October 7, 2023, the University of Abuja. The Chancellor, The Emir of Bauchi, Alhaji (Dr.) Rilwanu Suleiman Adamu, CR, stood up and announced to the huge crowd:
By the authority vested on me as Chancellor, I confer upon you the Degree of Doctor of Letters of the University of Abuja.
A fanfare of trumpets followed. The Vice-Chancellor, the renowned scholar of African Literature, Professor Abdul-Raheed Na’Allah, joined the Chancellor onstage. As the only recipient of an honorary degree on the occasion, I was invited to speak. I saw the faces of the graduating students and their parents ready to listen, but I chose not to bore them by limiting myself to three minutes. I promised that part of the response will be released to the media.
Sometimes, when events like this occur, one would take a moment to reflect on the many experiences and journeys that birthed this feat. So, one would understand why I might be filled with joy drawn from these reflections triggered by the honour of receiving the Honorary Doctorate Degree of Letters at the University that stands out in Nigeria. I intend to proclaim this glory to the mountains by drawing a parallel connection to the beautiful works of nature that stand tall as major landmarks and unique features of Abuja, the Zuma Rock, and other remarkable rocks. As a humble African, I still believe that no feat is small and no effort is wasted. While these stand out, they refer to the several mountains crossed in my pursuit of what I am today, and to take a step back, one must appreciate the humble beginnings, challenges, and mountains that have become the anvil and the hammers creating this fine blade. So, the rocks, hills, and mountains remind me of the 18 hours of work every day and relentless spirit from a young age.
The irony about mountains is that, while they are difficult to climb or surmount, they stand as a lifted and oval ground from which one can view the world from more advantageous places. They give the justifications and evidence that one has conquered and the assertion of determination and the spirit of persistence that fueled climbing the rocky roads to the top. I have picked my battles carefully and have fought them step-by- step with intentional attention to needed details. I would say unequivocally that my multidimensional background of perspectives has allowed me to fall in love with history and, most importantly, African history. I then crossed the huddles and took my share of tribulations and pain.
My early academic pursuits were quite challenging, but the love for greatness and the zeal to contribute to reshaping the African story and identity pushed me onto this path. As difficult as it seems, my days at Obafemi Awolowo University, where I got my first and doctorate degrees, were refining, and they pushed me through the love for history and doing something different in Africa.
Being conferred with the highest academic honour at the University of Abuja, especially because of its distinct position in Nigeria’s national and educational history, has made me look back at the mountains I climbed before today. Undoubtedly, my early years have been rightly captured in A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt, twinned by its succeeding memoir, Counting The Tiger’s Teeth. For a long time, these moments acted as catalysts to push further with vigour, having understood what it took to combat the demons of circumstantial neediness. This, I likened to an ascent unto the majestic Zuma as it stands formidably.
My ascent as an academic fellow has seen personal contributions to studying African History and Literature. It started with little effort in ways beyond imagination. The various efforts over the past decades, today, have summed up into a colourful tapestry of different threads. These combined efforts resulted in the authorship, co-authorship, and editing of over 200 books, journals, and academic work on African History, Pan-Africanism, Anglo-African cultures, Latin America, and Africa’s interaction with the outside world to mention but a few.
As I once inferred many years back in an editorial,
“My interest for the past decades has been to analyze Africa since the nineteenth century with a focus on history and how it affects the present and how the twin problems of political instability and underdevelopment can be solved.”
In that interview, I commented on how tedious a task it would be. It was hard work because it required research in its purest form for an academic audience through synthesis and publications in textbooks for learning institutions and, by extension, a sort of advisory guide on policies for governments in the continent. On this note, with profound joy and gratitude, I can confidently say that my undying passion and determination for the greater good have pushed me to the valleys of words and the plateaus of creative thought to the peak of knowledge.
As an African, my inspiration to help recreate the African identity in History and scholarship is a result of the unending challenges posed by crises and the continuous misinformation and misinterpretation of our heritage as a continent. For a very long time, I have always questioned and probed into neglected aspects of our history and aspects of our existence. For instance, would the world be any different and better if Africans had colonized the West? Would our natural ways of life, healing systems, science, and technology be worshipped if we had gotten to their continents before they came to ours? To what extent are we ready to decolonize Africa, its culture, systems, and history? These became the basis for my works, which turned out endless as I got a redefined purpose that could only be satiated by studying and writing, then more writing and studies. After all, Africa is unique with its diversified, beautiful heritage. African history entails stories of countless long-forgotten heritages, human exploits, aspirations, and dreams that have long been misinterpreted through the lens of non-Africans.
Research remains a huge, beautiful part of my life as a learned scholar. Yet, the heights of it all have always been credited to the personal relationships and bonds I enjoyed through association with mentors, supportive friends, collaboration with colleagues, and bright young minds whose enthusiasm for scholarship and knowledge birthed greatness into my work.
Being honoured today by the University of Abuja is a great testimony to the University’s commitment to fostering a strong bond amongst academia to lay the foundation for coming generations who would pick up from where we would stop one day. I must proclaim at this juncture that the University will always remain an integral part of my academic identity. I would like to extend utmost gratitude to the University administration, the esteemed faculty of learning, the entirety of the student populace, and the academic community by extension. You have shown your dedication to our shared vision of furthering the cause of educational advancement through the lens of history and literature. I dare say that this recognition today has strengthened my resolve to continue on this path till we get to the peak.
I must not forget that this august occasion is not for me but for the fortunate and successful individuals who have made it to this 27th convocation ceremony after completing their degree requirements and being conferred with one honour or the others. I have said much about my paths through the mountains. Many of you have been faced with yours, and many more are starting now. Everyone must understand that the mountains are necessary evils, and despite the situations of things in the country that may throw more hindrances, the wind would only hear the voices of the victorious.
While we fight our battles, we must understand that we are all individual soldiers to protect African and Nigerian heritage and be carriers of good conscience. I must state that we are not happy that the nation bleeds, that people experiencing poverty get poorer, that our roads are regrettably bad, that our politicians are internationally recognized fountains of corruption, that our cultures are fading, that our values are losing their potency, and that as a people, we struggle. But real change will not execute itself without the deliberate effort of a collective set of people. The University of Abuja has added to the pool of resources capable of changing the country, and I charge accordingly that while we bask in the euphoria of celebration, we take up the challenge to do better.
I also urge the Nigerian government and decision-makers to make academic success and thrive worth it. It is getting hard to encourage young Nigerians to pick up a degree because the most popular jobs and opportunities available have not shown that the degrees acquired to earn a living in Nigeria are worth it. It could have been more encouraging when alluding to them as necessary for technical know-how. This is because society has found a way to reward the lazy and those not making as much effort as others. One thing is to work hard; another is for the system to allow a soft landing to justify the efforts.