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Toyin Falola: A Transcendental Academic Giant at 70

 By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi It isn’t usual for me to devote an entire column to celebrate the birthday of an individual. ...

 By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

It isn’t usual for me to devote an entire column to celebrate the birthday of an individual. But Professor Toyin Falola, a far-famed endowed professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin whom I have called the patriarch of African academics in North America, isn’t an everyday individual. He is an institution, a pan-human, pan-African, and pan-Nigerian icon who will turn 70 on January 1, 2023.

Professor Falola is most probably older than 70. He was born in Ibadan to parents who had no Western education, so his birth wasn’t recorded. Like many people in his generation, he chose an arbitrary date that, in his estimation, approximates his probable date of birth.

Many people outside academia would probably wonder why I am celebrating the birthday of a fellow academic whose fame and footprints are mostly in pedagogy and scholarship. Well, first of all, Falola is a fundamentally good human who is abidingly complaisant, who derives the greatest joy when he helps others to succeed, who has advanced the careers and life trajectories of hundreds of strangers across the length and breadth of Africa without expectation of reward, and who is an inspiration to thousands.

He has the placid, self-actualized temperament of Nelson Mandela and the restlessly fiery intellect of Wole Soyinka. With nearly 200 single-authored, co-authored, and edited books, he has written more books in the humanities and social sciences than any African academic alive. He is also one of Africa’s most cited scholars and one of its most visible voices. Yet, he is profoundly humble, down-to-earth, and approachable. 

With his record of superhumanly prodigious scholarly productivity, you would expect that he is some hermit who lives in splendid seclusion, who spends his entire life holed up in his study or in libraries. He isn’t. He is a profoundly contagious social butterfly who lubricates his enormous social networks with unswerving physical or technological presence. To this day, he hasn’t satisfactorily answered my questions about how he manages to be a normal human being with such an uncannily supernormal intellectual output.

Most people with Falola’s scholarly productivity usually don’t have a life outside academia. They are often socially awkward, emotionally stunted solitudinarians. That’s why people who know him jocularly call him alujanu (the Yoruba rendering of the Arabic jinn, i.e., genie) behind his back.

Falola’s larger-than-life intellectual exploits on the global stage (he has held professorships in almost every continent of the world) is particularly remarkable because he got all his degrees in Nigeria and started his academic career there. He got his BA and PhD in history from the Obafemi Awolowo University (which used to be called the University of Ife when he earned his degrees) where he also taught. He has the distinction of being the first recipient of the University of Ibadan’s first academic D.Litt. in Humanities exactly two years ago today, which is supremely symbolic in many ways.

His intellectual prodigiousness started right from when he was a lecturer and later professor at Ife. He played in the global scholarly big league from Nigeria. He left Nigeria because the progressively shrinking intellectual space in the country couldn’t contain the unstoppable vastness of his productivity.

But he really hasn’t left Nigeria. He has multiple programs and projects, particularly in history departments, in several Nigerian universities, and spends considerable time in the country mentoring budding scholars. Some years, he spends more time in Nigeria than he does in the United States. You can do that when you are Toyin Falola, a much sought-after scholar that most well-regarded universities across the world want to have on their faculty just for the symbolic heft that his presence confers.

His love for what he does is indescribably deep. After more than four decades in academia, he has never held an administrative position. He has successfully resisted invitations to be head of department, dean, or any other administrative academic position. He finds more joy in teaching (in which he has won multiple prestigious awards) and scholarship (where his output is unrivalled) than in administration even though he is a charismatic and charming person who gets along with most people.

I became personally acquainted with Professor Falola in 2004 through my friend and Bayero University classmate Professor Moses Ochonu who teaches history at Vanderbilt University here in the United States. I wrote a travelogue about my visit to Ireland in 2004, which Moses liked and shared with members of the USAAfrica Dialogue Series, a discussion group of Africanist academics that Falola moderates.

Falola reached out to me by email after reading the travelogue and sought my permission to subscribe me to the discussion list. I was flattered. I obliged his request immediately. Our relationship graduated from exchanging views on the list to exchanging personal emails. In June 2010 when my wife died, I received my first phone call from him. Seven years later, he paid me a personal visit in my home in Metro Atlanta. Now, he isn’t just an intellectual mentor. He feels like a father. Most people who know him feel the same way about him.

He has a special gift for connecting with people at a deep, emotional level. He is endowed with the capacity to make people he knows feel way more special than they are, than they deserve to be. He calls people “great ones,” compliments their work with high praise and censures with the gentlest tone. He invites criticism of his own work from intellectual inferiors like me and seems to have no capacity to be offended.

People have misunderstood him and lashed out, but he never requites harsh words with harsh words. He disarms his critics with his compulsive grace and generosity of spirit. That is why most of his fiercest critics often end up becoming his friends. 

Although he has been knighted as the Bobapitan of Ibadanland by the Olubadan of Ibadan and honored with the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) award by the Federal Government this year, I think he has not been sufficiently celebrated in Nigeria outside academia. Given the depth and breadth of his contribution to explaining Nigeria to the world, he is worth more than an MON. 

For example, Sabiu “Tunde” Yusuf, a former recharge card seller who became an aide to Buhari because of his biological relationship to him, has been conferred the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) honor, which ranks higher than MON. 

In which world does it make sense to give a higher national honor to a 30-something-year-old former recharge card seller who is a presidential aide through the accident of birth than a globally garlanded, accomplished scholar who has written close to 200 books and who has been awarded nearly 20 honorary doctorates across the world?

Well, even with all he has already accomplished, Falola isn’t done yet. He is working on multiple books as I write this and is a member of African Union’s eminent group of intellectuals fashioning ways to salvage the continent. 

I once asked him when he will retire. “Retire? What will I be doing when I retire? I am a restless person,” he told me. He reminds me of my English professor at the University of Louisiana by the name of Barbara Ricardo who told me she would rather die teaching or researching than retire. She died at 76 while teaching. I hope and pray Falola lives to be 100 and beyond in the service of Nigeria and the world.

I invite my readers to join me in wishing Professor Toyin Omoyeni Falola a warm and joyous birthday and many happy returns!

Related Article:

3 Fallacies in Falola’s “Diss” of Diasporan Academics Over ASUU

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