Heart of Arts

Late Professor Kunle Lawal: Tribute to a Lagos Icon

Abdulkabir Muhammed

Professor Abdulrasheed Olakunle Lawal was born on the 9th of May, 1959. The Sahara Reporters revealed that he was born “into the Awori clan of Ojo and Lagos Island.” Indeed, he was a genuine indigene of Lagos. Having obtained both B.A. (1982) and M.A. (1984) in History from the University of Ibadan, he was a “foundation staff” of the Department of History and International Studies at the Lagos State University, where he joined in 1984. Our motif is not to examine his background but to pay tribute to him while enunciating his noteworthy characteristics and, more especially, his scholarly contributions to the development of Lagos State and Nigeria, at large.

Late Professor Kunle Lawal is a force to reckon with as regards writings on Lagos and Lagos State history. A sagacious academic who combined education with leadership, the Late Professor was a “blunt truth sayer”; compassionate family man; generous and philanthropic academic; and a sagacious administrative, having held different positions within his university and state. He was former Head of the Department of History and Dean, faculty of Arts, LASU. His contributions to the field of history at the Lagos State University and Nigeria, at large, was well commended at a 10th year memorial lecture held in his honor by the Department of History and International Studies, Lagos State University, on the 25th of January, 2024. The program which was honored by traditional rulers, politicians, stakeholders and distinguished scholars from within and outside the university, saw a number of academics enumerating the impacts of the Late Professor on their academic career. The Dean, Faculty of Arts, Professor T.M. Salisu, disclosed in a speech read by his representative, Professor Ayo Ayodele, (of the Department of English) how the late Professor, his predecessor, assisted his career with a thousand dollar. Still, an honorable member of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Hon. Bonu Saanu, was sure that his admission to study Political Science at the Lagos State University would not have been successful but for Professor Kunle Lawal who found him wanting and welcomed him into his office for talks. This was how compassionate a scholar could be.

More importantly, Professor Kunle Lawal contributed immensely to the growth of history and International Studies in Nigeria. The Head of the Department, Professor Adewunmi Falode, noted that the late Professor, alongside a few others, reinvigorated the LASU Department of History to include International Studies. He was the brain behind the fusion of History and International Studies in Nigeria. This came at a time when the department of history was dwindling across Nigerian universities. As a result, many other Nigerian universities followed suit. Hence, we now have History and International relations, History and Diplomatic Studies or History and Strategic Studies, as the case may be. This is a pointer to the sagacity of a scholar who combined leadership with intellectualism. Apparently, the two courses, that is History and International Studies, are intertwined. Therefore, Dr Boge Faruq cannot be more apt when he argued that the best International Relations experts are historians. In other words, the understanding of history is a corner stone to appreciating the diplomatic relations between countries.

Also, the international scholar, Professor Kunle Lawal, wrote extensively on the history of Lagos and its peoples, covering the precolonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. His Urban Transition in Africa: Aspects of Urbanization and Change in Lagos, among his other excellent works, is a fantastic work that has continued to serve as reference for contemporary scholars of Lagos History. Having read and reread his collected articles, one could imagine how scholarly, solid and well researched works of the 20th century historians used to be. Definitely, good historians still exist. At the risk of being rendered bias, Professor Kunle Lawal’s objective critiques on the earliest Lagos settlers and his scholarly publication on the Eleko Affair and the Lagos politics of the 20th century convinced me of his scholarship. It helps one understand why Lagos has always been the forerunner of every socio-political development in Nigeria. One could also conclude that the intrigues, propaganda, argle-bargle, cross carpeting, tribalism, nepotism, arrests and assassinations, which bedeviled Nigeria’s politics of the 21st century laid deep in the past.

Furthermore, his appraisal of the “Water Rate Crisis” and the “Eleko Affair” episodes in Lagos do not only showcase how tricky the British colonialists were but also, how conservative and convincing the Nigerians not to succumb to colonial exploitation. Late Professor Kunle Lawal vividly demystified the cultural and religious aspects of the peoples of Lagos in many of his works, rendering him the status of a pioneering indigenous writer of Lagos history. His works also cover decolonization process in Nigeria. These include among others, Britain and Nationalists’ Conflicts in Nigeria in the Era of Transfer of Power: 1948-1960, and British Commercial Interests and the Decolonization Process in Nigeria, 1950-60.

Professor Olakunle Lawal’s perspicacity was influential in his serving as Lagos State Commissioner for Education during the second tenure of then Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu. As a Commissioner for Education, the late scholar initiated tenacious policies and undertook commendable actions. The Guest Speaker at the LASU event, Professor Siyan Oyeweso, attributed the concept of Tutor-General/Permanent Secretary of Lagos State Education to his tenure as Commissioner for Education. He also participated in different Lagos State Government committees, including Lagos State Record and Archives Bureau, LASRAB, under the administration of the former Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola. Moreover, the National Chairman of Historical Society of Nigeria and Chairman of the Occasion, Professor C.B.N. Ogbogbo, ably represented by Dr. Sunday Oduode, praised the Late Kunle Lawal as an influential member of the organization during his lifetime and a “force to reckon with at the Ibadan School of History.”

Undoubtedly, the death of the Lagos sage is a loss for Lagos State and Nigeria, at large. The Professor died on the 13th of December, 2013, at the age of 54. The Department of History and International Studies, LASU, has taken a scrupulous decision by compiling some of his works, including his unpublished works, in a voluminous book entitled, “Legacy of His Pen: A Compendium of Olakunle Lawal’s Selected Works”. The book is a must-read for African scholars and academics. May the soul of the Late Professor rest in peace.

Abdulkabir Muhammed is of the Department of History and International Studies at the Lagos State University. He can be reached via abdulkabirm87@gmail.com

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