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Olu Obafemi at 70, a tribute to ‘larger than his frame’ scholar

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Some 20 years ago, Sunday Ododo and I embarked on an ambitious project of editing a festschrift in honour of Olu Obafemi at 50! How time flies. That encounter, which literarily became an acronym for Prof. Olu Obafemi, was aptly titled, Larger Than His Frame: Critical Studies and Reflections on Olu Obafemi. The Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation published the publication. Quite a few of Professor Obafemi’s colleagues now refer to him as ‘Larger than his Frame’!

For that particular publication, I did not write a tribute, but my introduction to the publication captured my encounters with Obafemi as well as introducing the publication to the reading public. A striking part of the introduction and the celebration of Obafemi at 50 was that he had been a professor for ten years as at that time! Now that he is turning seventy, a simple calculation is to the effect that Obafemi would have been a professor for thirty years before retirement. That is a feat that many of us in academia cannot lay claim to.

Since when have I known Professor Olu Obafemi? For a little more than 45 years? Perhaps, this is better stated that I have known of him rather than knowing him. However, fortune would shine on our newly approved Department of Creative Arts at the University of Lagos when Prof. Olu Obafemi accepted to serve a one-year sabbatical leave in our degree programmes of Theatre Arts, Visual Arts and Music. We needed his experience and intellectual guidance in ensuring that the programmes started on a sound footing. That period began an inseparable relationship that has lasted some 23/24 years and traversed Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin, Akutupa, Kabba, Zaria, Abuja and the UK on intellectual and social pursuits. At the academic meetings, Professor Obafemi brought to bear his intellectual prowess to making complex issues more easily understandable, providing leadership, mentorship and editing of materials etc, etc!

At the social level, we were at each other’s family outings; weddings, birthdays and naming of grandchildren. The memorable ones were Morontodun’s (now Dr. Joseph) wedding in Ilorin and Lanre’s in the UK. Quite a number of hours were spent at staff clubs in Lagos, Ibadan, Ilorin with a few beers and lately wine!

Between the years 2000 and 2004, Prof. Obafemi served as the Chairman of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). This was a time when Prof. Femi Osofisan served as the CEO of the National Theatre, Iganmu and I was CEO of Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC). Needless to say, any time a meeting of the Cultural sector was called, all three of us had occasions to interact.

As Dean of Arts at the university from 2009, I became a member of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) coordinating the yearly convocation of the academy held at the J. F. Ade. Ajayi Auditorium of the University of Lagos. This meant working with the various Presidents and Honorary Secretaries. It was particularly elevating working with Professor Obafemi and his team as he expanded the financial base and the activities of NAL.

On one of the few occasions that I entered the Aso Rock Villa, it was particularly joyful to watch Prof. Obafemi receive the prestigious award of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) from the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as the sole recipient of the award in 2018. The touching aspect of the ceremony for me was Professor Obafemi’s acceptance speech which bordered on the need for hard work and merit that propelled a young boy from a humble background to acquire education and excel in academics and be a recipient of an award personally conferred by the President. The impressive ceremony was followed by a dinner for the laureate at the Hilton hotel, Abuja hosted by the Vice-President.

As Obafemi attains the mandatory retirement age from the University of Ilorin, he certainly has had a full and inspiring life. The university system and the nation would for long remember a former ASUU activist, a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, a former Director of the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies and a former President of NAL. Our Poet, Playwright, Songwriter, Ajon Player, Novelist, Essayist, Newspaper Columnist and Editor is retiring but certainly still very active. Happy retirement, Prof. Obafemi, fsonta, FNAL, NNOM, though we know that your restless nature cannot keep you in one place for long. The nation and the international community still requires your sterling qualities and academic input in several spheres.

Oni, Ph.D., FNAL, Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba, Lagos
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