By Anote Ajeluorou
Biographies have important historical implication in the life of a nation. Coming as they do from the personal narrative viewpoint or indeed, viewing historical occurrences from the personal prism through to the larger national issues, biographies render far more historical truths than other forms of writing.
So that when a man in the stature of Prof. Akin Mabogunje, who turned 81 recently, captures his life’s work as a geographer of international repute, with many years of committed service to his fatherland, Nigerians need to listen and read him closely. The title for his new book A Measure of Grace belies his many achievements and an indication of his humility.
When he showed up at the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2012), his humility so captured in the title of his book shone forth even as he sat with his wife of many years listening to students from Obafemi Awolowo University analyzing his book. A teacher of many years, Mabogunje listened raptly as Arthur Anyanduba,Yusuf Omatayo, Madamidola Oladele and Oluwabusola Odunuga, who could all have been his grand children, critically analysed his book. But this was an intellectual discourse and the young English Language students took their task very seriously in mapping the personal narrative of the renowned geographer and patriot.
The foursome examined A Measure of Grace as a book from which Nigeria’s historical trajectory could be traced through the lens of Mabogunje’s many interventions as he got called up to serve by several governments. The moderator Anyanduba commended Mabogunje for writing an inspiring book and enjoined young people to read it as a preparatory manual for the roles they too could play when they are called upon to the service of their fatherland.
Anyanduba also commended the author as he traced his life’s journey along the history of Nigeria through colonialism and Nigeria’s failure to record greatness in spite of its potentials over 50 years after independence. But importantly, the young critic was fascinated by the author’s optimism for the younger generation and how he inspires hope in them so they could re-envision a new nation for themselves in the nearest future away from the current pervading gloom.
For Miss Odunuga, reading Mabogunje’s book was simply mind-boggling, saying it was a wonderful read. She noted the complimentary role the author assigns both men and women in the book and how women could be integrated into national development purposes in the country. She said her fascination stemmed from Mabogunje’s story of his sister who, though more intelligent than the boys, was not allowed to attend university because their father intercepted love letters from her boyfriend, who went on to become a professor.
It seemed the cruelest thing to have happened to a woman, having to be denied higher education because of a relationship, Odunuga stated, and noted the author’s pain at such cruel twist of fate that wasted her beloved sister’s huge potentials. A budding feminist herself, Odunuga stated, “The role of the man and the woman should be complimentary. When the author was growing up, women were not allowed to express themselves very well. Women were just additional beings. But the author saw far ahead of his time; he saw beyond the femininity of women”.
Odunuga also praised the author for being committed to service during his active years, noting, “He was ready to serve and learn; he served his country in various ways. While he was serving his country, his wife was always there for the children. He insists that a woman should be recognized for who she is, recognized beyond her femininity”.
Omotayo said A Measure of Grace is the book of a man who saw Nigeria at inception, and noted that young people have a lot to learn from the book and encouraged them to read it. Omotayo said he was also thrilled by the author’s moment of epiphany when, while riding a bicycle, he suddenly decided to go for policy rather than politics. And it was in the area of policymaking as adviser to governments that the author also excelled in his many years of service before his retirement.
However, Omotayo argued that Mabogunje’s decision to focus on the advisory role through policy formulation for governance rather than the actual politicking itself sometimes amounted to just theorizing as it wasn’t usually complemented by implementation by politicians, which he was not.
Omotayo further stated that in all his years, fame wasn’t Mabogunje’s quest as he was more “focused on making things work. He was a no-nonsense person and fame was easy for him to handle when it came”.
Oladele focused on Mabogunje’s emerging vision of a nation that is steeped in gloom. For him, Mabogunje’s book should have been entitled ‘Legacy of Hope’ and commended him for “doing wonderful things in the midst of gloom”. He lauded his fiscal federalism proposition that each region in the country should develop at its own pace and for them to contribute 50 per cent of their earnings to the centre.
He stated, “The issue of responsive governance is key. I should like to know where my tax is going into. And then federal character destroys everything and we don’t give competence its due. This is a book of legacy; the author is an exemplary character”. Oladele also praised the author for not allowing the fame he garnered to becloud his vision.
My life has been a gift of grace
And then it was the turn of the masquerade himself to talk about his book and his experiences both as a scholar, a policymaker and adviser to government. The News’ Executive Director, who Mr. Kunle Ajibade moderated the session in the packed Kongi’s Harvest Hall of Freedom Park, Lagos, took the author through his early years.
The first thing he addressed was the title for his book A Measure of Grace. Mabogunje said it was something that came about while listening to his subconscious mind, saying, “I did agonise about what should be the title; it just crept into my mind one morning. It encapsulates everything I’d ever done and it bears a relationship with Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in the bible. It occurred to me what I’d enjoyed in my academic and personal life are gifts of grace.
“It was very tempting for me to think of a career in politics. But I knew that to be in politics would be changing my character; people put demands on you, which you can hardly meet and then having to keep your integrity intact would be a strain. In those days, politics wasn’t where you go to cheat; but if it were so, I would have been caught if I cheated”.
So, between political power and knowledge power, Mabogunje stuck with the power that comes from knowledge, which he thinks confers greater status on the individual.
He noted, “Writing this book was responding to my son’s call to write down my life’s story. In over a period of 50 years, there was no year I wasn’t helping government to solve problems. And I felt I should put something down but I must have been excessive for writing over 700 pages. But I must say that I enjoyed myself writing the book”.
Mabogunje was involved in campus politics of University College, Ibadan in his days and was a contemporary of the late Chief Bola Ige. He was involved in Action Group Youth Club on campus but shied away from becoming active after leaving university preferring instead to join the academics from where he has shone like a pearl.
Mabogunje left to study Geography abroad in England and later in America and said his Northwestern University training prepared him for the policy and analytical role he has had to play in the years after. His American experience became a sort of paradigm shift for him because of its quantitative orientation.
Although he enjoyed the policy role he was called upon to play for successive governments, Mabogunje could escape a tinge of regret for not going into politics proper. Although he came up with bright ideas or policies, he wasn’t usually responsible for implementing them. And like most Nigerian governments, such laudable policies sometimes never saw the light of day. So, he said, “My effectiveness in policy was enhanced by my American experience because of its quantitative orientation. But it was better if you were the one in charge of politics. The way you present policy to leaders determined the way they see it. You need to have a clear mind on what you want to do; they (government officials) don’t have to accept it”.
On why Nigeria was yet to have its best brains in power and politics, Mabogunje said the country was not alone as most countries had similar dilemma. He noted, “In most countries, you find the best in the power base. But there is a class in the country that the politicians feel they must meet. We must develop a serious middle class who gives power to politicians; if the country becomes a private sector dealer, this country will begin to make progress.
“Now that we’ve got our country back from the military that is known to kill, maim and rape, we’ve got to give our best when called upon to serve, which is usually a window of opportunity”.
Mabogunje was part of the local experts that developed the masterplan for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja and holds it as one of the crowning glory of his works as adviser to government.
The retired academic was also involved in some of the nation’s census enumerations efforts starting from 1970 shortly after the Nigerian Civil War. But from that point, he began to see the desperation among Nigerians to inflate census figures to favour them, not forgetting government’s role in truncating such exercises. At his third effort at census enumeration, Mabogunje felt he had had enough of the sham and effectively withdrew.
HE was invited by the late Chief Olabisi Onabanjo to help establish the Ogun State University, now Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye. The university, he noted, was in response to the nation’s short-sighted quota system that shut out many bright students from many states that could not gain admission into federal universities. The university, he said, was set up as a multiple campus university, but this was later truncated by successive military administrations that didn’t know any better how to run a university.
He also spoke on Udoji Commission that reputedly came up with jumbo pay-pack for civil servants in the country, a scenario that eventually sparked off hyper-inflation. However, Mabogunje clarified the situation when he said the Udoji Commision where he also served did not recommend wage increase, but a consultant firm did it in spite their protestations. He affirmed that the consultant’s recommendation was adopted on a wrong premise and it threw the civil service into needless strain ever since.