Urhobo Historical Society

Culled from:
Sunday, July 26, 2009              

Talakawa Liberation Courier 103:
'The Seed from Which the Dawn Takes Flesh': For Omafume Onoge, 1938-2009 (2)

By Biodun Jeyifo
Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

In the concluding paragraph of last week's column, I wrote: "prior to the early to mid Seventies, on strictly professional and intellectual grounds, campus radicals in general and campus academics in particular were not taken very seriously in Nigerian universities". There is a slight error in the wording of that observation for where I had written "campus radicals in general and campus academics in particular", I should have written "campus radicals in general and academic revolutionaries in particular". This correction is necessary not only because the phrase "campus academics" is semantically tautological - where else in the world would one expect to find academics but on university campuses? - but more properly because it obscures the emphasis I wished to place on the emergence in the early to mid Seventies of the campus scholar-revolutionary, the significance and limitations of the phenomenon and Omafume Onoge's central role in it.

I am not placing any undue weight on the term, "scholar-revolutionary" here. And let me hasten to add that I do not want to be bogged down to empty or vague terminologies in this tribute. So, let me state the essential point I am making here in very plain terms.

Throughout the Forties and Fifties and on to the immediate post-independence period, public intellectuals, women and men of ideas, had been prominent in the anti-colonial nationalist struggles and the fight to erect the foundations of a just and egalitarian social order in our country. The names are legion and include figures that are not generally thought of as "intellectuals" in narrow, strictly professional and obscurantist definitions of the term: Oged Macaulay, Aminu Kano, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Mokwugo Okoye, and Alvan Ikoku. And in the Sixties, popular causes in the interest of the most oppressed and marginalized sections of the society were taken up by the likes of Professors Chike Obi and Ayodele Awojobi and Tai Solarin who did not exactly espouse a systematic philosophy of liberation but were nonetheless driven by powerful ideas and beliefs in the fundamental equality and dignity of all women and men. Moreover, within this profile, we have to include a figure like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti whose tireless and courageous struggle against local and foreign sources of domination and exploitation was as much expressed through his music as through his actions and lifestyle. Thus, what I call the scholar-revolutionary here neither came out of a vacuum nor was sufficient onto itself as the be-all and end-all of the great and permanent struggles to make our country and our continent a place where most of our peoples can live peaceful, dignified and fulfilling lives.

Very concretely, in the early to mid Seventies in this country and in other African countries as well, radical scholars began to exert a very strong, perhaps even decisive presence in the universities themselves and in reconstructing the link between the universities and the rest of the society. This can and ought to be stated in more precise terms: in the universities, radical scholars began to take the struggle for progress and justice in the country to the specifically academic, curricular domains of teaching, research and publication in their several and diverse disciplines and professions; and they began to place their knowledge and expertise in the service of workers and farmers, the rural poor and the urban dispossessed, the trade unions and the peasant cooperatives.

Since this development has been well documented and widely discussed in the social sciences and the humanities, let me show just how widespread and enduring it is in its ramifications and expressions. Legal scholars and lawyer-activists like Professors Itse Sagay and Akin Oyebode and Femi Falana are part and parcel of the phenomenon in the specific domain of jurisprudence: the law as a source of protection and safeguard for groups and classes of people that our present rulers and their social order would permanently relegate to poverty and political inconsequence if they were left alone to exercise their domination without limit. In the field of the natural sciences, botanists like Professors Bene Madunagu and Toye Olorode see their work as scientists as indivisible from these larger struggles in a conception of scientific knowledge and research as vital tools against ignorance and mystification, and as bodies of knowledge that must not be used for the purpose of extracting gain and profit by the rich and the powerful at the expense of the poor and the defenseless.

To bring this broad profile and general observations to the specific subject of Omafume Onoge's personal role and example, let me state that the radicalization of many disciplines and fields of knowledge in Nigerian universities in the early to mid Seventies was possible at all not only because it was the right thing to do in a desperately poor and crisis-ridden society like ours, or even because its time had come - both of which propositions are by the way true. Rather, it was largely because the radical scholars were so intellectually and professionally compelling that they could simply not be ignored - by their more bourgeois colleagues, by their students and by the state. In simple and plain language, the great social causes - of workers, peasants, poor people, women, the young, the oppressed minorities, the country itself and our continent - were not the ultimate deciding factors; rather, it was the intellectual and professional authority that now became attached to these causes that made the difference and caused the transformation. Onoge was almost certainly the first and one of the most eloquent embodiments of this transformation.

In last week's column, I observed that Onoge was able to play this role because of the combination of three factors: the breadth and scope of his knowledge and learning; the deployment of that knowledge for radical Pan Africanist, patriotic and egalitarian ends; and the fact that ultimately, as much as he was an intellectual of the first order driven by the power of knowledge and ideas, he was a very humble, unassuming and warm person who related to people as the touchstone of abstract theories and ideas.

All of these factors are much in evidence in Onoge's doctoral dissertation, "Aiyetoro", the Successful Utopia: A Sociological Study of the Holy Apostles Community in Nigeria", defended at Harvard in 1970, one of the finest and most rigorous doctoral dissertations I have ever read. By the time that Onoge wrote this dissertation, there was a settled orthodoxy in virtually all branches of Western social science, including Western Marxism, which entailed a deep skepticism towards all forms of utopian beliefs and practices. But because Onoge had spent time in Aiyetoro and had lived there and interacted with ordinary people, he went against the grain of that settled orthodoxy in his dissertation.

Onoge, widely known as one of the most brilliant and gifted three or four radical social anthropologists of his generation on the African continent with the likes of Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane and Kwesi Prah, absolutely never condescended to anybody, never sought to gratuitously embarrass or humiliate intellectual and ideological adversaries even where he was in total and principled opposition to them. I mention this fact because these flaws were regrettably were rather rampant in many sections of the Left in the period. Onoge was completely free of them. At Ibadan when that University was the center of gravity of radical, activist intellectualism in the country before the pendulum moved to other places like Zaria and Ife, Onoge was the least polarizing figure on the scholarly Left, even as he was also known as one of the most genuine and dedicated. Students, workers and the junior staff found him the most approachable, even as "bourgeois" colleagues among the faculty found him either the most tolerable or the least insufferable among the Marxists and the self-declared campus revolutionaries. His sense of humor, his love of life and his unpretentiousness in all things was exemplary. All of these attributes came together in his rather special relationship with Comrade Ola Oni, the man who, literally, was the founding figure for scholar-revolutionaries at Ibadan in particular and Nigerian universities in general. This will be our starting point in next week's concluding essay in this tribute to our departed comrade and colleague.