Akin Mabogunje: A Rare Breed Departs

Postscript by Waziri Adio

On Thursday, one of Nigeria’s most accomplished intellectuals, Professor Akinlawon ’Ladipo Mabogunje, breathed his last. He passed on ten weeks shy of his 91st birthday. He was a man of great thought and consequential action, one of those that balanced theory with practice. His impact extended far beyond the boundaries of his primary field, and he was rightly described as an ‘intellectual without borders’. Yet, he was a very unassuming and profoundly decent man. They don’t make them like Mabogunje again.  

I met Professor Mabogunje only once, and for about an hour, and what an experience that was! The meeting was on 28th February 2014, and it wasn’t planned. Olusegun Adeniyi and I ran into him inside a plane heading to Abuja from Ibadan. Adeniyi had got close to the renowned professor when the latter served as an honorary adviser on land reform to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Adeniyi introduced me to the academic and development expert. And by some fortuity, my seat was next to his.

As I later shared in a tweet, I had an immersive and profound tutorial on that one-hour flight. It was more than going back to school. I was literally seated at the foot of wisdom. He exuded great range beyond the world of geography and urbanisation, for which he had achieved global eminence. His unplanned discussion with me touched on democratisation, development, local governance, associational life and the centrality of strong levers of accountability to all of them.

He told me of an experience he once had when he was on a fellowship in an American university in the late 1960s. He was living in a small community with his family. As a resident, he was invited to a community board meeting on the need to introduce French Language as a subject in the local schools to prepare the kids better for a changing world. He said he was fascinated about the level of debate at that local level, the consensus created from reasoned deliberation, and the commitment to increase taxes to implement the decision. For him—and for me, his one-hour, starry-eyed student—that was model local governance in practice: deliberation, joint decision-making, and active stake-holding.

He challenged me to read or re-read Alex de Tocqueville’s classic book ‘Democracy in America’ and to pay attention to the Frenchman’s observations about township democracy and how the spirit of American democracy is deeply rooted in the local governance exemplified by the townships of New England in the 1830s. I had had some faint familiarity with Tocqueville’s classic work, but more about how America’s deep associational life explains the depth of the country’s democracy. I actually didn’t read Tocqueville. I became aware of his insights through Robert Putnam’s more recent and equally insightful books on social capital: ‘Bowling Alone’ and ‘Making Democracy Work’.

But the bit about local governance was new to me. I was intrigued that local governments in America served as schools for democracy and governance and as laboratories where important norms like deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, transparency and accountability are tested and imbibed. As someone concerned about how the promise of decentralisation has been achieved mostly in the breach in Nigeria, I found the tutorial and references by Professor Mabogunje exciting. On that flight that day, the professor of Geography could have passed for a professor of Political Science or Development Studies. But this shouldn’t have surprised me, given the different fields that intersect in urbanisation, Professor Mabogunje’s area of specialisation, and his cross-disciplinary exertions over time.

At the time we met, he was already 82. But his brain was razor sharp. And he was eager and willing to share, to help cut through the fog. He could have kept to himself or pretended to be sleeping or busied himself with newspapers. I would still have been grateful for the luck to sit next to him and for his pleasant disposition. But he chose to engage with me as if he had known me forever and he was enthusiastic in sharing his knowledge and experience. The plane eventually touched down. He gave me his phone number and his email address, and asked me to keep in touch. I called to thank him. We exchanged a few text messages. That was the first and only time I ever met him.

But I had met him much earlier indirectly through two other people who had relationships with him. The first encounter was through Alhaji Kashim Ibrahim-Imam, my Kanuri egbon, who always spoke highly of his Yoruba father, a certain Professor Mabogunje. I used to file it as political talk. But sometime in 2006, he gave me a bulky envelope full of pictures from a modest family gathering to mark Professor Mabogunje’s 75th birthday. Ibrahim-Imam, who is currently the President of the King’s College Old Boys’ Association, had been in the same class with one of Professor Mabogunje’s sons. That started a relationship that made him a family member.  

When Professor Mabogunje turned 80 in 2011, Ibrahim-Imam wrote a tribute entitled ‘Mabogunje: Exceptional Scholar, Exemplary Father.’ It was a touching tribute by a non-biological son, one that spoke not only to the density of networks that used to be the pride of this country but also to the late professor’s deft balancing of work, acclaim and family life that many of his contemporaries could not boast of.

“It started by sheer coincidence nearly 40 years ago,” Ibrahim-Imam wrote in 2011. “His second son, Gboyega, and I grew very close at King’s College… Through the unusually generous and kind disposition of the patriarch and the matriarch of the family, this series of associations has given me all the privileges of a bona-fide member of the Mabogunje family and granted me the rare honour of growing up under the wings of a colossus.

“The family lost Professor Mabogunje to the academia many years ago, long before most of us were born. I will say he is our own special gift to Nigeria and to the world. But despite that he was and still in high demand at home and abroad and despite his incredibly punishing schedules, he always finds quality time for his family.

“My earliest and most subsisting impression of him is that of a man who gives freely of himself to the world, but does not use that as an alibi to abdicate his primary responsibility to his family. For instance, he was religious about visiting days at King’s College. I recall that he was always there and he always made every visit count. In his presence, you felt like the most important person in the world. He would hug you, kiss you on both cheeks, give you pocket money, and tell you stories. And daddy loves telling stories and sharing analogies.”

The second indirect encounter I had with the professor was through my friend and brother, Olusegun Adeniyi, who had great things to say about the great intellectual beyond his well-documented academic achievements. Adeniyi told me that his late principal, Yar’Adua, was fond of Professor Mabogunje for his uncommon decency and unassailable commitment to Nigeria. Yar’Adua had appointed the professor as the head of a committee on land reforms, a cardinal but unrealised part of his 7-Point Agenda. The testimony from Adeniyi is remarkable because the public image of many highly respected Nigerians, including intellectuals, is the exact opposite of their private manifestation, especially in the presence of power and when exposed to opportunities to extract patronage.

Adeniyi later captured part of what he had shared with me about Professor Mabogunje in Chapter 9 of his book ‘Power, Politics and Death,’ his account of the Yar’Adua years. Adeniyi wrote: “Mabogunje was one of a few people for whom the president (Yar’Adua) had tremendous respect. He would later give the reason without any prompting: ‘You know why I like that old man (Mabogunje): he is one of a few people who have never sought a personal favour from me. Every time he comes here, all he discusses with me are issues concerning the country, and if I don’t send for him, he won’t make an appointment to see me.”

Professor Mabogunje’s intellectual record is enshrined in the public domain, and it is speckled with so many firsts. He became Nigeria’s first professor of Geography at just 34 years. In 2017, he won the Vautrin Lud International Geography Prize, the highest prize in that field, and the only African to have won it till date. He was the first African President of the International Geographical Union and the first African to be elected as a Foreign Associate of the American National Academy of Sciences.

Until his death, Professor Mabogunje was one of the globe’s preeminent experts on urbanisation. When he turned 75, UN-Habitat created the Professor Akin Mabogunje Project (PAMP), which culminated in a book jointly published with Cities Alliance, titled: ‘Foundations of Urban Development in Africa: The Legacy of Akin Mabogunje.’ His doctorate thesis at the University College London, naturally, was on ‘Lagos: A Study in Urban Geography.’ And his most seminal book is ‘Urbanisation in Nigeria.’ It was published in 1968, remains a foundational text in urbanisation, and is cited widely across disciplines from health to economics.

 Professor Mabogunje retired from the academia shortly before he turned 50 in 1981. Together with late Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, one of Nigeria’s foremost economists, he founded two entities: PAI Associates and Development Policy Centre (DPC). For about four decades after his retirement, he stayed active, serving in many and diverse capacities, leveraging his towering intellect and immense passion for the benefit of society. Among others, he served as a consultant to the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA), as a board member of the Directorate for Food, Road and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI), as the Executive Chairman of the National Board for Community Banks, and as the Chairman of the Presidential Technical Committee on Land Reform.

A very decent and warm man, a devoted father and husband, an accomplished academic and development practitioner, Professor Mabogunje lived a long, fulfilled and busy life of exertion. Now, he has gone to take a deserved rest. Despite that he was highly understated and unassuming, Mabogunje’s accomplishments and character speak for him and immortalise him already. The greatest tribute Nigeria can pay to him is not in those flowery but standard press statements. And as desirable as it might be, it is not even in naming a major street after him in Abuja for the significant role he played in planning the capital city. Our greatest tribute to him will be to eventually undertake the needed reforms that will change land from largely dead assets to active capital for the upliftment of the poor and the transformation of our country. That is Mabogunje’s unfinished assignment, and one of Nigeria’s outstanding burdens.

                                                                        ###                                                     

Related Articles