49 Farewells and More, By Niyi Osundare
These, no doubt, are seasons of painful farewells and sudden departures. The news of Professor Tunde Oduleye’s passing reached me two mornings ago and threw me into a welter of memories and reminiscences. Calling that news shocking would be a gross understatement.
Tunde was bright and bold, firm and fair, resilient and dependable in a country and in an era in which these virtues count for little… A professional scientist by training, he possessed more savvy – and wisdom – about the science of politics than many “experts” who study that subject and (mis)teach its principles, either out of self-interest or unpardonable ignorance. Oduleye brought to labour unionism a perception and commitment that were tremendously inspirational to those of us in the ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) family. Calm, controlled, and re-assuring, even under the most severe pressure, he pacified stormy moments with a disarming sense of humour and bonhomie. This was why he became some kind of ‘Moses’ for the now legendary Ilorin 49, that group of patriotic and intrepid women and men “purged” from their academic positions at the University of Ilorin in 2001, through the diabolic machinations of the university’s vice chancellor at that time and the sadistic connivance of the Obasanjo government.
Their crime? Fighting for a university system that is wholesome, meaningful, purposeful, and functional; a system that understands the real meaning and importance of EDUCATION and the globally acceptable ways of disseminating it. It took many years of joblessness, hunger, demonisation, and other afflictions before legal justice came, at last. But, alas, not for everyone, as the case of one of the ranking leaders of the 49 is still snailing its way through the Nigerian judicial system today, while his rightful, long overdue professional elevation hangs in a needlessly agonising balance. And, as is commonly known in every decent society, justice partially done is often worse than justice never done at all.
Throughout those nearly 10 years in the wilderness, the Ilorin 49 stood firm, the present within their grasp, the future before their gaze. Today, they have become the symbol of steadfast courage and beacon of hope in a country where rank opportunism trumps principled resistance, and genuine fighters for the public good are roundly mischaracterised as trouble-makers and “undue radicals”. Today, the Ilorin 49 stalwarts wear the laurels as our long-distance runners. Tunde Oduleye was one of the runners of that race. His feet were firm on the track, his eyes set on the prize.
Sleep well, then, worthy comrade. Sleep well. Tell Gentleman Adegbija the struggle is anything but over. Let Festus Iyayi know Nigeria’s criminals are still there, Awaiting Court Martial. Let your spirit be our shield as we strive to bring the universe back to Nigeria’s eviscerated university system.
Niyi Osundare is one of Africa’s foremost poets and a Distinguished Professor of the University of New Orleans (UNO), where he teaches in the English Department.