Mabogunje

At both the cartographic and disciplinary level, therefore, Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje’s ascension into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame has taught us all a lesson about life: Providence knows where you are headed; but let hard work, diligence and relentless commitment take you there.


In this article, I will be using an unusual metaphor to make some significant points about the implications of a heroic pursuit of excellence that derives from a singularly patriotic spirit that wants to serve and make a mark through an unstinting and boldface committed service. The metaphor is unusual because it has to do with the discipline of geography. This is one discipline in the social sciences which no one talks about even though we live our entire existence in geographical dimensions. Geography speaks to the cartographic exercise of mapping the world, in lines, shapes, dots and colours, so as to facilitate an understanding of places and spaces. Without this exercise, it would have been impossible to achieve any meaningful planning of human existence. At another level, and even though again it is barely recognised, geography plays a significant role in the development planning of any nation. Since the city and its administration is very germane to what we call “governance,” there cannot therefore be proper governance without a cartographic understanding of what is to be governed, that is, the citizens and where they are occupying in space and time.

But, as a metaphor, I am deploying cartography in this piece to sketch the mapping of one’s career trajectory in life without any hint as to where it will lead eventually in life. There is no one that did not begin life with some grandiose ambition of becoming a doctor, an engineer, a manager, an entrepreneur, a lawyer, a politician, a pilot, a pharmacist or an accountant. In fact, this list covers pretty much the space of achievements that even parents outlined for their children. Anything outside of it—a dancer, policeman, driver, teacher, fashion designer, musician, a blogger, philosopher, or even a geographer—is pure nonsense, at least in the wisdom of our parents! Choosing a career then has always been a struggle. Right from one’s youth, we attempt to prognosticate our future to see which career trajectory will lead to the rosy prospects we have set out for ourselves. I have been a part of this critical endeavour. When I told my parents I wanted to become a philosopher—after reading Plato’s Republic—they definitely thought I was either joking or insane. A philosopher! What does that even mean? I suspect their line of worries, like most parents today, must have been how “philosophising” could put food on anyone’s table or provide for them in their old age. Hence, they were very firm in pushing me out of my fantasy into what they considered more worthwhile for my future—law. Providence however defeated both of us. I eventually became a political scientist and public administrator.

I mentioned Providence because choosing a career is not a prospect which anyone can ever succeed in except Providence intervenes. Many have failed outside of it, even when placed in what has been considered the “prospective” career. And many have succeeded even beyond imagination in careers which have been roundly reproached by others. This article is to celebrate someone that has been dear to my heart and critical to my character and professional development as a leading light and mentor for as long as I can remember. Just this April, Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje was elected into the hallowed hall of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences! This is not just another award or induction into just any other professional or scholarly association. To understand the magnitude of this recognition, first consider those who have gone ahead of Professor Mabogunje: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alexander Graham Bell, Margret Mead, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aaron Copeland, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes, Akira Kurosawa, Nelson Mandela, Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Michael Mann, and many more.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780, and is made up of 4,900 fellows and more than 600 foreign honorary members—Philosophers, statesmen, intellectuals, inventors, Nobel laureates, outstanding academia, innovators, thinkers and world-historic figures. And now Professor Mabogunje, geographer extraordinaire, has entered into this 237-year old revered chamber. So, I wonder: If Mabogunje were to be my son, and he asked to be a geographer, how would I have responded. Well, I suspect I would have taken the path my own parents took: What is geography? And how can “geographying” enhance anybody’s life prospect?

…being referred to as the Father of African Geography, according to Prof. Mabogunje, is more of a function of allowing his Ph.D to highlight the skills of quantitative and theoretical geography which contributed to giving urban and regional development an ‘African visibility’ in an evolving intellectual revolution.


I am almost certain that when Prof. Mabogunje set out on his lonely career course sixty four years ago in 1953, he had no idea whatsoever that he would one day be referred to as not only the “father of Geography in Africa,” but also achieve a preeminent honour and sit alongside worthy figures like Washington, Franklin, Emerson, Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. as distinguished members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But from 1953 when he got his BA General degree in Geography, Mabogunje had never looked back. It seemed then to him that setting your own goals and running after your own objectives in life matters more than anything in life. Mabogunje became a relentless pursuer of excellence such that between 1953 and 1965, a space of just twelve years, he had already reached the pinnacle of his career! Becoming a professor might have satisfied so many, but not Mabogunje. In fact, he immediately recognised the significance of geography as a social science to the struggle for nationhood and development in Nigeria, and the urgency of professing not just academic insights but also policy recommendations that could become empowering for the citizens.

Like I wrote in my review of his autobiography, being referred to as the Father of African Geography, according to Prof. Mabogunje, is more of a function of allowing his Ph.D to highlight the skills of quantitative and theoretical geography which contributed to giving urban and regional development an ‘African visibility’ in an evolving intellectual revolution. After a Master’s thesis titled “The Changing Pattern of Rural Settlement and Rural Economy in Egba Division, Southwestern Nigeria” (1958), Mabogunje went on to produce Lagos: A Study in Urban Geography (1968), and The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective (1980, revised 1989). There were also a series of lectures, the most outstanding of which are the 1977 University Lecture titled, “On Developing and Development” and the Sixth Keith Callard Lecture Series in 1969 titled, “Regional Mobility and Resource Development in West Africa”. As these titles made clear, all these theses, lectures, essays and research projects were already defining for Mabogunje the scholar how his discipline intersects the development process, especially in Nigeria.

Thus, almost simultaneous with his intellectual development was also his administrative and policy restlessness to integrate knowledge with action and impact Nigeria. His involvement with the Western Nigerian Economic Advisory Council, Federal Capital Development Authority, DFFRI; his tenure first as vice president and later as the first African president of the International Geographical Union, as well as numerous private sector responsibilities also combined with a truly pragmatic understanding of scholarship that brought geography into development planning and rural-urban development. It was therefore easy not only to set up the Development Policy Centre with Professor Ojetunji Aboyade in the 90s, but to also channel his convictions and unique scholarship into his understanding of development as a significantly grassroots phenomenon. With the optimum community (OPTICOM) initiative therefore, he meant to redirect government’s development energies in a manner that will yield the ultimate results for the empowerment of the people who really matter.

All you need to do is read Prof. Mabogunje’s autobiography—A Measure of Grace—and you will be amazed, again, at how his beloved country has blocked him at every critical point of service and commitment. But there is a reason why Mabogunje’s commitment cannot become ordinary and forgotten.


Unfortunately, like so many brilliant initiatives, OPTICOM has only met with a measure of minimal success. All you need to do is read Prof. Mabogunje’s autobiography—A Measure of Grace—and you will be amazed, again, at how his beloved country has blocked him at every critical point of service and commitment. But there is a reason why Mabogunje’s commitment cannot become ordinary and forgotten. One reason is the multiplication of honours and awards that has attended his pursuit of excellence and service in life. But I have something else in mind. Many years ago, while straying about on my own course towards excellence in my chosen path of public service reform, I came under the mentoring influence of Prof. Mabogunje and his friend, Prof. Aboyade. Between them, they moulded my conception of myself, my life, my profession and my contribution to posterity. Ojetunji Aboyade died many years ago, but Mabogunje took his mentoring of my progress in life by transforming it into an inter-generational platform when he became the Chairman of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).

Apart from its mandate in getting the government in Nigeria to work better for development and democracy, ISGPP is committed to bringing this about through a unique inter-generational dialogue that brings the creative patriotism of the younger generation in conversation with the experienced commitment of the older generation. It is only fit that a man of Mabogunje’s calibre, dedication, patriotism, experience, and development credentials would chair such an organisation with cartographic efficiency. And, it seems to me also that ISGPP is now better placed to follow through on Mabogunje’s OPTICOM development option, especially through the radical resurgence of new and visionary traditional rulers who are taking grassroots development seriously as an alternative to large-scale development that has often failed to affect the people.

At both the cartographic and disciplinary level, therefore, Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje’s ascension into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame has taught us all a lesson about life: Providence knows where you are headed; but let hard work, diligence and relentless commitment take you there. Then the whole world will stand in applause. We all stand in loud ovation to this gentle soul who has been so highly honoured.

foraminifera

Tunji Olaopa is Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email: tolaopa2003@gmail.com, tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng