Friday, September 10, 2021 12:02 am
By Chris Anyokwu,
Yesterday September 9, 2021 Professor Adebayo Williams turned 70. How he has managed to remain Nigeria’s voice of reason and the conscience of the postcolony is a mystery to many of his readers. Since the 1970s, he has bestrode the Nigeria’s, nay, Africa’s commentary firmament like the Roman Colossus. A columnist of repute, his style and range demonstrate the unquestioned authority of empirical and evidential immediacy as well as experiential truth in the probing of virtually every subject under the sun. It matters little what the topic is, be it sport, politics, international affairs, the academia, or other aspects of human experience. Williams usually brings a surefootedness, a dexterity of treatment only specialists and experts in the field in question possess.
I remember reading his column where he had written on a historic soccer game played probably between Hungary and Poland during the post-war era. Typically, he had used the match in question as leitmotif for the far more larger overarching geopolitics of Europe in particular and the world in general. At times, he would pick on a personage, obscure or charismatic, say, from the backwaters of Eastern Europe and execute a compelling parable on power or even patriotism on that figure. You would think he has lived among the natives and speaks the tongue. In the same vein, BeeWee, as he’s fondly called, is unbeatable when it comes to character-drawing. From a Nelson Mandela, Sekou Toure through Che Guavara, Fidel Castro to Idi Amin Dada, MKO Abiola or “Awo” the Yoruba avatar, Adebayo Williams is completely at home sculpting their profiles with such verisimilitude. You would rather reach for his write-ups than plod your way through jargon-ridden Political science textbooks on matters of politics and society. By the same token, he could write with magisterial gravitas and the unsparing thoroughness of a master on any academic subject – Geography, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Philosophy and, of course, Political Science.
You would feel he always have the grizzled gurus in those fields hopping mad with mingled feelings of grudging admiration and naked envy whenever he dabbles in their fields. Speaking of which, he had once written in a column about the fact that resentment thrives the most among so-called university scholars, the Ivory Tower. Its storied toxicity, which paradoxically acts as compost-bed for the propagation and dissemination of knowledge, has always left its “inmates” morally crippled for good. You would, indeed, wonder again and again where Adebayo Williams – or, more familiarly, ’Bayo Williams – gets his stamina from; how he has managed to keep the fire burning on the altar of social commentary, particularly in a society sworn bitterly against progress and prosperity such as ours. Many columnists, commentators, writers, opinion leaders and activists have come and gone. Some have left the stage, no thanks to the Grim Reaper, others due to frustration, ill-health and the like. But ‘Bayo Williams has stayed the course, five decades and counting. And like fine wine, he has only got better, a well-rounded scholar and organic public intellectual, daily honing his craft and whetting his edge.
I remember reading his newspaper articles as a younger boy straight from the parched and hungry forests of Abudu in the Old Bendel (now Edo) State after leaving Aibiokunla Grammar School in the mid-1980s. I had arrived Lagos, a proper ara-oko and was casting about looking for something to do. Perhaps as an act of fate, I was drawn irresistibly to the printed word – of the literary variety. I had started reading literature, and, of course, newspaper articles, partly to prepare myself for the GCE. Of all the columnists I read at the time, Bayo Williams’ had stood out for me, what with his vivid description of character and situation, his affectingly earthy hilarity rivalled perhaps only by the alusi of storytelling himself, Chinua Achebe.
As a matter of fact, readers of his Snooping Around with Tatalo Alamu column on page 3 The Nation on Sunday would concur with this observation about his rib-cracking sallies. For example, in the mini-series on the sagas and exploits of Okon, the mad Calabar houseboy and Baba Lekki, the contrarian extraordinaire, Williams’ humorous treatment of our quotidian tragic-comedies as a people is non-pareil. Here, he combines deftly and adroitly Achebean unobtrusive and gentle humour with Dickensean cartooning to sketch an endless parade of our loud and lousy grotesqueries, mostly the otiose and risible past masters of social hypocrisy. Normally, BeeWee would scan the local menagerie forever teeming with intellectual cretins, political journeymen and jobbers, and religious Smart Alecs – all of them, a motley crew of unconscionable and mindless anti-social hustlers, out to despoil the honeypot or heist called – you guessed it – Nigeria!
He would pick on one or two most colourful or egregious specimens and do a deflationary exposé on them in an inoffensive and jocund manner that leaves you saying to yourself: Dis worl’ sef!
Yes, I was trying to talk about how I first came in contact with our celebrant in the mid-80s. Having begun reading him on the pages of Daily Times and other dailies, I fell in love with his style of writing. Then, I wanted to study English; I wanted to meet him in the flesh. I decided to choose the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife where Bayo Williams was teaching at the time. And after four tries at UTME (a.k.a. JAMB), I was offered provisional admission to study English at Great Ife! Was that my happiest day ever? Well… not exactly. But it’s one of my happiest days ever. Getting to Ife, I had started keeping vigil by his office door, hoping to simply espy him from a distance. He was the greatest and best writer alive for me at the time. One day, my prayer was answered! I met him! In the flesh, to boot! My joy knew no bounds when he started teaching us Literature.
’Bayo Williams was not your run-of-the-mill lecturer: the bookworm clad in threadbare clothes, feet enclosed in old shoes or sandals; owner of a jalopy and a glum-faced drudge eternally griping over the conspicuous consumption and the epicurean lifestyles of our politicians and, in the same breath, bewailing his own choice of profession on account of the fact that his pay-check cannot take-him-home. But ’Bayo Williams was cut from a different cloth. Dapper and, hence, swashbuckling, he’s supremely confident in his intellectual powers which were nearly always on display whenever he swaggered into the Auditorium 1 or 2 to teach us EGL 411: The English Novel. Armed simply with just a piece of paper discretely tucked out of sight in his trouser pocket, he would take us, star-struck captives, on a breathless roller-coaster of academic drilling over a period of two hours. We would go from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, through Charles Dickens’s Hard Times to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But before that, however, Williams had taught us Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano. I still recall the question ’Bayo Williams asked us on the text – for a Term Paper: “Equiano’s Travels is the incoherent rantings of an ingrate. How accurate is this assertion?”
In his inelegant handwriting like that of a Nigerian medical doctor, he had commented on my assignment: “Fair attempt” and gave me an average score for all my trouble! He also taught us aspects of Literary Theory, notably Derridean Deconstruction and, perhaps, a bit of Michel Foucault. To be fair, given the fact that BeeWee was different: rich and comfortable (in our callow eyes), with about three-sport cars and always on the move, like Soyinka before him, he wasn’t particularly popular or well-liked among his colleagues, our other more staid, lugubrious “traditional” lecturers. Williams was something of a rock-star on the Ife Campus; always breezing in and jetting out, mostly out of the country. And when he was on campus, he would spend his leisure time playing Squash or Badminton at the Sports Complex, clad in all white, oozing bonhomie. And why not? He is neither a Marxist nor Marxian but Marxiologist who usually deploys Marxist-Leninist tool-kit to dissect social psychoses and institutional rigor montis. Thus whether as an academic, a social critic, a critic of African literature, or a columnist, Professor Adebayo Williams always brings to bear on his subjects of immediate engagement the class-oriented, ideological interpellation of Marxist epistemology.
To be certain, he is to Nigeria, nay, Africa what Terry Eagleton is to Great Britain, Europe and North America. In fact, many have described his methodology, intellectual orientation and temperament as Eagletonesque. To date, most of his academic publications remain reference materials for both established and emergent scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences. His works on Biodun Jeyifo’s The Truthful Lie, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman and the Theory of Cultural Production in Africa remain excellent and invaluable resource materials for scholars and researchers the world over. With three novels to his credit, Adebayo Williams has, since his NYSC days in the 70s, done his level best to help grow and nurture creative writing in Nigeria. It’s really a crying shame these books are not in circulation as they ought, particularly The Year of the Locusts, a novel superbly couched in coruscating prose, satirising the hollow moralism of the Nigeria Academe and The Remains of the Last Emperor which delivers a broadside in the form of a political fable on power dementia in postcolonial Africa.
Born on September 9, 1951 to his native Gbongan parents, BeeWee had begun life and early education in the sleepy agrarian village on the outskirts of the Ife campus and the ancient town of Ile-Ife itself. He had later gone on to pursue his university education at Ife where he read Literature-in-English, earning his BA, MA and PhD in the same university. After his NYSC in the north, where he met his wife, he had had a stint as a teacher at the Federal Government College, Kaduna and later secured a position as lecturer in the Department of English at Ife where he taught until the mid-1990s. He has since moved on and also taught in Universities overseas. He has now retired, but still writing, dividing his time between Nigeria and the UK. Happily married with children, Professor Adebayo Williams is now a grandfather, doting on the next generation. But if there is any specific recurrent message from all his years of public advocacy and commentary on the Nigeria Question vis-à-vis the approaching Apocalypse, it is that the collective fate of Nigerians lies in the hands of their political elite. That is to say, if Nigeria must be saved and salvaged from the imminent conflagration, there has to be an intra-class elite consensus as well as the political will to forge an inclusive, egalitarian, merit-based society. Anything other than that will spell doom and disaster for the postcolonial jewel in Britain’s crown.
One wonders how our celebrant feels at 70 now that things have finally fallen apart in Nigeria and the question on everyone’s lips is no longer if but when the hunters will share the spoils. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PROF. ADEBAYO WILLIAMS!
*Chris Anyokwu, PhD, writes from the University of Lagos.