Pius Adesanmi, exit of a patriot
I had just arrived Casablanca, Morocco, for an international conference when news came that an Ethiopian Airlines plane had crashed less than 10 minutes after take-off on Sunday, March 10. A harrowing tragedy in which all 157 passengers and crew perished. Two Nigerians were involved in that tragedy, — Ambassador Abiodun Bashua, a UN high official, and Canada-based academician Pius Adesanmi. The Nigerian intelligentsia were thrown into mourning.
I have always believed that high-achievers among the Nigerian Diaspora like Bashua and Adesanmi are our unpaid ambassadors. The poor image our country has in the comity of nations has been assuaged by such men and women of excellence. We must evolve a better way to acknowledge and celebrate their achievements.
Until his death, Adesanmi was a professor of literature and Director of the African Studies Centre at Carleton University, Ottawa. He happened to be a fellow columnist on the Tribune stable. The newspaper’s editors have paid a well-deserved tribute to both him and Bashua already.
As fate would have it, a former Carleton professor from another generation, Claude Ake, also perished in an airplane disaster back in November 1996. Ake was perhaps the most influential political economist of his generation and a mentor to many, including my humble self. He had been appointed to a full professorship at Carleton at the unusual age of twenty-eight.
Rumours had it that the Abacha military dictatorship may have had a hand in that air crash because of Ake’s principled opposition to the regime.
Pius Adesanmi was born on 27 February 1972 in the small community of Isanlu in Yagba East Local Government Area of Kogi State. He attended the famous Titcombe College Egbe before proceeding to the University of Ilorin, where he earned a first class honours degree in French and Linguistics in 1992. He later earned a Master’s in Ibadan and subsequently completed his doctorate at the University of British Columbia in 2002. He began his academic career at Penn State in the United States before returning to Canada where he was made a tenured professor and Director of the African Studies Institute at Carleton.
I regret that our paths never crossed on this earth, although we wrote for the same newspaper. We had a lot of other things in common. We shared a similar worldview and intellectual culture. He was an Okun Yoruba from Kabba, which made him my fellow Middle Belt compatriot. Like him, I also studied French language and civilisation, although mine was preparatory for post-graduate work in Economics, Public Administration and Law in Paris. We both had the privilege of moving freely from French Cartesian philosophical thinking to Anglo-Saxon philosophical empiricism. It is the best preparation, in my view, for any public intellectual worthy of the name.
But I had occasion to disagree with him. He once opined that the American approach to graduate work – with its coursework and comprehensive exams — was better preparation than the British and European system of direct research. As a matter of fact, research has shown that the classical approach of direct research has produced more discoveries and more path-breaking ideas than the American.
In the British system, for example, you cannot even be admitted if you do not have a First or a High Upper Second. At Oxford and Cambridge, they believe so much in the quality of their undergraduate curriculum that graduates are automatically awarded an M. A. a few years after graduation. The Americans, on the other hand, open the doors to all sorts. They, therefore, of necessity must design a system that can weed out the wheat from the chaff.
The late Adesanmi was a distinguished literary scholar and teacher; with several books and academic papers to his name; a sought-after public speaker. His pen was as acerbic as was his tongue; oozing satire and unforgettable wit. In 2015 he wrote criticising the Emir of Kano for taking an under-age girl for a wife. His Royal Highness was compelled to reply to the criticism; referring directly to Adesanmi in person.
Pius decried the fact that our country is innately hostile to intellectuals: “Everywhere you look, our national life is a sordid and tragic display of the absence of philosophy…when you declare war on philosophy, knowledge and critical intellection, the consequence, simply put, is Nigeria as you and I know it. Nigeria can therefore be defined as the absence and hostility to philosophy in the life of a nation.”
Eulogies have come from far and wide. The Anglo-Canadian scholar and management consultant, Michael Vickers, who taught at Ile-Ife in the sixties, had this to say: “Profound sadness. Immense loss. And at a time we can least afford it. The Creator, it often seems, has a serious grudge against Nigeria and Nigerians.”
Distinguished Rhodes Scholar and former Ford Foundation Regional Director for West Africa, Richard Joseph, wrote: “The death that cut Pius in his prime stings with sorrow. An irreplaceable man has gone. A silence descended upon me, a pregnant silence. I could not even recover to write this tribute, doing so only after request by friends and his family members. The sorrow is difficult to bear. The pain refuses to leave.”
One of his friends, Frank Dempster Sherman, had this to stay: “He opened the way to a larger discourse on the limits of superstructure, while also creating a path to extensive reflections on the social and cultural formations of contemporary Africa. Focusing on quotidian lived experiences, he connected thousands of people with the bigger ambition of the application of modernity. Pius’s energy and enthusiasm for everything that life had to offer was infectious and inspiring. Those who knew him would admire his strength, his passion, his resilience, his exuberance and his adorably audacious character.”
One of his close friends, Samuel Oloruntoba, wrote from South Africa: “I don’t have a strong emotion to withstand this type of shock. At a point yesterday, I just (lay) down flat on the bare floor of my office to ask God how to cope with this. This has nothing to do with the plans that we had together but the void that has been left — on the ideals that he stood for, his mother, who served us pounded yam in their Ilorin home in July last year, his wife and daughter and the manner of the tragic death….I can’t look at his pictures going around without feeling that a part of me is gone.”
Writing from Rutgers University, Bode Ibironke had this to say: “The last time I saw Pius was in Michigan, at a conference organised by Ken Harrow. We were on the same panel. He made everyone laugh as he threaded together satirical narrative and theoretical arguments. His charm, his brilliance, his confidence, and his special skill in human connection made him so attractive…. How could one not tremble? What sort of gift is life when it’s never really our own?”
Toyin Falola, President of the African Studies Association and Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas eulogised him thus: “He is not dead. He cannot die. The tumult of life is different from the history of life. For a heart so large, in clouds and sun, rain and hurricane, our brother will always be here…. Pius lived a fulfilled life full of legacies that few can equal.”
Remarkably, he seemed to have had a premonition of his own impending death. On Sunday the 3rd of March, he wrote in his column: “I write basically these days because of archaeology. A thousand years from now, archaeologists would be interested in how some people called Nigerians lived in the 20th and 21st centuries. If they dig and excavate, I am hoping that fragments of my writing survive to point them to the fact that not all of them accepted to live as slaves of the most irresponsible rulers.” And on Saturday 9th March, a day before his death, he posted his own picture on Facebook with a quote from Psalms 139 vs. 9-10: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
They were among the best we had. May their souls rest in peace and may the Almighty comfort the loved ones they have left behind. I plead with the Federal Government to accord posthumous national honours on both Bashua and Adesanmi. Sic transit gloria mundi!