On Friday January 23, 2015, I attended the investiture of Samuel Oghale Oboh as the 76th President of the prestigious Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, which effectively placed a Nigerian at the pinnacle of the profession of architecture in Canada. It was a history-making event on many fronts for Nigeria. And for Africa.
I very nearly missed the event.
Sometime in October 2014, an email popped up in my inbox from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). Once I saw RAIC in the heading, I moved on to the next email. I didn’t think there was any reason for RAIC to write me. I am not an architect and have not had anything to do professionally with any member of that professional body in all my years in Canada. Besides, I am used to receiving emails from NASA, the Pentagon, the US Treasury, and the British Prime Minister notifying me that I have won millions of dollars in research grants. Will I please submit my account details? I concluded that somebody in the 419 community was probably using RAIC to announce to me that I had won millions.
The story changed when a colleague and close brother of mine, Tope Oriola, a Professor at the University of Alberta, sent word that he was coming to Ottawa. My brother, Nduka Otiono, a Carleton colleague who is a Professor at our Institute of African Studies, quickly suggested that we put Tope Oriola’s Ottawa visit to productive use by organizing a panel on Boko Haram with all three of us, Nigerian academics in Canada, as speakers. Excellent idea! We started working on the panel which Carleton’s Institute of African Studies agreed to host at very short notice. But why was Tope Oriola coming to Ottawa in the first place? Tope announced that he was coming to attend the investiture of an Edmonton-based Nigerian architect who was going to become the 76th President of the Royal Architectural Society of Canada. RAIC? That’s when I remembered vaguely the email I had received from them back in October. I hurried to my inbox, praying and hoping that I had not deleted the said email!
Phew! It was still there. What I had thought was the usual 419 email turned out to be a formal email from the Executive Director of RAIC inviting me to attend the event as one of the Nigerians Mr. Oboh had instructed them to invite. Wait a minute - a Nigerian was going to become the President of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada? Now, my head is swelling with national pride. I was particularly pleased because I did not know Mr. Oboh and had never met him yet he submitted my name and requested that I be invited. Notice that I am deliberately not calling him a Nigerian-Canadian. Apologies to my Canadian compatriots but we have to claim this one 100% for Mr. Oboh’s Nigerian roots because this sort of extraordinarily good news is not easy to come by in one’s desperate efforts to punctuate the increasingly stable international image of Nigeria as Boko Haram and corruption. Besides, whenever immigrants with hyphenated identities don’t turn out well, the media in the West always places the emphasis on the third world side of that hyphenated identity. That side should therefore be able to claim the victories. Fair is fair.
However, I hesitate to celebrate Mr. Oboh’s success as an exclusive Nigerian narrative. It is also a biggie for Africa. Accession to membership of Professional bodies for immigrants in Euro-America is the equivalent of two elephants trying to squeeze through the eye of a single needle at the same time. Every year, they arrive from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and other ex-colonial, neocolonized backwaters of the global south. They are medical doctors, pharmacists, engineers, lawyers, architects, accountants, dentists, etc. They are the best brains in their countries of origin. They graduated on top of their classes and cleared all the professional examinations and requirements of the appropriate professional bodies regulating practice and standards in their countries. Then they arrive in Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany, and the professional bodies of their professions in these Western countries take one look at their third world qualifications and dismiss them contemptuously. The lucky ones among them get to start their new immigrant lives in the West by driving taxis. Be careful how you talk to that Nigerian, Indian, or Kenyan taxi driver who drives you to your hotel from the airport in Toronto or Chicago. Chances are he is a medical doctor, pharmacist, lawyer, or architect who can’t get through the door of the professional body regulating his profession in Canada or the United States.
This is the context in which to situate and engage Mr. Samuel Oghale Oboh’s phenomenal rise in the circuitries of the architecture profession in Canada. To have passed his Canadian exams, practiced, and risen steadily all the way to the Presidency of the body in charge of the profession of architecture in Canada is a feat for which we must congratulate and celebrate this great Nigerian. His biography is an essay in brilliance, dedication, and towering achievements. Before coming to conquer his profession in Canada, he had had brilliant and exceptional professional spells in Botswana and South Africa. Oh, did I forget that the 2015 President of the Royal Architectural Society of Canada was born in 1971? This is a truly inspirational story that we must spread to our youths in schools of architecture throughout Nigeria. And if you are in the Nigerian government reading this, you know what to do. You guys are often totally clueless about how to use our country’s best assets. Mr. Oboh has many building designs to his credit in the Western world. This is the time for the government of his Fatherland to think of creative ways in which to get him to invest his talent, genius, and expertise in the service of the built space in Nigeria. Use this shon of the shoil.
The investiture ceremony was everything you would imagine. The crème de la crème of the architectural profession in Canada was there. Members of Canada’s parliament were present. The American Ambassador to Canada was present. Distinguished Nigerians came from all over Canada and the United States to celebrate this worthy son of ours. The keynote speech was delivered by the great Canadian novelist, public intellectual, essayist, and President of PEN International, Paul Ralston Saul. And that, for me, sums up the achievement of Samuel Oghale Oboh. To have a global cultural figure of Ralston Saul’s standing in a room to celebrate a Nigerian success. Now, that is something.
The body of Samuel Oghale Oboh, I salute you.
You have done well.
You have made Nigeria proud.