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A philosopher amongst us: Tribute to the late Prof Olusegun Oladipo

By Dr. Tunji  Olaopa
Shakespeare it was that wrote: “When beggars die there are no comets seen;/The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” This statement, made by Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, in Julius Caesar (II, ii, 30-31), references the long standing belief that important events in human lives are somehow signaled by omens in the natural world.

Yet, on the 11th of December, 2009 when such a prince in the academic community paused in his earthly sojourn, no comet blazed the news. Prof. Olusegun ‘Teju Oladipo, husband, father, friend, mentor, and above all, philosopher extraordinaire left the world after a brief and sudden illness.

Did we really not see the omen? How is it possible for such an obviously healthy person to suddenly slump and pass away? We were too busy living that we ended up living too short and too impoverished lives. The Nigerian situation is such that many of us are too enmeshed in the existential struggle to live good life.

But when we manage to get some measure of convenience, we are already worn out to enjoy it. It seems it is only in Nigeria that “hale and hearty” does not really describe any healthy condition; it seems it is only in Nigeria that greatness is suddenly snuffed out because the facilities to cultivate greatness are missing.

‘Segun, epitomized the essence of that big missing link in the Nigerian development vision, that which I share with the passion for the philosophic, that we both shared, in my upcoming book titled: The Joy of Learning. I was in Addis Ababa when the news got to me that he was lying helplessly on the hospital bed.

We joined in the struggle to get him to stay alive because it was unimaginable that Segun would say ‘goodbye’ to us as well as to Taiwo, his loving wife, and Oluwaseyi and Opeyemi, his lovely children, in the afternoon of his life, thus leaving us to continue in the struggle to utilize the force of ideas and intellection to create the climate for igniting beyond reflection the transformative catalyst badly required by the Nigerian Project.

Why is the death of Prof. Olusegun Oladipo so painful yet so significant? Here’s why: for the fifty two short years he spent on earth, he lived a tantalizingly simple life permeated with philosophical hopefulness and optimism that reached to his relationship with people as well as his understanding of Nigeria’s national predicament.

I said “tantalizing” because such a life would be too difficult to live given the Nigerian predicament. Most of us now have been drawn into a secluded and selfish existence that excludes others but hardly suffices us too. Most of us have been drawn very close to a cynical point on the possibility of redemption for the Nigerian state. Prof. Oladipo refused both options.

Prof. Olusegun Oladipo began his Sisyphean struggle on the 23rd August, 1957 in Accra, Ghana. He was born to Mr. and Mrs. J. F. Oladipo who hailed from Faji Town in Odo_Oti LGA of Osun State. In 1982, he graduated from the University of Ibadan with a first class degree in philosophy.

This singular achievement, together with his contact with the largely influential Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, was to leave a lasting impression on his later intellectual development. By the time he completed his doctoral degree in 1988 and made full professor in 2000, Olusegun Oladipo already understood that philosophy cannot afford to be just an abstract consolation for mankind trying to escape the vicissitudes of existence. Rather, philosophy has the historic mission of being a pragmatic compass for achieving meaningfulness and understanding.

All of his major books as well as the many essays he contributed to the debate in African philosophy attested to this realisation of the concreteness of philosophy. The titles of most of his books also attest to the fundamental trust that he placed on the adequacy of philosophy as an intellectual anchor in man’s confrontation with the challenges of life.

In Thinking about Philosophy (2009), his penultimate academic effort, Prof. Oladipo set forth his reflection about the relevance of philosophy beyond its academic disguise. According to him, understanding what the “philosophic spirit” is, is very crucial to understanding what philosophers do.

This involves the “conscious and sustained application of critical and reflective thinking to various aspects of human life and experience.” This spirit seeks to evaluate, reevaluate and reconstruct ideas and experiences that would go into (a) the construction of worldviews which are visions of the world created by individuals or groups as a means to perceiving, feeling, coping with and ultimately transforming reality and existence; (b) the adoption of critical thinking which ensures that we do not take our worldviews, which are at best partial understanding of our situations as human beings, for granted, but rather examine them in a critical light to see the extent to which they are tenable as means of coping with the challenges thrown at us by our reality.

This thinking about philosophy also reinforced his intervention in the debate surrounding the identity and responsibility of African philosophy in the context of postcolonial  nderdevelopment. In his groundbreaking and seminal The Idea of African Philosophy (1992), Prof. Oladipo adumbrated an idea of African philosophy that departed radically from its conception in the controversy involving those he called the traditionalists and the analytic philosophers.

Both are involved in the attempt at resolving the “problem of anything meeting the criteria for being both African and Philosophy, on top of the problem of what it seems to be either of these..” On the contrary, Prof. Oladipo argued that the real problem is that of “finding ways in which African philosophers can make their works relevant to human interests in their societies.”

This conclusion further translates into his analysis of the African and Nigerian predicament in Remaking Africa: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century (an edited work, 1998) and Beyond Survival: Essays on the Nigerian Condition (1999) respectively. Prof. Oladipo’s optimistic philosophy is captured in his idea of the task of social reconstruction not only of the state in Africa but specifically of the Nigerian sociopolitical framework. In such chapters like “Still in Search of Independence,” “The National Question,” “Time for Politics of Service,” “Two Kinds of Poverty and a Nation,” “A Vision without Anchor,” “The Lessons of Galileo,” “What Sort of Country,” and “The June 12 Crisis and Democracy in Nigeria”, Prof. Oladipo, in Beyond Survival, queried the socio-political foundation of the Nigerian nation as well as the irrationality of the Nigerian leadership that failed to come to term with the question of fashioning an enabling society that would ensure the good life for the citizenry. He warned that unless we take urgent and critical steps to seek new “modes of political and social organisation through which we can remake Nigeria, then the survival of the country may be at risk.”
In his last book, Philosophy and Social Reconstruction in Africa (2009), Prof. Oladipo consolidated his thinking by outlining what such a reconstructive effort at fashioning new modes of socio_political organisation would look like, and the role of philosophy in such a process.

For him, post_independent states in Africa require an urgent task of national reconstruction that propounds national philosophies which answer the question of how best to organise our society and political interactions for achieving the good life. In this regard, for Oladipo, philosophy possesses a social purpose which is to raise the political consciousness on the continent as well as maximizing the political wisdom and ethics of African governments.

All in all, Prof. Oladipo represents a pragmatic thinking on the African and Nigerian predicament which advocates a practical mission for African philosophy in the contemporary world. On the other hand, his enthusiasm while alive redefined for most of us friends and colleagues the meaning of the dignity and the fulfillment of labour in spite of the debilitating conditions that attend the responsibility and reward in Nigeria. These are two things that can’t go into the past tense.

We mourn the departure of a mentor and achiever who too occupies too large a portion in our memory space to be so easily forgotten. But while we mourn him, the fundamental question that should linger in our collective heart on this occasion is this: Though Prof. Olusegun ‘Teju Oladipo is dead, can hope survive? Can we continue to confront the world and our challenges with same optimism with which he conquered cynicism and fear?
Olaopa is of The Presidency, Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR), Abuja.


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