Urhobo Historical Society

Culled from:
Sunday, August 02, 2009

Talakawa Liberation Courier 104:
'The Seed from Which the Dawn Takes Flesh': For Omafume Onoge, 1938-2009 (3)

By Biodun Jeyifo
Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

It is an extremely delicate, extremely complex claim that I am making that Omafume Onoge, rather than Comrade Ola Oni, was the founding figure for the radicalization of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination in our tertiary institutions in the early to mid Seventies. This is because in the irruption of radical, Pan Africanist, internationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist intellectualism into the very tissues of academia on Nigerian university campuses, Ola Oni had preceded Onoge by at least half a decade. Moreover, this is a claim that Onoge himself would never have made; as a matter of fact, he would have been greatly embarrassed, perhaps even displeased that anyone would dare to make the claim. Before we come to why this was the case, it is perhaps useful to examine precisely what is involved in making this claim that Onoge, rather than Comrade Ola Oni, was a sort of benchmark for that radical epistemological transformation in Nigerian universities in the Seventies.

Nothing better illustrates this issue than the fact that even though Ola Oni was a very visible and greatly admired activist intellectual on campus in my own student days at Ibadan in the late Sixties, it never remotely occurred to me or any students that I knew, either in my own Faculty of Arts or Ola Oni's Faculty of Social Sciences, that it was necessary or vital, as part of our intellectual formation and political and ideological conscientization, to take courses taught by him. No, we never followed Ola Oni into his lecture sessions; that idea never even occurred to us. We were content to be fired up by his public lectures, some of them given when we had him as a regularly featured speaker at lectures and symposia organized by the Students' Union. Thus, at this stage, as students, our lectures and our degree programs were one thing; our progressive and radical activities were another thing and it was very rare indeed that the two found any organic, vital connections. And what was true of Ola Oni was true of other prominent radical, Marxist intellectuals of the time like Eskor Toyo, Chimere Ikoku and Ikenna Nzimiro: the informing ideas and perspectives of their anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist rebellion against the existing social order did not percolate into the courses, curriculum, and syllabi of university degree programs.

By contrast, by the time that I came back in 1975 as a lecturer to Ibadan from graduate studies in America, Onoge was already famous as a radical academic whose lectures all progressive and patriotic students, whether they were in the Arts or the Social Sciences, could not afford to miss. Even students who were excluded by formal faculty or university-wide regulations from taking his courses found ways to attend his lectures. This was the beginning of the end of the split between radicalism in the streets and in the classroom, the split between the education you were given as a potential member of a tiny national intelligentsia and the fervent aspirations you wanted for your country and your continent.

By the mid Eighties, this process had become so widely consolidated that both civilian and military dictatorships for the first time in the country's history began to worry that university teachers "were not teaching what they were paid to teach"; consequently, they began to massively recruit student informers who spied and informed on their teachers into the security agencies of the state; and these military and civilian autocrats began to wage a more or less permanent war on the universities. If that inherited split had remained, none of these things would have happened and the condition of our universities would have been immeasurably worse than it is now, as hard as it is to imagine that anything could be worse than what we have on the ground now.

It would of course be erroneous to invoke Onoge's name and example as a model for developments that often independently took place at other institutions like ABU, Zaria; OAU, Ife; and UNN, Nsukka. For instance, the rise of the ABU school of Marxist historiography as a radical alternative to the more "bourgeois nationalist" Ibadan-Nsukka school founded by Dike, Ajayi, Afigbo and others can in no way be traced to the influence of the radical Marxist social scientists and writers and literary scholars at Ibadan. Furthermore, when "second-generation" and "third-generation" universities like Uniben, Ilorin, BUK, Kano and others sprouted their own vibrant formations and communities of radical scholarship in virtually all disciplines, no direct or even tangible links connected them to Onoge or Ibadan. All the same, within ranks of all those who were caught up in the general phenomenon, Onoge was more representative and more inspirational than any other figure one can think of. And I make this assertion without having suffered amnesia about the importance and contribution of such towering figures as Segun Osoba, Bala Usman and Claude Ake.

This observation leads us directly to the earlier comments I made in this essay on the disdain that Onoge would probably have felt about claims comparing him with Comrade Ola Oni, or for that matter, any other member of his generation of revolutionary scholar-activists. For Ola Oni, Onoge felt and expressed an admiration almost bordering on veneration or even hero-worship. It is important to understand both the basis for this sentiment and what, in the end, it says of Onoge himself.

Overcoming the split between certification as a graduate or postgraduate degree holder and the pressing economic, social and political problems and crises ravaging our country, our continent and the world was never an end in itself. The end was - revolutionary change, not in some distant future, but now, in this day and age, and for the benefit of the majority of our peoples. Very few people I have ever met embodied this will and aspiration as much as Comrade Ola Oni; moreover, very few were as courageous, dedicated and self-sacrificing as this man whose slight physical frame belied the boundless immensity of his passion for human equality and decency.

Onoge responded absolutely without any restraint to these aspects of Comrade Ola Oni's personality and role in the progressive movement (as, by the way, did G.G. Darah). Let me be absolutely clear on this point: Ola Oni embodied a great impatience with things as they were; he was a tremendous fighter for social justice; and he gave everything that he had for the cause. In other words, moral and emotional authority resided in Ola Oni, but intellectual authority, in a very strict sense, belonged to Onoge. It says much about Onoge that he did not see intellectualism, his and others, in a lopsided, self-serving and bourgeois light. Hence, he always gave Ola Oni his due, much as he always gave all who worked with him what they deserved in considerateness, courteousness and camaraderie.

In bringing this tribute to my comrade, friend and mentor to an end, I cannot but reflect briefly on where things stand now. The split between educational certification and the real, desperate needs of the country has been re-instituted in the last decade and half; this time, the split is even much wider and much deeper than anything we experienced in our undergraduate days four decades ago. We must not be complacent: the revolution has not happened and Onoge was very much aware of this fact, to the very end of his life, even as he recognized, as most of us have realized, that the "revolution" will be very different from the one we dreamed and struggled for.

It is important to emphasize this last point because, in his last years, Onoge was much engaged by the struggles of the Niger Delta for resource control and against what has been aptly theorized as "internal colonialism". In the last two decades, the Nigerian Left has been greatly fragmented, in theory and in practice. Because Onoge's advocacy of the just cause of the Niger Delta was always informed by the Pan Africanist, anti-imperialist and internationalist perspectives of his early intellectual and political adulthood, the work of his last years did not negate but only complicated what "revolution" would mean at the present time. But this is a topic for another essay, another discourse. How sad that we are now bereft of Onoge's presence in that discourse!