Heart of Arts

The Obaro of Ikime: Our King Has Entered the Loft

Toyin Falola


Our long-lived king, the Obaro of Ikime, has committed death. Death does not kill a king; rather, the king requests the services of death to host a meeting at a secure location. Ikime has gone to the loft. He has left the darkness of errors, the errors of horrors, the errors of darkness, and the horrors of errors. I knew Ikime very well. He was no ordinary person! At Ibadan, Benin, Abuja, and Kano, all at meetings, great meetings. Twice, at his request, I read his last brilliant book–Can Anything Good Come Out of History? He asked me for comments and to compose a blurb. The book did so well that it was reprinted.

Let me transform the Obaro of Ikime into the masquerade we expect in June. Veneration is a timeless phenomenon of human society that has found its way into holy books, religious doctrines, societal rules and norms, and the most intricate fabrics holding humans together. It is human to “give honour to whom honour is due”, “pay homage”, and “pay respects”— this fundamental concept of honouring deserving people scaled up into veneration. Although it could be argued that disrespect and condescension are some of the commonest human traits, we have a history of venerating people as assent to their deeds and achievements, and this has not only birthed myths, legends, and cognomens but also laid the foundation for some religions today. At the core of human civilisations are mythologies rooted in the veneration of individuals whose accomplishments have earned them the awe of members of society and made them so revered as gods. This phenomenon existed in several human societies across the world, including the Greeks, Yoruba, Igbo, Indigenous Americans, and Mayans, to name a few.

Some things in life are meant to be; some people’s societal positions are set in stone. For Ikime, his was a higher calling, both in his secular life in service to society and in his religious life in service to God and the Church. During his lifetime, Ikime was an Archdeacon of the Anglican Communion — a Venerable of the Holy Order — one of the highest positions anyone can aspire to in the church. Also, he was a professor of history — the highest purely academic position anyone can aspire to. Today, many call for this renowned historian’s official veneration to immortalise his name and keep his achievements evergreen. He was a historian who walked and worked diligently so that several other historians and academics might fly gloriously. Of a truth, Venerable Professor Obaro Ikime deserves to be venerated.

Professor Ikime’s story is yet another proof of how powerful a man’s talents and intelligence can be in making a name for himself. Born 87 years ago in his hometown of Anibeze, it could have seemed difficult for relatives, family, friends, and parents to imagine that Ikime would one day become an internationally renowned scholar until his intellectual prowess and abilities began to emerge. It is often said that “talent is universal, but opportunity is not”; however, in the case of Ikime, his talent was so outstanding that it crafted the paths to opportunities for him.

This eminent professor of history rode on the wings of his stellar academic performance throughout his secondary school education and on to the university, earning himself a spot at one of the oldest departments in Nigeria’s oldest and foremost higher institution, the University of Ibadan — an opportunity that could only have come through exceptional talent. The scholar must have recognised the enormity of the weight that rested on his shoulders — the people whose confidence in him he had to prove right, the family, friends, and fellow inhabitants of the same hometown that he had to make proud, as well as the academic pathways that he had to exhaustively explore. At the young age of 29, Ikime got his PhD at the University of Ibadan; at 37, he became a professor of history in the same institution, where he spent decades as a member of the teaching staff and served till his retirement in 1999.

The Obaro of Ikime was never one to give in to his tribulations or succumb to adversity. Although the details of his abrupt retirement — perhaps we could call it forced retirement — remain sketchy to many, this in no way affected Ikime’s love and passion for history or his commitment to the body of historians and academics. He was touted to have continued in service to the Ibadan School of History, sometimes offering his services for free. For him, it was more about sharing his body of knowledge and contributing to the growth of the academic community. This same spirit of commitment, service, and altruism was manifested in his service to the Anglican Church as a vicar, rising through the ranks to become an Archbishop due to his doggedness and commitment. How the Venerable Professor Ikime combined two full-time and taxing professions — an academic, professor, and a high-ranking priest — will go down as one of the biggest lessons anyone can learn from his life. All this he did while staying excellent in the discharge of his duties and also building a lovely family with his wife.

Professor Ikime was one of the finest academic commentators to have come out of Africa. Although he retired early, this historian heavily contributed to the body of knowledge on African history, and his works were pivotal to shaping how we have come to understand and conduct research on inter-group relations in Africa and Nigeria, as well as how such relations tie back to nation formation, nationalism, cultural history, and civilisation. If you have read one or more of Professor Ikime’s books, you would be familiar with his lucid writing style, making his books a joy to read.

In staying true to his personal philosophy of commitment, Ikime took his service to society a notch higher in his volunteer service as President of the Historical Society of Nigeria, a member of the University of Ibadan Governing Council, and a serial executive council member of the University of Ibadan Alumni association — both in Ibadan and at the national level. Professor Ikime was a nationalist whose loyalty to and love for his alma mater was never questioned. He diligently delivered his services to the benefit of the Town, thereby being one of the most outstanding facilitators of the Town-Gown relationship of his generation. He was a man whose convictions and resolve extended beyond his experiences. An existentialist to the core, Ikime lived on the fundamental belief that existence is a precursor of the essence and that to exist does not mean living just for the fun of it; rather, it is a call to be relevant and exude essence.

Today, Professor Ikime is no more. His loved ones will miss him; academia will miss him; history as an academic discipline will miss him; colleagues, mentees, and friends will miss him. But we are not sad. He has gone to rest. He is now free from the tribulations and pains of this world. He is at peace, fulfilled.

Ikime is another national icon whose works helped put Nigerian history on the scrutinised, refined, and tailored academic approach that is now widely used. Yet, this hallowed historian has not enjoyed the attention and respect that should be accorded to a national hero because, in Nigeria, we marginalise the living and forget the dead. Professor Ikime’s story should serve as a wake-up call for the veneration of those whose existence — or otherwise — has sparked the fire of remembrance.

Sleep well, King Obaro Ikime. You are one of the best, the most prolific to ever do it. I promise not to disturb your rest.

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