By Femi Macaulay
When a celebrity who doesn’t celebrate his birthday is celebrated on his milestone birthday, it is a celebration worth celebrating. It was not a private matter when Prof. Adebayo Williams turned 70 on September 9. The luminary couldn’t hide his light. He attracted glowing tributes because he is aglow. The celebration of the celebrator underlined his celebrity.
His story celebrates the mind and mental possibilities. He was my teacher when our paths first crossed in the first half of the 1980s. He is still my teacher almost 40 years later. He does not know, and cannot know, how much I learnt from him as a student at the former University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State. He does not know, and cannot know, how much I have learnt from him as a co-member of The Nation’s editorial board.
There are moments I wonder if it is all a dream, sitting with him and other editorialists in the newspaper’s board room to discuss editorial topics. The context seemed even more unreal because of the presence of another teacher who taught me at the same university, Prof. Ropo Sekoni, who recently retired from the editorial board. It was flattering to share the same space with two of those who shaped my writing life at editorial meetings week after week.
I was first drawn to Williams at Ife by his mental magnetism. Certainly, I wasn’t the only student who experienced his electrifying presence in the lecture theatre and his stimulating lectures. Of course, he was decades younger then, but the promise of greatness was unmistakable. I went to his office often just to enjoy the riches of his mind. He accommodated me. We soon became mentor and mentee, not in any formal sense, but essentially. We would engage in fencing for long periods, and I always left his office more educated than I was when I entered the place.
After I left Ife, we met again at African Concord in Lagos where I worked in the early 1990s. By this time, Williams was established as an outstanding columnist, although he still worked as a university lecturer at Ife. We met yet again at Africa Today in the early 2000s. The magazine was published in London, and Williams, based in the US at the time, was its star columnist.
In his years as a columnist for Lagos-based Newswatch magazine, 1985-1990, he demonstrated patriotism and progressivism through his stylistically sophisticated columns. He also wrote memorable columns in Tempo/The News magazines, 1993-1995, and was a major participant in their journalistic crusade against military rule in Nigeria.
It is significant that his involvement in journalism did not weaken his involvement in academia. Interestingly, he was a journalist before he became an academic. He had worked as a sub-editor at Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan before going to the university in 1971.
The national turbulence that followed the annulment of the country’s historic 1993 presidential election won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola brought out the political fighter in Williams. During the intense pro-democracy struggle to reverse the annulment of the election by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Williams fought on the side of the people. Babangida’s successor, Gen. Sani Abacha, who supported the annulment, made the country unlivable for many political activists, which was compounded by difficult socio-economic conditions. It was perhaps predictable that Williams joined the exodus of the oppressed.
He became the Director General of Africa Policy Group, a London-based think-tank focused on governance issues in 1995. His deep interest in governance and democratisation in Africa can be observed in his profound essays in various newspapers and magazines over the years. In 1997, he returned to the Centre of African Studies, University of Birmingham, England, where he had an earlier stint as Leverhulme Fellow from 1988 to 1990, as Visiting Lecturer and Honorary Research Fellow, a position he held till 2006.
In 1998, he became a fellow of African Studies Centre, University of Leiden, Holland and Professor of Liberal Arts, Savannah College of Art and Design in the US. In 2004, he joined University of The Incarnate Word, San Antonio, Texas USA, as Amy Freeman Lee Distinguished Chair of Humanities and Fine Arts.
His brilliant academic career and accomplishments are worth celebrating particularly because he is a homegrown intellectual. He was produced by University of Ife, where he earned his first degree in English Studies, and master’s degree and doctorate in Literature, and rose to the position of Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature in English at the university in 1986. The giant from Gbongan, in present-day Osun State, rose above this background to become a man of the world.
It is a testimony to his brilliance that his scholarship transcends the literary sphere. He is internationally recognised as a multidisciplinary and multidimensional intellectual and respected for his contributions to literary theory, political theory, post-colonial theory, cultural production and creative writing.
He has occupied positions that highlight his political value. He was Chairman, Lagos State Electoral Reform Panel, 2008-2010. Also, he was Chairman, Lagos State Gubernatorial Advisory Committee, 2010-2018, under Governors Babatunde Fashola and Akinwunmi Ambode. He is a member of the Board of Trustees, Obafemi Awolowo Institute for Governance and Public Policy.
Williams has made a name for himself as an arresting and inimitable prose stylist. His essayistic potency is widely celebrated. His essays, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and presented with linguistic grandeur, are the signature of his creative soul. He won the Odunewu Prize for Informed Commentary in 1993 and 2000. His essays usually offer multiple quotable quotes. For instance, writing about the role of journalists, he said: “It is our business to make sense of senselessness.” He writes consistently about the country’s underdevelopment and why underdeveloped leaders cannot bring about development.
Apart from his numerous scholarly articles, and essays in newspapers and magazines, he has published three novels, The Year of the Locusts and The Remains of the Last Emperor, which won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize in 1988 and 1995, and Bulletin from the Land of Living Ghosts.
We reconnected at The Nation, where he is a big fish and writes a compelling column under a pen name. In his office, we explore word behaviour and semantic possibilities under the influence of unseen creative powers.
There are men and supermen. Prof. Adebayo Williams is both man and superman. I wish him many happy returns and God’s blessings as he enters his septuagenarian years.