Ayo Olukọtun at 65: On Becoming an Elder, By Toyin Falọla
Like the compact pastiche of the rainbow
Your name heralds joys and glad tidings
And so your majestic presence of industry
It is the child’s to clean the home:
Your youthful ebullience is spent
Dusting off cobwebs on this wall
Turning our nightmares into sweet dreams
It is the elder’s to put the town orderly:
Now in your lock of grey,
Your words are a heritage to infant tongues
And your moves mend our broken fence
Son of Dada Aina,
Like the stealthy scamper of the moon
Every breath of yours is a trace of success
A signage of more fulfillments to come.
Among the Yoruba, to be described as an àgbà (an elder) is not either a mere function of advanced age or being close to senility, which is simply a biological clock function, as well as consequence. Instead, it is rather a dignified social status that one accrues over the years through one’s dint of both acumen and hard work. As one advances in sterling age (with true or natural grey hair), and one’s perceptive abilities, acumen and acuity sharpen, one becomes positioned to play the role of the àgbà in the social and communal sphere. To be an àgbà among the Yoruba people in Africa and the world, is to have acquired the intellectual insight, as well as the rhetorical resources, genial personality, moral capital, shrewdness, and astute judgment to intervene in social and political discourses; to have the personal integrity, maturity, and courage to speak the truth to power; to synchronise and synthesise issues, all of which cumulatively empower the àgbà to offer critiques that advance received knowledge; to manage conflicts and arbitrate them with prudence; to guide younger generations through the maze of life with the sagacity that time and experience confer on one; and to know the times and demands of the society in which one lives.
In brief, to be an àgbà, according to the Yoruba cultural worldview, is to be an institution to oneself, coupled with becoming both a living legend and a respected one at that. Àgbà is an intellectual position, as much as it is a socio-cultural tall order that is not very easy to attain. However, the position of an àgbà can, as well, be a precarious one; that is indeed why the Yoruba pray that one will not go from being an àgbàlagbà to an àgbàyà, with the latter denoting or becoming a worthless elder, a veritable oxymoron. Above all, a status of an àgbà is never earned like academic credentials once and for all—instead, one keeps earning àgbà status through one’s contributions to the society in general.
As Professor Olukotun clocks the magic number of 65, I know that his àgbà status is only just unfolding. He is an àgbà, whose agbalagba status is becoming solidified through his performance of his roles in our society. Olukotun remains a social critic with a deep sense of humanity and an active moral compass, a true àgbà in the profound sense of the term.
My classmate and friend since our Ife days in the 1970s, Ayodele Samuel Olukotun, by his sterling qualities and acts over the years, embodies the expectations of Yoruba people in their conceptualisation of who an àgbà should be. On this occasion of his 65th birthday, a retirement age in Western norm, I note that my friend—the dedicated husband of Mosunmola—is an àgbà who is becoming an àgbàlagbà, while fastly laying the foundation to the status of an agbalagbi, in itself the preface to an arúgbó, that very long jump from adolescence to obsolescence. As he is growing in years (with a distinguished shiny hair), he is also increasing in wisdom, insight, and equally, crucially, expanding his social roles as a public father, and a true elder.
As all of you must know, Olukotun (aka “Possible Baiye”) is an academic and a public intellectual. In 2016, in recognition of his multiple roles in our expansive national society, he was made the pioneer occupant of the Ọba Sir Sikiru Adetọna Professorial Chair in Governance at the Olabisi Onabanjo University at Ago-Iwoye. Attaining the distinguished position was certainly not a mean achievement; after all, as all of us know, to be honoured with a professorial-cum-named chair is the apex of an academic career, while the objectives of the position are congruent with his àgbà status in contemporary national life. This is a position that Oba Adetona, a very progressive and visionary King, thoughtfully created for gifted academics, who would clear new spaces to enable the birthing of a better global scholarly ethos. The spaces are to serve as a philosophical estate, whereby habitual thinkers and transformative agents like Olukotun can generate ideas that will breed new kinds of national subjects. These subjects will promote and develop new ethics of collective national transformation, public orientation, and civil behaviour.
Àgbà Olukotun’s second professorial lecture on “Civil Society and Governance in Nigeria’s Evolving Democracy, 1999 to 2018” was delivered on May 10, 2018. As I took the time to peruse a copy, I promptly remembered his speeches in the 1970s, which were in relation to the statement by Winston Churchill: “Any man, under thirty, who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty, who is not a conservative has no brains.” In that profound lecture, Olutokun’s sentences and their structures have not developed the inflammation of age and fatigue; and the paragraphs are not hardened to stand in the way of mature reflections.
As a professor, with a named chairship, Olukotun has an office that grants him a unique position to perform the role of an àgbà, with an intellectual flourish: To conceive, execute, and build upon studies that are capable of yielding meaningful discernments regarding the seemingly intractable challenges, as well as issues of governance that Nigeria faces at both local and global levels. With his educational background up to the Ph.D. level in the distinct but interlocked fields of History/Sociology/International Relations at Obafemi Awolowo University, Olukotun has marshaled the energies of different disciplines to create intellectual paradigms which point us to critical and reasonable interventions.
The foregoing mediations on the part of Olukotun deepen our comprehensions on the intertwined ways in which our socio-cultural and socio-political forms of education can be stimulated to produce better results in our political and social development. Since he entered this recent position, he has worked assiduously to generate the scholarship and other research activities that facilitate the “town and gown” interactions. He has been bringing together scholars, institutions, and abstract thoughts to collaborate on producing varied critical analyses that will impact our governance systems.
…Olukotun works assiduously to establish the basics of the insalubrious relationship that exists between Nigerians and their leaders, and why its dynamics resist simplified prognosis. He studies the dimensions of national life and the political systems that determine the worth of Nigerian life. As an elder, he knows he has the moral obligation to intervene in social issues…
Olukotun, Baba Temitope, is also a columnist, and an award-winning one too. In all the twenty years or so that he has been writing for various media (and in the past eight years, exclusively for PUNCH newspapers), he has shown himself to be a savvy and seasoned analyst who understands the imbrication of politics, governance, democracy, and institutions. The same Yoruba people, who saw fit to create the concept of àgbà, also note that an elder cannot be in the marketplace to see a child’s neck bent on its mother’s back. Instead, they believe that elders are supposed to play the role of interventionists in public social situations. When they confront a situation, whereby the neck of an innocent child on the mother’s back is bent, either because the mother is negligent or simply unaware, they do not simply mind their business. Rather, they put themselves on the line and speak to the mother to redress the situation. They are, indeed, concerned because their status, as àgbà, means that they do not just overlook things; instead, they have been culturally appointed to intervene and set things right.
My friend, Ayo, Baba Oluwatomisin, plays this role of an elder in his public engagements, as well as in his columns, with such gusto that his published articles are a must-read for me and also for many others who patronise our cyber watering hole, the USA-Africa Dialogue, where he generously shares his PUNCH columns and also expands on the seams of any intellectual conversation. His overriding pre-occupation, in column after column, is humanity, Nigerians, and the unending ways one must repeatedly state to our leaders that Nigerian lives matter.
Furthermore, Olukotun works assiduously to establish the basics of the insalubrious relationship that exists between Nigerians and their leaders, and why its dynamics resist simplified prognosis. He studies the dimensions of national life and the political systems that determine the worth of Nigerian life. As an elder, he knows he has the moral obligation to intervene in social issues, but while he must offer critical analyses, he can barely afford to rupture the peace of the society. He writes to reflect on social situations, to sermonise, to enlighten, to conscientise, to educate, and like a public preacher, to exhort. Although an expert and an authoritative figure, he is never condescending to his reader. He does not beat them on the head with empiricism or the weight of his informed knowledge, he speaks with the measured disposition of an elder.
Samuel presents the issues, the histories and the historical contexts that create them, and their undercurrents in a provocative language that conveys his pain but is yet tempered enough with the restraint an elder is expected to manifest. He understands the pains of the ruled, the frustration of the ruler, the fatalism of the poor, the psychology of the dispossessed, the sociology of underdevelopment, the long-suffering of the psychologically battered, the audacity of their hope, their longings and their daring imaginations for a better life, and their visions of redemption. He artfully dissects the culture of underdevelopment: The unrestrained will to power, the placement of politics over governance, the incoherence of policies, the lack of synthetisation of human energies, the willful ignorance of our social and geographical environment; our nonchalance at the retardation of our modernity, and overall, the meaningful lack of worthwhile effort to generate the significant national philosophy and ethos that would help place our problems within a manageable consequential framework.
Reading Olukotun’s columns and academic treatises are certainly a mental treat in logical analysis and presentation of issues. He is curious and through his retina, we see issues with the clarity only a seasoned teacher, philosopher, and elder can evoke. He is broad-minded and the wide expanse of his mind and temperament is such a welcome difference in this brave new world of ours where social and public discourses are steeped in vitriol; acerbic exchanges that gain traction due to the anonymity the new media yields to public speakers. Olukotun comes across as a great balancer, putting forth streams of opinions, postulations, histories, and abstract ideas, all while counterpoising them with references to real life experiences and situations.
Olukotun is not just a mediator, as he possesses the perspicacity of an elder to understand the tectonics of every phenomenon that erupts in our society, how to apprehend what is at stake for every party, and the ways we gear intellectual resources towards creating viable responses that serve the ends of academia, while also generating practical policies. His efforts have been a marriage of the academy and its resources with the pressuring imperative of humanitarian activism.
Ayo, bear in mind that after 100, you are on your own! You may then decide to stay breathing, to keep looking ahead, to even look back (as a Sankofa elder), and to remember to look worried! Feel free to retell stories passed on to you by Pa Dada, your Dad, and Mama Aina, your dear Mom.
As Professor Olukotun clocks the magic number of 65, I know that his àgbà status is only just unfolding. He is an àgbà, whose agbalagba status is becoming solidified through his performance of his roles in our society. Olukotun remains a social critic with a deep sense of humanity and an active moral compass, a true àgbà in the profound sense of the term. In the highly promising years ahead of this prodigious scholar, I am certain that he will continue to draw from his deep wells of humanism to continue to flourish, as well as produce scholarship and social intervention articles that will help to generate a new moral order in our society, renovate our vandalised ethical culture, and proffer visionary and humanistic ideas on our nation and the future.
The future ahead is one where this growing elder will continue to broaden the horizons of our thinking and ecumenical visions, and bless us with ideas and insights that only those who have attained such a status can bestow.
In the final analysis, let me borrow from the words of my townsman, the late Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, whose album Barry at 40 remains a classic:
Ọmọdé ọjọ́, o mà ń dàgbà ré o!
The child of yesteryears, you are inching towards àgbà
Kí orí jẹ́ o pẹ́ láyé, ko sì báwọn tálàgbà
May your head let you live long, until you join the league of elders
Ko sì ní ‘hun tí àgbà ń ní
And may you possess what makes one an elder
Èèyàn ni wọ́n ṣè’yun tí ò lè wáyé ń bí
There were some people who were miscarried and did not even come into this world at all
Ọmọ ènìyàn ni wọ́n bí tí kò dúró gba súná kó tó kú…
And some were born but died before they could be named
Ayọ̀ Olúkọ̀tún, ọlọ́jọ́ ìbí wa, may you celebrate 70, 80, 90, and 100!
Ayo, bear in mind that after 100, you are on your own! You may then decide to stay breathing, to keep looking ahead, to even look back (as a Sankofa elder), and to remember to look worried! Feel free to retell stories passed on to you by Pa Dada, your Dad, and Mama Aina, your dear Mom. If you clock 110 in age, then you can fall into anecdotage and retire from your weekly sermons to enjoy the symphony of snaps and naps under the tree at Jege, the town of your birth. In any case, you are already deaf to hear the doctor’s warning that you are old and you should stop drinking palm wine and chewing bitter kola. Your teeth have yet to penalise you from chewing beef, and your ears still enjoy the àgídìgbo music. Your eyes refuse to see evil. No one bothers any more to tell you about the recent news of car accidents on the Ibadan-Lagos road, the lack of money to fly to India for medical treatment, unpaid salaries and depression, the menacing AK47 being attributed to the Fulani herdsmen, the thuggery of the agents of the senator to governor to chief senator and to Oba Oniregbe of Secretariat land. You have voluntarily chosen to die of old age! After 120, I leave the remaining years for God to decide. He is a merciful God, and He may keep you going till 150! I say no more until the ten percent tithe is delivered to TF!
Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, The University of Texas at Austin.