for Mabogunje, that the civil service must be efficiently and effectively capacitated to play it imperative role. And one would therefore not be surprised at some of the issues of reform that Mabogunje emphasized. The most fundamental, from the vantage point of his development vision, is the public-private partnership that could be deployed to bring the various critical stakeholders into concerted relationship for enhanced development. The real issue is therefore not just the ability of the public service to enter into contractual relationship and partnerships with consortiums and nonstate organizations; it is essentially the reform of contractual obligations and the need to fulfil them. Institutional parameters must be put into reform documents that will ensure that the government, through its MDAs stand by their contractual and partnership responsibilities. This would also mean, by administrative necessity, that recruitment and upward mobility in the civil service must be purely by merit. Mabogunje’s membership in the Udoji Commission of 1972 comes in handy in his reform recommendation. He insisted, for instance, that the federal character principle must only be deployed as an entry requirement. It should have no role to play in upward and intersectoral mobility. It is only this way that the Nigerian civil service could be repositioned so it could attain the status of the All-India Civil Service where the top echelon “can stand up in management terms with the best anywhere in the world”.


Professor Mabogunje was intellectually and politically astute sufficiently to understand that if anything must happen at the level of institutional reforms he championed, it must happen at a deep constitutional level. Nigeria requires a fundamental restructuring to be able to make headways with any institutional and governance reforms. In this regard, the 1963 Constitution provides a viable constitutional template for rethinking the possibility of a competitive federal system that will stimulate regional development. The change required must be such that will not make states beggars at the federal government table. States must be robust federating units that have the wherewithal to initiate innovative development programmes. This can only come from constitutional amendments that will allow states or geopolitical zones to contribute 50% from their mineral earnings to the federal purse and achieving constitutional concession to collect levies, say, on VAT, without this being taken over by the FG.


Anyone with a modicum of development and governance expertise will immediately see how the legacy thoughts of Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje tie together into a coherent framework of development for Nigeria. These thoughts are still flowing free in the development space of the Nigerian polity, waiting for a perspicacious government to tap into. This is what constitute immortality for this colossal genius and patriot. These ideas could also constitute the first steps towards Nigeria’s greatness if only we will take note and harness them.


*Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos (

Culled from THISDAY

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