Akin Mabogunje: Geniuses Never Die   


GUEST COLUMNIST BY Kashim Ibrahim-Imam

When Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje transited to glory in the early hours of Thursday the 4th of August 2022, the mood in the family was one of thanksgiving. He was 90 years old. The doctors had given him only four weeks, but he defied the odds and lived for another 12 weeks.  Above all, his mission is accomplished.

The great poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson philosophised about death. In “Ulysses”, he emphasises that “Death closes all”. However, he is quick to add: “but something ere the end/ Some work of noble note, may yet be done…” And Professor Mabogunje’s noble works will travel the ages. He is among those of whom the ancient Greek poet and scholar, Callimachus, said, “A good man never dies” and of whom Mahatma Gandhi equally said, “Great men never die”.

Even though Winston Churchill famously said “good and great are seldom in the same man”, Professor Mabogunje, provides one of those delightfully rare exceptions. A brilliant scholar. A legend. An icon. A genius. There is simply no adjective that can capture the essence of the man, Akin Mabogunje. He was simply sui generis, as he belonged in a pantheon distinctively his own. The whole world already knows that he was a scholar par excellence. But beyond his greatness as a thinker, he was also an exceptionally decent man. He was an extra-ordinary patriot. He was very simple and approachable, and an outstanding father. I can bear personal testimony to the last bit because he was also my father.

Many years ago, Professor Mabogunje confirmed to an audience that had gathered to celebrate him at the Hallmark of Labour Awards that it was true that a certain Kashim Ibrahim-Imam, a full-blooded Kanuri, was his son. But he quickly added: “not out of any rascality on my part.” However, he is not above a unique generosity of spirit that allowed him to admit, nurture, and celebrate me as one of his own without hesitation. 

It started by sheer coincidence over 40 years ago. His second son, Gboyega and I grew very close at King’s College. This relationship also extended to his first son, Seun and his last born, Sola. Through the generous and kind disposition of the patriarch and matriarch of the family, this series of associations has given me all the privileges of a bona-fide member of the Mabogunje family.

Dad was a loving family man, always finding quality time for us. My earliest and subsisting impression of him is that of a man, who gave freely of himself to the world, but did 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 and he always made every visit special. In his presence, you felt like the most important person in the world. He would hug and kiss you on both cheeks. I recall the fresh mint 50 kobo note. And above all, I recall his words of wisdom.

Dad loved folklores and drawing analogies from them. He would tell you stories that would impart wisdom. I can’t remember how many times he told me the Yoruba fable of the dog that refused to kill his father despite the command of the king that everyone should kill their fathers and how the dog’s father later saved the entire community through his wise counsel. The object lesson of that story is never lost on me: that the young need their elders. And could there be a better way to imbibe this truism than having the special privilege to listen to and learn from Professor Mabogunje? I do not think so. Every encounter with him, even for a few minutes, offered a golden opportunity to drink from his eternal spring of wisdom.

But you don’t have to be a family member to drink from this ever-guzzling spring. A scholar’s scholar, Professor Mabogunje enthusiastically shared his thoughts, insights and expertise with the whole world through the classroom, the lecture circuit, publications and policy advisory.

Born in Kano on October 18, 1931, he was educated at the then University College Ibadan and the University College London, where he earned his doctorate. Quite instructively, his dissertation was titled: “Lagos: A Study in Urban Geography.”

His early and abiding love for urbanisation took him right to the top. Today, even in death, he is regarded as one of the world’s pre-eminent urban geographers. In fact, when he turned 75 many years ago, UN-Habitat and other international agencies set up a commemorative committee called the Professor Akin Mabogunje Project (PAMP) “to celebrate his enormous contributions to urban development in general and Africa in particular.” One of the outcomes of that effort was a seminal book titled “Foundations of Urban Development in Africa: The Legacy of Akin Mabogunje”, jointly published by UN-Habitat and Cities Alliance.

Even though he studied geography, Professor Mabogunje became an authority on several other subjects. Through his research, teachings and books, he had a profound impact on fields as diversified as urbanisation, local government, political economy, development policy, health, economics, and social policy that he has been rightly described as “an intellectual without borders”, in the process, earning him global accolades. The highest of these honours, is the Vautrin Lud Prize in Geography, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He was the first African to be elected President of the International Geographical Union. He was admitted to the American Academy of Sciences and was also admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as the President of the International Geographical Union, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General for the UN Second Conference on Human Settlements, and President of the Pan-African Institute for Development etc. 

His excellence in scholarship and service to humanity equally earned him other global recognitions such as the David Livingstone Centennial Gold Medal from the American Geographical Society; Anders Retzius Gold Medal of the Swedish Association of Anthropology and Geography; Murchinson Award of the Royal Geographical Society, London; the Research Gold Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; the Grand Medaille of the French Geographical Society; Foreign Associate of the U.S National Academy of Science; and the Scroll of Honour of the UN-Habitat.

Within Nigeria, he served as the Vice Chairman of the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI); Executive Chairman of the National Board of Community Banks; Chairman of the Technical Board of Federal Mortgage Bank; Chairman of First Interstate Merchant Bank; Chairman of Unity Bank; Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of Ogun State University (now Olabisi Onabanjo University); Chancellor of Bells University of Technology, Ota; Chairman, Lagos Megacity Development Authority; Chairman of the Governing Board of the Centre for Human Security of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library; and Chairman of the Presidential Technical Committee on Land Reform.

His accomplishments and service to fatherland also earned Professor Mabogunje Nigeria’s highest honour for excellence in scholarship, the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) and the Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON).

Professor Mabogunje made profound impression on all those who came in contact with him. I will cite just two tributes to him by two former heads of state. General Ibrahim Babangida described Professor Mabogunje as “someone who epitomises the intellectual as a constructively engaged citizen as well as a veritable agent and catalyst of development.” Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a life-long friend of Professor Mabogunje, had this to say of him: “Akin Mabogunje is arguably one of the best-known geographers and social scientists in Africa, the third world and, indeed, the world at large. He has been a source of inspiration to millions of Nigerians and has left positive marks at all levels – academic, policy-making, training, research, administration, and leadership.” When he turned 80, the Balogun of Owu described his friend as an enigma.

I am sure Dad cherished all these accolades, tributes, and honours. But I want to submit that his greatest achievement, and honour, is his great family. Though deliberately out of the limelight, everyone is accomplished in his or her own right. Mom, Justice Titi Mabogunje, Dad’s beloved wife of 65 years and pillar of the family, in the words of the very eminent jurist, Prince Bola Ajibola, retired “as an erudite and incorruptible judge”. The three boys are all engineers. The two girls are equally accomplished: one a medical doctor, the other an economist. Sade Ogunsola, the eldest, is a professor of Medicine and was Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos (UNILAG). Seun is an engineer and a successful businessman. Gboyega has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and he is an Assistant Dean at Stanford University, USA. Bimpe Oye, the economist, has an MBA and is a successful stockbroker. And our aburo, Sola is a mechanical engineer and pastor.

What more can a great man ask for? But it must be said that neither his reckoning in the world nor the accomplishments of his family occurred by happenstance. They are products of hard-work and dedication.

Here goes a Caesar; when comes another? Only Heavens shall tell, for being a colossus, his shoes are too big for anyone to step into. But the consolation lies in the fact that he planted countless nuts of benevolence and intellect, which will continue to flourish like palm trees by the riverside till eternity. Death cannot diminish him, for geniuses never die.

Goodnight, erudite scholar. Adios, Dad.

Kashim Ibrahim-Imam is President, King’s College Old Boys Association and Director and member of the Editorial Board, Thisday Newspaper.

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