Toyin Falola’s golden era

February 2021 will forever be remembered in the annals of African history as the month that Africa awarded its first academic D. Litt., presented by the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s premier university, to the most deserving African scholar of our era, the pre-eminent and peerless scholar, Professor Toyin Falola, rated as the No. 1 humanity scholar in Africa, with the most global presence in both the academic and policy world. No sooner was it announced than the news immediately spread to the corridors in the African Union, ECOWAS, ECA, and UNESCO. It was as if the African rebirth had occurred.

There is a larger context to this distinguished moment. The most we hear about Africa today is in the negative. Where Africa isn’t left out of the conversation completely, it hardly ever features in a positive light. On print and digital media, it is a tale of stolen dreams, missed opportunities, and stunted potential. Africa has become the theater of contradictions. Extreme wealth and poverty coexist in unholy matrimony, and conflict, famine, and destitution threaten to override age-long identities steeped in rich histories and proud heritages. But amid all the unpleasantness, a conversation about transformation perseveres. Begun from the earliest days of Negritude, its spirit has been sustained through the inspired era of Pan-Africanism and Nationalism and exists even now in Pluriversalism—the idea that knowledge production in and about Africa should be grounded on indigenous philosophies, theories, and experiences.

For about four decades, one individual who has remained committed to keeping this conversation alive, notwithstanding the enormity of the task, broadening its scope to cater to the complication, is Toyin Falola. He has entered a golden era where no other African scholar can compete with him or match his talents, productivity, and profundity. There is just no one like him—none with his plural versal talent. Out of earshot, he is called an “Irunmole,” a spirit from another world. Of course, there are variants of god-like manner (called a Yemoja in Brazil), a man that acquired the image of a sea goddess. In a previous century, Falola would be converted to a god and worshipped.

Today, his cult of followers stretch far and wide, penetrating all corners of the world. And whenever an award for humility is created, he will emerge as the winner. He brushes off what you say of him. If you relay to him some unpleasantness, Falola laughs and tells you to spend your time wisely! He says the negative person is manifesting his/her character and not describing him, and forgetting that our time on earth is so limited that it should be used carefully.

Introducing him at the conference named after him, The Toyin Falola Annual Conference on Africa and the African Diaspora (TOFAC), the vice-chancellor, Paul Zeleza of the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, described Toyin Falola as “our Ali Mazrui and Wangari Maathai combined.” Someone quickly responded, “Add Achebe and Soyinka!” He is now rated in the policy world as the most relevant and impactful.

Perhaps Toyin Falola, pre-eminent Africanist scholar, prolific author, internationally acclaimed Professor of African History/African Studies, and a towering mentor to multitudes, needs no further introduction. However, an occasion for contemplating the contributions of this erudite scholar to the elevation, direction, and span of the African discussion offers an opportunity, not only to present someone whom many might consider an unsung hero to this audience but also to catch it up with the developments on the topic (Africa) thus far. Hence this modest attempt to capture an extensive, inspiring, and very productive career devoted to uplifting Africa and its peoples by correcting erroneous narratives, providing improved perspectives and better tools for articulating and realizing better outcomes.

Over the years, Professor Falola’s work has cut across a broad spectrum of topics on Africa—its cultures and traditions, politics, economy, and landscape. This is best expressed in another one of his remarkable characteristics, the knack for assembling individuals from diverse disciplines and scholarly backgrounds together in a collaborative, interdisciplinary colloquium that has over time yielded volumes of historically rich material on aspects of African history hitherto obscure. For the reason of specificity, which is critical in navigating the vast sea of publications that mark Falola’s four decades of scholarly endeavor, his contributions cover a broad canvas that includes, but is not limited to, Yoruba studies, Nigerian studies, African history, and diaspora scholarship. A scholar who has generated multiple conferences, ten books on him, and two definitive solo books by Professor Abdul Bangura.

The history of the Yoruba, an identity which Falola, like others who hail from the southwestern regions of Nigeria, now share, has been better illuminated through his disposition to an in-depth study and a distinctive ability to detach himself from his object of study to offer an unsentimental, unbiased, and apolitical analysis. A case in point is an (early) article entitled ‘Precolonial Origins of the National Question in Nigeria: The Yoruba Identity as a Case Study,’ which elucidates on the political considerations that have often informed the description of distinct indigenous ethnic nationalities as unified entities to score political advantages in a federation of competing multi-ethnic nationalities.

At a moment of troubles in Nigeria and the call for restructuring, this article supplies critical insights and warnings. Drawing from available sources, the article traces the development of the idea of a Yoruba identity—as a single nation united under the myth of a shared Oduduwa ancestry—to two particular developments. The first phase covers the activities of pioneer authors of Yoruba history such as Bishop Ajayi Crowther, Sapara Williams, and Samuel Johnson, among other contemporaries. Themselves freed slaves—who had already established affinities as slaves from analogous cultures—upon return, found it easier to harp on cultural similarities and a mythical ancestry as a means of creating a common front to cha

llenge the colonial government. The article recognizes the importance of their contributions as critical primary sources for the reconstruction of Yoruba history. The second phase covers a period of consolidation by politicians such as Awolowo, whose bid to amass political influence through ethnic mobilizations effectively ushered in the practice of politics by ethnic affiliation. In conclusion, the article draws attention to Nigeria’s existence as a cluster of such multi-ethnic nationalities, which can either serve as an instrument for effective structuring or summary disintegration to pre-colonial forms given the right political conditions.

Subsequent publications, notably Yoruba Identity and Power Politics, saw Falola bringing together an impressive collection of scholars from various fields to examine the expressions of Yoruba culture and tradition in the contemporary Nigerian State. This project, which studied the Yoruba people in general, covered their evolution, cultures, traditions, and practices. The chapters, “Yoruba Nation” and “Writing Yoruba,” explain the intricacies entrenched in the Yoruba identity and how these are critical to ensuring scholars’ objective representations. However, his Encyclopedia of the Yoruba covers a wide range of topics on Yoruba history—art, literature, religion, language, linguistics, philosophy, demography, geography—and best describes Falola’s commitment to the preservation and spread of the Yoruba culture.

These efforts, directed towards furthering an understanding of the Yoruba world and politics, have led to increased interest in Yoruba culture, especially for study in academic institutions worldwide.

In Nigeria, just as in other areas that have been bequeathed his intellectual interests, Falola has been involved in numerous research efforts and public contributions to complement the national discussion. He has published texts on all three major periods of the area’s historical development, from the pre-colonial to the colonial and postmodern era, contributing valuable research material, debunking erroneous conclusions, and providing historical insights into national challenges. His views command much esteem, especially for the refreshing insights their historical connections offer. His active involvement in interpreting Nigerian experiences—social, political, and economic—has limited Eurocentric distortions and Afrocentric pigmentations that were manifest in the earlier historiographies on the area. His influence is extended to the methodological focus of contemporary Nigerian and Africa historical research. He has published texts that serve both as guides and source materials to students and teachers of Nigerian history.

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