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Requiem for Pius Adesanmi

My Obadiah mailafia

OUR paths never crossed on this earth, but we had a lot in common. We shared a similar worldview and intellectual culture as columnists and public intellectuals. He was an Okun Yoruba from Kabba, which made him my fellow Middle Belt compatriot. Like him, I also studied French language and civilisation, although mine was preparatory for post-graduate work in Economics, Public Administration and Law. We both had the privilege of moving freely from French Cartesian philosophical thinking to Anglo-Saxon philosophical empiricism – the best preparation, in my view, for any public intellectual worthy of the name.

I had just arrived Casablanca, Morocco, for an international conference when news came that an Ethiopian Airlines plane had crashed less than 10 minutes after take-off on Sunday, March 10, killing all 157 passengers and crew. Two Nigerians also perished in that awful tragedy – Ambassador Abiodun Bashua, a top UN official and Canada-based literary theorist Pius Adesanmi. The Nigerian intelligentsia were thrown into mourning. I have always believed that high-achievers among the Nigerian Diaspora like Bashua and Adesanmi are our unpaid ambassadors. The poor image our country has in the comity of nations has been assuaged by such men and women of excellence. We must evolve a better way to acknowledge and celebrate their achievements.

Pius Adesanmi
Pius Adesanmi

Until his death, Adesanmi was a professor of literature and Director of the African Studies Centre at Carleton University, Ottawa. As fate would have it, another Nigerian Carleton professor from another generation, Claude Ake, also perished in an airplane disaster back in November 1996. Ake was indisputably the most influential political economist of his generation and a mentor to many, including my humble self. He had been appointed to a full professorship at Carleton at the unusual age of 28. Rumours had it that the Abacha military dictatorship may have had a hand in that air crash because of Ake’s principled opposition to the regime.

Pius Adebola Adesanmi was born on February 27, 1972 in the small community of Isanlu in Yagba East Local Government Area of Kogi State. He attended the famous Titcombe College, Egbe, before proceeding to the University of Ilorin, where he earned a first class honours degree in 1992. He later earned a Master’s in Ibadan, subsequently completing a doctorate at the University of British Columbia in 2002. He began his academic career at Penn State in the United States before being appointed to a tenured professorship at Carleton. He was also Director of its Institute of African Studies.

The late Adesanmi was a distinguished literary scholar and teacher and a much sought-after public speaker. His pen was as acerbic as was his tongue; oozing satire and unforgettable wit. In 2015 he wrote criticising the Emir of Kano for taking an under-age girl for a wife. His Royal Highness was compelled to reply to the criticism; referring directly to Adesanmi in person. I myself had occasion to disagree with him. He once opined that the American approach to graduate work – with its coursework and comprehensive exams – was better preparation than the British and European system of direct research.

Adieu, Prof Pius Adesanmi (1972 – 2019)

As a matter of fact, research has shown that the classical Anglo-European approach has produced more discoveries and more path-breaking ideas than the American. In the British system, for example, you cannot even be admitted if you do not have a First or a High Upper Second. Oxford and Cambridge believe so much in the quality of their undergraduate degree that graduates are automatically awarded an M. A. a few years after graduation. The Americans, on the other hand, open the doors to all sorts. They must of necessity design a system that weeds out the wheat from the chaff.

I wholly concurred with him when he lamented the fact that ours has become an anti-intellectual anti-civilisation: “…when you declare war on philosophy, knowledge and critical intellection, the consequence, simply put, is Nigeria as you and I know it. Nigeria can, therefore, be defined as the absence and hostility to philosophy in the life of a nation”. Eulogies have come from far and wide. The Anglo-Canadian scholar, Michael Vickers, who taught at Ile-Ife in the sixties, had this to say: “Profound sadness. Immense loss….The Creator, it often seems, has a serious grudge against Nigeria and Nigerians.”

Distinguished political scientist Richard Joseph wrote: “An irreplaceable man has gone. A silence descended upon me, a pregnant silence.   I could not even recover to write this tribute, doing so only after request by friends and his family members….The pain refuses to leave.”

One of his friends, Frank Dempster Sherman, had this to stay: “He opened the way to a larger discourse on the limits of superstructure, while also creating a path to extensive reflections on the social and cultural formations of contemporary Africa….Pius’s energy and enthusiasm for everything that life had to offer was infectious and inspiring. Those who knew him would admire his strength, his passion, his resilience, his exuberance, and his adorably audacious character.”

Another close friend, Samuel Oloruntoba, wrote from South Africa: “At a point yesterday, I just (lay) down flat on the bare floor of my office to ask God how to cope with this. This has nothing to do with the plans that we had together but the void that has been left – on the ideals that he stood for, his mother, who served us pounded yam in their Ilorin home in July last year, his wife and daughter and the manner of the tragic death…. a part of me is gone.”

Writing from Rutgers University, Bode Ibironke had this to say: “The last time I saw Pius was in Michigan, at a conference….He made everyone laugh as he threaded together satirical narrative and theoretical arguments. His charm, his brilliance, his confidence, and his special skill in human connection made him so attractive…. How could one not tremble? What sort of gift is life when it’s never really our own?” Eminent historian Toyin Falola, President of the African Studies Association and Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at  the University of Texas, eulogised him thus: “He is not dead. He cannot die. The tumult of life is different from the history of life. For a heart so large, in clouds and sun, rain and hurricane, our brother will always be here…”

Remarkably, he seemed to have had a premonition of his own impending death. On Sunday, March 3, he wrote in his column: “I write basically these days because of archaeology. A thousand years from now, archaeologists would be interested in how some people called Nigerians lived in the 20th and 21st centuries. If they dig and excavate, I am hoping that fragments of my writing survive to point them to the fact that not all of them accepted to live as slaves of the most irresponsible rulers.” And on Saturday, March 9, a day before his death, he posted his own picture on Facebook with a quote from Psalms 139 vs. 9-10: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

He was among the ornaments of our endangered species of intelligentsia. He leaves behind an aged mother, his wife, Muyiwa, and a daughter, Tise, whom he adored with all his life. I pray our Good Lord to comfort them. I also urge our government to accord posthumous national honours on both Bashua and Adesanmi. Sic transit gloria mundi!

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