By Bridget A. Teboh
February 2021 will forever be remembered in the annals of African history as the month that Africa awarded its first academic D. Litt., presented by the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s premier university, to the most deserving African scholar of our era, the pre-eminent and peerless scholar, Professor Toyin Falola, rated as the No. 1 humanity scholar in Africa, with the most global presence in both the academic and policy world. No sooner was it announced than the news immediately spread to the corridors in the African Union, ECOWAS, ECA, and UNESCO. It was as if the African rebirth had occurred.
There is a larger context to this distinguished moment. The most we hear about Africa today is in the negative. Where Africa isn’t left out of the conversation completely, it hardly ever features in a positive light. On print and digital media, it is a tale of stolen dreams, missed opportunities, and stunted potentials. Africa has become the theater of contradictions. Extreme wealth and poverty coexist in unholy matrimony, and conflict, famine, and destitution threaten to override age-long identities steeped in rich histories and proud heritages. But amid all the unpleasantness, a conversation about transformation perseveres. Begun from the earliest days of Negritude, its spirit has been sustained through the inspired era of Pan-Africanism and Nationalism and exists even now in Pluriversalism—the idea that knowledge production in and about Africa should be grounded on indigenous philosophies, theories, and experiences.
For about four decades, one individual who has remained committed to keeping this conversation alive, notwithstanding the enormity of the task, broadening its scope to cater to the complication, is Toyin Falola. He has entered a golden era where no other African scholar can compete with him or match his talents, productivity, and profundity. There is just no one like him—none with his plural versal talent. Out of earshot, he is called an “Irunmole,” a spirit from another world. Of course, there are variants of god-like manner (called a Yemoja in Brazil), a man that acquired the image of a sea goddess. In a previous century, Falola would be converted to a god and worshipped.
Today, his cult of followers stretch far and wide, penetrating all corners of the world. And whenever an award for humility is created, he will emerge as the winner. He brushes off what you say of him. If you relay to him some unpleasantness, Falola laughs and tells you to spend your time wisely! He says the negative person is manifesting his/her character and not describing him, and forgetting that our time on earth is so limited that it should be used carefully.
Introducing him at the conference named after him, The Toyin Falola Annual Conference on Africa and the African Diaspora (TOFAC), the Vice-Chancellor, Paul Zeleza of the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, described Toyin Falola as “our Ali Mazrui and Wangari Maathai combined.” Someone quickly responded, “Add Achebe and Soyinka!” He is now rated in the policy world as the most relevant and impactful.
Perhaps Toyin Falola, pre-eminent Africanist scholar, prolific author, internationally acclaimed Professor of African History/African Studies, and a towering mentor to multitudes, needs no further introduction. However, an occasion for contemplating the contributions of this erudite scholar to the elevation, direction, and span of the African discussion offers an opportunity, not only to present someone whom many might consider an unsung hero to this audience but also to catch it up with the developments on the topic (Africa) thus far. Hence this modest attempt to capture an extensive, inspiring, and very productive career devoted to uplifting Africa and its peoples by correcting erroneous narratives, providing improved perspectives and better tools for articulating and realizing better outcomes.
Over the years, Professor Falola’s work has cut across a broad spectrum of topics on Africa—its cultures and traditions, politics, economy, and landscape. This is best expressed in another one of his remarkable characteristics, the knack for assembling individuals from diverse disciplines and scholarly backgrounds together in a collaborative, interdisciplinary colloquium that has over time yielded volumes of historically rich material on aspects of African history hitherto obscure. For the reason of specificity, which is critical in navigating the vast sea of publications that mark Falola’s four decades of scholarly endeavor, his contributions cover a broad canvas that includes, but is not limited to, Yoruba studies, Nigerian studies, African history, and diaspora scholarship. A scholar who has generated multiple conferences, ten books on him, and two definitive solo books by Professor Abdul Bangura.
The history of the Yoruba, an identity which Falola, like others who hail from the southwestern regions of Nigeria, now share, has been better illuminated through his disposition to an in-depth study and a distinctive ability to detach himself from his object of study to offer an unsentimental, unbiased, and apolitical analysis. A case in point is an (early) article entitled “Precolonial Origins of the National Question in Nigeria: The Yoruba Identity as a Case Study,” which elucidates on the political considerations that have often informed the description of distinct indigenous ethnic nationalities as unified entities to score political advantages in a federation of competing multi-ethnic nationalities.
At a moment of troubles in Nigeria and the call for restructuring, this article supplies critical insights and warnings. Drawing from available sources, the article traces the development of the idea of a Yoruba identity—as a single nation united under the myth of a shared Oduduwa ancestry—to two particular developments. The first phase covers the activities of pioneer authors of Yoruba history such as Bishop Ajayi Crowther, Sapara Williams, and Samuel Johnson, among other contemporaries. Themselves freed slaves—who had already established affinities as slaves from analogous cultures—upon return, found it easier to harp on cultural similarities and a mythical ancestry as a means of creating a common front to challenge the colonial government. The article recognizes the importance of their contributions as critical primary sources for the reconstruction of Yoruba history. The second phase covers a period of consolidation by politicians such as Awolowo, whose bid to amass political influence through ethnic mobilizations effectively ushered in the practice of politics by ethnic affiliation. In conclusion, the article draws attention to Nigeria’s existence as a cluster of such multi-ethnic nationalities, which can either serve as an instrument for effective structuring or summary disintegration to pre-colonial forms given the right political conditions.
Subsequent publications, notably Yoruba Identity and Power Politics, saw Falola bringing together an impressive collection of scholars from various fields to examine the expressions of Yoruba culture and tradition in the contemporary Nigerian State. This project, which studied the Yoruba people in general, covered their evolution, cultures, traditions, and practices. The chapters, “Yoruba Nation” and “Writing Yoruba,” explain the intricacies entrenched in the Yoruba identity and how these are critical to ensuring scholars’ objective representations. However, his Encyclopedia of the Yoruba covers a wide range of topics on Yoruba history—art, literature, religion, language, linguistics, philosophy, demography, geography—and best describes Falola’s commitment to the preservation and spread of the Yoruba culture. These efforts, directed towards furthering an understanding of the Yoruba world and politics, have led to increased interest in Yoruba culture, especially for study in academic institutions worldwide.
In Nigeria, just as in other areas that have been bequeathed his intellectual interests, Falola has been involved in numerous research efforts and public contributions to complement the national discussion. He has published texts on all three major periods of the area’s historical development, from the pre-colonial to the colonial and postmodern era, contributing valuable research material, debunking erroneous conclusions, and providing historical insights into national challenges. His views command much esteem, especially for the refreshing insights their historical connections offer. His active involvement in interpreting Nigerian experiences—social, political, and economic—has limited Eurocentric distortions and Afrocentric pigmentations that were manifest in the earlier historiographies on the area. His influence is extended to the methodological focus of contemporary Nigerian and Africa historical research. He has published texts that serve both as guides and source materials to students and teachers of Nigerian history.
Take his position on the place of religion in Nigerian politics for an illustration. His perspective on the topic as delivered in Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies has become critical in evaluating the impact of religion on state politics and political economy in Nigeria. In threading the discussion on the relationship between religion and State, Falola dispels prior notions of a limited influence by the former on a secular state by establishing its historical antecedents as a source of pre-colonial ethnic violence and political power-play. Therein a trajectory is established from the 19th century Uthman Dan Fodio Jihad in the pre-colonial period, through the colonial period of Christianity and Western education, which provided a further basis for deep division between a better exposed South and a less influenced North, all in a quest to control the state apparatus which became accessible based on educational qualification. After independence, the mutual distrust grew, giving religious colorations to national decisions and events—constitutional reviews, elections, and censuses. These occasions soon became potential kindles for religious crisis trailed by the wanton destruction of lives and properties, especially in the country’s major cities, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, and Zaria.
In Africa, Falola’s voice has also rung very clear and true. He has intervened in a series of challenges facing contemporary Africa with his characteristic insight and in-depth historical approach at diverse instances and through varying mediums. He called for indigenous knowledge production as a way out of Africa’s predicament. What African predicament is implied here? The outcome of four successive eras of rape and plunder, namely: the trans-Saharan slave trade, the transatlantic trade, colonialism, and globalization. These have conspired to reduce Africa to a theater of social ills, including, but not limited to, poverty, insecurity, poor healthcare, low life expectancy, ethnoreligious crisis, bad governance, corruption, human rights violations, and other undemocratic practices. As an issue that has topped the agenda of Africanist scholars for decades, it has also inspired a considerable number of scholarly efforts in conferences, workshops, and seminars that have produced large volumes of material, a good portion of which Professor Falola contributed to directly or indirectly.
After years of direct involvement in assessing the myriad problems bedeviling Africa and the quest for solutions, Falola advocated for a change in resolving them through several of his publications. In one particular 2018 publication titled The Toyin Falola Reader on African Culture, Nationalism, Development and Epistemologies, he concluded that the solutions to these African problems lay in changing African thought. Hence the call for curriculum changes in the continent’s tertiary institutions, from a colonial model to a new realistic one, fashioned to suit 21st century Africa’s demands.
Falola is one Africanist scholar who has never stopped believing in the potential inherent in a unification of purpose between Africans on the continent and members of the African diaspora community in a pan-African quest to deliver Africa. Pan-Africanism, as an idea of shared interest and purpose, uniting peoples of African descent everywhere in the world against forces of oppression, stigmatization, and discrimination, has driven the struggles for abolishing slavery, independence, and decolonization, and has also featured prominently in the discourse on nation-building. However, over time this link between Africans on the continent and those in diaspora weakened considerably, owing to the relative shift in focus from topics that provided the momentum in its heydays, but not enough for either party to completely give up on the “motherland.”
Toyin Falola yet believes that Africa’s diaspora community has an important role to play in changing the situation on the continent. Hence the advocacy for a rekindling of the pan-Africanist ideal which retains the potential to whip up sentiments—on both sides—powerful enough to inspire commitments to change the status quo in the “motherland.” In several publications, Falola addresses a range of issues, covering African diaspora communities, the differences in their experiences, the impact of their experiences on their African-ness, how they perceive their African identity, the locations, growth/expansion of African diaspora communities, the perseverance of the African spirit in these communities, and how the wealth, ideas, and experiences of these communities can contribute to changing the African narrative for the best.
The University of Ibadan should be congratulated for this outstanding record. By persuading the humble Falola, based on his excellent record of research and originality, a distinguished career, and a remarkable academic achievement, to register as a student for a degree, was an honor to the university itself. However, we must plead with its authorities not to allow the D. Litt. to be corrupted by admitting people of mediocre stature. Should this happen, the University of Ibadan would have tarnished itself and Toyin Falola, who is now in the league of Wilmot Blyden, Cheikh Anta Diop, W.E.B. Dubois, and Ali Mazrui as the pantheons of African scholarship.
* Teboh is a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, USA