"He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12)
"Blessed are the meek" (Matthew 5: 5)
Professor Tekena Tamuno (1932-2015), a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, joined his ancestors on Saturday, April 11, 2015. He once used the metaphor of the “mother banana” and the “banana family” to illustrate the dynamics of the continuum and how our universe functions: that as the mother banana dies, it gives birth to a new one! In essence, Professor Tamuno was this “mother banana,” forever green, immortal, and transcendental.
Most certainly, there are greater minds to attest to Professor Tamuno’s long career; furthermore, there are hundreds of eye-witnesses to recount his days as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan; while there are also far more talented historians than my humble self to highlight his contributions to the writing of Nigerian history. Yet, as an act of fate as someone who interacted with him for over three decades, I have had the privilege of producing this tribute in his honor, and he deserves every laudatory statement I can make.
I was drawn to Professor Tamuno in equal percentages: a third because of his personality; another third for his style; and a final third on behalf of his professionalism. Therefore, my tribute is arranged to touch upon each of these triple perspectives that together constitute his heritage. When Malcolm X died in February of 1965, Ossie Davis described him in his eulogy as a shining black star. Similarly, Professor Tamuno, in my estimation, was one of our shining stars in the sky, one that we looked up to for the light that could illuminate the path on which we walked.
Professionally, Professor Tamuno was a prolific historian, and without exaggeration, I can underscore, also without reservation, that there was none in his generation that out-produced him. On the leadership front, he was a talented leader, and there was no one that served on more committees, commissions and fact-finding missions more than he did. He got things done, and he produced consensus, indeed far more than anyone of his generation. His overall success, I had come to assume, was because he understood himself: He was open as well as being mutually respectful of others while still being conscious of his terrain and his place in history, unique qualities that he never exaggerated, not even for a moment.
On my part, I can only offer a summation—indeed a précis—of his glorious career as a professional historian. In it all, Professor Tamuno was Ibadan personified in a variety of ways: he entered the University of Ibadan in 1953 and he continued to live in Ibadan City, with a few interruptions, courtesy of national and international engagements, till 2015. He was a citizen of the city of Ibadan and he was certainly preeminently far more qualified than I, the “son of the soil,” to be an Ibadan chief. There was no significant academic or administrative position at the University of Ibadan that he was not invited to occupy; and as the records clearly demonstrate, he never struggled for any of them, from the Head of Department to the Vice-Chancellor, all positions in which he served with distinction.
From his PhD thesis to his very last piece of writing, he was perpetually pre-occupied by not less than six inter-related investigations: (i) the evolution of Nigeria, from its precolonial indigenous culture to the modern, and from the creation of amalgamated Nigeria through colonial conquest to the end of British rule; (ii) the creation of roads and railways to provide modern infrastructure and communication systems; (iii) law and order in a changing state, in terms of an indigenous security system, the police force, and the army; (iv) institutions of governance (how federalism evolved, and how our leaders managed and betrayed us); (v) the stages in our growth from 1885 to the present; and (vi) our various predicaments, including issues of underdevelopment, poverty and leadership deficit. In all, after offering a sober analysis, he would confess, as he once did in a keynote address delivered in 1983 for a conference on nation-building:
We are humble enough to acknowledge that we know not yet all we wish to know about this great country, Nigeria, about its great people, and their great problems.
Limited space is often a thief of money and time, sadly disempowering me from a detailed critical elaboration of the aforementioned points. Yet, I also know very well that space cannot steal reflexivity. “Nigeria matters,” Tamuno proclaimed to all listening ears. In all of his writings, he persuasively argued that the problems of Nigeria would ultimately yield to its success. He gathered tremendous amounts of data on specific institutions, always trying to highlight the weight and import of evidence, and more so the importance of the explicit over the implicit. He was, in varied ways, a masterful storyteller, bringing out variation upon variation in dealing with topics and themes, mapping debates, respecting various opinions, and creating his own ideas. He certainly understood the workings of a nation in formation, a political elite that was conflicted, and of institutions that were in the process of maturation. He had a firm grounding in archival sources, for many years unearthing more archival “gems” than many of his peers. His perspective was both regional and national, as he was always offering nuanced understanding of the Nigerian condition.
Irrespective of the moment in our history, our anguish and sorrow, Professor Tamuno applied the gentle balm, as he wiped our tears, and he sang joyful songs, indeed as, inter alia, he once did in the following words:
Hence, they are
Songs of joy and sorrow,
Paeans of pleasure,
Groans of pain,
That blends moments of mirth
With those of wrath,
But with no target enemies,
With no firm friends
With an appeal, or whatever,
To all of goodwill over the world
[Songs of an Egg-head (Alafeni: Port Harcourt, 1982).]
I knew him well as a Nigerian! As I still recall, I was with him for a few days in 1990, when he was at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies at Kuru where he worked temporarily as a Visiting Professor. In excitement, he took me to visit a plot of land that he bought in Jos to build his retirement house. To my surprise, he confided his retirement plan with me, saying that living in that part of Nigeria, the center of the country, represented his affirmation of the country’s oneness.
The seriousness of his “oneness” understanding of Nigeria as a nation was the driving force of his intellectual career of well over half a century. He chose themes of oneness, from the evolution of the country’s boundaries to the institutions of managing the state, such as the police. Bothered by issues around violence, he devoted considerable space in his scholarship to the analysis of conflicts and strategies for peace. His demeanor, words, and strategic choices represented peace—both in over a dozen private discussions as well as in public where his humility was always fresh and striking. He was never tired of welcoming guests, giving them food from his garden, laughter from his heart, and generosity from his spirit.
Symbolically, Professor Tamuno was one of the few lines in the colors of rainbow, the arch in the middle that formed in the sky for us to see and admire. He constituted a shield linked with the cosmos, the extraordinary being of colors, dispersed by the sun’s light, blessed by water droplets from the far sky. We cannot chase the rainbows, as they are too far high in the sky, but Baba Tekena Tamuno brought the lines and colors closer to us, making them reachable and touchable, and ever projecting as well as displaying his light and sunshine.
He was not easy to imitate, and impossible to clone, for no one can ever garner the rainbow of medals that adorned his walls; and no one can ever come close to the rainbow of love that filled his heart and chest. We have to keep struggling to reach the silver-lining of his illustrious clouds and the gold located at the end of his rainbow. I won’t even try, for his resilience is uncommon, his patience is legendary, and I am too small to learn at his feet.
A master of long narratives, his nuanced conclusions were open-ended, elastic, and never threatening. Our personality can be embedded in our intellectual projects and self affirmation, as it is possible to link Wole Soyinka’s iconoclasm to Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron. Professor Tamuno was probably seeking to imitate some aged saints or, like a riverine man, he was guided by the calmness of the sea. The rough waves possibly frightened him, and he rather stayed at the banks. That calmness of the sea crystalized into a “Tekena formation” that became defined as the “Tamuno’s humility.”
There was one Saint Humility during the European Medieval Ages, a real saint, not an imaginary one. In fact, I am suspicious that Professor Tamuno, at one time or the other, might have read about this saint! For, as those who knew him well, as I did, would attest to, he had multiple faces to his personality: one face that looked to spiritual forces, humbling himself before God and His agents. Grace becomes superior to one’s achievements, as Professor Tamuno magnified his own limitations. But there was also the leveling equality with fellow men, in which he constantly lowered his being and self in relation to his colleagues, superiors, and subordinates.
Being agreeable is no sign of weakness. The definition of a place in history, in space and time, is a recognition of one’s influence. Walking gently, to avoid hubris, does not compromise pride. Recording a life history devoid of narcissism is no limitation to being grounded in humilitas. As one thinks of all of these unique qualities, what comes to mind is the Tamuno magic!
Professor Tamuno’s writing and life-style became the way to encode the spirit of humilitas, a careful use of oneself to teach practical ethics. I visited his house at Ibadan where he wore his simple top and shorts with many pockets, showing me his plants, his fruits, and his seeds. On one occasion in 2005, in the company of Professor Chris Ogbogbo, the amiable Head of the History Department and Professor Ademola Dasylva, both of the University of Ibadan, Professor Tamuno tried to recruit us into his way of thinking and lifestyle, warning us to be cautious, to exercise restraint, to cultivate wisdom. He invited me to dinner the next day, an appointment that I was unable to keep, thus denying myself of valuable fatherly lessons.
As younger scholars, the moment we entered our car, we were united in our conversations, engaged in comparing Professor Tamuno to another professor we visited before him, who was full of arrogance and vain words; we chose instead to praise Professor Tamuno’s wisdom. He was modest in prosperity, honorable in status, and graceful in moderate opulence. The visitation, one of many, triggered a series of reflections in me: the Kantian formulation of linking truth-telling with humility; and the Jesusian formulation of death and agony as sacrifice and redemption.
If the great Professor Tamuno learned from history, and he prospered by it, let us learn from him as well. In violating the tenets of his modesty and humility, I want to create a template for the Tamuno model of living: love Nigeria; read and cultivate skills; use talents; promote virtues; be meek; think of and appreciate others; make your ego small to realize your true humanity and place in the universe; and appreciate your smallness, but remain steadfast and true to your principles!
Nietzsche, the philosopher, will quibble with my generosity, for he sees humility not as a virtue but as a weakness, a strategy of survival, deployed by the weak to minimize the damage done by the strong, the Übermensch. Professor Tekena Tamuno would be a dysfunctional element in the pool that Nietzsche studied made a study of. To the contrary, Professor Tamuno recognized my own talent and was in praise of it, just as he recognized the talents of others. He did not deny others their honor, even when he was unjustly attacked. He did not build a cult of individualism and never asked anyone to worship him.
Our star has relocated, not extinguished: you and I are like dust, insignificant, but hopeful: hopeful that what he wanted, a peaceful and united Nigeria, will surely, eventually be created.
Professor Tamuno, sleep well, the great one, and permit me to sing a dirge:
The honey eater
Looks not at the edge of the axe
The astute trader
Bothers not with the din of the marketplace
The egg lover
Regards not the anus of the hen
Thirsty throat befriends weeping palm tree
Stretch out your calabashes
I have poured libation
Come join the spree
Baba, rejoice, for you are already fit to receive grace:
Poet, sing your song
To the resonant din of the bell
Ko ko, ko ko, ko ko, ko ko
At its instance, the rhumba
Là là, ko ko, là là, ko ko
The earth must open for the earthworm
Là là ko ko fè fè, là là ko ko fè fè
The potter must get her clay
And the painter his colors
With a face and nose to the ground
The writer surely must find his words
To make flow the rivers of ink
Là là, là là, là là, là là
Là là, ko ko, là là ko
Professor Tamuno, I offer a promise: we will keep history alive:
If we stay alive, songs and drama
will come from
Mouths of truth that seek no rewards
Enduring pain without any gain.
Great one, we will serve others as a constant reminder of your humility and greatness:
Judge us: this is all that you know
Condemn us: the passion of your spirit
We forgive: when we cross the passage of
Time, asking questions:
Were you with us in the grasslands?
Who laughed with us in the savannah?
Who cried in the forest?
Did you hear the story before the stream?
What did we say at the bank?
Did you cross the river with us?
Sir, be assured, we will descale our obsequiousness but enscale our memory of you:
Like the cornstalk
Rising in its season
The years of your triumph
Call for celebration
The labour of truth
Who has earned
His purple robe
Swirl, Sway, Swirl Greenfingers
Ignore the heads in the clouds
The sure footed
Must reap bountiful harvest
Swirl, Sway, Swirl, Greenfingers
With royal gait
As you arrive to dine
At His pavilioned regal tables.
President, African Studies Association
The Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities
University Distinguished Teaching Professor
The University of Texas at Austin