There’s something pleasantly elusive about greatness, the greatness of an individual. Like the elephant in the blind men’s imagination, we all come at it from different perspectives and yet we still each conceive enough of it to be differently credible.
Professor Pius Oota Adebola Adesanmi was a great African who lived life in hurried brilliance and who when he was done flew away home and left us with many questions, all of which we can never fully answer. Adesanmi, the revolutionary teacher, political activist, satirist, literary theorist and stylist, polymath and storyteller extraordinaire died in active service to Africa. He was on a mission for the African Union when his plane crashed. He died in Ethiopia, the only African country that was never colonized. He died free.
Pius Adesanmi was born into greatness, not because his parents were born great, but because they prepared him for greatness even before he was born. They brought him into a world of knowledge and nurtured him there till the end. His father, Joshua Adesanmi, was an old school principal who was Pius Adesanmi’s ultimate hero. The older Adesanmi’s expansive library at home in Isanlu was Pius’s playground and it was to be his most important inheritance from the man. From very early, Pa Adesanmi took Pius through Plato to Samora Machel in equal dose with Catholic discipline. His mother, Lois Adesanmi, whose sacrifice for his education is the stuff of legend, was his muse. Pius expressed the wish to be buried with a copy of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s Petals of Bloodbought for him by his mum. His desire was not a tribute to Ngũgĩ, a writer he adored immensely; it was a tribute to his mum who had to pawn her precious jewels to buy him the book. Today, the world is announcing the passing of Pius loudly and we are here only as part of that beautiful cacophony. But who will find Elijah’s body to make his wish come true? We pray….
As a public intellectual, Pius reminds me of two great scholars of the past – the Nigerian thinker Professor Claude Ake who also died in a Boeing 727 plane crash in 1996 at the age of 57 and the Italian, Antonio Gramsci, who like Pius died relatively young at the age of 46 in 1937, a prisoner of Benito Mussolini. In the days following Adesanmi’s passing, my brother and friend, the English Language puritan, Charles Iyoha, while sharing his thoughts on Adesanmi with me, pleasantly surprised me by making a comparison of Adesanmi to Ake. He said Adesanmi, like Ake was “fecund and peripatetic” and that both “made us see the place of rigorous thinking in the whole matrix.” It was a Facebook inbox chat and at that point, I wanted to respond with an epistle! But I was too drained emotionally. All I could muster by way of a response was to say both were true public intellectuals who were “curious, honest, rigorous and dutiful.” But I was deeply happy that someone else sees Pius in the same light I see Ake.
Ake was not blessed with Pius’s charisma, wit or gift for brilliant satirization, but like Pius he was concerned about the condition of African scholarship and he went out to do something about it with the establishment of Centre for Advanced Social Science in Port Harcourt. Like Pius, he spoke truth to power. He was a member the Steering Committee of the Niger Delta Environmental Survey, but he resigned to protest the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight other Ogoni activists in 1995.
Anyway, here is not the place to make a detailed comparison between the works and thoughts of Ake, Gramsci and Adesanmi, but suffice to say these men were original thinkers who challenged the norm and pushed boundaries with innovative and clear thinking on subjects that had been looked at with a certain kind of orthodoxy before their arrival. For instance, Ake’s challenge of Western social science theories and Gramsci’s theory of bourgeoisie cultural hegemony parallel Adesanmi’s rambunctious take on the role of the ‘African Big Man’ (in the public and private sector) as the core distortive influence in African development. Of course, Adesanmi was not the first to rage against political, economic, religious and social leaders in Africa; but he was one of the very few persons who are theorizing about this before his passing.
Indeed, from the moment Adesanmi burst into public consciousness as a public intellectual in the mid-2000s, he never looked back. He talked education, politics, innovation and everything in-between, publishing prodigiously as he crisscrossed the planet, especially Africa, developing a new kind of Africa-West cooperative scholarship as he led capacity building missions to universities in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa with collaborations with international organizations thrown in as well. Pius operated as though he had more than 24 hours in a day and while some of us marvel at his productive capacity, he frequently complained he was not doing enough! Pius was an intellectual Iron Man; his energy was near superhuman!
To understand Pius as a pan-Africanist and an original thinker, we don’t have to trawl through all his talks, lectures, articles, publications or even some private exchanges he had with friends. Deliberately or inadvertently, Pius always left his revolutionary face in every serious thing he wrote or in every serious lecture or talk he had. If you really want to capture the whole essence of Pius as an African and his hopes and aspirations for the continent, just go watch his TEDxEuston talk of 2014. In that talk, you’ll find his humour, his cultural grounding in African oral tradition, his education, erudition and story-telling wizardry, his magnetism and consummate humanity. In typical Adesanmian puzzle, Pius’s talk was titled: “Should Africa Face Forward?” He came to the podium after the apparently well-heeled and well-informed audience had been fed a diet of rich contributions from others about Africa and its place in our world and where it should be going and all that. Adesanmi jocularly complained that it was kind of unfair that he, “a university professor whose task is to traffic in boring literary theory,” was chosen to close such an event after the more brilliant and more electrifying ones had spoken.
Adesanmi started by talking about his paternal grandmother who had died in February that year at the ripe old age of 98. Pius said this got him thinking about some of the things she’d taught him and some of the stories she told him growing up because she sort of co-raised him with the parents who were often absent due to study commitments. They were a Catholic family, but for grandma, Catholicism didn’t stand in the way of her traditional beliefs. Pius talked about how in his parents’ absence, grandma would ensure that he “insures” her grandson with African charms, passed into him through various incisions called gbẹrẹ. She would then recite incantations as she rubbed these in and end with “l’orukọ Jesu!” Such syncretism was normal with grandma.
But on this occasion, what Adesanmi wanted the audience to hear was one of his grandma’s stories. Pius prided himself as part of the last generation that enjoyed oral tradition passed down through stories by elders. One story grandma told him was about this African who had gone to consult the Ifa oracle about his future and who was then asked to bring a pure white chicken as sacrifice to propitiate the gods and find this great way forward for the future.
The fellow looked everywhere for this pure white chicken, but found none. However, after a long period of frustration, one day he found a chicken that looked all white and he thought his problem was solved. But just at that time he thought he had the right chicken, on close examination, he found a single black or brown plumage under the chicken’s breast. After agonizing a bit about his misfortune, “the African in him kicks in.” He put his hand on the fowl’s breast and plucked out the offending feather and the sacrifice was done and he was on his way.
The grandma used the story to illustrate something, which in Yoruba cosmology is the use of one’s hands to create your fortune or prepare your future. This Pius described as the relevance or supremacy of human agency. Adesanmi said this directly related to his talk on that day.
“Human agency is fundamental so that in this culture, in this worldview, everything you do is supposed to enhance the instrumentality, the life, reinforce it, you know, the centrality of human agency. So, when we are talking of these African concepts - Ubuntu, togetherness, community and all that, fundamentally - we are talking about human agency. And that is why at this critical moment when there appears to be a crisis of identity in terms of where our friends here in the West are going with human innovation, human genius, science and technology and all that, then you begin to think critically what’s also happening with Africa because science, technology, invention, innovation, moving forward, cutting edge, all the language, everything is there.
“It used to be that technology, the West understood that, you know, somewhere along the line, man was central and so you invented gadgetry to make his life easier, to make his work easier, to make everything easier, make life easier for man - human agency. But at some point, somewhere along the line, we got into a post-human dispensation. You know, you take man out of it and so you have all these gadgets. Amazon is getting dangerously close to eliminating man. Now, the robots are picking out the books, the drones are mailing it to you. At some point, there will be drones replacing you in your house to collect the something…. The other day on CNN, they interviewed a guy who was getting ahead of himself, from Silicon Valley, oh in 20 years time, in medical sciences, there’ll be no need for doctors, robots will do everything and all that. And I was thinking, maybe there’ll be no need for patients. You put a robot operating on... (laughter from the audience) and all that. That is because science has changed from the fundamental philosophy of enhancing and making the life of man easier to replacing man and taking man out of the picture.
“But Africa says science, innovation, creation, all that must reckon with human agency because history affords us with no example of any technology that…. Look, we are undertakers…. So there is a turn, a post-humanist turn in the direction of science, technology and innovation and Africa seems to be insisting on a different path. We want in on this, we want to be part of this 21st century, 22nd century futuristic world of innovation and creativity, but, hey, man - human agency.”
(At this point in the lecture, Pius points to the board where there is a picture of a cassette with a pencil stuck in one end)
“This was innovation, this was science; this was cutting edge!”
“We presided over its funeral! Man will always preside over the funeral of any piece of technology that pretends to replace him and that’s what Africa understands so well. So, the philosophy guiding and driving science, technology, innovation and progress in Africa we got to understand it’s not the same thing; it could be the same gadgets, it’s not the same thing. And there’s no such thing as science, technology, innovation, gadgets that’s produced outside of the context of thinking, of philosophizing. So, we have to understand that. And so, the question is because Africa is insisting on that hand, that I want gadgets that will make it easier for my hand to reach the breast of that chicken, not chop off my hand and give me a robot chicken! Because Africa gets that critical message, we have to ask the question. And I ask you: Should Africa face forward?
(There was some timid murmur from the audience, but Pius coaxed them by saying they should answer him boldly)
Pius: Should Africa face forward?
Pius: Should Africa face forward?
Pius: Should Africa face forward?
Pius: The answer is no (a tinge of mock disappointment on his face). It is no because she understands…. You know, the other day, in Air France I was reading an inflight magazine and they were talking about smart roads, technological road of the future. So we have smart cars, driverless cars that are being… you know, I don’t know at what stage. So, the human is taken out of it, gadgetry and all that. Now, this smart car is going to be communicating with computerized smart roads and God knows what else…. I was reading and thinking about these things…. Well, we understand that there would be man to preside over the ruins and the funeral of even the most futuristic gadgets and because Africa understands that I don’t think she needs to face forward. When I was in secondary school, we’d say: “Africa, face forward!” Tautology! Tautology! No, she doesn’t have to as long as she insists on the humanity that all the speakers today have in various ways (because that is what it comes down to - human agency)…all these speeches, that’s what connects them. So long as that continent understands that the insistence on human agency is not at variance with progress, with innovation, with science, with moving forward, she doesn’t have to because the answer is Africa is the forward that the rest of humanity must face.”
In that hall, the audience felt the full power of an Adesanmi talk. Of course, the dramatic moment when the audience repeatedly responded yes to his question as to whether Africa should face forward was telling. It revealed the power of Adesanmi as a teacher. It revealed one of those moments he was often ahead when taking his audience on a journey of knowledge. It took time for the information to sink in because of the novelty of it. An audience already fed on the quotidian acceptance of forward as positive unanimously responded in the affirmative because they still had not processed fully the revolutionary import of the argument he was making. They are used to Africa being encouraged to face forward, copy Europe, copy America and so on, so they never conceived of anyone telling them that it’s the rest of the world that’s got it wrong, especially when we are talking science and technology. This was Adesanmi preaching responsible education, responsible research and development. It did not occur to some who would tear down Joseph Conrad that they were in effect endorsing Conrad’s view of Africa. One could hear Chinua Achebe shrieking from the grave and wagging his finger at the lot! Pius said no. While it might have looked ironic that even after talking them patiently through his thinking, feeding them a little morsel after a little morsel, this same audience still gave that sort of response to his question, it is a tribute to Adesanmi’s power as a teacher and storyteller that they were still entranced in their old notion of Africa until he delivered the shock therapy. The drama he brought into it is a testament to the drama that is Africa, a drama even its intellectual class cannot escape!
Adesanmi’s vision of Africa’s development is one that can only be achieved if the continent leaves its prostate position. It’s one it must achieve with confidence and bloody single-mindedness. Exactly three years ago, in a lecture he delivered at the 5th Innovation Series of Verdant Zeal Group at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Adesanmi laid it bare. The theme of the talk was “The Next Big Thing – Identifying Africa’s Untapped Potential”. Adesanmi entitled his own talk belligerently, “Iyalaya Anybody: Pencils, Nigerian Innovation, and Africa’s Path to the 21st Century.” Apologizing in advance for the “discomfiture” his “obscene” title might have caused anyone, Adesanmi unapologetically broke down his thesis thus: In the face of the United Nations Sustainable Developmental Goals, which contain seventeen sustainable steps that must be undertaken to fundamentally change the world by 2030, the African Union has rightly taken its fate by its own hands by setting a 2063 agenda for Africa.
Agenda 2063 is Africa realizing that it’s got the human and material resources and that all it needs to do is prepare to play a central role in global growth and development “driven almost exclusively by competitive knowledge economies and economies of competitive knowledge.” Adesanmi detected in the omniscient narrative voice talking about Africa’s Agenda 2063 a defiant determination to not let Europe and the West determine “the nature and the order of things in the next fifty years” as they’ve done in the past five hundred years. “To the extent that the race to the second half of the 21st century and beyond is going to be powered by genius, innovation, invention, and knowledge, and not by slave ships, Gatling guns, natural resources, and colonial punitive expeditions, I, Africa, have all it takes to be an agent and a central stakeholder in the said race”. This was what Adesanmi heard his new Africa say. These were indeed the things he was working on with the AU before his death. That explains his confidence when he said “the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 seems to be beating its chest and saying “iyalaya anybody” to all the other agenda-setting texts and literature from Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East.” The singular reason for Pius’s optimism about Africa’s future is its youth population and he spent considerable time making this clear in his writing.
In a lecture titled “Da Most Incredible Out of Naija” delivered at a colloquium convened by the Nigerian Advancement Institute, Edmonton, Canada on April 2 2011, Pius leveraged on a song by the Nigerian artiste, 9ice, to define the artiste’s generation as “the impala generation.” The lecture was a tribute to this generation that Pius considered to be the generation after his. These are Nigerians at the age of thirty-five or twenty-five and below (as at 2011). His analysis of the 9ice song from which he got the lecture’s title was that these were lyrics that “ask us to understand the social contract as a one-way lane in which his generation must snatch success, citizenship, subjecthood, and the very ability to be human in the most minimal sense, from the jaws of an adversarial social and political environment that has denied that generation even the right to be young.” Pius said they were denied “everything a state owes to its young population” such as role models, the right to dream of a future, guaranteeing the wherewithal to pursue that dream, the right to pursue happiness on a level playing field and so on.
Though Pius constantly agonized over the younger generation and the fact that the Nigerian state isn’t giving them any institutional support, he saw them as the real controllers of their own fortune and he bet on them to be the face of real positive change in the future. He said so far they’ve produced Nollywood, which he described as Nigeria’s “greatest cultural ambassador in the 21st century.” He also talked about how they used their music to run Western music out of our dance halls. Pius eulogized those amongst them actually coming out to engage publicly and rally their generation behind politics. Indeed, Pius was the biggest cheerleader of this generation and the way they’re going about things, despite criticisms from a section of the older generation.
Of course, Pius Adesanmi was a professor of literature and African studies and there are published literary works to his credit. But for Pius, his work as a teacher and writer of literature remains art for art sake. His political and education activism did not necessarily germinate from his art; rather, these are just choices he made because he simply couldn’t stand injustice and mediocrity.
There are a number of critics who think Pius Adesanmi’s political activism was governed by a desire to get a government appointment. Nothing can be further from the truth. I’ve had many chats with him about this and while he never ruled out the possibility that one day he could be in government, he was emphatic in stating that the political system in Nigeria at present is not conducive for him to accept any such appointment because the system is programmed to fail and he did not see any prospective appointer accepting his conditions of service. Pius understands that it is a patriotic duty to serve one’s country, but not the nature of service Nigerian politicians and political appointees are presently engaged in. He also has a very healthy distrust of professors in the public service in Nigeria precisely because of the way he described their Ibrahim Babangida-conditioned fate in his article, “Professing Dangerously: An African Professoriate In the Eyes of a Country Boy.” He classified them complete with named examples as Professor Errand Boy, Professor House Nigga and Professor Nutin Spoil. Pius Adesanmi was too proud to see himself in any of that category.
It was also for the above reason that Adesanmi’s real activist passion was in education, in mentoring a new breed of African academics that take pride in teaching and advancing the frontiers of knowledge. That was the reason he set up the African Doctoral Lounge to mentor African doctorate and prospective doctorate students. Adesanmi believed that knowledge is the key to national development and he was keen on spreading it with all his strength. Our duty is to ensure that we take his dream forward. No better legacy for such an avatar than to see young men and women leaving graduate schools as Pius Adesanmi scholars. That is why I’m happy to note that Carleton University (where he was the Director of their African Institute) has set up a scholarship in his name and I know that many more academic and scholarly efforts would be pursued in our mission to immortalize him.