Femi Ojo-Ade (1941-2019)

Lessons from a People’s Professor

by Ropo Sekoni

On March 19, Professor Femi Ojo-Ade, University of Ife’s first professor of French (and Nigeria’s second after Abiola Irele) and first Professor Emeritus of French and Francophone Studies at St. Mary’s College in USA, died. On June 7, family members, friends and colleagues, former students, and members of the community of writers will assemble at All Saints Anglican Church in Yaba, Lagos to bid him final farewell. Ironically, Ojo-Ade’s body will be returning for burial from one of the famous sites of the exile he never tired of reminding about the need to embark on the ethic of further self-humanization to a home he did not desist from warning about the dangers of self-degradation.

Femoo, as his colleagues at Ife used to call him on the soccer field,  at social gatherings, and academic seminars as a mark of endearment, had spent his  fifty years in academia to create models in various aspects of intellectual life-from teaching and relations with students, academic and research programme development, to prolific critical and creative writing. Lessons learnable from Ojo-Ade’s academic sojourn in the many countries in which he had taught: Brazil, Gambia, Nigeria, and the United States include student-centered teaching, collegiality with associates in his many countries of professional activities, and commitment to freedom and justice in his critical and creative writings.

This writer first met Ojo-Ade at a conference on African literature in Madison, Wisconsin in 1976 at which he did what came across as undisguised deconstruction of intellectual elites. In his opening remark to his paper, he observed in a bald language the hidden desire of conference academics to enjoy the privilege of upward mobility provided by the string of academic degrees behind their names, mostly at the expense of the people, such academic degrees, are designed to be assisted to live a good life. Just about every conferee in the hall looked at his neighbor for confirmation.

Ojo-Ade’s castigation of the African intellectual and of the Western intellectual of Africa at that conference got a re-echo decades later in the preface to his Black Gods: “So, armed with our fledgling bourgeois concepts, we trotted off to the metropoles…to seek the golden fleece and to attain the utmost in Civilization. Our bastardized souls fell easy prey to all forms of moral and psychological colonization. Excellent students that we were, we quickly learned to beat the hypocritical, dehumanizing, and materialistic master at his own game….Black Gods, that is what we are, thrown out of white heaven into Black Africa, but ready to rule over our kith and kin like true agents of the civilizer.” This disclosure of Ojo-Ade’s preoccupation with justice to the kith and kin of all human settlements as part of the remit of the elite—intellectual, political, economic, and cultural—have permeated his teaching, scholarship, human relations, and creative writings.

At Ife, where he spent half of his teaching years and at St. Mary’s where he ended his professional life, Ojo-Ade was famous for his teaching style. Students and colleagues knew him for student-centered teaching, even before the theory or principle became infectious across continents. Many of his classes were held in his capacious office with more comfortable seats than were available in regular classrooms. He was popular for teaching language and literature largely in a dialogic and Socratic manner, putting emphasis on interactive learning and lacing his teaching with periodic doses of humour that put his students at ease.

His style and mien endeared him to his students to the extent that he also acted as unofficial counselor to many of them. In all the languages he mastered: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Yoruba, Ojo-Ade demonstrated flair for expressing profound ideas and light-hearted jokes in a seamless flow that made his audience eager to listen to him. Even though Femi did not officially get on the list of those accused by military dictators of “teaching what they were not paid to teach,” he as an admirer of Frantz Fanon did not fail to include insights from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of  the Oppressed in his process of knowledge exchange with his students and colleagues at faculty seminars.

Ojo-Ade was friendly to and protective of not only his students but also of his colleagues across disciplines. Whether as department chair or programme director, he was jovial with colleagues and ready to extend his contacts within and outside the country to his them, once he was convinced that they could benefit from such exposure. He was enthusiastic to sell Brazilian cultural studies to his associates. In addition, the survival of the study of Portuguese at Ife beyond the cutpurse years of Structural Adjustment Program resulted from Ojo-Ade’s insistence that Portuguese is not just a foreign language in Nigeria but also a language of re-connecting divided children of African descent in Africa and Brazil. In this respect, he also campaigned for the teaching of Yoruba in Brazil, a rare insight about the role of  culture in soft diplomacy in a fast globalizing market already in the crib at the end of the 20th century, a reality that was not visible to many of the critics of his insistence that University of Ife needed to own a house for his year-abroad programme in Brazil.

Largely, it is in the writings of Ojo-Ade that his ethic of justice to and empowerment of those he called ‘kith and kin’ finds the most powerful expression of what can be described as the aesthetic of humanization of the postcolonial person—be he or she a descendant of the enslaver, the enslaved, the colonial master, or the colonized person, now in any form of power over others.

Subjects in his critical and creative writings include race and culture, national and international politics, and globalization. And the ideology that permeates his works is clear across genres: the imperative of justice and equity. For example, in his Ken Saro-Wiwa: a bio-critical study, he debunked the claim that the government of Sani Abacha was protecting the economic interest of Nigeria: “That question may have been wrongly put; for, Saro-Wiwa’s struggle was not just against an oil company. Precisely, it was, and is, against Nigeria, and those people trying to transform the place into their private property in the name of patriotism.” In another of his critical works, Home and Exile: Abdias Nascimento, he connected the issues of  race, injustice, slavery, colonialism, and globalization: “Once again, it is all about Africa, and Africa is black. Black, for too long a victim, an object of ridicule and opprobrium, a slave continually denied his humanity even as the world is being supposedly harmonized from a universe of differences into a global village where the purveyors of diminishing distances are parading myths of equality, justice, and human rights.”

In his book of poems, Exile at Home, Ojo-Ade focuses on the flaws of leadership at home in postcolonial Nigeria and similar countries: “My generation, the one coming directly after Wole Soyinka’s wasted generation, must understand the thrust of these poems…. How do you recognize your role in the race towards the precipice when you have failed to assume responsibility for your own destiny left to decay and destruction in the hands of robbers and rapists and renegades claiming to be saviours?”

A recurrent theme in the over 25 publications of this fertile mind is the absence of justice at home in Africa and abroad in Europe and North America. Just as he did in his Ife days, even when he is mordant in his criticism, he never till the end harbor any hatred against those criticized in his works for failing to do the right thing in Africa and elsewhere. This is his last testimonial from his last employer, St. Mary’s College: He combined a deep love for his native Nigeria with a cosmopolitan restlessness and commitment to world citizenship. Femi loved people, institutions and countries with his eyes open to their imperfections but believing in their promise. He had a warm heart and was a passionate conversationalist.”  

While thanking Molara, the children, and members of the Ojo-Ade extended family for sharing him with the world, his admirers welcome him back home for the journey to  the final home, which the Yoruba have constructed as the world of the ancestors saddled with looking after the world of the living and the unborn.