This is a philosophical reflection on Nigeria with Plato’s Republic as reference. I must apologize and indeed warn readers ahead, that the exposition on Plato’s Republic in this piece is quite extensive, almost the first half. For those who are familiar with my public commentary, it is no longer strange that I draw on Plato, one of the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, as a most notable influence on my intellectual development and maturity. One of the most prominent and widely quoted commendation of the philosophical legacy of Plato is by Alfred North Whitehead, a more contemporary but American philosopher. According to him, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Even though this celebrated quote may be considered an exaggeration, it signals the philosophical uniqueness and greatness of the Greek philosopher. Out of the many dialogues that Plato wrote to concretize his legacy of fundamental reflections about life and society, the one that stands out and gave him immortality is the Republic.
Plato’s Republic is one book that most have heard about, but only few could claim to have critically engaged and understood its significant arguments, intentions and insights. The usual point of fascination whenever I read the book was the dialogue form that Plato employed for his philosophical arguments and reflections. Who does not like to read drama! However, when rummaging through the book, I got more than just a dramatic denouement. On the contrary, I was opened up to a large expanse of intellectual framework that speaks to what it means to reform a polity that had gone terribly bad and had sabotaged its original objectives. In retrospect, I suspect that the seed of inquiry into social harmony and institutional reform in me was sown when I first read the Republic back then in my upper secondary school days.
Plato was essentially a philosophical reformer. And his reform energy was directed at the ancient Athens and its declining democratic fortune. Plato lived in Athens at a time when that ancient city was the pride of the entire Hellenistic world. It was a city of arts, culture, games, and philosophy itself. It was also ancient Athens that produced Pericles and Demosthenes, those two statesmen that gave the world a classic understanding of what a democratic polity is and how such a form of government could address the inequality of endowments that differentiates one human being from another. With democracy, Pericles and Demosthenes believed, the polity could serve as a leveler—one man, one vote. Plato was familiar with the flourishing of the democratic dispensation in Athens, even though he did not agree with the political regard accorded democracy as the best form of government. And when the democratic dispensation commenced its decline after the death of Pericles and Demosthenes, Plato had his opportunity to reflect on the relationship between philosophy and politics, and how that relationship could enable us fashion a good society, but a society that would not necessarily be democratic.
The Republic is Plato’s most accomplished, most matured, the most intricate, and the most elaborate in terms of its visions of reality, of life, of society and of the human person. At the center of this masterpiece is a singular but most fundamental question: What is justice? This is both a theoretical and philosophical question, but one which had a deeply experiential connotations for Plato. As a bright and aspiring young man, Plato had a vision of a future in politics that will enable him to become like Solon, the most prominent of the reformers of the Athenian constitution (with whom Plato was related on his mother’s side). But this aspiration to a political life was not to be. This was because after the long and drawn out Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Athens started going into decline. This decline was further facilitated by the series of undemocratic, unjust and corrupt governments that decimated Athens’ glory after the war. His refusal to join the existing corrupt political parties of the period became radically established when a supposedly “democratic” and a majority of its 501 jurors found Socrates guilty, and had him judicially murdered. Plato was Socrates’ pupil, and he considered Socrates to be the most just man of that time.
So, for Plato, the question is really simple: How can we build a city on the foundation of justice? This question derives from Plato’s belief that justice is a virtue that appropriates the common good from which all citizens can benefit. Justice in this sense, in both Plato and Solon, translates into fairness—giving what is due and what is proportionate to those who deserve them by merit. The socioeconomic reality of Plato’s Athens is comparatively similar to that of postcolonial Nigeria. Plato was confronted with the danger of conflicts and strife arising from conflicting differences, diversity and interests. While the social reality in his time was the conflict between the social classes of the rich and the poor, the reality in Nigeria is a mixture of social classes and ethnicity. And from ancient Athens to modern Nigeria, it is the case that those who wielded power maintain the status quo that sustains their interests and class preferences. This is where Plato’s blueprint for a Republic founded on justice becomes a reform dynamics that holds immense lessons for Nigeria.
There is no state that needs the fundamental question of how to achieve the best political order conducive to democracy and development than Nigeria. It is this realization that fired my imagination after reading Plato’s Republic at first. At that time, the book only resonated lightly with my emerging understanding of the sorry state Nigeria was, especially in the Second Republic. By the time I would be engaging with Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s The People’s Republic, it was easy for me to translate Plato’s reflection on the ideal Athens to Awolowo’s reflections on the concrete Nigeria. Like Plato, Awolowo conceived of Nigeria as a republic that has the capacity to unite its divisive diversity while building a well-ordered, united and politically stable polity. Unlike Plato’s aversion to democracy, Awolowo had a vision of Nigeria as a democratic, economically self-reliant, welfarist and politically united nation. Awolowo’s People’s Republic was also conceived from Awolowo’s terrible political experience in the immediate post-independence period.
Permit me to deploy a few of the Platonic ideas that appeals to the task of nation building in post-independence Nigeria. Indeed, this is what has made Plato and his Republic a continuous source of reform insights since I began to understand its dynamics. Take first the ultimate moment of revulsion when Plato turned away from politics. He simply could not wrap his head round the fact that Athens would judicially murder someone like Socrates, a philosophical hero that the ancient city ought to revere as a gadfly necessary to keep the government on its toes. Plato would equally have been appalled at the way post-independence Nigeria maltreats her own heroes and heroines, hound them to death and neglect those whose heart desires long for a strong and democratic Nigeria. The figure of Plato’s Socrates inspired my search for the Nigerian equivalents; those who have decided to fight for the soul of the Nigerian nation even if it means losing their lives and reputation in the process—Claude Ake, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Billy Dudley, Oritshejolomi Thomas, Adekunle Fajuyi, Aminu Kano, Obafemi Awolowo, Eni Njoku, Simeon Adebo, Jerome Udoji, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Dele Giwa, Gambo Sawaba, Kudirat Abiola, Stella Adadevoh, Gani Fawehinmi, Ayodele Awojobi, the list is endless. All these—scholars, intellectuals, writers, administrators, educationists, philosophers, judges, etc.—represent the societal gadfly that continue to sting Nigeria into national order.
Indeed, my connection between Plato’s Republic, Nigeria’s national predicament, and the struggles of these national heroes and heroines was very fundamental in making the critical decision to shift from development policy research to a deep and nuanced research of the Nigerian public service. Almost simultaneous with my confrontation with the dysfunction of the public service, political theory had allowed me sufficient insight into the deep frustration that Nigeria itself represents, and how these heroic personalities have engaged with Nigeria’s predicament, and often without result. Can anyone imagine the deep-seated frustration that people like Udoji, Awolowo and Saro-Wiwa felt about Nigeria—a country that defies reason? These are national figures who made frantic efforts to translate their development visions into deep institutional dynamics on behalf of Nigeria. Anyone who has read Mabogunje’s autobiography A Measure of Grace will understand their anxieties and struggles.
Only very few states in the world have survived a civil war, and have gone on to integrate their diverse constituents into a unified citizenry able to achieve outstanding development. The Justice Oputa Reconciliation Panel appealed to my understanding of restorative justice, gleaned from Athenian sociology reinterpreted by Plato. In a deeply divisive state where the ills and the animosities of the civil war is still lingering, the idea of national healing plays a significant role in opening the door for the injection of new national values, around the ideal of justice as a virtue. It takes a little reflection to see the critical significance of education as a means to the emergence of a new mental model. In The Joy of Learning (2010), I was given a huge opportunity to detail the Platonic understanding of an educational paradigm that speaks to the deep advantages of diversity, and how it could be harnessed to transform the development of Nigeria. In the final analysis, it has been possible for me to see the trajectory of institutional reform from Plato’s insistence on justice to the urgency of restructuring Nigeria’s lopsided federalism in ways that respect our diversity and harnesses its latent strength.
I am not sure I have even begun to plumb the depth of philosophical and reform insights from Plato and his famous dialogue, the Republic. However, if Plato had been given the opportunity of seeing his Republic replicated into institutional frameworks and dynamics, he would have appreciated the great challenges involved in translating ideas and insights into reform transformation. This is what stands between Nigeria and her manifest national greatness in democracy and development.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa is Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government & Public Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan