Saturday January 5, 2019, friends, family, colleagues, writers, students and activists, gathered at the Mini Hall of the Otunba Subomi Balogun Conference Centre, University of Ibadan, UI, at the instance of Professors Femi and Nike Osofisan to celebrate two literary icons, Professors Biodun Jeyifo popularly called BJ and Olufemi Obafemi. Obafemi was recently the sole recipient of the 2018 Nigerian National Order of Merit, NNOM, while Jeyifo, recently clocked 73 and retired from active teaching service from Harvard University, United States. The occasion, where guests across the country were treated to delicious meals and assorted drinks was lightened up with poetry rendition titled, “I don’t know why”, by a world acclaimed scholar, Professor Remi Raji-Oyelade and music by Ibadan based Femi Ajayi AJ-Sequential.
Among the guests who graced the occasion were: Professors Muyiwa Awodiya, Bode Sowande, Bode Lucas, Tunji Oloruntimehin, Professor Julie Umukoro, Ayobami Kehinde, Olutayo Adesina, and his wife, Professor Duro Adeleke, former Managing Director of the defunct Daily Times, Nigeria, Chief Tola Adeniyi and his wife, Olubunmi, the Executive Editor of The News Magazine/Pm News, Mr Kunle Ajibade, Chairman/Managing Director, Bookeseller, Ibadan, Mr Kolade Mosuro, former member of House of Representatives and a novelist, Dr Wale Okediran, Dr Sola Olorunyomi, Dr Modupe Ladipo, Dr Dayo Abayomi, Dr Wunmi Raji, Dr Tunde Awosanmi, Chief and Mrs Roy Eboda, Olu Jeyifo and Ade Fadipe. Professor Chima Anyadike and his wife Dr Bisi Anyadike, Professor Ibiyinka Solarin were also there.
As the invitees were enjoying themselves, notable individuals took turns to eulogise the celebrants. Osofisan noted that the two were his friends who he was so proud of. Professor Francis Egbokaire of the Department of Linguistics in UI and the recently elected President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, NAL, noted that the two celebrants were of high moral standard. He pointed out that the history of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, could not be told without making reference to the significant roles of Jeyifo. He said: “Biodun Jeyifo and Olu Obafemi are both literary scholars. They are both comrades. They have moral authority over ASUU. When Jeyifo speaks truth to ASUU, no one will feel bad. Jeyifo and Obafemi are logical and ideological people. Obafemi is a man of contrast and contradiction. The truth is that I have never worked with somebody who is as humble as Obafemi. He is stubborn and difficult to be persuaded. He is open and transparent. He is very easy to work with. Also, Jeyifo is highly influential. Your influence is more than you can imagine. You are penetrating more and more. You are not diminishing in what you believe”.
In the same direction, Adeniyi paid tributes to his former teachers, Professor Ayo Banjo and lauded the celebrants, declaring that right from school, he knew that Jeyifo, a dignified man with a good character would go far. He stated, “Jeyifo will not tell lies. To him, what is white, is white, what is black is black and what is yellow is yellow. He will never become a millionaire because no one in government will patronize him. He has in abundance, character of humanity. He has feeling for people. We celebrate Jeyifo. We celebrate Obafemi”.
In his tribute, Professor Sunday Ododo, who describe Obafemi as his mentor and a great name in literature revealed that he cleared the path for those around him to succeed, adding, “He started from nothing to something. Obafemi represents many things to different people. He lives a classless life. He relates with artisans, farmers and other people in low class comfortably and when he is with high class people, he is very comfortable. He is humble”.
Also, Professor Dan Izevbaye, pointed out that the celebrants have a lot in common, though they are quite different, adding that they were both interested in drama and represent vanguard of change. His words, “Jeyifo was introduced to a system that was very conservative. We were among the first generation of the students of post-colonial condition. We are programmed to see things through the colonial lens. All our teachers and supervisors were colonialists who confused us to think of colonial. In spite of the writings of the early scholars, the first genuinely radical change from the colonial thinking came with the Jeyifo’s generation. Tyrants who are intelligent are afraid of writers and scholars because they will shake the foundation they are standing. Jeyifo and Obafemi do the same thing with different style”.
Lending his voice, Professor Ayo Bamgbose, who described Jeyifo as a scholar and intellectual of no mean stature, explained that the nation’s national award is given only to those who merit it. Bamgbose stated, “It is tough to get national award. Thirty six candidates were considered for the award in 2018 but only Obafemi got it. This shows how difficult it is to get the award. So, we must congratulate Olufemi Obafemi”.
Showering encomium on Jeyifo who is versed in virtually all fields of academic endeavour, Professor Ayo Banjo narrated how Jeyifo bagged First Class in the nation’s Premier University. According to him, in 1970, Jeyifo had already been awarded 2nd Class Upper Division after which the external examiner called for the scripts of that set. After looking through the scripts, he singled out the scripts of Jeyifo and said, “This is a First Class and we all said, Amen”. “He was the best student among his set. Jeyifo has justified what happened that day. Jeyifo has been consistent in scholarship. He has volunteered to teach Nigerian populace through his writings in newspapers. Now he is back at home. I hope the Department of English, University of Ibadan will get him involved in academic activities and ensure his constant interactions with the post graduate students. Obafemi too, whom I first had an encounter with in Ilorin is a very wise man. I feel proud of the two”, he added.
Speaking further, Banjo was disappointed that the Federal Government does not accord the nation’s Premier University its rightful place. He said, “Biodun Jeyifo, Femi Osofisan, and Niyi Osundare are the sorts of things that come out of the Department of English, University of Ibadan. One is proud of the department that is producing this kind of people. In Nigeria, there is only one first generation university, University of Ibadan and other universities. The government needs to pay special attention to it. The government should make it a mentor for other universities”.
Equally sharing his feeling on the celebrants, Professor Niyi Osundare, who declared that the celebrants laid the foundation for the decolonisation of Nigeria when it was most needed berated the Nigeria’s government for lacking the knowledge that success never come by accident but must be worked for and nurtured to full adult, after which it must be jealously, meticulously and painstakingly maintained. He said, “Jeyifo decolonised the Department of English in the University of Ibadan. With the interrogation and recreation of African Literature, African Literature has never been the same again. Jeyifo surrendered his life and everything he has to ASUU. He fought for ASUU. He was so concerned about the welfare of ASUU and wanted the best remuneration for ASUU but the civil servants were frustrating his efforts, especially when they noted that with the welfare being put forward by the then ASUU, professors will earn more than them. Civil servants are extremely powerful. They are the rats that eat fat. They teach politicians all the corrupt ways of amassing wealth because of what they will gain. In Nigeria, “Kosi eni ti a je ki won fo agbon lori ohun”, meaning no one will allow anybody to use his head to brake coconut because if that happens, such a person will not live to eat out of the coconut. But for Jeyifo, he offered his head to be used to break coconut. As long as we run away from sacrificing ourselves for the nation, Nigeria will never be out of her challenges. We don’t have politicians, except few ones, who know what idea is. They don’t read book and that is why they don’t appreciate writers”.
Responding to the barrage of encomiums, Obafemi who described himself as a man from nowhere thanked his celebrators across the nation for making him know that he is worth something. He said he was more overwhelmed when his community hosted him and sang to his hears that he is theirs and no one could take him away from them. “I don’t belong here. Thank you for accepting me. I went home, to my town, the reception was so frightening. I can’t swallow it. My people were singing and saying that this is our own king, nobody can take him away from us. The fact of accepting me, the claim that this one belong to us is overwhelming. I am short of words but not short of thanks”, he said.
Also, Jeyifo, who disclosed that he officially retired a month ago from Harvard University has come back home with a prize, “Morounmubo”, meaning I brought something, predicating on “Morounmulo”, meaning I went abroad with something worthy. He said, “I have been immensely blessed to move around the academic circle all over the world and I can say boldly none is richer than where I came from. The students I produced here ranked with those that I produced abroad. I received the best education in the University of Ibadan. I was well prepared. What University of Ibadan was then matched any university I went. Today, there is no “Morounmulo”. Now that I am back at home, I will do my utmost best to sustain and expand “Morounmubo”.
Professor Obafemi has been a Professor of English and Dramatic Literature of the University of Ilorin since October 1, 1990, where he joined as a Graduate Assistant in 1976. He had served the institution in many capacities at different periods including Head, Department of Modern European Languages, Dean Student Affairs, member of the Governing Council and governing board of the institution’s teaching Hospital, and that of the National Institute of Cultural Orientation, NICO.
A prolific playwright, novelist, poet, literary and theatre scholar, Obafemi has published 14 scholarly books, 16 creative books covering plays, poetry and a novel, and over 70 journal articles in national and international outlets. He holds 2nd Class Upper Division Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from A.B.U, Zaria, Master of Arts Degree in English from University of Sheffield and Doctor of Philosophy in English specializing in Dramatic Literature from University of Leeds.
Obafemi, who has supervised many Masters and PhD theses and regarded as a teacher of teachers and professor of professors was the chairman, Board of Directors of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, member of the Board of Trustees, The Nigerian Book Fair Trust and he is the current National Chairman of the Nigerian Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria, REPRONIG. He is a Fellow of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists, SONTA, English Scholars Association of Nigeria, ESAN, Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, and the Nigerian Academy of Letters, NAL. He has been external examiner to over 20 Nigerian universities and Visiting Professor to many universities in Nigeria and abroad.
He was the immediate past Director of Research of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Plateau State, public orator of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, Vice President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, immediate past President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters and Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Northern Nigerian Writers Summit. His play, Ogidi Mandate won the 2011 ANA/J.P. Clark Prize for Drama while his poetry, Illuminations got an honourable mention for ANA/Okara Prize for 2010.
As a scholar and thorough bred academic, he initiated an experimental tool and theory of analysis for revolutionary aesthetics in Africa exemplifying the plays of second generation Nigerian and African dramatists. He also fashioned a dialectical materialist theoretical cannon that has influenced the interpretation of radical drama among theatre scholars in West Africa in the 80s and 90s. A journalist of over three decades, Professor Obafemi has been an editorial consultant, editorial board member and columnist for eight national dailies.
According to Harvard University’s website, Jeyifo’s scholarly and professional Interests are: African and Caribbean ‘Anglophone’ literatures; theatrical theory and dramatic literature, Western and non-Western; comparative African and Afro-American critical thought; Marxist literary and cultural theory; colonial and postcolonial studies; twentieth-century revolutionary social philosophy and literature. He is an authority on African drama, who is widely viewed as the world’s leading interpreter of works by Nigerian writer and playwright Wole Soyinka. Jeyifo joined Harvard from Cornell University, where he has been a professor of English since 1988. Editor of the authoritative anthology “Modern African Drama”, Norton Critical Editions, 2002, Jeyifo’s work has long framed scholarship in African drama and theatre. His 1984 study of the Yoruba Popular Traveling Theatre is viewed by many as seminal in the study of African drama.
Jeyifo’s early essays single-handedly shaped critical discourse on dramatic works by Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature and a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Jeyifo’s three subsequent books extending the scope of these essays have established him as a top interpreter of Soyinka. His book, “Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Post colonialism”, weighing Soyinka’s vast and complex body of work, is arguably the most sophisticated analysis of any single author in African literature.
Jeyifo also turned his attention to Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, writing a series of essays in the early 1990s that placed Achebe’s work, including “Things Fall Apart,” in an ideological and theoretical perspective not previously considered by other critics. His publications include over 14 books and monographs, over 29 book chapters, over 27 articles and over 300 articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines in Nigeria and Britain among which many have been collected in published volumes. He has over 15 honours and awards from universities across the world and six grants.
Jeyifo received a B.A. in English from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1970, followed by an M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University in 1973 and 1975, respectively. Before joining Cornell in 1988, he taught at Queens College in New York from 1974 to 1975, Ibadan from 1975 to 1977, the University of Ife in Nigeria from 1977 to 1986, and Oberlin College from 1987 to 1988. He also served as a visiting fellow or professor at Harvard, from 1998 to 2000, as well as at Indiana University and the University of Bayreuth in Germany.