By Toyin Falola
The Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor The University of Texas at Austin
The time of the year has arrived again when I write to honor either a friend or an academic colleague who has inspired me through the years and, more importantly, has also contributed to the progress of many other people in various walks of life. Most certainly, it is never an easy choice for me to pick the unusually worthy individual.
I compile a careful list, and thereafter, I undertake the grueling but unavoidable task of a process of elimination. Last year, when the list was down to seven, I sought sagacious advice and input from my core loyalists.
As I did so, far-sighted personalities like Indiana University Professor Emeritus A. B. Assensoh (“A.B.”), complicated the process for me by adding additional names. Among A. B.’s new choices was Professor Abiola Irele, who sadly died last July.
Trusting our dear Africans, one person even urged me to “pray about it” to seek a sign from beyond the human realm before I made the final choice of either the friend or colleague to write about in 2016.
As the sun gradually sets on the year 2017, my mental peregrinations, after a meandering process, have landed upon Professor Jide Owoeye, the Pro-Chancellor of Lead City University in Ibadan. He is a stellar choice by any standard.
I offer here a brief profile of a scholar, an administrator, and an entrepreneur. Indeed, Professor Owoeye and I have come a long way together as friends, colleagues, and partners on a number of very viable projects, including his generous hosting of TOFAC in 2013. To be exact, both of us met at the former University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in the 1980s. There was no way anyone could predict, at that time, that super success awaited him in the years ahead: rising from a Junior Lecturer 1 to a university founder, who now hires and pays professors! In fact, being an appointed member of the Council of Lead City University, he is really my de facto boss.
He calls me Ojogbon Agba (a very senior professor) and I call him Chairman, very much a perfect fit: he is, indeed, an “Alága” of the highest order! On a day-to-day basis, Chairman Owoeye chairs committees as well as presides over key meetings, and takes momentous decisions on finances and management.
His gait and panache entitle him to this appropriate alias. His charisma fills the room as soon as he enters, be it in his Yoruba attire or well-tailored Western suits. He remembers the names of hundreds of people and their roles; social events; decisions taken years ago; and promises made to him, including those that were broken! He neither panics nor sweats in difficult moments, as the Chairman cannot but control and lead his space and team.
Chairman Owoeye is equally a Borokini, the ultimate prestige and social status among the Yoruba, which is attained after one has acquired titles and properties, become sought after for gifts as well as grace, and respected for ideas and ideals. Borokini is of a higher esteem than being referred to as a gbajumo (“one who is known to over a hundred eyes,” that is, famous), and certainly more respected than an oloro (the propertied man).
Everyone wants to interact with a borokini, the ultimate achiever. Chairman is a successful man, the hero to his people, a prominent Ijesa citizen, a chief of chiefs: a chief of Oke-Ila, a chief of Ibadan, the chief of Ibokun, the chief of Ugboland, and the Olootu of the Source, Ile-Ife…with other titles to follow—when it rains, it pours!
Hardly a week passes by that someone will not call me to help them talk to Borokini Owoeye about an issue important to them, some of which are of life-changing proportions. It is always about seeking a request or favor. In a depressed economy where opportunities keep shrinking, someone may ask me to talk to him to secure a job. I never do. Another will beg me to help him procure a contract with the Chairman. I refuse to. “Can he give me a loan?” I never deliver the request. If there is some small conflict that requires mediation, I don’t get involved. One man needs admission for his son; a woman wants her niece to go to his University. I ask them to contact the Registrar.
The people who seek me out as a middleman to reach Borokini Owoeye, are neither abnormal nor unethical. They are responding to a context that generates a demand and also eventual success, the necessity of favor-seeking. I will locate this context in the domain of culture. Owoeye is an eligere, the Latin word that becomes translated into English as “elite.” As an eligere, there is the reality of the combination of wealth and power, but the perception of both becomes much larger than the facts themselves. If there is N50,000 in the bank account of Borokini Owoeye, the perception is that as an eligere he has N5 million in that account. One account, mind you, as the imagined grandeur is of various accounts, one for this, one for that! As the eligere circulates in public to give away that N50,000 to a friend who just lost his father, the perception increases the figure in this account to N10 million! As he steps out of the “owner’s corner” in his “tear-leather” jeep, the amount increases further to N20 million!! And as the live band plays with lionizing words by the lead singer saluting the eligere’s masculinity and muscularity, reciprocated with receiving some naira notes pasted on his forehead, Borokini Owoeye is no longer a millionaire but a billionaire. This is the fate of an eligere! Dreams become erected on heavy beams, as just one person becomes an okunrin meta, that is, three men rolled into one, a unique trinity that combines dexterity with spirituality powered by the energy of assumed prosperity.
The borokini reveals the role of a person in the social structure, as well as in the identity of politics within his society. In The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, published in 1957, the author argues that an elite operates in a circle with the capacity to establish social, economic and political dominance. One borokini knows the other borokinis in the city as they interact within their own elite circles in society. Those circles are major hubs of negotiations and key instruments of decision making. Above all, the circle is a network of connections for the powerful. As such, a borokini is without an excuse in not meeting the needs of those who seek his help; after all, whatever the borokini does not have, he or she has access to other borokinis who have it.
Those who contact me to reach Chairman know the power and privileges of Borokini Owoeye, and they want to tap into it. Nothing is wrong with this. Mills distinguishes the elite from the ruling class. To some extent Mills is right, but the Borokini can become members of both. The more borokini Owoeye becomes, the more people who will want to tap into his influence: the bigger the head, the bigger the headache. What a paradox!
As much as I understand what is going on and the expectations placed on a borokini, I have not called Chairman for favor on behalf of anyone. For, there is a contradiction in my own character: I like to do things for others, but I don’t want them to do things for me. When I am hungry, broke, or deprived, only a magician can know. The more problems I have, the greater my confidence, and the more heightened my hope. Even, when Chairman asked me to use a car in his fleet, I refused to, appearing on his campus instead in a well-beaten commercial taxi to receive an honorary doctorate. That’s me, and I love it that way!
What I share with Chairman is laughter. Laughter in abundance: the èrín àrín-takiti! In countless moments in hotel suites and recreation clubs, one tale follows another. After discussing politics, about which he repeats his mantra that Nigerian federalism does not work, we will move to the fabulization of realities; and thence to the reality of factions, and then back to fiction. Water becomes holy water, and without any miracle whatsoever, it changes to wine to be consumed in the gallons. What I see next is the nakedness of my body in the bed, with clothes on the floor, a pair of glasses in the bathroom, the left shoe of a divorced pair in the living room, the second nowhere to be found, and finally waking up in the dawn to a new round of laughter in the company of a headache. What happened to the New Year’s resolution? The decaying body of the resolution will be finally laid to rest later in the evening at the Ibadan Polo Club where yesterday’s mistakes will be repeated all over! No favor but laughter!!
Let me tell you the Chairman’s beginnings or his history, the way I know it, in brief strokes and sketches. Owoeye began his university education at Nigeria’s premier University, the University of Ibadan, in 1974 and graduated B.Sc. (Hons) in Sociology in 1977. When he discovered that there was an even a better prospect of education available elsewhere, he applied to the then University of Ife for his postgraduate education. It was at Ife that he received his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in International Relations in 1983 and 1987, respectively. Of course, I was already teaching at Ife in those years.
Still in his psychedelic youthfulness, Chairman Owoeye also studied for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Distance Learning at the University of South Africa, a training that proved worthy in other respects. For, it was there that he acquired advanced knowledge in the distance learning programs, an educational pursuit that would influence his own idea of building an academic institution. Years later, we would meet at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, during which we went out for a late-night dinner, walking in the dark. He, indeed, remembered details of all the various locations from his earlier time there as we passed through the neighbourhoods, including where he had stayed or even just visited. It was during that trip that he told me about how he had begun a long-distance education project.
Certainly, he used his academic degrees in diverse and creative ways: to teach; administer; manage; and create. He emerged, in the end, as a pre-eminent scholar-entrepreneur. As a youngster of academic prominence, Owoeye started out as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of International Relations in 1983 at Obafemi Awolowo University, but he later left to pursue his doctoral fieldwork in Japan, thanks to a Japanese Government Scholarship. Owoeye’s research on “Japan’s Policy in Africa” was a ground-breaking work and he received a Ph.D. in International Relations in 1987. After rising through the ranks to become a Professor in 2001, he voluntarily retired from the services of the University in February of 2005. That retirement reveals a significant aspect of his life: his ability to take calculated risks!
In the 25 years that he spent at Obafemi Awolowo University, he had quite an eventful career, producing at least eight books as well as many chapters and scholarly articles published in various books and peer-reviewed journals. At the time, Owoeye also served in many administrative capacities: Head of Department of International Relations; Representative in the University Senate; and Editor-in-Chief of Africa’s most prestigious Quarterly Journal of Administration. He was also a Visiting Fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies; Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Seoul, South Korea; Senior Research Fellow, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; Visiting Fellow, Africa Institute of South-Africa; Associate Lecturer, Foreign Policy Academy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lagos; and Associate Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Ibadan.
He founded the African Journal of International Affairs and Development, which is currently in its 17th volume, and which was a part of the prestigious Oxford Round Table at the University of Oxford. Outside the walls of the Ivory Tower, Owoeye contributed his quota to society in the spheres of diplomacy, community service, and educational consultancy. He served as a member of the Nigerian Delegation to the First Nigeria-South-Africa Dialogue Seminar in Johannesburg in June 1994. He was appointed by the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) as a Consultant on the OAU Reparations Project, and he is a current member of the Civil Society Consultative Group of the African Union (AU).
One area about Owoeye I cannot but highlight is his sheer grittiness, commitment, and tenacity as he steers the ship of Lead City University, even through some of the most troubling times Nigeria has witnessed recently. In the past two years, due to the economic downturn in Nigeria and all the political higi haga (as Hon. Patrick Obahiagbon would say), presiding over a private enterprise is a test of one’s business acumen and entrepreneurial perspicacity. If that enterprise happens to be an academic institution where what you trade in is an intangible commodity like knowledge, all the combined skills one might have accumulated all these years would be severely tested as if one were the biblical Job.
As an academic of high standing like Owoeye, you are primarily schooled in abstractions and conceptual thinking, with fidelity to notions that have been fired in the oven of mental rigors. Academia prepares one to build a grand and overarching vision, through which one understands how people process their world and balance the fulcrum of their existence, thereafter attempting to bring all these thoughts into the large tent of meaning-making. One is also taught to connect theory with the process, and then to revise existing knowledge to launch the reader into new frontiers of understanding and knowledge. In most instances, one is also educated to search for uncharted territories of knowledge and their production process with the burning torch of remarkable insights. While these processes equip one to undertake any kind of task in human activities, it often does not prepare one to handle what is called “the Nigerian factor.” Like everybody else who has been Nigerian long enough, we all know about that jinx called “the Nigerian factor” that throws a rusty spanner into the machinery of our best laid plans.
If one is an administrator, one must always combat that demon that can surface at any time and upset all calculations. In the process, one must be constantly on one’s feet, anticipatory, flexible enough to quickly take account of how things are going, and revise accordingly. This process is like a gladiatorial arena whereby all your training as an academic is put to a fierce test! With his pedigree in learning, research, and practice over the years, Owoeye knows he cannot but strive for best practices to run the university. He works hard, he puts in his best, and I applaud his hard work and fierce determination to create a world-class university, even when social, cultural, and economic factors seem to conspire against his best efforts.
When Chairman Owoeye came to Austin, Texas in 2015 to deliver the Africa Conference banquet speech, he talked about how he runs the university on the “bootstrap model,” an administration style that brings out the genius in those individuals who have to oversee multiple—and sometimes incoherent—processes such as providing electricity to student hostels and ensuring the ease and safety of student movement through town. The university is not a business, and as such, one cannot afford to run it as one.
Therefore, he combines multiple streams of wisdom to not only keep the institution solvent but also to ensure that it thrives as well. In Nigeria, there are many things one cannot take for granted nor trust the integrity of the state to supply. You must develop the tough hide, the strength of character, and the can-do spirit that will help you push against the tide of despair and, sometimes, frustration because you have yet again been let down by “the Nigerian factor.” The bootstrap model is one that taxes your resoluteness, but when you triumph like Pro-Chancellor Owoeye has done so far, you are more than a real conqueror!
I cannot call someone a borokini and not compose in his honor a lasting poem. Here is one for Chairman Owoeye which I recommend to poets to recite, to singers to sing, and for chanters to use as the opportunities supply:
Owóẹ̀yẹ̀ nigi ńlá:
Alábẹ́ à á sá sí.
Adúró kanpe l’ójú agbo;
Ọkùnrin tọ́ kùnrin.
Èèyàn tó nímọ tó tún níwá.
Ó l’awọ́ owó.
Ó l’awọ́ ìmọ̀.
Bọ̀rọ̀kínní l’Owóẹ̀yẹ̀ wa.
Bó ti ń náwó lowó ẹ̀ ń pọ̀ l’ojú ẹ̀!
Owóẹ̀yẹ̀ is a great tree:
The one that provides people with shelter.
The action man in public.
Real man he is.
A person that combines deep knowledge with pleasant behavior.
A share giver of money he is.
A share giver of knowledge he is.
A well-known person in his community is our Owóẹ̀yẹ̀.
He that holds high portfolios in universities and chieftaincy titles in multiple towns.
The one through whom knowledge is acknowledged!
As he feels that he is spending his money
So does it seem that he is earning more money!
Chairman Owoeye, allow me to seek my first and last favor: develop the will to live longer in life. You deserve it, and you’ve earned it. For, to come to the world for too short a time is a wasted life. Develop the habits to live long. You have reproduced, so live long to see the generation that follows the second. You have built the foundation of a University; you must see the products as they become successful as you are. Taiwo Tolulope loves you. Omo Emuleomo deserves attention for the next half a century, in company of the four children from her womb and the multiplying God’s bits of wood. You have invested; live long to see the returns and enjoy them. Borokini, status is hard to reach; harder to retain; and easier to lose. You won’t lose but gain more in stature, honor and prestige in 2018 and beyond. Anything less is unacceptable to TF and God!
Uyan ayun l’erun re, awe!
“Pounded yam will go down your mouth very soothingly…”