Heart of Arts

Toyin Falola and the Art of Intellectual Provocation

Professor Serges Kamga
Dean, Faculty of Law
University of the Free State, South Africa


The 54th Convocation Lecture by Professor Toyin Falola, held at the University of Lagos in January 2024, has become a global document. A theme on decolonization, his recommendations went viral. As to his suggestions to tap into epistemic knowledge in Ifa, the Pentecostals pounced on them, just as the missionaries of the nineteenth century ruthlessly attacked Yoruba religion as “paganism”. In not understanding what Falola is suggesting, they confused epistemology with practice. Epistemologies are how we know how other people think and then convert that knowledge into philosophies. Falola himself is not a Babalawo!

Those totally unfamiliar with Falola’s provocative methodology need to read my forthcoming long book, Power, Politics and African Agency, in the works of Toyin Falola. In this book, I argued that only a few scholars have centralized Africa far more than Falola. And in so doing, he belongs to the league of Wilmot Blyden, Cheikh Anta Diop, W.E.B. Dubois, and Molefi Asante, all of whom breathe Africa. Falola has become a canonical figure. But if we fully understand Blyden, Diop and Asante, no one can fully grasp the essence of what Abdul Bangura calls Falolaism. My book, the twelfth on a mysterious personality, will not be the last.

Photo: Professor Serges Kamga

It was in the process of conducting interviews for my book that I came across the profound statement attributed to the distinguished Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Law, A. B. Assensoh. To him, Falola visits your campus to give a lecture and sets it on fire. As I understand his strategy, he makes the most provocative statement you can imagine, and before the audience departs, he is nowhere to be found. “Where is the back exit door,” he is fond of asking. If you are in a conference with him, while most people want to be seen and socialize, he disappears. That disappearance itself becomes magical: “Did he come; where is he?” Perhaps, after his presentation, he left for the airport to give another lecture.

As I study him, I notice that the man and his ideas are cultivated to rupture existing knowledge. He did so even in my house at a social event where, weeks after he left, we kept talking about what he said. He did so at the University of South Africa, where he first presented his ideas on “ritual archives”, an essay that is now part of classroom text. He did so in a lecture on social engineering, where he advocated polygamy. How can a monogamist create a far-reaching justification for polygamy, which is now legal in South Africa, Cameroon, and Kenya? He called for the abolition of Departments to be replaced by new ones. He asked for the creation of the Department of Kingship. His recommendations before bodies such as the African Union are so provocative that he has become extremely unique. If Wole Soyinka is heavy on political activism, he is weak on suggestions to transform the continent. If Falola is weak in political activism, he is heavy in policy recommendations. Both have become canonical figures for different reasons.

Albert Einstein’s profound quote that ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ remains in public memory because it speaks directly to the human family unhinged by pressure to make generational changes. This quote resonates with Falola, given his prolonged and valuable examination of the human mind through interactions with them and the discovery that Einstein is right. Falola’s contributions to intellectual engagements, as I argued in my forthcoming book, have always provoked controversial conversations owing to his original and productive perspectives, which he offers when the time calls for it.

A very recent example is the one associated with the convocation lecture, which he was privileged to offer in Lagos. As usual, he made uncomfortable recommendations on the harder ways by which Africans can progressively advance their civilization and challenge others for a global impact, and the positions he held and recommendations that he made all have generated heated debate in ways that accentuate familiar knowledge of things that he projects to the world.

I suspect, as Professor Assensoh did that he finds himself in this position owing to his discovery that hardest decisions produce vibrant results, but the process of carrying out the actions required demands courage and commitment, the two characteristics that are not common among the human family. People normally seem comfortable with situations. Falola is not unless it is better.

To that extent, his examination of the African sociopolitical and moral downtrend informed the conclusion that Africa and its people need urgent and critical orientational shifts in their understanding of what higher educational institutions should do if they are indeed interested in competing globally. For instance, the indestructible progress recorded in other continents is a testament to the installation of values into their younger generations, which they eventually converted to results across every department, including but not limited to their economy, politics, technology, and even moral ideologies.

If, as I have argued, institutions have become the sole and formal agency of information or knowledge transmission into the African mind, it is safe to conclude that this agency must transmit substantial values to the students so that there will be resounding progress in their engagements. In whatever way possible, students at that level of education are expected to attract various educational values as that would be what would transform into results individually in society and then collectively in the continent. No nation of the world grows without values, and unless graduates have values which are beyond the ordinary, we cannot but continue to experience familiar downward results. In fact, this was what informed the re-interpretation of Einstein’s quote made above.

On that note, I believe that the developers of the African school curriculum must come to the awareness that commitment to their liberating operational values is necessary to swiftly attain greater heights. Although we can blame the educational developers of the colonial and the immediate postcolonial era for certain things, we cannot in good conscience heap the blame for the lack of generational advancement of today on these beings, for they rose to the occasion of the period to fashion out what was considered best in their interest.

However, we cannot continue to sustain the colonial legacy reflected in the orientational composition of one-way educational services that separate arts and humanities from the sciences and technology. This would mean that we are still beleaguered with strange inflexibility and borderline irrationality in our educational system. The pre-European African educational systems did not make such rigid classification of knowledge. An expert in geology then, for example, was not precluded from being an established doctor if they had accumulated the requisite knowledge. It shows that their understanding of the human mind is more advanced than we have in the current time, for it seems they believed that as human can assimilate additional information, they can use the knowledge to transform their world without limitations. It was, therefore, a time of fluidity of knowledge and expertise.

That awareness was, therefore, one that motivated Falola’s plea to African universities to consider re-thinking the degrees that we offer in our educational institutions. Tertiary educational institutions would accommodate this system if the agencies of knowledge transmission there were equipped with the necessary resources that would facilitate their effective functioning. In no place is it written in the world that someone who learns computer science and is groomed for computer expertise cannot at the same time be educated as a sociologist? These courses are not mutually exclusive.

Falola’s proposition that we should consider the combination of humanities and science courses has provoked reactions because he has found himself to be an artist in intellectual provocation. In essence, that people are reacting to him is an indication of at least two things. One, it strikes their intimate chord where they begin to identify how they have placed limitations on their thinking without imagining how such limitations have impeded the actual transformation of their minds. Secondly, the protests come from some minds who are obviously comfortable with only their comfort zone. While the former represents the first two stages that humans arrive at when they want to transition to something bigger, the latter, however, indicates the refusal to explore the fertile minds that God has deposited in us all.

On this note, Falola recommends that all African agencies of knowledge transmission, that is, the educational institutions themselves, should, as a matter of practicality, consider the understanding (not the practice) of esoteric knowledge, which was otherwise eclipsed by the interception of colonial educational systems. The moment that the white individual introduced an academic institution where transmission of education is possible, he immediately marginalized the existing infrastructure of knowledge to be successful in the alienation of students from the cultural landscape and systems that naturally should be responsible for their socialization. That development, therefore, necessitated absolute and, in some cases, partial de-Africanization of people when they finally internalized the values transmitted to them through available institutions. Without visibly leaving their cultural environment, their indigenous values and cultures became inaccessible, and where they could access them, it was difficult to interact with them. Meanwhile, true development would not happen in situations where owners of an epistemological powerhouse cannot effectively interact with the associated values in the understanding that they have been mentally positioned at a great distance from it. This was the genesis of the unprovoked distance of those who have acquired colonial education in colonially installed institutions. In essence, it was the beginning of the African downward slope.

Let me break this down a little more. A medical expert inducted into a medical group would deny operations of unseen forces in the anatomical structures and designs of their patients, thereby prescribing drugs and other medical efforts, all of which would not have desirable effects, especially when the victim is confronted with supernatural problems. Unlike such experts, indigenous medical professionals would undertake a series of processes to restore their health to normalcy by undertaking responsibilities that would appeal to the unseen forces while simultaneously addressing the physical danger. The former is unable to provide effective treatment because not only can he not comprehend the dynamics of human engagements in their environment both at the physical and metaphysical level (of course, he was not taught about this in Western schools), but he also does not understand the layers of healing that are identified within the cultural landscape of his identity. It, therefore, becomes a problem for medical professionals to provide effective solutions to the myriad of these medical challenges that have confronted people from time immemorial. The right counterpoint to this would be: why are the doctors in other places more successful? The answer to this also would be that the dynamics of people’s experiences differ from culture to culture, and for that reason, they need different approaches to address those challenges that they face.

Interestingly, Falola mentioned that lecturers who are the information conveyors to the students should have their pay increased in line with the emerging realities of the current time. Of course, many of them would agree with Falola here, perhaps because it has a direct impact on their lives. But this is not the sole reason that he has said this. In the current society, it cannot be overemphasized that things are becoming increasingly difficult for an average individual and even when you are not expected to compete with the extravagant political class, you are at least expected to have access to basic qualities and a good life. Once the government is not producing these things at its expected rate, lecturers should not be denied the opportunity to create this for themselves.

Meanwhile, they can only achieve this when they are paid handsomely. Although the government has always underplayed brain drain, it remains true that every brain forfeited by the country would have unimaginable consequences in some ways. There is a need to allay the fears of the lecturers, and that can be done effectively only when we begin to remunerate them bountifully so that they can afford the basic things that their colleagues enjoy in other parts of the world. Regardless of the positions of people on the ideas suggested in Falola’s Convocation Lecture in Lagos and the proposition that he made, Falola sees his calling, as Kwame Nkrumah did, that Africa is his only project, and he will not cease to be at the frontline of advocacy for courses of action that would bring the continent to the limelight.

To end on a lighter note, the Pentecostals and the media, who continue to focus on the suggestion of Ifa and witchcraft studies, should go back to the text and locate where such a statement was made. Whenever I ask Falola while his texts follow the academic script and his presentation follows the medium of a sage, his answer is the same: “Ask Esu, the god of the crossroads”. Falola is unknowable, either in the depth of his knowledge, a boundless energy that produces ten men in one person, the mastery of a dozen disciplines, and the art of intellectual insurgency.

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