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Busari Adebisi: Reflections on death and genius

By Tunji Olaopa
06 September 2021   |   3:41 am
If there is a tribute that gave me so much pleasure to write, this would be one in a very few ever written. And I can tell in advance how much pride that generations of political science graduates of the University of Ibadan would have...

If there is a tribute that gave me so much pleasure to write, this would be one in a very few ever written. And I can tell in advance how much pride that generations of political science graduates of the University of Ibadan would have, reading a befitting celebration of an iconic teacher who impacted our budding intellects with such indescribable but indelible imprint.

When therefore I reflect, with hindsight, on the trajectory of my education and intellectual maturation, I come again and again to the conclusion that providence situated me within a period and context that was specifically electric in terms of the number of galaxy of intellectuals and scholars that molded my worldview. Apart from those I met on the pages of the countless books that I voraciously consumed as an eager bibliophile—from Plato through Claude Ake to Ben Nwabueze; there are also so many living and dead, that were the heroes and heroines on whose shoulders I gained enlightenment.

One of these is Dr Busari Adebisi. Out of the many others that gave me the foundation for political theorizing, Dr Adebisi was mercurial. The trajectory of his upbringing with a father who had no respect whatsoever for university education, and his intellectual rise as well as political aspiration constitutes a tale worth telling as a tribute. At 84, Adebisi defined for me the figure of a committed personality that lived his aspirations.

This tribute is not a lamentation. Dr Adebisi—husband, father, scholar, theoretician, political scientist and politician—left an indelible model of scholarship that fed my imagination for a long time. Let me first narrate the story of his pedigree. Who would claim to know Ibadan in and out and does not have fond knowledge of the legendary tourist destination and edifice built by one of the earliest Ibadan billionaires, ‘Ile Adebisi Idi Ikan’?

That story is all the more significant because it accentuates the person that the son became despite the unfortunate circumstance of his crippling foundation. He came into the world through the popular Adebisi clan of Idi-Ikan, Ibadan. Dr Adebisi’s father was the famous entrepreneur and one of Ibadan’s significant business elites -Adebisi Sanusi Giwa. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of three categories of Ibadan entrepreneurial and business elites. They fell into three categories. There were some of the indigenous business elites that were direct competitors with the Europeans and Lebanese. Then there were the middlemen. The third class is made up of the small-scale traders.

Adebisi Sanusi Giwa’s entrepreneurial wizardry straddled the first and the second categories. From the Ile Wonuola clan, Giwa started farming at a very early age before becoming an agent for Miller Brothers, a British firm. This was the beginning of his entrepreneurial status. By the time he acquired several hectares of land for his cocoa plantation, he was already extremely wealthy.

Adebisi Sanusi was the very epitome of wealth and philanthropy. Unfortunately, however, his wealth and philanthropy failed to translate into a deep appreciation of education, not only for himself, but especially for his many children.

The late Prof. Busari Adebisi was the last son of Sanusi Adebisi Giwa. And we can now begin to relate with the type of trajectory that brought the son of a wealthy entrepreneur, who disdained education, to the height of the academic profession, and even beyond it. Even though his father held the principle that the person with means will eventually employ the ones with knowledge, Dr Adebisi was called upon, by vocational imperatives, to supervise the future of hundreds of students in terms of knowledge acquisition for human development. And, from my unique experience of his pedagogical and human relations competence, he did it with panache.

For me, Dr Adebisi was phenomenal both as a teacher and as a scholar. He was one of my respected teachers, par excellence. We valued our lecturers back then in the 1980s for different reasons. For instance, we had someone like the late Ojetunji Aboyade who was extremely quantitative; every argument had a statistical grounding, as if he needed to remove whatever objections we might have to his solid qualitative arguments. And we have the late Prof. Peter Ekeh, the scholar with a gigantic stature but who treated us in the gentlest of manners—he was significantly in loco parentis in nurturing knowledge in us. When we resumed at the department, news had already filtered about the scintillating fact that there was one Dr Busari Adebisi who had a Doctor of Science degree. Of course, this was a huge, mouth-dropping news for us as freshers. It was one news that later accentuated our appreciation of the context of world-class scholarship and pedagogy we would be introduced to. No one who was interested in educational news and the educational achievements of Nigerians back then would have failed to hear the ground-shaking news of Prof. Ayodele Awojobi, alias “Dead Easy.”

After a most phenomenal and meteoric educational advancement, his intellectual efforts were rewarded with a DSc, and by no less a distinguished institution as the Imperial College London. And he was the first African to receive that award in mechanical engineering. It is only in retrospect, and with the award of the D.Litt to Professor Toyin Falola, by the University of Ibadan, that I had an insight that I did not have back then, as to the intellectual rigour that goes into such honour and award.

Getting recognition at that level has to do with a commensurate global and disciplinary recognition by one’s peers and the academic community that gatekeeps the disciplinary boundary one belongs. Thus, to hear the news that one of our own teachers, in flesh, had that significant title in the social sciences was the height of significant pride for us all. Despite this huge honour, Dr Adebisi kept an open door, and I exploited it to the fullest! Since I was constantly mediating and modifying my understanding of my future prospect, I was always in need of someone more knowledgeable to explain the dynamics to me. And to find a willing help in Dr Adebisi was such a humbling privilege. Under the influence of Prof. Aboyade, I had started tilting towards knowledge-propelled development work that, for instance, would deploy the Aboyade-Mabogunje Opticom method of rural development for understanding the relationship between development and the context within which it needs to happen. Dr Adebisi however saw in me more of an academic. We had countless personal communication moments, including seminal conversation on possible leverage points to venture into politics at the residence of the cerebral intellectual of no mean standing and High Chief (Dr.) Lekan Balogun. And some of those moments were also to clarify issues, arguments and perspectives expounded in class.

The 1980s were not just a period when Nigeria’s foreign policy template was already getting hammered to fit what was considered to be Nigeria’s leadership role in the West African region, it was also the hey day of anti-imperialist posturing, especially within the Marxian theoretical framework. That was the time when Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism—The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Nkrumah’s Neo-colonialism, the Highest Stage of Imperialism, and many others such ideological books were very hot in the curriculum of political science pedagogy.

And at the University of Ibadan, Dr Busari Adebisi was right at the center of the dissemination of these ideas to the willing ears of students who were highly ideologically sophisticated back then. While the theorization of the structural debilitation of the post colonial African state was a subject matter that cut across the entire syllabus at that time, we got a full those of it when Dr Adebisi explored and expounded to us the political economy of structural imperialism, especially from the popular center/core-periphery perspective central to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory.

Wallerstein conceived of the imperialist world as being divided into two—the core/center and the periphery. The core countries, of course, have had the benefits of colonial advantages and they still do through dependency dynamics. The periphery countries are tied, though not in any deterministic sense, to the dependency framework facilitated by the world capitalist system. Dr Adebisi brought these thorny theoretical and ideological issues alive for us in class. Under his tutelage, we had a deep perception of what was happening to the post-independence Nigerian state caught in the grip of global imperialist political economy. And we were justifiably infuriated! And that was brilliance for me—a teacher who is able to cut through the jargons of theoretical postulations and still be able to get the students to see, with clarity, the issues and arguments involved. In those classes, pedagogical admiration was always mixed with revulsion at the tragedy of colonialism and imperialism for the African state.

It was therefore not surprising that Dr Busari Adebisi would take a courageous plunge into professional politics. The ivory towers have their own allure—the sanitized atmosphere of deep theoretical contemplation, unadulterated by the riotous realities around. Only very few could see the relationship between theory and practice, and Dr Adebisi did. It just was not sufficient for me seeing and theorizing the debilitation of the Nigerian state. Why not just do something concrete about it? Why not just bring the theories to bear on the dirtiness of politicking? And he did! He finally rose to the position of the commissioner for education and then the secretary to the Oyo state government. Whether he succeeded or not is not for me to say. All I am sure is that Dr Busari Adebisi inspired generations of students to appreciate the deep theoretical and global dimension that impinged on the shaping of the African states, in ways they could relate with because they bear the brunt of imperialist domination.

P. J. Abdul Kalam, a former president of Indian once wrote: “Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, caliber, and future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.” I ascribe this honour to Dr Busari Adebisi. He was a great teacher and mentor.

Olaopa, retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS).