By Toyin Falola
I am often saddened by one fact: Nigeria is one of the most blessed nations in terms of human resources. Yet, it wallows in underdevelopment due to bad governance, poor policies, and a horde of other negative factors. The internet is awash with the details of many Nigerians who have done and are still doing exploits, and one cannot but wonder how the same country is home to both fantastic people, and to bandits, and myopic leaders. Among the Nigerians who will always fly the country’s flag high and bring glory to its name is an enigmatic literato, the grey-bearded Babafemi Osofisan.
Today, June 16, 2021, marks Emeritus Professor Babafemi Osofisan’s 75th birthday. On an auspicious day as this, one is given to lots of reminiscent thoughts, which cannot but be rounded up to assertively affirm that Okinba Launko is a literary luminary. His influence spread its wings beyond the literary world to hover above the Nigerian political space. Although he is not known to have actively participated in politics by contesting for any post, Osofisan is of the order of very few Nigerian literati who significantly influenced national affairs, especially during the military era.
Ogun State has long since proven to be the place with the most significant concentration of celebrated Nigerians. It is hardly surprising that renowned Professor Osofisan is from Ogun State, like Professor Wole Soyinka, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, M.K.O. Abiola, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and a host of others. Professor Osofisan was born on June 16,1946, as Babafemi Adeyemi Osofisan in the Ogun State town of Erunwon. Given the circumstances of the literary icon’s background, it is not news that he ended up as a professor who married a fellow professor! Osofisan, as he is widely known, was born into a literate family, something the Yoruba will call “báàwéńlé.” His dad was a schoolteacher, the same as his mom. This background must have sown the seed for Osofisan’s love for books and literature. Osofisan was given birth in a largely undeveloped place that otherwise would have adversely hampered his development and exposure, but his family and academic disposition helped shape his life.
Although Osofisan was born in Erunwon, his studies took him to different parts of Southwestern Nigeria. He started his education in the ancestral home of the Yoruba, Ile-Ife, where he attended primary school between 1952 and 1958. He then proceeded to Government College, Ibadan, one of the three prestigious government colleges in the country that bred some of our most influential literati–Osofisan, Soyinka, Achebe, and Clark. A child who would be great would show tendencies for greatness from a very young age. Such is the story of Osofisan. His tilt towards the literary started manifesting from his secondary school days. When he graduated from Government College, Ibadan in 1963, it was with a feather in his cap–the T.M. Aluko Prize for Literature.
Upon finishing from Government College, Professor Osofisan gained admission to the Department of Modern European Languages, University of Ibadan, to study French. His study lasted for four years between 1966 and 1969. He bagged a Bachelor’s with honors in 1969. The initial educational trajectory of Professor Osofisan would almost convince one that he would not venture into literature. That’s because, upon the completion of his undergraduate studies in Ibadan and Dakar, he was subsequently awarded a scholarship to study at the famous Sorbonne in Paris. His postgraduate degree in French at the Sorbonne lasted between 1972 and 1973. If life happened as straightly as Osofisan’s initial path, perhaps we would have been celebrating Femi Osofisan as a renowned French author or translator on this occasion of his 75th birthday. However, life and personal interests and passions had another plan for him.
Osofisan’s divergent nature, which would in the future help him brazenly criticize the government of his nation, started to manifest during his program at Sorbonne. Being an African proud of his roots and deeply interested in drama, Professor Osofisan wanted to work on African drama for his thesis, a proposition that his supervisor rejected. This hindered him from bagging his postgraduate degree in French, and it changed the course of his academic sojourn.
What he was denied at Sorbonne, Ibadan offered him. Osofisan’s career as an academic started at the University of Ibadan, where he had bagged his first degree at the same Department of Modern European Languages. He worked as an assistant lecturer at this department and furthered his passion by doubling as the President of the Ibadan Drama Society. The University of Ibadan served as the consummate breeding ground for Professor Femi Osofisan’s scholarly sojourn. He started his doctoral program at the University of Ibadan, where he worked on the origins of drama in Africa. It went down in history that Prof. Osofisan’s program was one of the fastest doctoral programs. He bagged his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1974, a year after his return from Sorbonne.
The academic called Femi Osofisan has worked as a drama and theatre arts lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University, and the Kwara State University. He was promoted to the position of professor 11 years after getting his Ph.D. Although he officially retired from active service in 2011, Professor Osofisan has proven that passion and love for drama fuels and invigorates him. He has agreed to continue to contribute his scholarly wealth to academia, which made the University of Ibadan honor him with the Emeritus Professor status.
I have spent time speaking of Osofisan as an academic because that is not the Osofisan generally known. The Osofisan known by many is Femi Osofisan, a literary god, skilled dramaturge, dexterous adapter and sustainer of literary works, social critic, champion of just causes, and lyrically sound poet. Osofisan is known to some as Okinba Launko–the Dreamseeker on a Divining Chain. He is of a generation now rare, of an order that has almost entirely left us–the ones who held the literary front in much needed defiance against the military era. He is a celebrated African dramatist who has won several local and international awards of repute. Beyond that, his works have been translated into other languages, thereby extending the tentacles of his influence.
Everything remarkable has a catalyst—a starting point and a phenomenon that catapults it to the limelight or greatness. This is the life story of Professor Osofisan. His career as a dramatist started from the days when he was a columnist for some national dailies. The series of stories he wrote in the national dailies became his book titled Cordelia. Of a truth, Osofisan is much more known as a dramatist. However, he has written works in all four genres of literature– poetry, drama, prose, and literary criticism. He has four prose works to his name, over 60 plays, five books of poems, and several essays and papers.
I will term Osofisan as the African icon of relatable literature, and the reason is not far-fetched. He has carved a niche for himself as a dexterous adapter of other works of literature–adaptations that reflect the beauty of the Yoruba culture and serve as a relatable work of literature. One of the lessons that his adaptation of works has taught us is that everyone is first human, and human flaws, vices, or strengths are not unique to any one race. As women are often the most affected victims of war in Europe, so are they also the most affected victims of war in Africa, a point projected to light by Femi Osofisan’s narration of the Owu story, which has semblance to the story of Troy.
Professor Osofisan is a recipient of numerous awards. It will not be out of place to call him one of Nigeria’s most decorated literary icons. He is the winner of the 1st Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service [WNBS] Prize for Independence Anniversary Essay. His first poetry book, Minted Coins, won the ANA Poetry Prize and the Regional Commonwealth Poetry Award for First Collection in 1987. Morountodun and Other Plays won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) 1983 Award for Drama. He also won the 1993 ANA Award for Drama for his book, Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contest. He made the shortlist for the prestigious USA-based Neustadt Prize in 2000. He is the only African to have received the World Literary Prize in Drama, the Thalia Laurel.
Osofisan is a critic and activist who voiced out the best way he knew–through the mightiness of the pen. For this, he has been honored as an Officier de l’Ordre Nationale de Mérite, Rép. de France, which he graciously received in 1999, and also as a recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit in the Humanities, the most prestigious merit-based award in Nigeria which recognizes the best of the best in various walks of life. He received this award in 2004. In 2006, he equally received the Fonlon-Nichols Prize for Literature and the Struggle for Human Rights.
Professor Osofisan is a well-rounded man: a family man, a fulfilled literatus, and a world-known academic. As he marks the occasion of his 75th year on earth, it is sure that the professor has many things to be happy and smile about. However, I cannot but remind the emeritus professor of the days when he and other literati were at the forefront of activism against the military regime. The country claims to run a democratic system of government, but its actions and policies have tended towards dictatorial rule. It would be better for the activism space if Osofisan resumed at the forefront to weigh in on national issues.
Happy Birthday, Professor Babafemi Adeyemi Osofisan; you are of the league of those who have placed Nigeria among the stars!
* Falola is Professor of History, The University of Texas at Austin and a special Columnist for Nigerian Current.