Young, gifted and exceptional, he has traversed the world making marks in the field of education. There is more to this 50 year-old Osun State-born professor who broke the jinx at Oxford by becoming the university’s first black Rhodes professor of Race Relations. Meet Prof. Wale Adebanwi. Funke Olaode had a rare encounter with him at his office on Bevington Road, at the prestigious Oxford University, London, in the United Kingdom recently and brings to the fore what makes him tick
Red bricks, ancient walls, serene environment and everything that will remind you of ‘old’ would greet a first-time visitor to the ancient but yet prestigious University of Oxford located in the heart of Oxford City in London in the United Kingdom. And not even the advent of modernity would change the look of the 900-year-old university, which has produced great men and women for the past nine centuries. The students move around on bicycles and life is just normal.
The road that leads to Prof. Wale Adebanwi’s office may look ordinary. Its occupant is an exceptionally accomplished Nigerian who has broken not a few grounds. Adebanwi, a native of Iresi in Osun State parades an intimidating curriculum vitae with awards and grants from reputable institutions that spread across various continents of the world.
Apart from studying Mass Communication from the University of Lagos where he graduated in 1992, Adebanwi has gone ahead to acquire more knowledge climbing extraordinary heights. He has two doctorates, one at the University of Ibadan and another at Cambridge where he was a Bill Gates scholar. After his sojourn at the University of Ibadan and the University of California, Davis, he moved to the University of Oxford in 2017 where he attained a feat never achieved by any black man.
Prof. Adebanwi became the first black Rhodes professor of Race Relations at the prestigious University of Oxford. He is also the director, African Studies Centre, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
Walking into his office on Bevington Road, Adebanwi’s love for books is well-pronounced as various books are elegantly displayed on shelves with a few artefacts of African heritage to boot.
He might have traversed the world acquiring knowledge, breaking boundaries, Adebanwi still remains true to himself as he admits that perseverance, consistency and an element of luck have been his propelling force. Born by a father who was a missionary, Adebanwi had his education up to his first PhD in Nigeria.
The professor said, “I was educated in Nigeria up to PhD. I started primary school in Ogun state and finished secondary school in Oyo state. And then my higher school certificate for one year and then went back to Lagos for a first degree in Mass Communication at the University of Lagos and later did a master’s degree in Political Science.”
Adebanwi was raised by a father who believed in Western education and that rubbed off well on him to embrace reading at a very early age.
Going down memory lane, he said, “My dad didn’t have much of Western education but he trained himself a lot.
“For instance, I took after him in reading, because my dad always read. I remember at a point when he retired, all the books he had, when he finished reading everything, he would read them all over again. So he was always reading, if he didn’t buy any new book he would read the old ones all over again. So I got that from him. I grew up seeing books around and he was constantly talking about the value of reading.”
You may be wrong or right if you think that his first degree prepared him for a life in academia. Not really. He has always wanted to live a life of either an academic, scholar, writer or lawyer. He has since moved away from core journalism which he began at the age of 16.
“Before I gained admission into UNILAG, I started writing for newspapers when I was 16. My first piece was published in Tribune, I then started writing for Sketch. There was a time at 17, I was running a column for evening Sketch on radio and television. So I was already writing for newspapers. I moved from there and I wrote for Prime People and Vintage. I wrote for Classic under Dele Momodu when I was in UNILAG,” he explained.
From Mass Communication where he was already grounded, Adebanwi shifted to Political Science, which eventually opened his window into his world. Why the shift. He explained.
He stated, “As I said, my father introduced me to reading and just opened my window into the world. Initially, I wanted to be a lawyer, and when I started writing for newspapers, journalism really got into me, so I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I have always wanted to be all that four: journalist, scholar, academic and then a lawyer. I have achieved the three, the fourth one I am working on. So, I am a journalist/scholar and also a writer, so I will say going into any discipline in the social sciences, like mass communication, prepared me to be able to observe society and talk about it.
“And there is nothing I have done in my life since I got into journalism, that has not been influenced largely by that background. I was trained also as a mass communicator. So for instance, the discipline of writing under pressure is something that journalism taught me that I would never let go of. It has been helpful. Also in political science, I read political science in Ibadan, although I specialised technically in international relations, my thesis was on the media. My PhD thesis in Ibadan was on the media, which I have since published. The title is ‘Nation as Grand Narrative: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning’.”
With his first PhD from the University of Ibadan, Adebanwi was already thirsting for more knowledge but this time in a foreign land.
Talking about his sojourn in the UK, he admitted that consistency, perseverance, and destiny played a key role.
“Before I finished in Ibadan I was already thinking at a point of going abroad perhaps to do another PhD. So Bill Gates started a scholarship in 2001 in Cambridge, and a friend brought the form to my house. That time you will fill a one-page form and send it to your referee to see whether you even qualify for the application form. My referee sent back the application form. I missed out on the first year due to NIPOST problems. This was in 2001.
“I was already writing my PhD thesis and then I reapplied the following year and I got the admission but I didn’t get the scholarship. There was no way I could go without the scholarship, at that time I think the total package was around £20,000. My supervisor in Ibadan said to me, ‘why don’t you differ it?’ And at that time I was finishing and I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘why not?’ That supposed by next year ‘you are in the condition in which you have to leave’, I was already teaching in Ibadan, so I differed it. I differed my admission that year and I got the scholarship the following year.”
From Mass Communication to Political Science and Social Anthropology. So why did he end up in Social Anthropology?
“I wanted to go for social and political sciences as well, now the only person who was a specialist on Africa in the faculty then was a social anthropologist who had an attachment with the politics department. She then said if I am going to be the supervisor, I have to do the PhD in social anthropology. So I said if it means going to Cambridge I will do it there. So she kind of moved me, and then she said, ‘The second thing was that if you are also going for social anthropology since you didn’t do social anthropology before, your admission has to be M.Phil PhD, not just direct PhD.’ So I had to do M.Phil. By that time I was already teaching a master’s class in Ibadan, this was 10 years after I finished my master’s programme in Ibadan, and I said why not. So it was tough going back, but I did M.Phil. For the first year, then transited to PhD. So that is how I ended up in social anthropology.”
Looking at the trajectory of his life, has he always been a gifted child?
“What I will say is that it is largely a function of good fortune which you might call luck. But to serve also as encouragement for young people, I tell them that it is a kind of good fortune and luck that comes out of absolute persistence. Your persistence may not be rewarded, but sometimes when your persistence meets with good luck it makes it look bigger than it is. So it is absolutely good luck, so I don’t consider myself gifted. I wish I were gifted, I know gifted people, but I don’t consider myself gifted at all,” he said with a sense of modesty.
Adebanwi began his academic sojourn in Ibadan, moved to America where he became a professor and broke the jinx at Oxford as the first black Rhodes professor of Race Relations, which is one of the most prestigious chairs in the world.
Was there an opening? How did he get there?
“The Rhodes professorship, the chair was started in the 50s. The first person to occupy the chair spent 30 years as Rhodes professor. The next person spent maybe 10 years and then the third Rhodes professor was on the chair for 18 years. He retired in 2015 or 2016. And so there was an opening, so I applied for it because my colleague called to say if I would apply for it. I am 50 years old now and the retirement age in Oxford and Cambridge I think for now is 67. If I am still here, I have to leave in next 17 years. You have to retire at 67 because this is a place where they want to be able to renew the place otherwise people are going to be here forever. Sometimes people don’t leave. They take on emeritus position but at least you have to leave by 67 so that the newer generation can come on.”
How did he feel becoming the first black Rhodes professor on Race Relations?
“Well, I felt it was a feat to be appointed as Rhodes professor in Oxford. To be appointed to Oxford is an honour, to be appointed as chair in Oxford is a rare honour. I became a professor in 2016 at the University of California, Davis and then I resumed here, although I was supposed to resume that same year I resumed in 2017. So it is not just an honour, it is also a privilege to be here in Oxford. And then of course to be the first black Rhodes Professor for the African Studies Centre and the College. So I am also a fellow of St. Anthony’s College. Holding this rare privilege for me is humbling and it is also a lot of responsibilities that you can serve as an inspiration to younger people all over the continent of the black world. People who look at you and say okay this is an affirmation of the possibility and the truth, of course, is that those who are coming will absolutely do better than this. So you can only help in expanding the possibilities for those who are younger and who are coming behind.”
Nigerians are trailblazers, and a lot of people believe that the Nigerian education system was once grounded which prepared scholars like Adebanwi to excel. How does he think the system can be fixed?
“There is a lot to be said about that. I have actually written about this in the public media at some point, criticizing the situation in Nigeria. But let me say this, a lot has been said about the challenges of education in Nigeria and a lot can still be said. There are two things I will just say so that I don’t repeat what people have said. One, we can’t fix our education problem in Nigeria if we don’t fix our politics and governance. Because what gave us the solidity that we had in terms of our institutions of training in Nigeria over the decades was the quality of governance and politics, especially in a different sector. When you look, at, for instance, the post-independence trail, the foundation of education in Western Nigeria, repeated in Eastern Nigeria, to some extent to the north was grounded.
“If you look at all those institutions, they were the bedrock. So we need to fix the process of governance. In the second republic, in the Oduduwa States as we were called then, free education also helped a lot. So if we don’t fix the governance and the politics we can’t fix the challenge. But having said that, it’s a crying shame that a country with the kind of resources that we have, and I am not talking about natural resources, our natural resources as I said in my lecture at the Metropolitan Club in Lagos three weeks ago, our natural resources count for nothing in comparison to our human resources. To use a phrase that was used by a senior colleague to describe someone, but I think that describes Nigeria, that it is almost a genetic scandal that you have such amazing human resources.
“As you can see all over the world, half of Nigerians who are doing well around the world will fix the country. I look at the quality of education in Nigeria. I mean when you see the statistics with the state of education in Nigeria, you will think any reasonable leader will declare a state of emergency. In 1986, Prof. Soyinka said they should shut down the universities and spend a year to rethink the university idea. That was in 1986, how many years would we need now?”
Anthropology is the study of human evolution, as a black man working in a white environment what are the differences that he has noticed?
“Well, what we have to do is to resolve our tension with modernity. And that is a critical question, in every aspect of our lives and that is one of the works I am doing now which was partly what I presented to the Metropolitan Club in Lagos three or four weeks ago. And this question was actually answered in the late 19th and early 20th century, around Lagos, Sierra Leone, Accra, Calabar. The elite then, the intellectuals of that age, of the early 20th century responded, they encountered European modernity in the enlightenment project and resolved that there are ways in which you can negotiate the tension between tradition and modernity, and these are the compromises. But this was a question they responded to, it was not completely settled.
“Every generation will have to respond, but we still find that some of the questions were already resolved then. When it comes to the question of human progress, what works best to ensure human progress is what you must embrace. We are still quivering about that question in the 21st century, something they resolved then. So the critical question is that we have to resolve the unnecessary challenge that we have with modernity. Can you imagine some of the questions that we are dealing with in Nigeria today in the late 21st century that were resolved in the early 20th century by the pioneers who were intellectuals? And they recognized that human progress is something that is not debatable.
“Any nation or person that decides to put the least competent people in charge of their collective affairs cannot complain about the result. So what we have to do is to begin a process by which we harness our incredible human resources to ensure that we recreate a good society. One that is livable and that the generation yet unborn will be proud of. And we have that capacity what we have to do is just to do it.”