By Dennis Agbo
Oburu gi (if it were you) that has been so much exposed to knowledge, would you not be sad that up till the present time, Africa’s sluggish development has continued to lack originality? Oburu gi that in your 70 years of scholarship, you are yet to create an indigenous theoretical framework but have all the while relied on theories from Aristotle, would you not retire a sad man?
Assuming it was actually you that neglected your native sciences and classified them as Africa magic or fetish in preference to the copycat of western technology, would you still be happy at 70 that you were retiring with a knowledge production that failed to bequeath the younger generation a sense of originality and self-confidence to contend with global challenges?
Place yourself in a situation where you were given automatic job as a university lecturer on merit, because you were the best graduating student in your class, but as time went on and under your nose you began to witness recruitment based on quota basis, recruitment based on political influence and academic promotion because one was Vice Chancellor’s wife, etc.
These and many more were the worries of Professor Damian Ugwuntikiri Opata, A Professor of African literature in the Department of English and Literary Studies, who on July 3, 2021 waved goodbye from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) at the age of 70. Opata’s valedictory lecture was titled “Oburu Gi (from the standpoint of others): Contending with differences in knowledge production in Africa, then and now.”
Opata’s intellectualism placed him in the ranks of his own lecturer, late novelist, Emeritus Prof. Chuna Achebe, who were among the very few in Nigeria that had no need to undergo Masters Degree study but went straight for Doctoral studies after which they became professors.
Valedictory lectures are rare in UNN and Opata was the first in UNN’s faculty of Arts. He narrated how in his undergraduate days he had objected to Achebe’s characterization of Okonkwo as a man driven by fear of being thought weak and which made him kill Ikemefuna. Opata said that when he met Achebe with his critique, Achebe agreed with him that it was an ‘intrusion’ in Things Fall Apart, which he never thought along Opata’s line.
In fact, Opata is equally in disagreement with the phrase, things fall apart, stating during his valedictory lecture that Africa was already in disarray before Europe’s meddlesome interlope in Africa society. To buttress his account of a disorganized Africa society before Europe’s intrusion, Opata said that Europeans met a highly polarised society when they came to Africa, arguing that the Igbo and indeed other Africa nationalities were never together before the coming of Europeans, hence the ‘Whiteman’ could not had put a knife in what held Africans together and which made things to fall apart.
Though not as if he was arrogating himself to the caliber of Achebe, Opata was telling a story, particularly to the young academic he was leaving behind in the university, that originality and self-confidence matter more than sticking to old norms that are subject to reviews.
Therefore, Oburu gi (if you were in Opata’s standpoint) while x-raying dimensions in knowledge production in pre-colonial and post-independence Africa, “African should choose which knowledge is relevant to its present course of development.”
He charged Africa intellectuals to rediscover their originality, particularly in its knowledge production, a catalyst for breakthroughs in science, arts and technology. He is not quite happy that scientists in African have remained trapped and fixated in the western methodology in arriving at conclusions and solutions of Africa’s problems.
Treating Africa literature with philosophy and social science for an indigenous knowledge production, Opata is unhappy that his colleagues in science refer to some African natural scientific objects such as omuwewe (a night insect that electrifies) as ‘fetish’ or brand him negatively for seeking interpretations from diviners on crucial matters.
He described one of his classmates and, Emeritus professor of Theatre Arts, Prof Emeka Nwabueze as “the man who had the most photographic memory in the class. The Man never forgets anything he has read or memorized.”
He stated that Africa Universities such as UNN were established to restore the dignity of Man after the dislocation of the continent in the years that preceded independence, noting that he still looked forward to when Africans will begin to adopt their own theoretical frameworks. He lamented that the major problem was the gap in knowledge and the deliberate suppression of knowledge by others.
“Knowledge should be relevant to our environment. We are faced with lots of challenges and that is why I said Oburu gi. The knowledge we practice today is still the one from Aristotle. Some countries have made knowledge relevant to their societies such as Israel,” Opata said.
He suggested that the educational sector should be decentralized and each school determine what students need to develop. He noted that whereas Africa’s long practiced formal education breeds unemployment, the informal education does not.
“We have to take a serious look at the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) service year. Can we make it where people choose their areas where they can choose by themselves what they want to practice and they are taught that within the service year?” Opata suggested.
He urged the University of Nigeria and indeed other Africa universities to reverse the practice of evaluating research works based on their publications in Impact factor or Thomson Reuters journals.
He described the journals as business-oriented media organizations which do not have corresponding social or knowledge impacts, noting that it was unfortunate that the University of Nigeria was among tertiary institutions using such publications to access their academic staff.
He said that what was more agonizing and an act of inherent gross injustice was that the lecturers both in UNN and elsewhere in Africa do not have equal opportunities to publish in such journals. He cited that in 2019 general Impact factor list, there were about 12, 858 entries, out of which he surveyed about 1,500 entries, with 86 coming from social sciences and law while no entry came from departments in the faculty of Arts.
Opata therefore deduced that it was obvious that scholars in the arts and humanities do not have the same statistical opportunities to access impact factor journals and their colleagues in sciences, a situation which he described as injustice.
“If you ask me to publish, I should give equal opportunities to others, not to first of all disenfranchise others. There is very disadvantaged positioning of those in arts and sciences and we are in the same system and you are applying the same metrics to evaluate us.
“Whether Universities in Africa like it or not, those who prioritize papers in impact factor journals may not be aware that they are killing local journals and subsequently killing local knowledge appropriate for such journals. It is simply academic imperialism; the policy is impoverishing many young academics that pay through their nose to get their papers published in such journals.
“The worst thing that takes place is that scholars in the arts and humanities resort to publishing their papers in journals that use Impact factor to make money and whose titles have no bearing in their fields of study. Such scholars will hardly ever be read by their colleagues because different academic fields have their specialized journals.
“The very unfortunate precedent is that people in the quest for these Impact Factor journals, leave the journals in their disciplines, where they are known and write in the international journals of mathematics, Engineering and arts. How can one journal cover all these areas and they are accessed and given priority over a journal published in the candidate’s discipline? The University of Nigeria for one must take this issue seriously. I am not seeking an appointment again so I must speak my mind,” Opata stated.
The Deputy Vice Chancellor (Administration), Prof. Pat Okpoko said that Opata’s vision will come to pass and urged the university community to learn how to conquer their environment from their knowledge base like Opata did.
The DVC stated that the Thomson Reuters and Impact Factor journals had been big issues in the university and urged the academic staff to submit memos on their feelings; else they would continue as norms in the university.