“Perhaps one reason why there is so much violence, aggression and instability in our day to day life is that we have so little consciousness of a time perspective. We act and react as if there is only today, no yesterday, no tomorrow. We seem to care little about the past, we have no enduring heroes and we respect no precedents. Not surprisingly, we hardly ever consider what kind of future we are building for our children and our children’s children. We lack statesmen with any sense of history. Politics of the moment dominates our life, leaving no room for evaluating achievement or appreciating merit.”
Emeritus Professor Jacob Festus Ade Ajayi
It is not often one meets a person so clearly distinguished in scholarship yet one who wears his accolades so lightly. Sat in a dimly-lit room, surrounded by framed awards, heavy gilded crests, and piles and piles of books, I waited for him to speak. To say I was familiar with Professor Ade Ajayi would be a stretch even for my imagination. Even to allude to his body of work with anything more than a sincere appreciation for its profundity and encyclopedic scope would be misleading. In truth, I only met him once. But in the few hours that I interviewed him, and in the days before and after spent researching and scrutinizing the clips, I grew a deep sense of admiration for the man and for his contributions to Nigeria and wider global academia. That day at the interview, there was something at once warm and contemplative in the way he conducted himself – breaking into a wistful smile or a quiet chuckle here and there before providing a searing assessment of the Nigerian situation.
I had come to discuss the issue of memory – which might appear a rather tactless topic to broach with an 84-year old man. Memory is a funny thing. Psychologists point to its constructive nature – from the ways we select and adjust our perceptions to fit prior knowledge and expectation, to the comforts of amnesia and the creation of false memories. Neuroscientist map neural circuits used in memory to show similar pathways alight in imagination, empathy and learning. For the philosopher, memory is central to “being” – a crucial element of personhood and the reservoir of human experience. But to the historian, the emphasis of memory is entirely different. It is collective.
1948 – 1949, Professor Ajayi seated at the then University College of Ibadan together with three close colleagues affectionately dubbed “The Big Four”. The group is joined by two well-wishers.
As a historian and historiographer, Ajayi understood this and involved himself in the essential politics of its renegotiation as part of the continuous process of shaping and reconstructing Nigeria’s cultural identities and canonical history. A prolific writer and bibliophile for whom intellectual honesty, acumen and curiosity were key virtues, he addressed his subjects with a rigorous and dispassionate even-handedness. On receiving a lifetime award granted by the African Studies Association in 1993, Ajayi gained international recognition as an Africanist who helped redefine the methodology of African history at a time when our knowledge of ourselves was largely predicated on Empire history and imperialism. His most notable works are his empirical research on pre-twentieth century Yoruba history, for which he drew extensively on oral sources, and his seminal text on the History of West Africa, co-edited with Michael Crowder.
Throughout his academic and administrative career, Ajayi demonstrated a keen sense of duty and commitment to public knowledge and an improved education system. As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Ibadan and particularly as the Vice Chancellor at UNILAG under military Nigeria, he matched an unflinching integrity with discretion as an advocate of students’ rights and academic autonomy. This is perhaps why I took his words, “the teaching of history, I gather no longer excites anybody”, as a pained estimation of the decline of universities in Nigeria, the demotion of history within its secondary school curriculum and an allusion to wider societal deficits.
Even having reached the upper echelons of scholarly achievement, Professor Ade Ajayi did not seclude himself to the ivory tower of the intelligentsia. Rather he sought to broaden access to research materials, opening his home in Ibadan to students and researchers alike to profit from his own extensive, private collection of books, manuscripts and journals. On retirement, he founded the Jadeas Trust, a cultural education charity spearheaded by his daughter, Yetunde Aina, who inherited his passion for reviving and sharing history.
Friends and colleagues have noted his humility, wit and his dexterity with the anecdote. In his personal and official engagements, the late educationalist demonstrated that he understood he very nature of history and its study. As with any human science, the historian is part of the phenomenon that he studies, a product of the object and agent of its evolution. Set against book-laden shelves as he thumbed through family albums, it was apparent that handling collective memory involves more than a studious engagement with the past or a nostalgic simulation. Memory, he seemed to suggest, is the raw material of identity and the faculty through which we construct our possible futures.
By Ore Disu, Nsibidi Institute
See here for a eulogy and commemorative poetry by Toyin Falola, a long-time friend, fellow historian and recipient of the ASA Distinguished Africanist Award (2011).
Below is an excerpt from the programme produced for the public lecture and book launch at Professor J.F. Ade Ajayi’s recent 85th birthday celebration. The event was held at the main hall of the University of Ibadan International Conference Centre on May 26th, 2014.
Perhaps no living Nigerian scholar in the humanities has made a larger contribution to the life of his country, or made a greater international mark over the past half-century and more, than has Professor Jacob Festus Ade Ajayi. His contribution has been a many-sided one: as a research scholar, a teacher, an academic administrator and a public intellectual. His education began in his hometown of Ikole-Ekiti and took him, via Igbobi College, to the newly founded University College Ibadan. From here he moved to the UK, where he took First Class Honours in history at Leicester and went into the research which gained him his London PhD in 1958.
Schoolboy Ade Ajayi alongside classmates at Yaba Higher College. Founded in 1930, this male-only, residential institute was the only higher learning body in Nigeria at the time he gained admission in 1947.
Ajayi immediately joined the History Department at the University of Ibadan, and rapidly rose to professorship and then, in 1966, the headship of the Department. He was a star in that brilliant cohort of young Nigerians who in those years, in one department after another, took over the running of the university from the largely expatriate staff of the 1950s. History really was the ‘queen of humanities’ in the University and Ajayi was the key figure in what became known all around the world as the Ibadan School of History. His first book, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1814-91: The Making of New Elite (1965) was a seminal work: it probed the origins of the nationalist intelligentsia itself and set out a nationalist agenda for history in African universities, which worked through in the work of his many pupils and associates. This meant two things above all: to highlight the role of Africans (rather than outsiders or colonisers) in the making of Africa’s past, and to write history that would inspire and instruct Africans as they shaped its future development.
The style and tone of Ajayi’s writing had always been distinctive: lucid, measured and judicious, [with] fertile generalisations (like those about the relations between religion and society which open Christian Missions) set off against vivid detail, subtle assessment of motive, all enlivened by touches of irony and quiet wit. Ajayi saw his role, not only as to conduct and supervise original research, but also as to make the fruits of that research available in more general form to a wider readership. Of the many volumes he edited or contributed to, two are perhaps outstanding. With the late Michael Crowder, he edited [a] two-volume History of West Africa (1971), a massively authoritative volume which introduced a whole generation to the best scholarship of the day. His profile was raised even higher by his appointment to on the scientific committee for the UNESCO General History of Africa, of which he had particular editorial responsibility for Volume VI, on the nineteenth century up to 1880.
The late Professor Ade Ajayi served as a member of the council of the United Nations University in Tokyo from 1974 to 1980 and was appointed as its chair for two of those years.
But Ajayi’s administrative ability and sense of public service meant that he would not remain forever in the relative tranquility of teaching and scholarship at his beloved Ibadan. In 1972 he moved to what would prove an altogether hotter seat, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos. Here he earned a reputation as one of Nigeria’s most distinguished vice-chancellors, equally for restoring the university’s academic reputation and for standing up for students and staff against pressure from the military government. Even before he left Lagos in 1978, his experience and achievements was leading to appointments and honors in a wider, more international sphere. These were many, but particular mention might be made of his chairmanship of the Council of the United Nations University of Tokyo and of the International African Institute, his vice-presidencies of the Associations of African Universities and of the Royal African Society in London. Amid all this, his scholarly work continued.
In his later years, he was often asked to bring his knowledge as a historian to bear on issues of public importance for Nigeria, and for Africa at large. Here the wider range of his interests and the wisdom of his reflections – on Christian mission, colonialism, the legacy of slavery, issues of development, the national question in Nigeria, historiography – can be seen in the volumes of his lectures and essays which were published in 1999.