Pius Adesanmi: A Tribute and A Debt
Now that I am finding the strength to exit the grieving phase and enter the phase of articulating my gratitude to my departed friend, Professor Pius Adesanmi, it is time to reflect on his immense, timeless legacy of academic brilliance and public intellectual activism.
Pius was a model public intellectual, who taught us that you do not have to sacrifice scholarly rigour to operate in the public intellectual space. Pius was a committed patriot and pan-Africanist. His passion was education, particularly higher education. He saw quality education and an elevated life of the mind as Africa’s salvation, and he put his brains where his passion lay. He was a mentor to many young scholars across Africa and its diaspora. His zeal for reforming Africa’s higher education sector was infectious. He needed partners and helpers in this project.
To this end, he coopted me into the Abiola Irele Seminar at Kwara State University (KWASU), where we trained and mentored doctoral students and junior faculty in theory, publishing, and conceptual engagements. Pius tried to get me involved with the Pan-African Doctoral Academy (PADA), which he led annually in Ghana.
He gave himself to Nigeria and Africa even at his own expense and even when, at times, Nigeria and Africa repaid him with indifference.
Pius was quick-witted and humorous. No conversation with him was ever boring. He was a factory of ideas, a rare productive thinker. But it was the sincerity and the satirical fervor with which he delivered biting critiques and insights on Nigerian and African affairs that won him many fans from different educational and professional strata in Africa.
In this reflective tribute, I wish to focus on three aspects of Pius’s academic and public intellectual practice.
The first aspect is that Pius was at home in both the ivory tower world of high theory and the African street where folk wisdom comingles with the art of the hustle to birth new forms of knowledge. And that, precisely, is one of the academic legacies of Pius Adesanmi. Where other scholars wedded to ivory tower conceptions of knowledge production scornfully dismissed the vocabularies and vernaculars that animate the African streets and ignore the codes and ethos that govern transactions among unlettered or underprivileged African masses, Pius saw an underground, underappreciated economy of knowledge, an arena brimming with sophisticated, if crudely expressed, theories about life, living, hardship, hope, and personal fulfillment. His work, compelling in its academic rigour, was connected organically to the intellectual world of Africa’s “great unwashed.”
Indeed, Pius’s itineraries took him to the African streets. He did not just do so as a feel-good homage to those who inhabit those streets, a kind of self-serving, self-validating excursion to the Other Africa. No, he interacted frequently with the informal African urban economy and its chaotic beauty because he loved it and, more importantly, because he learned from it and mined its quotidian authentic dramas. He harvested its linguistic inventions for his own commentaries and scholarly productions about Africa. That was why his reflection on the continent and its problems and aspirations were honest and resonated so widely.
Pius regularly laced his sociopolitical commentaries with the lingo of the African and Nigerian street. He didn’t do so merely to offer a representational space to voiceless Africans; he did so because he often found the pretentions of formal, disciplined academic speech, well, pretentious. Pius was convinced that the rawness and brute meanings inherent in Africa’s many pidgins, slangs, and informal linguistic systems displayed more fidelity to Africa’s many realities and predicaments than the self-conscious language of academic and intellectual discourse.
The other point along these lines is this: many scholars try to show that they are conversant with the linguistic and sociopolitical trends of the African masses by mechanically engaging with popular aesthetics, and by stammering between these modes of thought and meaning and their own world of certified knowledge. Pius, on the other hand, transitioned mellifluously between these two domains. One moment, he was participating in the evocative vernacular of pidgin English or street Yoruba; the next moment, he was engaging with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Pierre Bourdieu. In a single text, one could see him invoking the pidgin insights of Nigerian street hustle as well as the elevated locutions of academe. In both his academic and public intellectual oeuvres, Pius overcame the crisis of intelligibility that plagues African thought and that subsumes authentic African modes of meaning-making in esoteric Western rubrics.
The second aspect of Pius’s intellectual legacy is his ability to speak across and between Africa’s linguistic divide. Being bi-lingual, he consumed and wrote academic and literary works in both French and English. He participated in the vibrant Africanist Francophone world of intellection, unlike many of us Anglophones, whose intellectual repertoires are restricted by our linguistic handicap and are as a result marooned in the narrow world of Anglophone knowledge.
Pius’ literary, academic, and intellectual promiscuity was a function of his participation and acceptance in Africa’s multiple circuits of knowledge production and intellectual debate. It was partly this ability to navigate and engage with knowledge mediated by Africa’s two main lingua francas that gave his work and ideas continental resonance.
In the Africanist academic world that I inhabit, Pius was a superior scholar because he had unmediated access to multiple texts, archives, experiential representations, and aesthetic traditions on account of his linguistic skills. More significantly, the ability to engage with Francophone works in the original, without wading through the translational politics of bi-lingual scholars like himself, gave him a perspective on the African experience that was robust and representative of the continent.
The third aspect of Pius intellectual legacy is his strident, persistent critique of mediocrity in Africa and Nigeria. In the wake of his passing, many commentators across the globe have remarked on how hard he worked to challenge mediocrity and enthrone excellence in African institutional and political spaces.
In this respect, he lived what he preached, rejecting mediocrity, berating Africans who accepted it, and calling for a cultural turn that normalises excellence rather than regard it as an unattainable Utopian quest. No domain was too mundane or trivial for him to live out this philosophy of excellence. When he travelled on his continental speaking and public engagements, he insisted that African bureaucrats and protocol personnel make the right arrangements. Flights had to be booked properly and at the right time. Hotel arrangements had to be made ahead of time, and the hotels had to have the right amenities. If honorariums were promised, they had to be paid promptly.
Pius never entertained bureaucratic excuses for mediocre treatment or mediocre amenities. He told me many stories of his insistence on things being done properly; on proper procedures being followed; and on the imperative of extending to him and other Africans global standards for the cultivation of experts.
One time, when he was trying to get me involved in a particular seminar, he personally called me to apologise for the shabby, unprofessional treatment I had received from the organisers after my insistence on professional treatment and arrangements got the organisers to disinvite me. Pius said he needed to personally apologise to me because he was the one who had urged them to invite me in the first place and was ashamed of how I had been treated, despite his aggressive insistence on them inviting me. He chalked the whole affair up to Africans’ comfort with mediocrity, hurried improvisation, and their disrespect for the intellectual labour of fellow Africans. Unknown to Pius, my insistence on the minimum standards of professional conduct being met had been inspired by his own long, stubborn campaign for excellence and his concomitant rejection of mediocrity and unprofessional conduct by African interlocutors.
There were three conceptual underpinnings to Pius’ campaign for excellence and intolerance for mediocrity in African contexts. The first was the contention that mediocrity and Africans’ willingness to make peace with it were at the root of Africa’s developmental dysfunction. The second was that mediocrity was contagious, so that a willingness to compromise on the small things inevitably leads to an acceptance of mediocrity in the big things, a mass psychic reordering that, over time, produces a culture of mediocrity that is hostile to excellence and Africans who seek to promote it.
The third was that Africa’s political and bureaucratic actors were crafty, self-conscious but colonially-damaged manipulators who reserved the best treatment and the best logistical hospitality for white, Euro-American experts, expats, and personnel, while urging their black compatriots to settle and be thankful for what is mediocre, substandard, and beneath their dignity.
For Pius, the campaign for excellence was thus about racial equality and human dignity. The way he saw it, everyone, black or white, Nigerian or Canadian, had a right to be treated with dignity in Africa and everywhere, and the racial pathology of reserving excellence for and expecting excellence only from white people in Africa was a colonial racial hangover that needed to be exorcised.
Pius would often tell me how, as a matter of principle, he would never accept anything less than what African organisers of a seminar or some other event would accord Euro-American colleagues of equal learning and academic rank. There was a sophisticated method to Pius’s madness about excellence in Africa. There was a deeper logic to his obsession with the plague of mediocrity in Africa.
Let me tell a story. When Pius, myself, and Professor Adeleke Adeeko led the Abiola Irele Seminar in Kwara State University in 2015, I saw Pius’ insistence on excellence first hand. When we checked into Kwara Hotel, we were taken to the unrenovated wing, which was dilapidated and had broken furniture and other problems. Pius, being familiar with the hotel from his previous Abiola Irele Seminar summer stays there, demanded that we be moved to the renovated wing, where visiting political bigwigs were lodged. It was disrespectful to put us up in the unrenovated wing, while politicians and friends of the Kwara State government stayed at the fancy renovated wing. After a feeble resistance from the staff that necessitated Pius speaking to the manager, we were reluctantly transferred to the renovated wing.
Pius would later tell me that it was important to send a message to the hotel’s management and to the Kwara State government which owns the hotel that it is wrong to practice residential apartheid in the allocation of hotel rooms. Additionally, he argued, if many guests protested being put up in the dingy, unrenovated wing, the hotel’s owners and management would see the need to renovate the entire hotel, not just one of its wings.
Later, when Pius discovered that his new room’s bathroom had water flow issues, he again demanded to be moved to a different room. The hotel staff were baffled. They told Pius that there was nothing wrong with the room and that no previous guest had complained. Pius patiently lectured them about the danger of accepting mediocrity. Other guests had not complained and they, the hotel management, had not fixed the problem because both guests and hotel management had normalised and accepted the mediocre and the deficient.
In the first few days of our three-week stay in Ilorin, Pius demanded for a room change two more times rather than settle, or, as we say in Nigeria, manage his room with all its problems. Inspired by Pius, I, too, demanded a room change when I discovered that my bathroom’s drain was not working properly, causing flooding. On that occasion, too, the hotel staff did not see a problem because previous guests and the staff had accepted the flooding as normal or at worst as a minor irritant that should be tolerated.
For Pius, this struggle was anything but personal. Rather, his argument was that there was a larger symbolic import in refusing to accept or normalise poor treatment, poor service, and indignity from Africa’s political, bureaucratic, and managerial institutions and actors. If enough Africans didn’t settle and instead demanded to be treated well and rejected disrespect, abuse, and mediocrity, the continent’s leaders and the managers of its institutions would get the message and embrace excellence. That was his premise. There was thus a reformist, societal logic to his personal disdain for mediocrity. It was a fight for the individual and collective dignity of Africans.
In challenging mediocrity in Africa, Pius was also, of course, battling against the soft bigotry of low expectations, the benignly racist conception that says excellence is alien to Africa and that Africans are congenitally mediocre.
The closer I got to Pius, the more I found myself internalising his creed of excellence and professionalism, as well as his disdain for mediocrity and disrespect. I have turned down several speaking invitations from African institutions and organisations because the organisers were shoddy, unprofessional, and disrespectful in their approach and in the arrangements (or lack thereof) they were making for the event. In such situations, I would recall Pius’ admonition that we should never accept to be treated differently than a visiting white colleague or peer would be and that we should reject forms of hospitality that are far below what would be extended to a visiting Euro-American or Asian professional.
I learnt so much from reading Pius’s work. I learnt from our conversations, and I learnt from just observing the way he related to Africans, high and low, and to African institutions. I am indebted to him in ways that I never got to tell him.
Pius Adebola Adesanmi, my friend, my brother, my teacher, thank you, and rest well.
Moses E. Ochonu, a professor of History, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org