Toyin Falola, Bobapitan of Ibadanland, a professor of History, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin, writes a tribute about Professor Kole Omotoso who turns 80 today. He was born on 21 April 1943 in Akure, now the Ondo State capital.
According to Falola:
“When Marcus Aurelius stated that ‘Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one,’ Omotoso uses the words as guiding principles of his intellectual and professional life. Even when he had reasons to contest the positions taken by others in public discourses, he always respected their decisions and rights to these opinions and would present his position subtly but poignantly. This is what people refer to as honour.
“Nothing about this intellectual appeals to me more than his kindness. Anyone can possess the finest qualities in life, but the depth of their humanity is diminished the moment they are unkind. I have taken it upon myself to refuse to associate with those who lack any modicum of kindness. I have seen enough to understand that kindness is a universal language. You do not have to come from the same cultural and political class as an individual, but the kindness you show to them will always remain in their heart for life.”
Below is the full tribute, entitled:
Professor Kole Omotoso at 80: A sage of all ages
By Toyin Falola
Central to Professor Kole Omotoso’s ideological leaning is the belief that moral rectitude should naturally form the foundation of human identity. As I read his works, I see the emphasis on moral dignity to curb excessive behaviour from individuals, regardless of their cultural and philosophical backgrounds. If morality were an ideological overture, Omotoso would have been an apostle with loyal disciples, since he considers morality as the basis for civilisational ideals. Meanwhile, his moral perceptiveness includes a universal examination and critical repudiation of values favouring powerful minority elites at the detriment of the hapless majority. To that extent, what is considered morally reprehensible should not be entertained by some groups of people who believe they have a different understanding of such moral principles. In essence, when you understand from the corner of your home that taking what belongs to the helpless masses is a moral liability, such should not be excused because of cultural values or differences to encourage bad behaviour. Omotoso has remained solid in the belief that everyone faces a common problem of survival.
However, that survival is threatened by existential challenges triggered by the actions of a select few. As a result, the people’s moral compass is compromised, making it the most dangerous quality in the possession of humans. The sage with the Old Testament beard, who demonstrates an uncommon consistency in his condemnation of oppressive engagements, relationships, and subversive ideologies, cannot help but win the accolades of significant national and international groups because it is generally understood that people’s efforts are always recognised, even if they are not celebrated when they deserve to be. Omotoso employs the African socio-political landscape as a theatre of literary activism, lending voices to oppressed individuals who have suffered severe problems.
Taking on the role of the masses as a literary scholar comes with a barrage of unexpected consequences, the majority of which can be devastating. For one, the political class is committed to repressing all manners of voices that challenge their autocratic, authoritarian, and masochistic tendencies. Omotoso stands with the hapless in society, making him an exceptional candidate whose life should be celebrated globally. Without mincing words, the presence of a personality like him in the corridors of literary engagement has encouraged generations of writers whose confidence had been cornered by the ubiquity of hegemonic power brokers who have become bloodhounds to those freely expressing themselves against the virulence of imposing leadership. His confidence is infectious, resulting from the understanding that he expects his work to speak for him. Not many literary producers can take this position.
Many actors in the Nigerian political landscape have turned themselves into hungry predators scampering for victims to lynch for their pleasurable entertainment. Several voices were haunted by the account that they projected societal problems and sought corrections to the overweening indulgence of the powerful. In some cases, this has mandated a funeral silence, while at other times it has promoted sycophancy of unknown magnitude, baptising otherwise saints in the bloodbath of power politics. Perhaps, in his dedication to advancing a decent society, he has often challenged authority by speaking truth to power and ultimately taking a side with the masses. You cannot help but concede that Omotoso’s pragmatism foregrounds his actions and inactions in the literary world and everyday existence. He arranges his ideas critically, simplifying humanity’s problems and suggesting the most practical ways the challenges can disappear from the human world. When scholars produce intellectual materials, we often assume that they are sending their messages to a particular audience and for very specific generations. For individuals like Omotoso, like Karl Marx and his Marxist understanding, it is about creating the idea network that would be valuable to the current generation and be useful at the same time for the ones in the future. This explains why his works continue to make impact at different times.
To achieve ideological dexterity, one must possess the quality of temperance. A critical evaluation of Omotoso reveals that he has a high level of temperance. With this, he has been able to tame excessive desires for material aggrandisement, which in most cases compromise the people’s moral grounds. By being content with what his capacity could afford, he stands tall among his contemporaries as a phenomenal individual who employs the power of the pen to correct societal ills. A corruptible person cannot summon the moral courage to confront powerful figures who have made the denigration and desecration of collective values their most important ideals. This characteristic enables individuals to view everyone from an impartial angle and thus refuse to judge them based on their jaundiced opinions. In essence, one demonstrates the ability to be fair and reasonable in their engagements with others. It is difficult to find anyone who has had a personal relationship with Omotoso who would not agree with the fairness of his position, both in literary participation and real-life experiences. He is a man with a passion for equality and equity, who never would succumb to all forms of pressure that would ridicule the values he represents. At the very least, he has proven this in his trade and professional life. Writers with the confidence to firmly take stands are not surplus because many lose dignity with minimal reinforcement. But Omotoso is not one of them.
Is it borderline possible to have this trait if one does not have the requisite courage? This again brings us to the aspect of the prolific writer’s life that cannot be accessed through a detailed examination or proper evaluation of his intellectual productions. A courageous human always has the mental strength to engage in an activity. One can wonder what the significance of courage is, especially when it is understood that many people venture into some activities but, in most cases, lack the required characteristics to stay in that lane. Therefore, they have often believed that while courage can be demonstrated by engaging in an activity, it requires perseverance to succeed in them. As such, while we may commend Omotoso’s exemplary courage for venturing into literary activism, achieving considerable success on that path requires more than that. However, showing perseverance is equally an act of courage. An individual who lacks boldness will defy temptations to continue with an activity with a threatening future or that does not provide immediate gratification. This scholar has shown in many ways that he is made of a sterner turf that defines champions and makes leaders at different times. This explains the reason for Omotoso’s success in Nigeria and South Africa, where he has continued to expand the trajectory with his numerous exceptional contributions that hold his audiences in awe. Consequently, he wins the hearts of many through his intimidating gaiety and the quality of his ideas.
When Marcus Aurelius stated that “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one,” Omotoso uses the words as guiding principles of his intellectual and professional life. Even when he had reasons to contest the positions taken by others in public discourses, he always respected their decisions and rights to these opinions and would present his position subtly but poignantly. This is what people refer to as honour. Among many other things, honour is a defining attribute of anyone who wants to improve the world. With people like Omotoso in our world, there will be a plethora of ideas that we would have to juxtapose and compare for the best actions to be taken. When people disagree without decorum, the consequences could be devastating and have untold implications for everyone. Protecting the reputations of people we disagree with gives an individual the sense of honour and respect they deserve. Leaders need honour to effectively pilot the affairs of the people, and followers will achieve success if they maintain the dignity of their profession and the respect of their colleagues. This demonstrates the importance of honour. Omotoso has maintained good relationships with people he is above and nourished his association with those below him.
Nothing about this intellectual appeals to me more than his kindness. Anyone can possess the finest qualities in life, but the depth of their humanity is diminished the moment they are unkind. I have taken it upon myself to refuse to associate with those who lack any modicum of kindness. I have seen enough to understand that kindness is a universal language. You do not have to come from the same cultural and political class as an individual, but the kindness you show to them will always remain in their heart for life. Being kind in expectation of rewards undermines the act of kindness, for anything done with this mindset appears very transactional. In essence, the individual showing kindness and expecting some level of return this way is not interested in that trade; they are only concerned about the consequences and results that they would get in the long run. I’ve met notable individuals who speak highly of Omotoso and agree that he has preserved a piece of himself in their hearts through the language he speaks: kindness. By affecting the lives of those from whom we do not anticipate any form of return or those whose return good deeds do not affect us, we would be categorised as people who make conscious efforts to change the world.
When I say that Omotoso is a manifestation of grace and an epitome of refined intellectualism, I speak for most people touched by his writings, teachings, and mentorship. Undoubtedly, his works are arrowheads of progressive activism that, on their own, change things for the good of the human world. I admit that he is one of a kind and a global citizen whose words and actions inspire philosophical ideas. He has imparted the world positively, and his generation stands out because of his exemplary contributions. His presence among us has been the most important inspiration to face the world’s issues with uncommon courage.
More than you could have imagined, Professor Omotoso, you have affected human existence with all the refined ideas you bring to the public for engagement. Those who have read your works have continued to look to you as the mentor they may never meet but whom they model their dreams after and as a source of inspiration that drives their interests. We admit you are invaluable to the literary world and have earned respect at home and internationally.
On the occasion of your birthday today, I use this opportunity to emphasise how important you are to African scholarship and how your contributions have been instrumental to the retrieval of our lost dignity. Before I sign off, I apologise for not writing the Foreword to a new edition of your book Just Before Dawn. I and others organised a seminar around that book at the University of Ife, where we were neighbours separated by two houses. But as I was trying to write that Foreword, I realised that everything you called “faction” in the book had become factual. Your life exemplifies kindness and strength. The depth of your wisdom and intellect is unfathomable, and everyone whose lives you have inspired is grateful for the privilege of knowing you. May you continue to enjoy peace and warmth.
Happy birthday to you, dear Sage.
*Toyin Falola, a professor of History, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin, is the Bobapitan of Ibadanland.