Prof. Akin Mabogunje: In Memoriam

By Bola Bolawole

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I never met Prof. Akin Mabogunje; neither did I have any relationship with him other than reading news reports about him and some of his interventions on topical issues.

His image, however, loomed large over our horizon. He was one of the titans of our time; an academic of no mean repute and a gentleman with sterling qualities fast becoming extinct on these shores.

I recall reading of his many “firsts” in many areas of human endeavours as well as of him being a man of principles and integrity. Such accolades cannot be easily bestowed on many in today’s end-time Nigeria, if we may call it so! When I heard news of his demise days ago, I knew it was a minus for humanity – but heaven’s gain!

The piece you are about to read came days afterwards to confirm my feelings. Written by a no less eminent member of the “Old School” than Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, and titled “Professor Akinlawon Mabogunje (NNOM), in memoriam”, it shares some privileged information that Chief Ogunshola, my erstwhile Chairman at THE PUNCH newspapers, do offer in his inimitable writing style – lucid, blunt, laconic, forthright and straight to the point.

This tribute also came straight from Chief Ogunshola’s heart, a demonstration of the affinity he shared with the late Prof. Mabogunje. I should let you savour it first before returning with some parting shots.

Here it goes: “Akinlawon Mabogunje, as he then was, started the year 1940 in Elementary Standard Two but halfway through the year, he got promoted to Standard Three and then got promoted again to Standard Four at the end of the year, thus showing flashes of early brilliance. But it was from his later years in secondary school that he actually began to shine.“In his time, the secondary school course was of six years’ duration. At the end of Class 3 in 1945, he won the Class prize in Geography and every year thereafter, and was, in his own words, perhaps the youngest in his class. In the end-of-year promotion examination from Class 5 to 6, he came first in the class, and in the Cambridge School Certificate Examinations the following year, he came second, with Bola Ige doing only slightly better than himself. At university, he not only continued to excel but even spent a considerable amount of time on social activities.“On graduation, Akinlawon went on to marry his beautiful wife who eventually rose to the higher bench. He then went on to obtain higher degrees, had his children in quick succession, all of whom are doing exceedingly well in their own chosen fields; won academic laurels at the highest levels both locally and internationally, including election as a Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences (1999); election as Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2017); winner of the Vautrin Lud prize, which is the highest award in the field of geography (2017); was a consultant to governments in rural and urban development matters; became sufficiently prosperous to maintain a dignified existence, including being chairman of Unity Bank for several years; was blessed with unusual physical stamina practically throughout his life; lived beyond the age of 90 with all his children surviving him with their children; and capped it all with the final act of male chivalry by ensuring that his wife of nearly 65 years did not pre-decease him.“What else remains to constitute a fulfilled existence? Or, as Professor Adegoke Olubunmo, quondam Nigerian Professor of Mathematics, titled his valedictory lecture at the University of Ibadan, “What does it all add up to?”

Professor Olubunmo, whose specialty was functional analysis, was a man unusually given to deep introspection, the introvert exemplar; he smiled or laughed little, and when he did, he seemed to smile and laugh with caution. He died at the age of 69, a year after his eldest child obtained a doctorate degree in mathematics, and his other two children are reported to be also mathematicians.“Before Professor Folasade Ogunsola, Mabogunje’s eldest child, got married to my aburo, my first cousin Olusegun Ogunsola, economist, chartered accountant and shrewd investor, I do not now recall having met him in person but his academic fame had well announced him. The marriage of his daughter to my aburo brought me into his social orbit in respect of matters either concerning him directly or Folasade and their own children; I, therefore, began to pay more attention to all news items that included his name. At one of those family events when I went to sit next to him after the conclusion of the formal ceremonies, I broached the subject of the then proposed National Health Insurance Scheme. I expressed my doubts about its sustainability and workability, at the time, beyond primary health care in the Nigerian context as most of the drugs and equipment have to be imported, continuing currency devaluations, high inflation, and corruption in centralised government institutions. He, of course, did not agree with me, saying that a universal National Health Insurance Scheme was desirable.“I confess that my unusual admiration for his intellectual prodigy partly derives from the fact that I dropped Geography at the end of Class 3 in secondary school (in my time, the years spent in secondary school had been reduced to five). My brain did not appear to be specially wired for the extent of photographic memory work required to excel in such subjects. By the time I knew him, Professor Mabogunje already had a reputation of being a careful and cautious man, who was generally unwilling or was slow to cause offence. At a buffet dinner organised by the Lagos Chamber of Commerce a few years ago, I spotted him at the far end of the queue, which was moving rather slowly because the space was small. I went behind to drag him straight to the front of the queue, muttering in Yoruba to his hearing “E ki s’egbe baba won” (you are older than the fathers of these people), which was only partly true because he was in his 80s. As he followed me to the front, I could see some hesitation in his gait and a slight discomfort on his face for jumping the queue, which I pretended not to notice!“On completing our mission, he seemed quite satisfied and was full of appreciation. Then came his autobiography, which was an especial delight to read. In terms of his academic work, I was particularly struck by one element: his ability to grasp and eventually teach theoretical and quantitative Geography, which he subsequently introduced to transform the Geography department at Ibadan, which required, among other things, his learning from scratch linear algebra, calculus, computer programming at the department of mathematics, and economics during a nine-month sabbatical at the prestigious Northwestern University, Illinois, USA, learning at the feet of some of the “foremost pioneers of the theoretical and quantitative revolution in Geography in the United States”.“His subsequent inclusion of theoretical geography in the curriculum at Ibadan caused the Geography department to be moved from the Faculty of Arts to the Faculty of Social Sciences. Not only that, he had sufficiently mastered this sub-discipline that he was invited, in the spring of 1970, by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden to teach theoretical geography to its postgraduate students. In recent years, I began to receive congratulatory messages from him on my birthday, to which I always responded.

The last, which came on 14th July, 2020, read as follows: “My dear Jibola, Just to wish you many happy returns of the day. Keep well. God bless. Warmest regards.

MABOGUNJE.

”I mourn with Mrs. Titi Mabogunje on the departure of her dear husband of almost 65 years. I congratulate his children and his entire nuclear and larger family, of which my aburo, Olusegun, is a member, for seeing their Baba through beyond the age of 90, in relatively good health, since, as they say in classical Latin, in which the professor was proficient, ‘Omnibus Moriendum Est – We shall all end up in death’.“Nigerian history and the world of geography from which he earned enormous and spectacular encomiums will remember him. I join his entire family and all his Christian brethren and sistren in song and dance for the glorious life of a quintessential patriarch: “Alleluya, ogo ni fun Baba…”Chief Ogunshola, the Emeritus Chairman of PUNCH Nigeria Limited, has said it all! Prof. Mabogunje gave his all to humanity and now as his shell returns to Mother Earth, may his soul rest in peace!

LAST WORDS:

Have you heard – Nigeria’s Jonah has woken up from his deep slumber? For seven months he slept and snored, not minding that our children – his are not included – have been at home as a result of ASUU’s strike! Nigeria’s King Nero is said to have now mercifully consented to climbing down from his high horse, taking a leave from fiddling while our campuses literally burned, and setting up a committee – another committee nitori Olorun! – to look into so-called grey areas in the never-ending ASUU/FG’s senseless imbroglio! Let us not only hope but also pray that something positive comes out of this magnanimity – or what else can we call it! – of the Nigerian president, often touted as the most powerful – yet, one lacking the most elementary sense of responsibility – in the entire universe!

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