Home News OPINION: Falola And Olubadan’s 90th Birthday Lecture | Ayo Olukotun

OPINION: Falola And Olubadan’s 90th Birthday Lecture | Ayo Olukotun


“When (Adegoke) Adelabu died, the money in his account was less than two thousand pounds, and his family could not maintain his compound at Oke Oluokun. The politician of today wants to take the eggs and the chicken that lay them”

–Distinguished Humanities scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, Professor Toyin Falola, at the 90th Olubadan Birthday Lecture, Mapo Hall, Ibadan, August 23, 2018.

Ibadan may have been in the news lately for the wrong reasons, however, the ongoing 90th birthday celebration of its paramount ruler, Oba Saliu Adetunji, has provided its own source of merriment and cultural revalidation. One of the highlights of the celebration is Thursday’s anniversary lecture, delivered by the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin, around the subject of culture as a bridge builder to modernity and transformation.

As the opening quotation, derived from the lecture suggests, culture is not a static idea but something that evolves, adapting itself to political, social and economic changes. The example of the populist and pro-people politician, Adegoke Adelabu, who died in virtual penury, as contrasted with today’s harshly acquisitive brand of politicians, nicely illustrates how a people’s political culture can change from bad to worse. The scholar’s inclusive definition of culture as the values, beliefs, aesthetic forms, system of communication, political and other ideas as well as lived experiences, allows him to monitor and map changes in culture related to politics, economics and a host of other departments of Nigerian and African realities.

Hence, the penetrating lecture deals with such topical matters as ethnicity, religion, corruption and politics, Africa and globalisation, architecture, the post-colonial state and several others. As a metaphor and reality of the abiding linkage on the one hand, and disconnect on the other, between tradition and modernity, Falola gives the example that when he was growing up in Ibadan, obesity was virtually unknown, as farmers ànd traders trekked several miles daily in pursuit of their daily bread. Today, however, the situation is markedly different, in view of the overwhelmingly sedentary and white collar character of several occupations. This leads the lecturer to suggest that modern-day Ibadan should learn from the past, not by going back to manual labour, but by creating and sustaining the far from adequate facilities for sports and recreation, which will keep men and women healthy and fit.

In other words, and as a famous philosopher observed, you cannot step into the same river twice: you can nonetheless derive insight from your experience of having stepped into that river before. Put simply, we cannot relieve the past, but we can employ the past as compass, as philosophy and as narrative, from which valuable lessons can be teased out. There exists schizophrenia about culture in the mind of the educated elite. On the one hand, culture or tradition is seen as archaic and lacking in currency, in view of the overwhelming influence of colonialism and latterly globalisation. On the other hand, “culture” is venerated, not on its own terms, but as nostalgia, identity support and as prop to confront rapidly changing times. That is another way of saying that the hybridised elite inhabits a cultural no man’s land, filled with ambivalences, self-doubt and anxieties about the place and relevance of African culture in contemporary society.

Falola is not held back by these problems, but rather goes on to illuminate the several ways and manners in which culture can be used to illuminate and hopefully transform the present. For example, in his discussion of ethnicity and politics, he brings out the benefits of ethnicity, ethnic movements and ethnic identities as sources of strength based on commonalities of culture, language and folk ways. It was therefore relatively easy for the nationalists to employ culture and ethnicity as weapons of mobilisation to throw off the colonial yoke. But ethnicity, as contemporary events show, can also be potent dangers in multi-ethnic nations.

The points of departure are structural devices such as the consociational remedies in the Nigerian Constitution, as well as the abilities of particular leaders to rally a divided nation around unifying goals. Illustratively, Rwanda, which dissolved in genocide in the mid 1990s is today, under Paul Kagame, the toast of Africa and the world. Falola is entirely correct, therefore, in saying, “If careless or badly mismanaged, a big country can fragment into so many states organised on the basis of existing ethnic groups”. He went on to cite the examples of agitations for the Oduduwa Republic and the Sovereign State of Biafra.

In this connection, it is clear that those who are calling for a National Conference, as a mechanism for revalidating Nigeria’s tottering federalism, have their hands on the right buttons, considering that the last couple of years have witnessed an intensification of ethnic and separatist agitations. Indeed, it can be argued that national conferences called to save political communities from disintegration or wars of annihilation have their roots in indigenous culture and history, when adroit statesmen employed them to prolong the lives of their empires.

Equally illuminating is the lecturer’s dissection of the many ways in which the culture of corruption, especially institutional corruption, which he argues began in the colonial era, continues to exercise toxic influence on our politics. According to him, the conversion of the state, an over extended state, into a resource to be shared by rival groups of politicians and booty capitalists, compounded the problem of corruption. More devastating, according to him, is the fact that corruption had become a way of life, to the extent that as he put it, “the university lecturers sell handouts, award grades for money and abuse their students sexually”. The discourse can be broadened by rummaging about ways in which culture, which in many cases has been used to bolster corruption, as the scholar makes clear, can also be used to fight it. In this construction, we can borrow from indigenous jurisprudence, which mandates thoroughness and fairness, as captured in such sayings as only a wicked elder will arrive at judgement by hearing only one side of the case.

Similarly, such notions as name and shame, if they are not perverted politically can build on their cultural replicas to minimise corruption. This is of course by no means an easy task, considering Professor Peter Ekeh’s famous theory of two coexisting publics, informed by different value systems and rival ethical orientations. Perhaps, if Nigeria succeeds in building a more unified national political community, it should be possible to transfer some of the edifying indigenous cultural values into the national political realm. In broad terms however, it is important to realise that the action and inaction of today, the unaccountable use of state power, the brazen looting of public resources, are all contributing to the building of a political culture which will take time and determination to dismantle.

For a magisterial intervention running into over 50 pages, and exploring the subject in its communal, in this case Ibadan, national and global dimensions, one can only give a flavour of a rich and luscious menu. Undoubtedly however, the ideas canvassed will be widely discussed and debated in the near future and beyond.

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