Was it Adorno, Benjamin or Althusser? – for Dapo Olorunyomi @60

Dapo Olorunyomi

Prof Biodun Jeyifo

By Biodun Jeyifo

If he had not gone on to become the investigative journalist extraordinaire that is now regarded as one of the greatest journalists in Nigeria’s post-independence history, he could have had a very promising career as an academic. Take this as a testimony from one of his former teachers. I am talking of course of Dapo Olorunyomi, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Premium Times, one of Africa’s leading online newsmagazines, who turned 60 this week. In this tribute to a man who is one of the most dedicated and delightfully inquisitive students that I ever taught, I start with the account of an encounter with him and another student that would eventually prove portentous, even though I did not know it at the time. What was this encounter?

Dapo Olorunyomi and Dele Layiwola (currently Professor and Director of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan) had walked into my office one afternoon and asked me some probing questions about the work, the ideas of one of the major figures of the European Left intelligentsia of the second half of the 20th century. Was it Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin or Louis Althusser? I don’t remember, though I am sure it was one of these three philosophers. I was then teaching at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and Dapo and Dele were both undergraduates. I think they were not yet in their final years when this encounter took place. Which was why I was rather taken aback by the searching nature of their questions. I confess now, so many years and decades later, that I thought they were just trying to impress me. Every teacher was once herself or himself a student: in our time, I and my fellow students, we had done the same thing!

Now, so many decades later in my memory of the encounter, I think I tried to fob off their questions with some paternalistic remarks that didn’t really address the questions they had posed to me. This was because I thought that their questions, being the sort that one expected from advanced postgraduate students, were way beyond the undergraduate status of Dapo and Dele. But they persisted, having probably noted the small dose of paternalism in my responses to their questions – even though I was trying as hard as I could to hide it. At any rate, they followed their first set of questions with further questions that made me sit up, made me realize that I was confronting, not neophytes trying to impress their teacher, but bright young minds trying to understand complex issues and ideas pertaining to human equality and dignity. If my memory serves me right, from those series of questions developed a conversation between us that lasted for more than a week of two or three sessions.

That encounter has lingered in my memory because, in my recollection, it was the very first time that my apprehension of Dapo and Dele as distinct individuals within the generality of my students began to take shape in my mind. This story may seem exceptional and in a way, it is rather unique. But I think I speak for all teachers when I declare that the moment when we begin to form distinct impressions about students with whom we would go on to forge deep moral, intellectual and emotional bonds, that moment tends to linger in our minds. Of course, no one remains a student forever: Dapo Olorunyomi and Dele Layiwola long ago achieved their biological adulthood and intellectual maturity are now “elders” in their own right. After all, Dapo is now sixty and moreover, I have been told that he has begun to “command” those among his cohort that are still below sixty to respect all their elders!

Of what significance is it that it was a figure of the European Left and not an African or Afro-diasporic thinker that Dapo and Dele came to discuss with me in my office at OAU that momentous afternoon so many decades ago? Not much except for this simple but deeply significant fact: because Europe had colonized us, we did not therefore take the position that everything in European thought was off-limits. We knew that we had to read and study thinkers and philosophers from our own continent and from the African diaspora and from other parts of the Non-Western world. But that did not exclude European thinkers, especially those, like Adorno and Benjamin, that had made devastating critiques of the cruelty and barbarism at the heart of the civilized façade of European modernity. In other words, it was not as a mark of Europhilia that Dapo and Dele that afternoon came to pose searching questions to me about human life and social institutions; rather, it was reflective of an incipient cosmopolitanism that was trying to be well informed about all the intellectual currents of our world. And indeed, Dapo Olorunyomi’s cohort of Nigerian university students was, in my opinion, the first generation of students in our country’s intellectual history whose radical globalist or cosmopolitan formation was entirely homegrown. This is the basic idea that undergirds this tribute.

Am I suggesting that there is a link between, on the one hand, the young undergraduate that came to ask me probing questions about the works of very challenging philosophers and, on the other hand, the mature and gifted activist journalist that has garnered a very well-deserved reputation for the capacity – and the courage – to tirelessly track down every clue toward the exposure of the looters, the money launderers and the scammers in whose hands lie the reins of power in our country? Yes, that is what I am suggesting. Of course, one does not have to have read Marx, Fanon, C.L.R. James, Althusser, Adorno or Benjamin to be a first-rate investigative journalist. But it helps a lot to be very well read, to have a mind, a sensibility that has a solid grounding in the deep intellectual contexts of world affairs. And that is what, I think distinguishes Dapo Olorunyomi and a few others in the top echelons of the profession of journalism in our country.

I have said that Dapo belongs to the first generation of university students in Nigeria whose deep and wide grounding in cosmopolitan internationalism was entirely homegrown. Now, I wish to return to this observation, this claim with one or two caveats and clarifications. Thus, strictly speaking, before the arrival of Dapo and his cohort on the historical scene, people like G.G. Darah, Odia Ofeimun, Mohammed Sokoto, the late Ntiem Kungwai and the late Raufu Mustafa did not go abroad for further studies before becoming well-read in diverse branches of knowledge; they were all radicalized, all trained and acculturated into becoming what Gramsci described as “organic intellectuals” in Nigerian universities. But be that as it may, what in the time of Darah and Ofeimun and the others had been a tiny rivulet became, at the time of Dapo and his cohort, a mighty river in full flood. It was in their moment in the sun, so to speak, that, for the first time in our intellectual history, Nigerian academia not only became up-to-date in knowledge of the latest developments and trends in the academia worldwide, but also became the focus of keen interest to the rest of the world in the ferment of ideas and movements happening here. Permit me to express this point with a very concrete illustration: when, later in my professional career I taught at some top-flight American universities, I found to my surprise, that the undergraduate and graduate students that I had had in UI and Ife were, on average, much better read in world affairs, ideas and intellectual trends than my American students. But alas, that remained true for only about, at most, a decade and half. Today, our university students are some of the most poorly trained and uninformed in the world, not through their fault but because of a system that has failed them utterly.

Dapo is of course not a mere index, not an indifferent integer in the calculus of the unique experience of a whole generation. He is the one and only “Dapsy” as he is known and fondly called by many of his friends and admirers. I confess that this is a nickname that I have never actually liked and therefore have never used in addressing him. Now, I do know that the reasoning behind my reticence in using this cognomen is rather absurd: “Dapsy”, to my ears, sounds like and rhymes with “Popsy” and “Mumsy”, two of the most overused terms of the special argot or vocab of the overpampered offspring of our national bourgeoisie. Nobody who knows anything about Dapo would dare to say that there is anything in his character and his sensibility that smacks of the moral and social universe of our “agbero” bourgeoisie. Still, I cannot shake off that unfair phonetic and rhyming association and hence I remain resistant to that nickname. But his comrades, his friends, his colleagues and admirers all call him “Dapsy”. And so Dapsy it is.

Coming now to his unique traits and accomplishments, I have one special reason for deploying that encounter with “Dapsy” (and Dele Layiwola) over Adorno, Benjamin or Althusser so long ago in their student days as the pivot for the essential things that I wish to say in this tribute. What is this reason? Quite simply, it is this: “Dapsy” is not now and has never been a man to flaunt his deep and wide intellectual formation. He is not exactly shy and in fact can be robustly forthcoming in a discussion on ideas, tactics and strategies for getting things done. But he absolutely stays away from an ostentatious display of his cosmopolitan “citizen-of-the-world” sensibility. To illustrate the point I am making here, I draw attention to two things, two accomplishments that have stood out in the many tributes that have been paid to Dapo for attaining the age of 60. One: the ingenuity and the thoroughness with which he takes investigative journalism into the darkest zones of graft, sleaze and corruption in our country. Two: the institutions or centers for a free press, for the rule of law and for social justice that he, acting with others, has set up. Not to make too blunt an insistence on the point, I would argue that it takes a man who, though he never flaunts it, has read widely and deeply to bring these two aspects of his accomplishments together. Here, it is important to note that, out there in the world at large, “Dapsy” is one of the most widely known and highly regarded Nigerian professional journalists.

It says a lot about the state of our world that for journalists to become internationally or globally famous and respected, intimidation, harassment, imprisonment and even death is mandatory. At one time during the Abacha years, exile was probably what saved Dapsy from having to pay the ultimate price. But he has not quite managed to escape all those other “mandatory” indices of the baptism of fire that is the lot of the world’s most famous journalists. The stresses don’t show much, if at all, on his physical being. Remarkably, they show even less on his sensibility, his sociability. What the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, said in tribute to him is quite remarkable for its astuteness: despite all the travails, all the dangers of his chosen profession and mission in life, Dapsy is a deeply caring, sensitive and considerate human being. No doubt we have his wife, Ladi, and family to thank for the relatively little “collateral damage” that stress has inflicted on his personality. But Dapsy is Dapsy. He is also “Dapo” who came to my office so many decades ago to pose probing questions about Adorno, Benjamin or Althusser. I don’t remember which of them it was, but that hardly matters. Here’s wishing you health, a long life and many more decades of meritorious service to our unhappy land our world!

Biodun Jeyifo

–The Nation