By Anote Ajeluorou
Although the state of scholarship and critical erudition in Nigerian higher institutions, especially the universities, is said to be demonstrably appalling, it would seem there is still a silver lining on the horizon and that all is not yet lost as testified to by a man who should know
Prof. Abiola Irele is a scholar of no mean repute. Testimony of his scholarship, genius and critical bent of mind had several scholars, both young and old, gathered in a colloquium for him last month at the University of Ibadan, where it all started for him both as a student and as a scholar. For him and several others, Ibadan had been the battle-ground, where excellence in scholarship had been fought and possibly won. But he had been away a long time now to seek the proverbial golden fleece.
But as an international scholar and traversing such great institutions as Harvard and Ohio State University, all in the U.S., amongst several others and hearing reports of the decline of educational standards back home, he was pleasantly surprised by what was offered him at the colloquium. For him, it was a restoration of faith of sorts even though he admitted that a lot more still needed to be done to put things right again. As a foremost critic, he knows what it means to be put on the slab and be grilled.
So that when he, as a critic, was being feasted upon by his fellow critics it sounded familiar and strange at the same as he was to admit. But it was all part of the critical rubric of academia. His excitement, however, stemmed from the performance of the younger critics, who seemed to have surpassed themselves in properly situating Irele within the diversity of his own critical imagination. For him, therefore, any anxiety about the quality of the critical imagination in Nigeria could be put to rest by what was on display as younger critics showed that they could hold their own even amongst the best. He felt proud of them.
And so Irele, who recently turned 75 declared, “I’m really embarrassed when I’m being called upon to speak because I really don’t know where to begin. So much has been said that at some point at the presentations, I began to ask myself, But who are they talking about?
“Basically, what I should do here right now is to say a big thank you to all the presenters and people who have come to take part in this celebration; because this has been nothing but a celebration.
“One thing I must say is that there has been so much anxiety expressed about the continuity of intellectual life at Ibadan, and Nigeria, generally. So much anxiety expressed about it that will the younger generation continue, will they be able to sustain the high quality of teaching that was going on at Ibadan? So, there has been this anxiety; but listening to these younger people, who presented today, I’m delighted. The analysis, the summaries, the presentations show that these are people have very carefully read my work, and I’m extremely delighted, extremely grateful.
“There were a few points that were made that, in fact, enlightened me even on my own thought-processes. So maybe, there is no anxiety, at least on my part, which does not mean that everything is all right at Ibadan or any of the Nigerian universities. We need water, electricity and comfort and so forth. But… but it seems the achievements at Ibadan is being carried on, is being drawn out of the adversity that has struck the country. Still, there is no doubt that the foundation is there. The conditions can be improved; the intellectual life can be strengthened so that the teachers can produce better graduates than themselves. So, I have very little fear that Ibadan indeed still has the standards”.
On his choice of settling in a far smaller, less known and younger university at Kwara State University near Ilorin after returning from his sojourn abroad, Prof. Irele said he needed to be part of a new start in something that promises to be a harbinger of the old ideals that Ibadan stood for as a model of scholarship and a new orientation in approach to academic mentoring. He particularly praised the efforts and vision of the Vice Chancellor of the new university in trying to reshape the fortunes of the university away from the old order, especially in making the institution more practical-oriented than what has obtained in the older universities.
“It was Prof. Femi Osofisan who said, when Prof. Abdulrasheed Na’Allah, the Vice Chancellor, had gone, that he didn’t know what I was doing at Kwara State University. He would not only have merited the displeasure of Na’Allah but his hatred also because what Na’Allah is doing is to create another Ibadan at KWASU. Whether the conditions will permit him to do it we do not know, but it is worth the effort. But while Ibadan remains a model amongst the older universities, it is not a model for the new universities.
“But while I am very grateful that I’m back here, I’m really very touched beyond words by this tremendous ceremony, this tremendous demonstration that you have done in my honour. I’m also, shall we say, would like to achieve something at KWASU; it seems very exciting. I’m very glad I came back home and in touch on a daily basis on what is happening in the country.
“I thank you all collectively and individually, especially Dr. Sola Olorunyomi. But like I said, it’s just been too much for words; so let me shut up!”