…the works and contributions of this wonderful scholar-cum-policy adviser can never be lost. They have spoken, and will always speak, for him. They are forever stored in treasure troves of the books he has written, the policies he has advocated, and other causes he has championed. They are the everlasting cities he has built and founded line upon line, stone upon stone, idea upon ideas, one labour of love after the other.
No longer do I enter a city. I enter citiness —Max Reif
To describe my awe at the great accomplishments of Professor Akin Mabogunje, pioneer scholar of the discipline of African Geography, I feel almost compelled to twist the word “city” by the neck to make it pliable so as to fulfil the challenging task.
Kano, Ibadan, London, Sweden, Benin, Michigan, Chicago, Paris, Ohio, Dubai, New York, Lagos, South Africa, Istanbul, South Africa, Washington D.C., Ile-Ife…. The life of Professor Mabogunje is spread out in a vast landscape that spans through multiple cities. His work, as an African scholar amidst a multitude of other be-ings, has been a perennial engagement with city-ing our cities, infusing them with the unlimitedness and vivacious cosmopolitanism of ideas, culture, and experiences.
My encounter with the legend started in the 1980s when the University of Ife asked me to organise a conference in honour of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, not long after his death. In assembling the list of keynote speakers, Professor Mabogunje and Mokwugo Okoye, were on top of the list. I traveled to Ibadan and Enugu to personally deliver those letters of invitation. My interaction with Okoye continued until his death in 1998, a story that I am yet to have the opportunity to narrate. I once asked Professor Siyan Oyeweso, whose PhD research I was to supervise before I left Nigeria in 1989, to write on Okoye, and he embarked upon the project, although he was to move in a different direction when a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph ascended the throne. Since 1988, I have had opportunities to interact with Professor Mabogunje, and he attended various lectures of mine, including the Annual Awolowo Memorial Lecture that I delivered in Lagos in March 2012. One day he ran into me in the library of the University of Ibadan, and he said “Toyin, do you now live in Nigeria?” “Not so sir, I live in multiple places!” He was the first person to shock me with a request: he asked me to write a book on free education, a commitment that I kept to him, but which multiple projects have prevented me from delivering. It will happen. When he published his long memoir, Professor Jane Guyer, I think, approached me to publish a US edition of it. It was therefore a delight to have been invited to the forthcoming seminar in his honour on October 25, 2017, but a physical presence is not possible because of other commitments. Here, then, is my widow’s mite.
Professor Mabogunje’s life started in Kano in northern Nigeria where he spent his most formative years and began to acquire the intuitive understanding of the tenor and texture of cities, the people that inhabit them, the energy that citi-fies cities, making them combust with liveliness, and how to harness the cultural, physical and material nexus to alchemise these elements.
For the last point, he must have come to that knowledge in a remarkable and interesting way: In his autobiography, A Measure of Grace: The Autobiography of Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje, he narrated an amusing story:
When he was to write his entrance examination to secondary school, a friend told him that there was more to academic success than hard work; that it was possible to deploy magical powers to attain academic excellence. Already a brilliant student who had once earned double promotion, he thought there might indeed be a shortcut to success. According to Professor Mabogunje, he followed the friend to another friend who had a big notebook containing incantations that were meant to help one pass examinations, among other magical possibilities. The examination came and after he failed miserably, he learnt an important lesson about routing success – towing the path of hard work, relentless determination, and uncompromising attitude to excellence.
Perhaps because he grew up in multiple cities in Nigeria through dual historical epochs—colonial and postcolonial—he has a fascination for cities. His career has taken him through many of them all over the world where he has delivered lectures, consulted for organisations, researched, studied, collaborated with distinguished scholars…
Human lives and the cities—collecting and containing humans within its bosoms—are rather alike: they succeed when they are planned through a painstaking mapping of an atlas of complex phenomena into categories that simplify and facilitate understanding, while also leaving room for simultaneity and vigour.
Mabogunje, in a sense, embodies the aesthetics of citiness through his entire career, the ability to be the sum of many parts because you are created by everybody and everything. He represents both the interweave of the global and the local; the sophistication of the Afropolitan combined with the rustic beauty of the essential African; the combination of empirical education and quantitative “theorecity” of academic discipline with the instinctual knowledge of the native; the grace to “feel at home” in rural and urban locations in Nigeria. His more than five decades of zealous devotion to employing the discipline of geography to analyse, understand and investigate Africans in the place and time they occupy, and the pursuits of city-making, through building, shaping, and reforming them, have all earned him a distinction in his life and career. In 1999, he became the first African to ever be awarded the honour of election to the United States’ National Academy of Sciences as a Foreign Associate, amongst many other distinctions.
The cartography of his life is quite inspiring. We see a man who charted his course through knowledge by choosing to work as a policy formulator, as against being a politician, another option available to him at the time. This intellectual giant thought to himself that being the brain behind policies was as important as getting political power and through that shrewd decision five decades plus ago, he has been a tremendous influence in Nigeria’s political and urban landscape. His career as a university teacher, an advisor to different governments in Nigeria and Africa on developmental policies, a writer, and heavyweight intellectual have been the sum of his many parts, all of which coalesce into an iconic picture of a pioneer scholar and intellectual who has had remarkable inputs in the shaping of this country’s history – and geography.
Professor Mabogunje is called the “father of African geography” for his distinct contributions to the field of geography. Having bagged a first degree in Geography in 1953 from the University College, London at Ibadan (later to become the University of Ibadan), Professor Mabogunje proceeded to the University of London where he earned another B.A. (1956), a Master’s (1958), and a PhD (1961). By the time he was earning his Master’s degree, he had started a career with the University of Ibadan, and three years after earning his PhD, he became a senior lecturer and then, professor in 1965. Within a space of 12 years, he had become a full professor who would go on to pioneer groundbreaking studies of geography in Africa. The rest of the decades since that time, he has dedicated to using his impressive body of knowledge to influence the landscape by making invaluable contributions to the study of people and their situation in physical and temporal spaces.
Perhaps because he grew up in multiple cities in Nigeria through dual historical epochs—colonial and postcolonial—he has a fascination for cities. His career has taken him through many of them all over the world where he has delivered lectures, consulted for organisations, researched, studied, collaborated with distinguished scholars, and worked out ideas on how to integrate theoretical knowledge of geography with administrative goals and policies to ultimately stimulate urban and rural development. His contributions on this score are wide ranging: they include serving on committees that champion issues around forest resource management, census and population statistics, housing and urban development, land reform, community banking and development, poverty alleviation projects, rural development, and city development.
Professor Mabogunje has been a persistent advocate of urban development and he has argued in some of his works that some of the major challenges of local government in Nigeria (and in Africa generally) around the urbanisation project can be partially blamed for their lack of understanding and hence, failure, to appreciate the importance of having active and viable city centres with modern amenities. While some of the city administrators desire to move their cities from present premodern states, they are often constrained by finance. This is a problem that has remained intractable, largely because a lot of administrators have neither the vision nor the imagination to make their cities self-sustaining. His works consist of important interventions in this regard; he has made outstanding suggestions to government to explore sources of revenue to build modern cities beyond waiting for handouts.
In Nigeria, he served in various capacities in the Nigerian public and private sectors. His enormous contributions that include developing the present Olabisi Onabanjo University, planning the seat of power in Nigeria, the Federal Capital Territory, and working on the DAWN project in South West Nigeria—just to name a few of his achievements—will outlive him.
He has argued for an analysis of development and relations of people to their geographical spaces, and how the distinct structural arrangement of each—in rural and urban contexts—can be an insightful resource to mobilise for development. For rural areas, he intuits that part of the problem of their underdevelopment has to do with the breakdown of foundational values on which social relations and culture were built due to forces of modernity and urbanity. The failure to build a replacement value structure created a psychic dislodgement, a cultural and social disorientation that impedes growth and development. Therefore, development in this context would entail more than a top-down approach to policy making but, in fact, an understanding of local realities, histories, and indigenous philosophies, as a huge factor in the analyses of development ideas. Rural development, he also argues, is germane to urban development because both sides have historically affected each other. Therefore, efforts for developing one should have a roborant effect on others. African societies, he also says, need an ideology of development that enables them reconcile culture, history, physical and social environment, and human relations under a broad umbrella that can inspire the policies necessary to shape development.
Professor Mabogunje is a big believer in global interaction if it does not leave Africa behind. He also believes that Africa will fare better if it is self-reliant, and for this reason, he infuses arguments about political development in his campaign for urban and rural development. He also advocates enlightened leadership, strong and efficient government, and protections from the crushing weight of global power that impedes Africa’s development. While we look outward to working with the rest of the world, we also need to look inward within Africa to foster regional integration, create physical and social infrastructure that enable the movement of people, information, labor, specialists, and trade. African nations, he has argued, can make a lot of progress if they work with their resources and coordinate their strength.
He has published more than 25 books and hundreds of journal articles on these subjects, studying wide-ranging subjects on cultural histories and its interweave with physical geography. Some of his works include Urbanisation in Nigeria (1969); Owu in Yoruba History (1971); Regional Mobility and Resource Development in West Africa (1972); Cities and African Development (1976); The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective (1980); Environmental Challenges of Sub-Saharan Africa (1996); The State of the Earth: Contemporary Geographic Perspectives (1997); and Health Challenges of Nigerian Urbanisation (2007).
As a student and faculty at University College, Ibadan, Mabogunje shone brightly and was awarded many prizes by local and international organisations. As a citizen of Nigeria, he has been given many awards and recognitions in celebration of his sterling contributions to the polity. Some include the David Livingstone Centennial Gold Medal, awarded by the American Geographical Society for distinguished contribution to the geography of Africa (1972); Murchinson Award of the Royal Geographical Society, London, for his distinguished contribution to the geography of West Africa (1975); Honorary D.Sc. (Economics) Stockholm School of Economics Sweden (1973); Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOM) (1980); Laureate d’ Honneur, by Societe de Geographie, Paris (1984); Social Correspondent of La Societa Geografica Italiana for Distinguished Contribution to the Study of Urbanisation in the Third World, Rome (1986); Honorary Corresponding Member, Academie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer, Bruxelles, Belgium, (1987); Recipient of the Grand Medaille of the French Geographical Society (1993); Recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Scotish Geographical Society (1994); and UNCHS Scroll of Honour for outstanding contribution to human settlements development (1998). He has held international positions, some of which he was the first African to occupy.
In Nigeria, he served in various capacities in the Nigerian public and private sectors. His enormous contributions that include developing the present Olabisi Onabanjo University, planning the seat of power in Nigeria, the Federal Capital Territory, and working on the DAWN project in South West Nigeria—just to name a few of his achievements—will outlive him. Professor Mabogunje has combined academic excellence with community service and given an enviable account of himself in all the endeavors in which he has engaged. I am not sure there is a street named after him in Abuja. If there is one, he deserves it. If there is none, it is a great omission. In 1976, if my memory serves me well, he took a team of scholars—geographers, microbiologists, geologists and others—to map out the proposed new capital and determine what facilities and landmarks would be located where. Today, despite his advancement in age, he is not tired yet as he continues to contribute to national discussions, offering ideas on how to move the nation forward.
If Professor Mabogunje has any regret, as we all do in certain aspects of our life and career, it is perhaps that the ideas that he championed as an advisor to the government were either not implemented or poorly implemented. Years of political instability in Nigeria and the shaky contestations for power impeded—and in some cases, eroded—much of the progress that would have been recorded and which would have constituted a base for other developmental agenda. Nevertheless, the works and contributions of this wonderful scholar-cum-policy adviser can never be lost. They have spoken, and will always speak, for him. They are forever stored in treasure troves of the books he has written, the policies he has advocated, and other causes he has championed. They are the everlasting cities he has built and founded line upon line, stone upon stone, idea upon ideas, one labour of love after the other.
Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, The University of Texas at Austin.
Culled from Premium Times