An Encounter with Toyin Falola: Between Celebration and Canonization of Intellectuals
By Tunji Olaopa
As is to be expected in any gathering of intellectuals, the recent special event to celebrate the scholarship of Prof. Adeshina Afolayan, a teacher in the philosophy department at the University of Ibadan, was such a highly engaging seminal offering. There were students, scholars and academics from all over to raise issues with a specific corpus authored by Afolayan. Moderated by Nimi Wariboko, the Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at Boston University, the conversation did not only focus on Afolayan’s ideas in relations to what has been called the “African predicaments,” it also generated unique reassessments of issues that no one expected to surface, but you never can tell when scholars, academics and intellectuals begin to shoot ideas. And in this instance, yours sincerely was caught in the middle of the sparks of discursive argumentation.
When Toyin Falola, the grand master of arguments and insights, and the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, took the Zoom stand, we expected nothing less than provocations and deep reflective points. Aside paying tributes to the scholarship of Afolayan, Prof. Falola raised issues with the perceived predilection in Africa and Nigeria specifically to canonize intellectuals and scholars precipitately. According to him, “in Nigerian scholarship, isn’t it the problem that we raise canons so quickly? Part of the argument I have raised…is that we invented canons too quickly, and [this is done] over time you begin to doubt their contributions.” “Professor Olaopa is here; he raised [Prof. Ojetunji] Aboyade and [Prof. Akinlawon] Mabogunje to the level of canons…. We have raised [Prof. Kenneth] Dike to the level of canons. In fact, the principal thing they attributed to Dike, he never did. They said he pioneered the use of oral tradition in history; he did not. Not even in a single essay. But they keep repeating that point. So, whether it is in history or philosophy or literature, we raise these canons too quickly. And once you raise canons too quickly, measuring the impact of those who follow in an appropriate manner becomes problematic.” He then went on to advocate the fundamental need to challenge these canons through a process of rupturing. For him, there is a need to speak to the rupture in scholarship rather than the reproduction of scholarship. He insisted that there is a significant and critical difference. “Scholarship grows when you rupture it,” he argued. So, “how do we go back to these canons and begin to rupture them?”
This is quite provocative, and more so that it deliberately targets a crucial dimension of my public education commentaries. For many years now, I have cultivated the objective of critically identifying and celebrating those I call “intellectual heroes”—a critical corps of Nigerians, scholars, intellectuals, academics, professionals, civil servants who have done a lot, within their competence, endowments and capital to serve the Nigerian state and its national project. And these patriotic individuals have done so either within the ambit of their professional flexibility and even outside of it. To just mention a few: Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chimamanda Adichie, Chief Jerome Udoji, Kenneth Dike, Wole Soyinka, Billy Dudley, Claude Ake, Peter Ekeh, Chinua Achebe, Bolanle Awe, Teslim Elias, Babatunde Fafunwa, Simeon Adebo, Bala Usman, Eni Njoku, Ojetunji Aboyade, Ayodele Awojobi, Nana Binta Fodio, (Ali Mazrui and Richard Joseph inclusive), Akinlawon Mabogunje, Oladipo Akinkugbe, Matthew Hassan Kukah, and so many more. These Nigerians, against all odds, have engaged with the Nigerian state and her predicaments to push forward the boundaries of social change. My efforts at highlighting and celebrating these Nigerians, I consider to be a service to the history of intellectual ideas in Nigeria.
And that project of intellectual heroes commenced in 1997 when I invited the late Prof. Claude Ake to pen the foreword to A Prophet is with Honour: The Life and Times of Ojetunji Aboyade. In that foreword, Ake lamented the lack of heroes in a country like Nigeria that sorely needs them. Heroes, according to him, are the embodiment of what a country values. And this is precisely where, according to him, the paradox of the Nigeria state resides: “The country yearns for heroes, acknowledges none and it devalues and derails those who could be. Nigeria has no standards and no heroes.” The intellectual history of the Nigerian state ought to provide the template for tracking the intellectual and scholarly trajectories and dynamics of those who have contributed and are contributing to the intellectual foundations of a country. And my objective is to set the pace in generating a list, together with an outline of their contributions, placed within the theoretical ambit of intellectual, social and generational capitals that Nigeria ought to harness for nation building and national development.
The point of this project, for me, is to set up these figures and individuals as the ready space of heroic framework that serves not only the Nigerian state but also the Nigerian society as a set of role models the Nigerian youth can look up to. No one will doubt the extent of the sociocultural anomie that has engulfed the country. There is a global perception of Nigeria as a country of scammers, and criminality has become the order of the day. And when I established the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), we were sure to insert programs, especially the intergenerational conversation platform, and the Leadership Development initiatives, especially targeted at the youths, etc. The idea is that the youth demographics needs a template of leadership and mentoring that could feed right into the framework of intellectual heroes that I have been pushing.
Now, let us return to Prof. Toyin Falola and the challenge of hastily inventing intellectual canons. No one can quarrel with the argument about the relationship between scholarship and the advancement of knowledge that he puts up. Scholarship largely becomes unenlightening orthodoxy when the fundamental significance of ruptures is absent. And this is all the more so for the humanities that ought to challenge dogmas and doctrines. And when placed side by side with the critical relationship between the humanities and the health of the nation, we immediately see the relevance of scholarship for expanding the field of possibilities that could strengthen the social bond between the government and its citizens. However, my first response is that I doubt very much that what I have been doing is tantamount to canonization, and not to talk of inventing it too quickly. To reiterate, my intellectual heroes project is simply meant to point attention to the relevance of the figures and individuals I have identified beyond their relevance in their strictly professional and academic roles. Claude Ake, to be sure, is a giant in the field of the social sciences in Africa. I have simply attempted to redirect the focus to his contribution to the relationship between an intellectual hero and the task of deploying intellectual and generational capital towards moving Nigeria forward. That cannot be canonization. I am not even sure whether what I have been doing constitute the first step or condition towards it. And my objective is far from canonization when I began.
My second response is to ask: what is wrong with canonization? Or more precisely: at what point in an intellectual or professional’s life should that process be jumpstarted? At what point in a person’s contribution to her field or to the society is canonization justified? Those I have celebrated have reached some form of professional, scholarly and academic zenith that qualifies them for my objective. Engaging their various endeavors with the Nigerian project, for me, is a sufficient enough cause to call attention to their contributions, and courage. Who would doubt the patriotism of Wole Soyinka, and his right to be canonized? But then, on another hand, canonization, either hurried or deliberate and delayed, is not dogma. The idea of canons, and canonization, is critical and significant to intellectual traditions in any society. Henry Louis Gates once said, “You have to have a canon so the next generation can come along and explode it.” So, Soyinka can be canonized, even if so that the canon should be exploded by the coming generation. The felt need to canonize, which necessarily occur over time, cannot undermine the responsibility to rupture.
The challenge therefore, I argue, is not in canonizing an intellectual. And more so, no one can stop any community of intellectuals who perceives the worth of a scholar and so deem her for canonization. That is, as long as there is no intellectual violence attached to rupturing the claim of such a figure. In other words, an icon must be ready for reversed iconoclasm that burst the claim to an iconic status. Once an intellectual is prevented from an iconoclastic rupturing, then we are brought brutally back to Prof. Falola’s concerns. Even at that, I doubt that rupturing a canon is a collective responsibility that can be policed. Prof. Falola cited the case of an essay written to rupture the iconic status of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but failed to publish it due to warning from certain quarters. Is that a capitulation in the service of the canon? Like canonization, the service of rupturing is also open to those who feel compel to do so, based on available evidence. And based on the courage to rupture!
*Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary
& Professor, National Institute for Policy
and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State (email@example.com)