Journalism in the service of society

Professor Akinjide Osuntokun at 80: The tour de force life

‘He stands as a house set upon a hill; he has built a legacy of hope and uprightness and has created many opportunities for others to take up the mantle. He stands resolute by the circumstances of his birth, the family name, and the big shadow of his sibling’s greatness. He carves a path for himself and posterity and leaves lessons for us on how to navigate life. Professor Akinjide Osuntokun’s name is material in the halls of fame. I am certain that history will continue to remember the intellect whose hands carved it even in the coming decades’

AS I see it, the Nigerian dream is to rise (through hard work) against the backdrop of harsh social, economic, and financial circumstances and reach the pinnacle of whatever height we set our sights on. Across cultures, ages, and fields, history is replete with stories of many great men who started from humble backgrounds. However, in the case of Akinjide Osuntokun, the indigeneity – the recency, the similarity of background, challenges, and the stories – confers a sentimental value on his story for me and, I believe, many other Nigerians. It gives off a sense of relatability, belonging, and hope.

Osuntokun’s life is the ideal metaphor for what Nigeria and Nigerians dream of daily. It is a realisation of hope: a proof that there is light at the end of the dark tunnel that Nigerians and Nigeria are in. It is also a testimony to the existence of a few sane intellectuals, individuals who still care about the nation and are hopeful for the restoration of its polity. To put it into the context of Osuntokun’s origin, his life exemplifies Joyce Meyer’s quote about small beginnings being launching pads for remarkable things. This piece tells the story of a true son of Oduduwa, a compatriot and a leader, a man who has indelibly engraved his name on the sands of time through his dedication and commitment to excellence.

Unlike most elites who have influenced history, Osuntokun’s background alone may not mirror his current achievements or his illustrious siblings. Of course, I do not mean this in condescension to his community of origin. Rather, I mean it as another factor to consider in appreciation of the trajectory of his career and consequential contributions to the state of Nigeria. Like he is always proud to say, Osuntokun was born in an Ekiti town in 1942 – a period when western education was trying to gain ground in the country, and many thought it did not amount to much. He did not come from a family especially endowed with generational wealth and fancy inheritances, but his lineage had a reputation for their determination, willpower, and physical prowess. A sixth child in a polygamous home, he was privileged to have formal education. This, however, did not spare him the rigours of work after he started schooling. He worked the ground, did domestic chores, and contributed in his little way to the family economy – as customary for male children of his age group in those days.

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As a young boy, his formal education gave him cosmopolitan and political exposure, the bedrock for what later developed to be Nationalism and an unwavering sense of patriotism. From Holy Trinity School, Ilawe, he switched to Emmanuel Primary School in Ado-Ekiti, where his socialisation evolved. Ado-Ekiti was bigger and more cosmopolitan, and this transition began his exposure to the real world of people and their differences. He left primary school for his secondary school education at Christ’s School, where what evolved to be his diligent academic career started. As a promising young man under the eagle eyes of his teachers and his brother, he completed this phase of his education with a record of the highest number of distinctions in the West African School Certificate Examination.

In the absence of the right facilities and structures to guide their decision, Osuntokun, like most of his other colleagues, proceeded to study History at the University of Ibadan, leaving the offer to study Law in Lagos hanging. The primary reason for this choice, according to him, was his mother’s sentiments towards the legal profession and the advice of an older colleague. Quite a lot happened during his studentship at the university. For instance, he and his friends founded what evolved into the Eiye Confraternity today. The group, which was formed just for lively conversations, parties, and sometimes philosophical discussions, was hijacked and made into a secret society that mirrored Ogboni tradition. During his days at the University of Ibadan, Osuntokun also met his wife, whom he revers and openly talks about whenever he gets the chance.

Success, sometimes, they say, can feel like a curse. Even for someone like Osuntokun, life was not always fair despite the knowledge he wields and the reputation that precedes him. By predisposition, the Osuntokuns are present across different spheres of public service, politics, and academics. For instance, Professor Kayode Osuntokun (of blessed memory) was a pioneer in neuro-medical research in Nigeria and throughout the globe. His eldest brother, Akin Osuntokun, was one of the pioneer legislators in the Western Region of post-independence Nigeria. Abiodun Osuntokun was another of Akinjide’s siblings who lived and died as a military officer in service to the national course.

Professor Akinjide Osuntokun experienced first-hand what it means to be a victim of a great name. His exposure to politics came quite early due to his brother’s affiliation with the political elites in the Western region at the time. Through his brother, he was indirectly involved in the consequences of complicated political schisms that heralded the 1960s when the country was trying to find its feet in the republic. Some deep-seated intra-ethnic schisms rocked the political atmosphere of the Western region during this period. In fact, in his accounts of his life, he described how he was exposed to taunting, verbal abuse, fear, and hatred due to his brother’s involvement in the Akintola and Awolowo saga.

Essentially, Akinjide Osuntokun is not just a professor of history; he has lived through some of the historical moments in western and national politics. Despite this rather rough introduction to politics and public service, he still took on the mantle of service to the country later in his career – a feat considered quite impressive. For instance, aside from its historical relevance, his academic work sometimes incorporates an objective critique of the Nigerian polity and nationally relevant past and present decisions. He has also served as a public commentator, addressing administrative flaws and policy deficiencies in the country while in service and after his formal exit from the national diplomatic service. His appointment was terminated because he was a threat to the indiscriminate governance and ruthless dictatorship perpetrated by the late General Sani Abacha. It did not stop there. He was arrested, detained, and treated like a criminal for speaking the truth to power and standing up for the commoner.

I particularly consider this phase of his life to hold significant lessons for Nigerians and posterity. For one, despite his appointment as a stakeholder in the diplomatic affairs of the Nigerian state, he did not allow himself to be leashed by the benefits attached to it. In his exact words, his story is that of “a boy whom through hard work and humble beginnings made it to Olympian heights, dined with Queens and Kings, Presidents and Prime ministers without getting carried away by all the glitter.” Also, the threshold of challenges he has pushed through is surprisingly high, considering the trajectory of his personal life and his life in public service.

It would not have been surprising if, due to his initial experience with national politics and his detainment, he stopped contributing openly to policy and administration in Nigeria. However, he has persistently and continually contributed to matters of national importance with the subjectivity of a compatriot using the different tools available to him. This includes his investment in the fourth estate and the numerous columns he writes for media houses across the country. At different points in Professor Osuntokun’s life, he has shown exemplary willpower and persistence. This attribute to persevere despite all challenges and to always stick to the fair side of the moral spectrum inspires me, and I hope it inspires posterity in Nigeria and Africa collectively.

Before any serious nationalistic involvements, Osuntokun has been involved in political activism (for racial equality) and an organised demand for administrative accountability. As a transfer student during his undergraduate days, he experienced ridiculous acts of condescension by white people. Later during his post-graduate studies in Canada, he discovered the effect of propaganda, policies, and education on identity, racial ideology, and self-awareness. In his observation in his autobiography, the education of the Black community, coupled with the situation of policies, governance, and economics, restricted the Black Canadians at that time within the mental prison of inferiority. They were not overly ambitious about education, career, or even a structured life in their psychology. Bound by duty, Osuntokun – like other African intellectuals at that time – developed an interest in racial liberation politics and dedicated a substantial portion of his time to it. This is yet another lesson for the intelligentsia today that change does not come through armchair criticism and self-pity. It only does this through knowledge and applying it correctly to challenge the status quo and create a new and more convenient reality.

My favourite part of Osuntokun’s life is his body of academic work and, by extension, his lecturing. This is not because of a compulsive inclination as his student, fellow academia, and historian, but due to three major things. First is his publications’ sheer depth and relevance, especially as sources for historical research. Two, the brilliance of these academic compendia even though he started when relevant resources were not abundant. Three, the expanse of his experience is mirrored in his teaching resume, his writings (academic and otherwise), and how he articulates his words (in speech). The bulk of his works (even his autobiography) served as objective primary and secondary sources for vital pre-and post-independence historical research in Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. Quite impressively, he has dedicated an ample chunk of his life’s work to researching and documenting Yoruba history and the evolution of its preservation over time.

At this point, I will like to reference some of his works and their contents that I consider exceptional. First are the different biographies he authored – The Merchant Prince and the Monarch, J. F Ajayi: His Life and Career (co-edited with Michael Omolewa), Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh: In Time and Space, and Abidakun, his autobiography. These were not just accounts of the lives of these individuals; they were written in the context of their historical relevance. For instance, The Merchant Prince and the Monarch is a biography of a Soun of Ogbomoso. However, the account references an objectively accurate background history of Ogbomoso, the kingship, and the families of prominent figures mentioned. This professional compulsion (I presume) and scholarly elegance are particularly evident even in his autobiography, Abidakun: An Autobiography of Professor Akinjide Osuntokun, which starts with a summary of the history of the Ekiti people, particularly the Ajapo Ise, and their evolution. There are very few well-articulated summaries of indigenous Yoruba history like that.

The last on this list is his extensive research and publication on Chief S. L. Akintola, the controversial political stakeholder of the Western Region in the 1960s. This particular work has a sentimental value for Osuntokun; after all, he was a victim of the Akintola/Awolowo political controversy in which he had no hand. However, the most important thing is the courage it must have taken to publish the work and the amount of effort that must have gone into it. During the time in question, historical research was not just limited by the unavailability of resources but also by a conspicuous lack of documentation and records. The few available records in the academic repositories were lost due to the nonchalance of custodians or irrelevant political pettiness. Despite these challenges, Osuntokun did an impressively thorough job of research and documentation. This publication has been helpful to me and other people in our evolution as academics in the field of political and historical research.

Additionally, Osuntokun’s intelligence covers a considerable expanse of spheres. Some of his books and scholarly publications were written in deference to specific national and international issues. He has done remarkable work in politics, diplomacy, foreign policy analysis, psychology, and even sustainable global development goals in Nigeria. His depth of knowledge, willingness to apply it and consistent demonstration of correct application are some of his most endearing attributes. It would be incomplete to reference Osuntokun’s academic achievements without properly recognising his contributions to consolidating African history as an academic interest in Nigeria and other parts of the world, especially the West Indies.

During his days outside the country’s shores, the icon pioneered structured teachings of African history at the University of West Indies. This act particularly kept the embers of the African cultural heritage burning among the Black community in the Caribbean. The foundation he laid through his peculiar style of imparting knowledge contributed immensely to the sustenance of a culturally conscious and self-appreciative diaspora. Outside of the classroom, Osuntokun was also instrumental in explaining the origins of some cultural practices of African origin widely practised in the West Indies. From that time in the 1970s till now, his influence on the African academic community is still recognised, especially in discourses spanning African history and cultural uniqueness. He was offered a long-term appointment because of his resourcefulness, teaching expertise, and overall warm disposition. However, he declined and returned home to contribute to the development of his own country, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. I consider this very thoughtful, especially since the country was just trying to recover from the civil war and evolve into a proper federation.

Osuntokun’s experience in teaching, administration, and international relations later got him an appointment as a director of the National University Commission on an academic mission to Canada. Through diplomacy and diligence, he contributed to paving the path for academics, many of whom I know. Despite the non-substantial benefits attached to his portfolio, he worked hard to secure the future of foreign scholarships for Nigerian students – something a host of people benefitted from. Portfolios like his drew bureaucratic complications and similar disturbances; however, given his previous knowledge of navigating workplace issues, he again set a stellar record of excellent performance, which I believe was instrumental in his subsequent appointment as a diplomat to Germany. He was helpful in locating institutions in Canada and liaising productive partnerships between them and Nigerian institutions. From his observations and research in Canada, he also contributed to some of the progressive policy recommendations for university administration.

It would be thoroughly exhaustive to discuss Professor Jide Osuntokun’s service and achievements. His several decades of service include lecturing positions, editorial portfolios, directorship, diplomatic positions, administrative roles (especially in universities in Nigeria), and many more. His personal life and career have spanned continents like Africa, Europe, and South and North America. He has a list of awards and symbols of recognition to commemorate his un-paralleled efforts in public service, administration, and academia. Some of these include being an Emeritus Professorship, Redeemer’s University; an Emeritus Professorship, University of Lagos; a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters; an Officer, Order of the Niger; a Fellow, Historical Society of Nigeria; a faculty role of honours awardee at the University of Ibadan; a Presidential Honour, Republic of Equatorial Guinea; an Irving and Bonar Graduate Prize awardee, and so on.

Nevertheless, this account would be grossly incomplete without reference to the professor’s family life, which he is especially proud of. Professor Osuntokun, despite the different demands of his occupation and travels, is a dedicated family man. In my little understanding of his personality, family is and will always be a core of Professor Osuntokun’s life. His family has been with him through the thick and thin of public and administrative life and after. Perhaps this was due to his upbringing; after all, people who grew up in stable families tend to value the sacredness of the institution. However, I believe the overall success of his family was also due to his late wife’s persona and the love they have for each other. Indeed, he who finds a wife finds a good life. After a series of not-so-successful attempts at dating, Akinjide met the bone of his bone, Dr. Abiodun Osuntokun, when she was a secondary school student in Saint Anne’s, Ibadan. Abiodun Osuntokun would later attend Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria and another school in Canada.

Abiodun and Akinjide got married in Canada in 1969, and they had a mutually beneficial relationship that produced children – Fola, Seyi, Yewande, and Tosin Osuntokun – who are excelling in their respective careers. Fola Osuntokun is a finance professional in the United Kingdom; Seyi is a successful engineer in Canada; Tosin is a renowned physician and cardiology expert in Dublin; Yewande champions diversity and inclusion as a strategy director at Novartis in Toronto.

Finally, I would like to remark that Osuntokun’s life and the inherent lessons are materials for books and extensive studies; hence, I cannot capture everything. However, let me put things into perspective with a little summary. He stands as a house set upon a hill; he has built a legacy of hope and uprightness and has created many opportunities for others to take up the mantle. He stands resolute by the circumstances of his birth, the family name, and the big shadow of his sibling’s greatness. He carves a path for himself and posterity and leaves lessons for us on how to navigate life. Professor Akinjide Osuntokun’s name is material in the halls of fame. I am certain that history will continue to remember the intellect whose hands carved it even in the coming decades.

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