By Godini G. Darah
Librarian Sesan Dipeolu whose funeral will take place this January, was an eminent nationalist, socialist humanist and revolutionary Awoist. On the University campus in Ife he was distinguished by the grace of his gentle steps, his polished manners and a face that radiated compassion and integrity. The animus and erudition of his voice and his encyclopaedic sweep of plural fields of knowledge marked him out as one of the finest samples of the literati of post-colonial Nigeria. His entire life and work symbolised high ideals and ethos of humanistic breeding, the best that a University campus could offer in those post-civil war years of robust optimism. Dipeolu earned the distinction of being the longest-serving Librarian of the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University.
The Ife campus of the 1970-1990 decades was a perfect clime for the exhibition of these attributes of radical humanism fostered by half a century of the interface of Yoruba civilization and traditions of British education and colonial conditioning. The Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria had evolved from a long history of inter-racial and multi-ethnic cohabitation. Their various kingdoms and chiefdoms were an amalgam of diverse and heterogeneous peoples of West Africa. Over the millennia, their liberalism and tolerance of strangers and travellers prepared the Yoruba to benefit maximally from the cross-currents afforded by their strategic geographical location. Many of their sub-cultural units received influences from neighbouring Benin, Igala, Nupe, Hausa, Fulani, Anango and, from the 16th century, Europe and the Americas.
Encounter with colonising powers
The Yoruba first encountered the Fulani and the British as colonising powers. Although they lost Ilorin and the northern corridor of the old Oyo Empire to Islamic armies of the nineteenth century, Yoruba brave warriors and adventurers like general Ogedengbe of Ijesha land managed to hold at bay the aggressive Fulani predators. As Professor Toyin Falola and other historians have argued, the disintegration of the Oyo Empire triggered waves of migrations and intermingling of diverse peoples who were determined to found new settlements where they could hold their own under the sun.
The establishment of Ibadan in 1836 marked a critical juncture in these tumultuous movements. Other factors include the near-miraculous emergence of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a freed slave from Oyo area. He superintended the spread of Christianity in southern Nigeria from the 1840s. The Church brought education and by the end of the century British colonial rule was consolidated. In the clash of the Yoruba with the British imperial overlords, Chief Obafemi Awolowo assumed the mantle of the biblical Moses who led the self-exiled Jews from Egypt about 1,200 B.C. As the first elected Premier of the Western Region, Chief Awolowo introduced free universal education in 1955; it was the first of such revolutionary initiatives in Africa.
The University, established in 1962, not in Awolowo’s Ijebu homeland, but in the Yoruba ancestral city of Ife, was the crown of this educational transformation. The university project was itself an act of political rebellion against the “omnipotent” central government of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa that sought ways to discourage the regional institution. Chief Awolowo’s brave challenge of the unjust “federal might” was a demonstration of his tenacious defence of the principles of federalism that Nigeria operated during the First Republic (1960-1966).
To this new citadel of learning flocked some of the best and brightest academics and professionals of the era. Sesan Dipeolu was among them. From 1966 Professor Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, the Kansas University-trained agriculturist and ardent Awoist-socialist was appointed the Vice-Chancellor. He spent nine years on the seat and turned a tropical jungle into one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world. Professor Oluwasanmi from Ijebu-Ijesha now in Osun State was a giant figure, the tallest person on the campus and his intellect and managerial ingenuity were equally prodigious. He attracted first-rate staff from diverse places and disciplines; some of them were iconoclasts and dissidents against ideological orthodoxy. When I started a lecturing career in Ife in the late 1970s Dipeolu’s profile as the University Librarian had acquired the luminous aura of a professional colossus.
The academic and social atmosphere on the campus was boisterous and invigorating, certainly without peer in an age when, in the words of Chinua Achebe, Nigeria was truly a country. The ferment was nourished by the presence of eminent scholars, creative artists, and administrators.
As already observed, the University of Ife trailed a rebellious, anti-establishment course. In 1965 a section of the staff had revolted against a strange government policy that demanded that they all either supported the ruling political party or consider themselves sacked. This was the season of schism between Chief Awolowo and his former deputy, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola who had become Premier after Awolowo got elected into the Federal Legislature in Lagos. When the University Governing Council announced the diktat, some lecturers chose to resign and go elsewhere in search of academic autonomy; among them were Professors Wole Soyinka and the Marxist economist Samuel Aluko. The echoes of this dramatic incident survived into the 1970s and beyond. Dipeolu was part of the generation that inherited this reputation of insurgent repudiation of government’s totalitarian tendencies.
The architectural structures of the University yield an ambience reminiscent of Black Egyptian Universities and religious lodges of the ancient world. Broad streets and boulevards crisscross into alleys and arcades. Manicured meadows, romantic picturesque gardens, tree-festooned forest patches and brooks humming with aquatic music give the image of a modern-day Garden of Eden.
The greatest architectural monument is the University Library perched like a granite hill in the epicentre of Faculties and other iconic buildings. The four-storey edifice overlooks the grand highway that leads from the main gate and the city. Librarian Dipeolu had his office on the top floor. Quite often his ascent or descent from the office gave visitors the impression of seeing the reincarnation of Orunmila, the Yoruba divinity of divination and intellectual inquiry.
In those years, the magnificent Library made studying a pleasure for all and an addiction for many. All the floors were filled with rows and rows of books. An entire floor was devoted to journals and periodicals. And thanks to the global reach of Dipeolu, the Library subscribed to about 3,500 foreign and local journals.
Looking back now, my mind recalls how the Library looked like a replica of the Royal Alexandria Library in Egypt about 2000 years ago. Housing about half a million hand-written books and materials, the Alexandria Library was the first in human history and it has served as a model over the millennia. Librarian Dipeolu was an avowed member of the political Left in Nigeria, a generation of the elite who subscribed to the emancipatory eschatology of socialist abundance and justice for all. Chief Awolowo was an early convert of this fraternity of egalitarian jeremiad. Yet unlike many starry-eyed votaries of socialism, Dipeolu did not wear his ideological tag on the forehead. He operated as a trained cadre who could adjust to any situation and environment without losing focus. He was always a part of the progressive alliance on campus that defended and protected students unjustly marked for punishment by conservative faculty deans and department heads for their “undue radicalism”. Dipeoolu worked diligently with fellow travellers at the University Senate to ensure that equity and fairness prevailed. As a Principal Officer of the University he contributed to shielding the institution from the intolerance and excesses of military mandarins in Lagos.
The University’s output of patriotic nationalists and defenders of public causes and human rights is a testimony to the democratic conditions that prevailed. For example in 1974, the Ife students decided to embark on a long trek of over 250 km to the Dodan Barracks seat of the military government in Lagos. They were to protest General Yakubu Gowon’s abnegation of his 1970 promise to hand over to elected civilians in 1974. The military junta panicked and deployed soldiers and anti-riot police along the Ife-Lagos highway to forestall the protest. But many brave students still found their way to Lagos to register their anger and disappointment. The student leader of the “exodus” was Ayo Olukotun, now a professor of political science. Although the Government was embarrassed, it did not rusticate the student leaders from school nor did it order the termination of the appointment of members of the University Management. The presence of the Dipeolus in the administration was a restraint against military high-handedness.
In 1976 there was national uprising of students against increases in education costs, otherwise known as “Ali Must Go” in the annals of education in Nigeria. Riot police killed many students in Lagos and Zaria. The military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo reacted by sacking lecturers sympathetic to the students. The student leaders headed by Segun Okeowo of the University of Lagos were dismissed from their schools and banned from ever gaining admission into any institution in Nigeria. Once, again, Ife found an ingenious way to flout the unjust order. In the 1980s, the Senate of the University offered admission to Okeowo into the English Department headed by Professor Oyin Ogunba. The Vice-Chancellor who took the audacious step was Professor Ojetunji Aboyade. Dipeolu, Soyinka, Segun Osoba, Toye Olorode, Oladipo Fashina, Segun Adewoye, Idowu Awowetu, Akinwunmi Isola, Kole Omotoso, Biodun Jeyifo, Yemi Ogunbiyi, and others played a “conspiratorial” role in this drama of freedom from persecution. Dr Ogunbiyi is the current Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council at Ife. Birds of identical ideological plumage flock and act together.
Dipeolu and his vanguard of liberals resolved a similar conflict in 1988. The Student Union decided to induct Chief Gani Fawehinmi as a Life Member of the Union. Being an intransigent defender of human rights, Fawehinmi was a thorn in the flesh of military cabals. In this instance, General Ibrahim Babangida, the self-styled “Evil Genius” was the head of state. The government instigated the University Authorities to stop the ceremony. The students defied the instruction, insisting on their inalienable right to honour the legal luminary. Apprehension was high; under-cover police infiltrated the campus community, military helicopters hovered like vultures in the air. The students dared the military to enter the sports arena to stop the event. The government even lied that Gani planned to set himself on fire to embarrass Babangida. The induction rites went on successfully. I presented the honouree’s citation with the title “Ganicidal Self-Combustion”. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Wande Abimbola and his management team applied great tact and patriotic judgment to handle the situation. No student leader was arrested, suspended, rusticated or victimised in exams. Dipeolu and the famous Ife Socialist Collective were at the heart of this epic drama.
It is a philosophical truism that great historical figures do not emerge from cyber space; they are products of concrete historical and socio-economic conditions. Dipeolu is a scion of the Ijebu enterprising and enlightened dynasty of the twentieth century. Not held hostage by suffocating feudalism as was experienced in neighbouring Oyo and Benin empires, the Ijebu people burst into Nigerian history with a missionary mandate of modernisation and prosperity. They made maximum use of their geographical location vis-à-vis the British colonial heartland of Lagos. The rise of the Ijebu to greatness is also explained by their leading historian, Professor Emmanuel Ayandele. In his 1992 book on the Ijebu, he celebrates the spirit of survival and adaptability shown in their “enthusiastic consumption of Western literacy education and adoption of modern techniques of entrepreneurship”.Thus Chief Awolowo of humble origins could self-develop himself like Comrades Vladimir Lenin of Russia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. He galvanised the three kingdoms of the modernising elite, namely, the commercial, intellectual, and political and from the 1950s, Yorubaland became the centrepiece of British-influenced development in education, industry, and social welfare schemes. This background explains why the Ijebu people rank among the most educated and prosperous in Africa. Librarian Dipeolu developed and worked in this dynamic milieu.
Librarian Dipeolu’s long sojourn of 90 years plus on earth epitomised the highest ideals of responsibility and quest for justice. Many benefited from his simplicity and generousity. In 1984 he offered a library job to my wife, Philomena Opha then fresh from secondary school. Dipeoplu did this to help stabilize our one-year-old marriage and to enable me to concentrate on the activities of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of which I was the Ife branch chairman. His gesture steered our conjugal raft along pacific waters. After retiring to Lagos, Librarian Dipeoplu was always at events connected with intellectual and creative endeavours. He and Professor J. P. Clark were like David and Jonathan in the Bible. He was in the hall with J. P. and Ebun Clark in March, 2017, when I gave the Faculty of Arts distinguished lecture on: “The Humanities and the Redemption of Africa”. his animated and nuanced responses to my references to scholarship and geniuses in ancient Nile Valley civilizations confirmed that Dipeolu could have been the Librarian in any of the Black African Universities of antiquity such as those where Moses and Jesus Christ studied as undergraduates.