Babajide Alo at 70: Oriki to a model professor
Babajide Ibitayo Alo, the man with a photographic memory who never forgets your name after the first encounter, is already threescore and ten so soon and would therefore bow out gracefully and cheerfully from the services of the University of Lagos.
He does so after putting in forty-two years of continuous and dedicated service to the university system, his profession and his country, and also to an uncountable number of people outside those spaces and systems.
This man with elastic patience who would listen and hear you out without interrupting; whose fertile mind and broadness of outlook transcended his academic trade of Chemistry and reshaped people in the corners he found himself, leaves the University of Lagos (UNILAG) physically but remains with us spiritually as a living ancestor.
Alo is a professor with a dignifying presence that reminds you of royalty and its expectations. But he would immediately descend to your level through his affable and down to earth manners at any personal or even official encounter. That disposition would bring a sense of ease and unforgettable joy to people he meets and the professional and social relationships he formed or got involved in.
After being a professor of Chemistry since 1993, with globally acclaimed expertise in the management of environmental issues, and after the honour of being Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Lagos since 2016, Jide Alo, now leaves public service officially and allows his verifiable contributions in manpower development and institution building to mark his presence and speak of his passage through UNILAG.
Prof. Alo served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor DVC (Academics and Research), two-term Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies, Director, the University of Lagos Centre for Environmental Human Resources Development, Board Chairman, University of Lagos Business School (ULBS), Chairman, Board of Trustees of Pastor E. A. Adeboye Chair in Mathematics and leaves as the oldest serving Professor in the institution. Outside the university, he served the Nigerian government and the international community in a slew of positions that make his Curriculum Vitae a text worthy of being studied. Only his memoirs, (if he decides to write one), or his biographer (whoever would have the courage to take on that enormous task), would give details and clarity as to who he is and what he has achieved. However, one must point to two indelible presences where Prof. Alo’s thinking and action intersect to produce public service and help us to understand how far people appointed to non-executive positions in Nigerian universities can go to make things happen.
In 2013, while he was serving as DVC, Prof. Alo travelled to the UK to sign a cooperation agreement (on behalf of the Vice-Chancellor and the University), between the University of Lagos and the University of Sussex to begin collaboration in research on dirt, waste management and public health in the two institutions.
As a scientist, Prof. Alo was intrigued that scholars in the humanities could conceptualise and produce a proposal of such interdisciplinary magnitude to attract the scale of funding. In his spare time, he studied the Sussex model and concluded that a central coordination and management system and structure servicing the entire university would go a long way in enhancing research and promoting the status of UNILAG as a research university. I know because I went with him on that trip, and in his usual manner, he discussed the concept with me, although I made little sense of it at the time.
As Prof. Alo leaves the service of UNILAG today, the Research and Innovation Office (that nerve centre and main driver of research activities in the University of Lagos) stands as formidable evidence of his conceptual and practical skills in institution building. One must acknowledge the free hand and support that his boss, Prof Rahman Ade Bello, gave him all through their tenures, to think and act on such matters.
The other ineffaceable presence of Prof. Alo is his intellectual contributions.
In accounting for this, I quickly discount his 160 research papers and other publications because that’s what scholars are expected to do. But I must mention that his distinction as knowledge producer first came in the form of his being the first Black African to address the South African Chemical Institute (SACI) in 1994. If naysayers see this as a political act in a country transitioning from white minority rule to democracy, then it is more appropriately and importantly a statement that South African knowledge producers took the first opportunity of freeing themselves from divisive racial and territorial politics by honouring a Nigerian. And, given that Alo was just one year old as a university professor, that statement assumes stronger political and intellectual force by showing the world that, in the field of Chemistry, status and hierarchies are insignificant considerations when matters of useable knowledge are on the table.
Sixteen years after the event, the statement was again revalidated when the University of South Africa (UNISA) designated him as “African Scholar of the year for 2010”. To put it modestly, the continental reaches of Prof. Alo’s scholarship is beyond debate.
So when in 2016 Alo was designated ‘Distinguished Professor of Chemistry’, it seemed clear that knowledge production capacity was being rethought beyond the local university setting. This rethinking is coming at a time when, in Nigeria, the professoriate is becoming the new site for desecration by politicians and pretenders to knowledge production. In deed, a conceptual category tagged “professor in Nigeria/Nigerian professor” coined by Alo himself, is emerging to distinguish dedicated producers of knowledge from charlatans who work their ways to administrative and political positions through the professoriate.
Alo is a ‘Professor in Nigeria’, meaning he has transcended the strictures of Nigeria’s unique research environment to identify and stand tall with his global compatriots.
If a teacher’s reward comes from a sense of accomplishment, I believe that Prof. Alo would have amply found his in those encounters with different generations of students who have passed through his gentle but firm hands. He talks gleefully about his encounters with them at lounges of local and international airports, lobbies of hotels, international conferences and seminar venues across the world, places where successful sons and daughters should meet their success in loco parentis. If 14 of these products have gone on to earn their Ph.Ds, and six of the 14 have become professors, like Alo, and are making their marks in academia, what else is left to be done?
As Prof. Alo leaves UNILAG today, he remains in the many careers he planted, the motivations he sowed and the relationships he forged across disciplinary barriers and rigid social and professional hierarchies. We salute this great man; the Vice-Chancellor that UNILAG ought to have had at one time or another.
Dr. Oloko is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Lagos.