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Professor Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah: The Poet, Playwright, and Philosopher

 

By Toyin Falola

At the end of the “hustle-bustle” and serenade hullabaloo witnessed in George Orwell’s classical fantasy, Animal Farm, about social relevance, position, and status of animals compared with their peers, Orwell concluded, but now changed to fit in the human world, “All men are equal but some men are more equal than the others.” Before the intention of this altered quote is misconstrued, it is pertinent to casually dive into our immediate environment. Millions of people exist all around us, yet few are celebrated, even in the most democratic of settings where equality is the vision and watchword. Standing heads tall amongst peers is a mark of excellence seen in just a few.  In this rare and valuable market is someone who is not scarce, is well known to me, and has earned my respect for his vast contributions to scholarship—Professor Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah. I make bold to rank him among the “some men” who are more equal than the others.

I have known Professor Na’Allah for over two decades now, and he has been nothing short of awesomeness and remarkable excellence. Within this period, he served as Vice-Chancellor twice of two of the biggest tertiary institutions in Nigeria, Kwara State University (2009-2019) and the University of Abuja (2019-present). With a life devoted to scholarship and profound intellectualism, one that awes and wows me whenever we share moments, as recently as in mid-June, it is perhaps expedient to introduce Na’Allah to sections of the public who must have missed knowing him. Abdul-Rasheed, as his first name goes, is a man I fondly associate with tenacity, which may explain his relentlessness and astute doggedness in improving the standards of education in his immediate jurisdiction. He completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Ilorin before moving on to the University of Alberta, Canada, for his Ph.D. His scholarly repute, no doubt, earned him his professorship at the Western Illinois University in the United States, where he became the chairman of the African-American Studies.

 

Of aesthetics and valuable contribution to African Literature

Beyond holding recognized academic positions and titles, Na’Allah’s contribution to scholarship in Africa extends to legacies in writings, having authored and co-authored several works, with particular focus on Nigeria. For instance, he recently launched three of his latest works, which are rich, broad, and deep in their appreciation of the Yoruba culture, people, ontology, performative, influence and reach of Islam in Nigeria, cultural artistries, traditions, and even politics, particularly of the Muslim community in Ilorin, his primary setting. Of these three, two are plays/dramas—Seriya and Baba Omokewu (Mualimu). His third work is Yoruba Oral Tradition in Islamic Nigeria: A History of Dadakuada.

While a quick assessment of the great works is appealing, kindly await them in subsequent reviews. The introduction of the books to the audience, as well as queries about them, will be covered in what Yoruba call ameebo, albeit in a good way—an insight into his beautiful writing crafts. There is no way I could have read the great significance of Na’Allah’s works and not want to whisper some tunes to my esteemed readers.

Some of his past works I admire the most for their depth in knowledge provision, some of which I even reference and use, are African Discourse in Islam, Oral Traditions, and Performance and Africanity, Islamicity, and Performativity: Identity in the House of Ilorin. As a fellow Pan-Africanist, the uniqueness of his approach and novelty of thoughts, combined with the trajectory of his narrative analysis, are always nothing short of admiration. Even when you think you are familiar with a topic or a subject matter in Islam in Africa, Na’Allah’s perspective will give you further assignments to reconsider some general conceptions about Islam in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, about interpretations of certain practices and beliefs.

After an extensive familiarization with his works and critical evaluation of some of them, albeit subtle, Na’Allah has remained on course to clearing misconceptions and revolutionizing thoughts and conceptions about Islam and its place in Africa. In most, if not all of his work, there is an obvious pattern. He seeks to explore the oral literature in and of Africa. In many of his researches, he often emphasizes the role and importance of African tradition as the mobilizing factor to bring together Africans for core and far-reaching development that will transcend generations, making lasting impacts. Due to his foresight and commitment to sustainable development, his writings not only examine present-day Africa but also what Africa must do to attain some of the goals of Pan-Africanism. Na’Allah has also co-authored, edited, and peer-reviewed several beautiful works on African literatures, oral performativity, and African traditions.

Of Honors, recognitions, and deserving wins

I am not alone in awe of Na’Allah’s exceeding greatness in the fields of literature and African studies or, even more, in his exemplary leadership since he started holding management positions in academia. This is evident in the awards he was nominated for and the ones he won. Na’Allah’s stint in leadership certainly did not start in university administration, and his recognition as an excellent one did not wait until he became a Vice-Chancellor. As a student in Alberta, Canada, he was the recipient of numerous awards including “The Black Achievements Award,” “The Alberta Heritage Charles S. Noble Award for Student Leadership,” “The Gold Key Recognition Award, University of Alberta,” amongst several others, all in 1998.

More interestingly, in an African country where students are always at loggerheads with their principals, protesting bad leadership, bad welfarism, and always embarking on industrial actions, I find it the most pleasing if the people you serve recognize your efforts and are committed to singing your praises. In 2017, the National Association of Nigerian Students deemed Na’Allah the most fit for the honor of “Hero and Icon of Good Leadership.” He also won “The Cathy O’Neill Couza Award for Outstanding Leadership in Diversity” from Western Illinois University, including some other awards in the United States. Also, in 2018, GUNi-Africa recognized his astute leadership by awarding him the “Exemplary Leadership in Higher Education in Africa Award,” which corroborates and solidifies my earlier raves about him.

The range of Na’Allah’s acceptability as a brilliant administrator and scholar extends beyond the awards above. He equally has several awards from a host of other bodies such as the West African Students’ Union, University of Ilorin Alumni Association, Literary Society of Nigeria, Commonwealth Youth Council, Nigeria Rotary International, Man ‘O’ War, and many others. While awards and honors may not always be a true reflection of a person’s repute and merit, in the case of Na’Allah, the awards only scratch the surface of the wonderful personality that he is. The diversity also speaks to the generality of the belief in his incredible stint as a leader par excellence.

In demonstrating his tenacity as a leader, during the era of Shell exploitation of Ogoniland, Na’Allah led a struggle demanding that Shell be made to leave Nigeria for their human rights atrocities. As a visionary, he also lobbied the Canadian government to actively intervene in human rights issues in Nigeria. He did not stop at that. At a time when many were afraid to speak out against the oppressive Abacha regime, Na’Allah condemned the killing of the Ogonis and labeled Shell activities as slavery, comparing it to the centuries of slavery Africa was subjected to before and during colonialism when Africa had little say over the inhumane selfish exploitation of the continent and its resources.

A study of an unending quest for more knowledge

I can particularly connect more easily to this. I received the D.Litt. (Academics) from the University of Ibadan, earlier this year and many people wondered what a man who has “done and won everything” in the academics wanted again. This did not come from just ordinary people, but from academics who have preached that “learning never ends till you die.” As a philosopher, Na’Allah is one such scholar who did not only preach or teach the philosophy of endless pedagogy but also acted and practiced what he believes. Considering his numerous achievements and honors as a leader, many people, particularly naysayers, would prefer him to pursue knowledge in a different field. However, Na’Allah decided to repeatedly acquire more knowledge within the realm of leadership.

In 2009, decades after many of his plaudits, Na’Allah completed a Certificate in Management Development Program from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Four years after, he completed another Certificate, this time at the Institute for Educational Management, Harvard. Not stopping at that, in 2015, while he was still the Vice-Chancellor of Kwara State University, he bagged another Master’s degree in Advancement Leadership for Presidents at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard.

At this point, you would have to agree with my description of the erudite scholar as relentless. Perhaps, with the first, he should be heading to UNESCO as an ambassador (laughs!) And yes, a visionary like him is desired at the peak of decision-making and in every meaningful leadership position. Given that he is a poet primarily known for bringing imaginations close to reality, I should be forgiven if I believe that Na’Allah could sum the dreams and imaginations of Nigerians into reality, this time not with pen and paper but with developmental and progressive policies and executions.

[This piece was written as part of the events marking the public presentation, on June 30, of Professor Na’Allah’s three new books: Seriya, Baba Omokewu, and Dadakuada: Ilorin Art History]

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