Heart of Arts

Professor Akin Mabogunje (1931-2022): Remembering a Legend

Toyin Falola


Our hero died a year ago on August 4, 2023, within a stone’s throw of where I resided. I felt like rushing there to wake him, like I had divine power. Neither the bond nor the spirit has left me. Indeed, in writing this piece, his soul of geographic spaces followed me. I remembered his death on Samora Machel Street in Gaborone, Botswana; I decided to write this piece on Nelson Mandela Street, again in Gaborone. I told Professor Abiodun Salawu, my host in North West South Africa, that I must complete the piece before I leave South Africa for Lagos. After the first paragraph, a call came from Niamey that they were planning an attack on the Yoruba in their quarters, and I was frantically looking for folks to reach to contact Abuja where, hopefully, they would inform Ebola, the new street name in the Niger Republic for Bola Ahmed Tinubu for using his unsteady fingers to pull the chestnut out of the fire. By the time I reached the second paragraph, it was pressure on me to visit Lesotho to give a lecture on decoloniality. It took time for me to proofread this, interrupted by multiple calls from various spaces and places. Professor Mabogunje, now an ancestor, visited the earth to remind me of geography. I cannot complain. I better rush before the late professor interrupted this essay again!

In the struggle for existence and survival, humans have had various purposes of interacting with each other, and these happenings have been in existence from the beginning of nature and the possible placement of when and how we all came to be. However, while we focus on those human interactions and events, only a few steps back to investigate a constant witness of the struggle of time, space, and people that bring them all together. Over time and while the struggle of humans went on, we have been having some continuous relationship with nature, and all that cedes to it. Hence, geography and other endeavours that tend to unravel the secrets of it and understandings thereof became revealed by few, and names were made.

            As all continents and countries made their strives and efforts to understand the home of all and the land they all thread on, Mabogunje became one of the frontrunners of the African understanding of nature and its environment, and as far as this effort is concerned, he was able to make himself one of the epitomes of Africans perspectives in the understanding of the human’s relationship with the nature and carried the excellence images from details to the global stage. Mabogunje was not a property of Nigeria; else, one would be providing limited and abridged accounts of his various efforts; one cannot say he was a property of the continent, for the continent could also attest to his relevance beyond the coasts of Africa; Mabogunje as a universal gift and a token of what excellence would look like if it can breathe.

When Baba died on August 4, 2022, it created a shock in the academic sphere despite his advancement in age; I mean, one is considered to expect death to knock on the door of a 90-year-old as soon as possible, but the space filled by Baba could have made one forget the insurmountability of death and the certainty of drawing the curtain of the wonderful life well spent. However, as I have said elsewhere, the departure of Mabogunje has surely created a cavity that cannot be filled in the heart of Nigerians, the nation, and African and global citizens; he had ensured that his spirit had not departed us. The indelible contributions of Baba have indeed left a footprint even on the rocky ground, and science cannot understand how the path came to be and how it would never be erased.

I understand the courtesy people in Africa give the death and the culture of not speaking ill of them; however, when I speak of these things, they are not to follow the sweet stories and different deeds people have been able to recount over the years, no, it is because the pattern of the life of Mabogunje can be discussed in certain heads and convictions of context that it fits in well with such recounts. Of course, he was not a perfect man, if one would allude to the saying that no man is perfect, but he is a legend that has walked in the core of the semantics of the word.

Fortunately, Mabogunje had written his sojourn on the earth and had left what I considered an annual for those who would like to follow his steps or understand the wisdom behind some of his decisions. The chief wisdom that could be drawn from this was his decision to choose knowledge over other things and put in the work and convictions that took him beyond others. Mabogunje knew early enough where his passions were, and he did not deceive himself with others but stayed true to the course and did excellently.

More particularly, many of the activities and strides of Mabogunje allude to the assertion of immortality as they have spectacular and particular impacts on people and mark a space in history. The designs that birthed the creation and strategies of the Federal Capital Territory had a touch of the brilliance of Mabogunje, and one would almost not talk about the history of the capital without right allusion to his strategic impact.

This was also seen in the design and strategy of the building of the Ogun State University, now Olabisi Onabanjo University. One remarkable characteristic of his involvement was the particular influence of these projects on the locals and their potential influence on the people. This shows that he believed that policies, no matter how the government is convinced to be proper, should fit into the convictions and the understanding of the people, as well as follow the principles of bringing the people on board with such strategies. Developments not subscribed to by the people cannot be said to take the right and full status of development as the sustainability and stability of such development would be threatened.

I believe it is in place of this role of the people in the sustainability of public facilities and institutions that he must have suggested the handing over of the University of Ibadan to the Alumni Association, drawing from the large pool of alumni the university boasts of and the reality of the developmental drags witnessed in most of the public universities in Nigeria.

To draw a more concrete example of his belief in the role of the people in policy development, his Urbanization in Nigeria in Nigeria, written around 1968, shows his reveal of the multilayered conditions and fragments of urbanization processes in any society. According to Baba, urbanization is not just a business of taking urbanizing policies and actions through specialists alone, but some conditions predicated on the variables of humans must be considered. First, food must be abundant for the people generality of the people in the urbanizing zones; there is a need to trust and utilise some fragments of people that are powerful and balance peace and occurrence; and merchants and traders from the people must be considered in the provision of the needs of those specialists that would execute the urbanization policies.

Mabogunje’s understanding of the nation largely comes from his background in several parts of the country and his relationship with them. This and other factors must have influenced his right choice of discipline. Having lived a substantial part of his foundational life in Kano, having his primary education in Sabon Geri, continuing his education in Ibadan, and other engagements across the country gave him some level of understanding of cross-ethnical characteristics of the people, and these experiences came to play in the discharge of many duties conferred on him by the Nigerian government, his study of a geographical understanding of the nation and his relationship with people.

As a man of many ‘firsts,’ his life also served as a personal lesson to those in the academic and those just setting out in life. Aside from being the first Professor of Geography in Nigeria, his beliefs and work took him to the continental and global spotlight, radiating the glory of the nation and Africa. He was the president of the International Geographical Union. He was a Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Societies and achieved this as the first African to be so. His receipt of the Vautrin Lud Prize 2017 made him the first African to receive the same. These are some of the awards and positions he held internationally, and they set his memory in immortality.

What could be deduced from his activities and achievements above was his commitment to efficiency and results. This virtue has always been important, no matter how brilliant someone might be. Hence, his roles and successes in the several commitments he found himself in could not be too surprising. He was a National Census Board consultant in 1973, the Nigerian Council of Management Development’s chairman in 1976, Chancellor of the Bells University of Technology from 2005, the Ogun State University’s Chairman of Council and Pro-Chancellor in 1982, National Board for Community Banks’ Executive Chairman, Chairman or head of other bodies and membership of any board.

It is a few days over a year since the legend left us, but the linking of his image with national unity, peaceful co-existence, and citizens-centred policies has always come to mind. This is because of his convictions in the role of being people-centred. However, the nation has not done much to achieve these ideals, and every August 4 will always be a reminder that drastic steps must be taken to achieve them.


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