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OAU honours Biodun Jeyifo for astounding intellectual work, radical humanism

Biodun Jeyifo

On Friday, December 14, 2018, I had the honour and privilege to be present in the amphitheatre of Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife) as Professor Biodun Jeyifo (BJ), was conferred with a Doctor of Literature (D. Lit) degree in recognition of his astounding work in literary/cultural criticism and theory, teaching, and for his radical humanism, informed—indeed, driven—by his undying faith in Marxism.

About two weeks earlier, while queuing for passport control at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, someone calls my name. I turn to the voice and it is that of Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, Pro-Chancellor of OAU, Ife; a former colleague of BJ’s at the university and one of the primary figures who revolutionised Nigeria’s journalism by leaving the Ivory Tower for the Town and anchoring with the justly self-proclaimed flagship in the sea of Nigeria’s journalism, The Guardian, serving for years as its Managing Director and an editorial board member. Among many other achievements, including a series of interviews with African heads of state, he would also midwife the critically acclaimed Guardian Literary Series that brought literature and criticism from university lecture halls to every newsstand, thereby fostering a higher appreciation of Nigerian writers’ works.

Ogunbiyi would leave Rutam House for Agidingbi to be the MD/Editor-in-Chief of the fabled Daily Times before setting up Tanus Communications where he currently earns his living in the book trade. There at JFK, he announced the honour to be bestowed on BJ and invited me to the ceremony, first as a former student of BJ’s and a younger member of the radical tradition of which our honoree is an illustrious flag-bearer, and secondly as his own friend: I would be his guest.

I had left Port Harcourt by air for Lagos, met up with Odia Ofeimun for a road trip to Ife, arriving rather late in the night, our driver having made a wrong turn and gone us close to Ilesha before Odia, night travel enthusiast, rerouted us. At the Pro-Chancellor’s Lodge, however, conversation was still going strong among BJ, Ogunbiyi and four eminent professors: Professors Eyitope Ogunbodede (Vice-Chancellor), Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan (two of Nigeria’s best known poets and dramatists), and Duro Oni. On the road, I had been craving amala and ewedu, and there was a delightful serving of both to make me forget the ordeal of an endlessly slow and bumpy ride on the near unmotorable Ibadan-Ife Road.

The next morning, it was an honour to occupy the front row with Prof. Ayo Banjo (former Vice Chancellor of University of Ibadan, Osundare, Osofisan, Ofeimun, Kunle Ajibade and Prof. Chima Anyadike, himself also a former student of BJ’s. With the university’s Chancellor, Etsu Nupe, His Majesty Alhaji (Dr.) Yahaya Abubakar, presiding, the ceremonies went very well, through the graduation of hundreds of Master’s and Doctoral students (so many because two convocations were combined), except for the rather curious insistence of Ooni of Ife on being known and addressed as His Imperial Majesty. I had heard him being loudly saluted and serenaded as such at the second inauguration of Dr. Kayode Fayemi as Governor of Ekiti State two months ago but had thought it a fluke, but to each monarch his imperialist ambitions, especially in the vicinity of his palace!

I have written elsewhere of my relationship to BJ: first when he turned 60 in a narrative essay entitled “For BJ at 60: A Student’s Random Recollections in Lieu of a Tribute” (West Africa Review, http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/war/article/view/275). Then a decade later when I joined in celebrating him at Ife and also contributed the essay, “The Communist as Teacher: The Example of Biodun Jeyifo” included in the book Ogun’s Errant Warrior: Celebrating Biodun Jjeyifo At 70 (edited by Femi Osofisan and Wumi Raji); a shorter and earlier version of which had the subtitle as Learning at the Feet of a Hard Taskmaster.

Although I had known BJ since the late Festus Iyayi introduced me to him in Ife in 1987 and I showed him my first published but forgettable poem (I can say that now), it was at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, that I became his (classroom) student. And it was there that I knew why he was so widely respected and admired both at home and abroad. Simply put, his name spells R-I-G-O-U-R and E-R-U-D-I-T-I-O-N.

“That brother is tough,” is how an African-American postgraduate student of his once exclaimed. I have addressed this trait in “The Communist as Teacher,” so let me just say that it was that toughness that led to his posing the hardest question to me during my admission to candidacy exam as the chair of my dissertation committee. Can’t say that I was surprised, though I had half-wished he would be the friendliest interlocutor in the room! But that led to my jettisoning my original thesis and starting on a more ambitious project, one that I had not prepared for through course work—a psycho-social analysis of colonialism/postcolonialism as a historical trauma, taking a cue from the Frantz Fanon of BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS to full-fledged Freudian psychoanalysis read as a radically materialist undertaking through the prism of trauma studies. In 2006, the year of my admission to candidacy, BJ followed the siren call of Harvard to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but remained in my dissertation committee as co-chair. The result of my new labour, I am happy to announce, pleased him immensely, and said dissertation has since been published by Palgrave Macmillan as History, Ttauma, and Healing in Post-Colonial Narratives: Reconstructing Identities (New York, 2013).

Author or editor of numerous books, monograms, essays and reviews, among them the magisterial study of Soyinka – Wole Soyinka: Poetics, Politics and Post-Colonialism, and with the later Abiola Irele, editor of the two-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, it is universally agreed that there couldn’t have been a more worthy individual to follow the great Chinua Achebe (now resting with the ancestors), and perhaps his equally great compatriot Soyinka (if Ife had not allowed itself to be befogged by pettiness) than Abiodun Ernest Jeyifo, known endearingly to his friends, colleagues, students, and admirers as BJ.

For BJ, complexity attends every human action, however beguilingly simple or transparent it might seem. So fascinated by the place of complexity, often manifested as contradiction, is our honoree that it has become something of an intellectual lodestone for him. Which is why he so fondly quotes the German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s famous dictum, “Contradictions are our only hope” and Achebe’s restatement of an Igbo proverb: “Where one thing stands, another stands beside it.” Which is why the theme of his acceptance speech is “truth,” in the treatment of which he inevitably turned to the great complexity that attends any task of deciphering that great virtue. And no surprise that he should turn to an Afro-Cuban myth on how, in the beginning, Olofi created Truth and Falsehood in such a manner that a fateful combat between them led to Falsehood, who was created weak but cunning, cutting off the head of Truth (created big and strong), who, in turn enraged, snapped off the head of Falsehood and placed it on his headless body; leaving us with the conundrum of truth and falsehood constituting one body!

How, then, can you ever separate “truth” from “falsehood”? Or are humans better served with a different preoccupation? Yes, BJ says: one interpretation of the myth “suggests that since Truth and Falsehood are lodged in the same body, since in fact the head and the body work together in an interrelationship of parts within a system, we can never succeed in completely separating the two . . . And if this is the case, we must see Truth and Falsehood not as mere opposites but as inevitable contradictions that we must do our utmost best to decipher in order to make the contradiction work for us and not against us.” Hence, he says, the Brechtian view that “contradictions are our only hope”.

Congratulations, my teacher and mentor! May the years behind, distinguished as they are, be envious of the years ahead! Ise!

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