INSIDE STORY OF A MAVERICK PROFESSOR
Few professors rock like him. He champions Fourth Estate of the Realm. He denounces Fourth Estate of the Wreck. He enraptures you in the knowledge of mass communication. In Nigeria, he is ubiquitously the go-to oracle of journalism. Though he’s not from time immemorial, his influence, aura, and brilliance make it feel like he’s been there forever. Beyond the University of Lagos’ Department of Mass Communication, Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye remains iconic: he links ‘the gown’ with ‘the town’. Plus, as an academic, his name is one of the sexiest in Nigeria. Funke Olaode explores the momentous moments in the life of this maverick Nigerian
He is iconic, brilliant, highly connected and influential. He is an erudite scholar, a distinguished professor, an accomplished media and communication expert. Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye has been around for over four decades as a lecturer. He’s since retired but is far from being tired. Always fired up, he remains upwardly mobile with an extra ‘tyre’ to boot; age hasn’t slowed him down. He brought the African continent on the world map when in August 2019, he was elected as a council member of the World Journalism Education Congress; the first African to be so honoured.
Chances are if the name Akinfeleye sounds strange, you’re probably not interested in mass communication, a field he has recorded strings of successes. Akinfeleye distinguishes himself as a brilliant scholar with over 40 years in his field. His name is synonymous with the University of Lagos, Mass Communication Department where he was once the chair and head of department. He has equally made a mark supervising 10 doctoral students out of 13 produced so far in the department.
At over 70, Akinfeleye has become a reference point on how to distinguish oneself in his field. Son of a cocoa buyer whose lineage has produced many bishops and reverends in Anglican Diocese. Recounting his growing up, Akinfeleye said he was brought up by disciplined parents which shaped his life.
“I am from the centre of the universe, the city that is naturally fortified with rocks and mountains and hills. Idanre in Ondo State. I grew up in Idanre and Lagos. My father was a farmer and a produce merchant. He also had a stint with CFAO back then. My mother was a businesswoman she is 90 something now and still very agile. It was a comfortable beginning for me but my father was a disciplinarian and man of God. You would be in trouble if you don’t go to church on Sunday. Sunday school was also compulsory. And you have to go for a choir practice. He was an Anglican by faith and today the family has produced many Reverends and Bishops. My cousin is the Lord Bishop of Lagos Diocese, Bishop Humphery Olumakanye. My father was very kind and loved his children. We must not stay outside till 7 o clock in the evening. I was a footballer and I have to return home by 6:30 pm.”
The erudite scholar began his primary education at St. George’s Anglican Primary School in Idanre in Ondo State. He would later proceed to Baptist Boys’ High School in Ekiti for his secondary education. Akinfeleye’s journey into academics was accidental. It was purely the work of providence. His childhood dream was to be a pilot or an industrial engineer. His stellar performance at a competition organized by the American Embassy on Current Affairs altered his early dreams. In the end, he won a book titled “Exploring Journalism” which evoked his curiosity to explore. Akinfeleye explored and got stuck.
This was in the early 70s. Akinfeleye didn’t stop at admiring the book, he was addicted to information on the roles of journalists and what they can do. “The atmosphere changed from being either a pilot or industrial engineer to a journalist. I didn’t stop I started sending messages and always go to the American Embassy Library to read. I enrolled at the United States Information Service (USIS).”
He started exploring schools where he could read journalism and found out that the University of Missouri in Columbia was the First World War School of Journalism. It was the only school that offered a degree in Journalism in the whole world and was founded in 1908 by Walter Williams. He secured admission to the prestigious school. While at the University of Missouri, Akinfeleye was taught everything about journalism; radio, TV, and newspapers.
“We had radio and TV stations and we had two newspapers. And when you finish they will give you journalist screed, it is like a code of conduct that tells journalists what to do and what they must not do in terms of objectivity. I graduated in 1978.”
His journey into academics began shortly after graduation when he secured employment at Lincoln University. Apart from lecturing at Lincoln University, he was a director of communication and oversaw the school’s KLU FM Radio Station. He also worked in Missourian Newspapers.
After graduation in 1978 in America, he decided to work in academics and journalism thereby mixing ‘the gown with the town’. And leaving the United States in 1978, having been interviewed in Washington DC by the External Affairs, The Ministry and University, just like a man who sees tomorrow, University salary was the least but pitched his tent with Unilag. Like a man on a mission, he redefined the school of communication. Changed the system from nothing casting to narrow-casting and now digital casting having led his school to secure a $5 million grants.
“ When I took the appointment, the university was the least in terms of salary but I was determined. I came back to Unilag as a lecturer having equipped himself up to doctorate before coming to serve my motherland. I came here with my PhD. The decision to study for my doctoral was influenced by a colleague who studied Business Administration and he came back to Nigeria after his first degree. He was calling me a professor.
“For me, I didn’t break. After my first degree, I went for a Master’s and PhD. That my friend encouraged me that having a BSc is an excellent, master’s degree a luxury and PhD Madness. He said he would not go further. By the time I finished, I had a PhD. I was sponsoring myself and God helped me. I was getting grants and scholarships opportunity from the US and Canada. I was on the Dean’s List which gave me the opportunity to get grants and Tuition waiver. I was paying in-state and had to maintain a good GPA.”
Today, his name is synonymous with the University of Lagos, Mass Communication where he has continued to make a mark. His journey at Unilag began in 1979/1980.
“I was interested in academic and the industry. When I came back here and saw what was on the ground, I promised to make a difference. The journalism schools didn’t have radio or Television and they were awarding degrees without having all the necessary learning aids. They were doing Nothing casting. I promised to lead the school to digital casting. I applied to the then Head of Department, the late Prof. Alfred Okpobo. In 2002, we were able to get license and we were the first campus to get radio license in Nigeria through then President Obasanjo. By 2017 through the help of God and the help of former Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Rahaman Bello and current VC, Prof. Toyin Ogundipe, they helped us and we got the first Campus Television licence.”
Speaking on the grants from the World Bank, Akinfeleye said, “When we applied for a grant with the World Bank, we competed with nine universities and polytechnics and went to Abuja to defend our proposals. At the end of the day, we got the grant $5 million. At that time it was N1 billion and that is why we were able to buy all the equipment for our radio and television station. When we got the Television license it was not difficult to go on air. For instance, we have OB Van, a teleprompter, a red camera, a special camera that can shoot underwater and 20 kilometers. Today, we have moved from nothing casting to narrow-casting now we have digital casting.”
Why did he come back despite the opportunity America has to offer?
“My professor, an American asked me why am I going back and I told him ‘you as an American if you had sought a greener pasture elsewhere, who would develop America. Tell me what America has not done; they have been to the moon, the sun to develop the country. So I am one of the people who believe there is no place like home.”
Then has he always been in academics? “Yes,” the prof said. “When I finished my PhD and returned to Nigeria the following Tuesday. As said earlier, in those days, employers would travel down to Washington to interview us at the embassy. I had three offers; one at the External Affairs, one in the Ministries and The University, which was the least and I took it. When I got to Unilag I met some of the British trained professors with due respect some were good while some exhibited wickedness to the extent that a student with 3.99 would not be allowed to graduate and because of half a point in one useless course the student would repeat it. I am talking about a potential 2.1 candidate. I fought that injustice and I became popular amongst my students.”
It wouldn’t be an understatement if you attest to the fact that Akinfeleye propagates the idea of mixing ‘the town with the gown’ amongst lecturers just as lawyers are allowed to practice in law chambers during sabbaticals.” It was a challenge when I wanted to go to the field to practice. The establishment opposed my going into the newsroom to practice. I said you allow lawyers to go to chambers to practice that newsroom is my chamber and I fought it. Today, mass communication lecturers are allowed to do their sabbatical in radio or television stations on magazines or anywhere.”
“And during my sabbatical, instead of me to go University of Polytechnic to go and teach, I went straight to work in Concord Group Newspaper owned by the late MKO Abiola. It was in the 80s. I started the Community Concord, the first community Newspaper in this country. I worked with Dr. (Mrs.) Doyin Abiola. We had branches in all the 21 states at that time with editors.
“After that, another sabbatical, instead of going to the academic settings, again, I went to work with the United Nations Population Fund (UNPA) where I spent two years as their communication specialist and country representative. It was an eventful moment for me and made an impact. We did a lot of social-cultural factors affecting us as a nation, particularly ethnic problems. The third Sabbatical, I went to help Lagos State University (LASU) to start their School of Communication.”
Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye was once the chair and former department head at the University of Lagos. He is currently the chief consultant of the Centre of Excellence in Multimedia and Cinematography/Unilag Radio 103.1 FM and Television. His legacy while HOD remains indelible and according to him, he would forever be grateful to the Advertising guru, Dr. Biodun Shobanjo for his benevolence.
“When my tenure was about to expire, I walked up to him and said ‘My tenure would soon expire, what can you do for me. My office then was a bungalow and the man said he would demolish the bungalow and did three floors for us. I approached the then VC who also gave his seal of approval. The result is the gigantic edifice named after the Advertising guru. I am grateful for Shobanjo’s benevolence gesture.”
Akinfeleye is an authority in the field of journalism. Can he bodily say in the last 20 years, the Nigerian media has lived up to expectation as the nation’s watchdog? He said, “It’s yes and no.”
“It is yes because the Nigerian press may not be the freest press in Africa but the most outspoken. Again, within the past 20 years, we have moved from nothing casting to narrowcasting to broadcasting. For the past few years, if you look at the broadcast system without prejudice with the print, we have been able to have what we call ownership pluralism at the expense of content pluralism. There are more people getting radio station license but the content is the same which negates media deregulation of 1992.
“The newspapers are doing well but others have come and gone. Also, there are more training schools than 20 years ago but with the exception of Lagos, Ibadan, BUK, UNN, ABU and some others, some are not doing the right thing. I go on accreditation and I see what they have, the quality of their lecturers.”
But the so-called national newspapers in Nigeria are struggling with a circulation of 20,000 or fewer copies in a country of at least 70 million adults. What is the problem? He explained, “My position is that Nigeria has no national newspaper. What we have is a community newspaper or regional newspaper. Again, Media literacy is low and social media which has turned everything to social disorder with the aid of technology. But that doesn’t mean that the mainstream newspapers should sleep or be on the bench. They should counter to make sure social media don’t overtake them. Social media practitioners are not journalists I call them information traffickers. They traffick in falsehood, they traffic in fake news and they can cause disharmony through the ebb of technology especially in Africa.
“For instance, the owner of Facebook was in Nigeria two years ago and they asked him ‘Are you practicing journalism? He said no that he is only providing a platform for information dissemination to pass information as fast as possible at no cost. Fake news has been with us since 1890 and it died away. And as from 2017, it resurrected. There are about 30 nations that have ganged up to promulgate social medial law. It can’t work because it is like when you want to padlock the air. How? What you can do is for service providers to checkmates them.”
On how Nigeria education can be fixed, Akinfeleye believes Nigerian education isn’t as bad is being painted and the record of many outstanding Nigerians trained in Nigeria making waves across the globe is overwhelming. He will want the political elite in Nigeria to be sincere and that the government should honour various agreements to curtail incessant strikes because education is a very powerful instrument for national development, national integration, and national coherence. Unending strike.
Akinfeleye retired a few years back when he turned 70 and he is still in demand everywhere. He is currently the chief consultant of the Centre of Excellence in Multimedia and Cinematography/Unilag Radio 103.1 FM and Television.
“Life is a continuum and professors don’t retire they continue to profess especially professor of communication and journalism. As I tell my students that we continue to profess even in heaven. So, I am still on the roller coaster,” said the professor.
He would like to be remembered as a Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye, a peaceful man, the action man, principle man, who doesn’t discriminate and who likes to take care of the needy.