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Francis Abiola Irele (1936 – 2017)


Abiola Irele

As the academic, the literary and the wider worlds grief over the passing of Professor Francis Abiola Irele whose death occurred the other day, it is worth putting on record that Nigeria has indeed lost one of its most eminent and versatile scholars in Humanities and the Arts.

A laureate of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) and Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (FNAL), Professor Abiola Irele carved a niche for himself as a world-class literary critic and as the doyen of African, French and European Literature whose footprints on the sands of time in African literary scholarship is indelible. His hard-work and sustained commitment to research, writing and publication will forever illustrate his life as a cerebral scholar of uncommon standing.

No doubt, his odyssey in the world of scholarship, research, teaching and learning will remain a reference in the history of excellent scholarship in Nigeria and the rest of the world.

Abiola Irele graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1960 and obtained his Ph.D in French at the University of Paris, Sorbonne in 1966. He had held teaching and research appointments at the University of Ghana, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (O.A.U) and the University of Ibadan before he moved to Ohio State University in the United states of America in 1989 as Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature. He therefore had a distinguished and unparalleled career in Africa, Europe and United States. Until his demise, he was the Provost of the College of Humanities, Kwara State University, Malete as well as Professor of African and African – American Studies at Harvard University, Boston in the USA.

Irele’s prodigious and monumental contributions to knowledge guarantee his now certain immortality. He was a famous Negritudian Scholar worldwide, very much respected in the Anglophone and Francophone literary hemispheres, having excelled in the interpretation and hermeneutics of ‘Negritude’ as an African Philosophy. In his article, What is Negritude? he defined Negritude as “the literary and ideological movement of French-speaking black intellectuals, which took form as a distinctive and significant aspects of the apprehensive reaction of the black man to the colonial salvation.” In his anthology, Negritude et condition africanie, he ruminated on and located the African progress in the present and not in a romanticised past.

His contribution to knowledge is encompassing and beyond disciplinary boundaries. It spans philosophy, music, drama, arts, folk tales and oral poetry with remarkable elegance, profundity and range in each and every-one of them. For instance, in his contributions to Introduction to African Philosophy: myth or reality by Professor Pauline Hountondji of the University of the Republic of Benin, Irele displayed an erudite grasp of the philosophical trends in African and Western philosophy and the African origin of Western civilisation as well as, if not better than, the author himself. He was an outstanding giant in knowledge, especially in literary and book matters. He edited and co-edited the following journals; Black Orpheus, Research in African Literatures, Transition, the Savannah Review among others as his contribution to the development of modern African thought.

Irele not only espoused classical African philosophies from the cultural superstructure of Negritude with its artistic and social dynamics of African culture in relation to Western and Eastern philosophies but also set an agenda for the cannon and aesthetics in African literature. His essays in globally-rated journals are oriented towards agenda-setting on the promotion and development of African Philosophy, Literature and Literary Criticism. Some of these works include: The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora and The African Experience in Literature and ideology.

Professor Abiola Irele was a humanist. His humane nature and detribalised disposition are what Nigeria’s present generation of academics and leaders need to imbibe to drive the socio-economic cum political quest of Nigeria with a view to attaining the greatness the nation deserves. He will also be remembered, according to his wish, as a Catholic, who often raised his voice as a member of the choir around the Thrown of Grace. Contemporary academics and writers must learn from his brilliance, sustain his legacy of uncommon erudition and live his kind of life of commitment to the best in scholarship. His authenticity, depth and enduring substance of research should inspire them instead of the current shallow or empty, ephemeral or fleeting and mercantilist works suffocating the media and the academia. With Irele’s passing, Nigeria or indeed, the world has lost a giant.

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Francis Abiola Irele
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