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Moulded by an icon: Still on Mabogunje at 90

By Isaac Megbolugbe 
16 November 2021   |   2:48 am
I write this tribute first, stating in limited detail - others have written and will be writing much more – about the well-known achievements of a giant among intellectuals.

I write this tribute first, stating in limited detail – others have written and will be writing much more – about the well-known achievements of a giant among intellectuals.

Akin Mabogunje

Second, because Prof. Akin Mabogunje is a very good man indeed, I cannot but, indeed the necessity is laid upon me, as Apostle Paul would say, to write as an attestation to this fact and I speak from knowledge. He is my benefactor in no small measure that I can say with gratitude and pride: I was moulded by this icon of a man.

Monday, October 18, 2021, was, of course, a special and memorable day for Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje as he joined the privileged class of nonagenarians. But not for only him. In various corners of the globe, friends, associates, colleagues, students, even ‘disciples’ of his intellectual and personal values, marked in our different ways, the 90th birthday anniversary of a distinguished and much-admired academician and educator, one who has ably demonstrated in theory, in teaching, and in practice, academic, professional, and administrative prowess in diverse fields and at national and international levels. Prof’s multi-dimensional capabilities, his multidisciplinary competencies, establish him, in my esteem, as a polymath. Besides, his wisdom, love and kindness for people stand Mabogunje out as a rare gift of God to humanity. I respectfully say all these from my personal interactions with the man. I shall, with some anecdotes, illustrate.

From my base in the U.S., I have followed with satisfaction the celebration of a man so deserving of the love and affection which Prof. himself had given unreservedly to others over the years. I am especially delighted that he is being celebrated in his lifetime. This is not common anymore; we usually wait to celebrate our icons and beloved ones after their physical death, thereby depriving them of the opportunity and joy to know that we acknowledge and appreciate all the good they have done.

The many messages and writings in the media aptly capture Prof’s diverse and notable accomplishments in the public and private sectors. Among his numerous and impactful contributions in the social and economic development within Nigeria are: serving as a member of the Western Nigerian Economic Advisory Council in 1967, of the Public Service Review Commission in 1972, chairman of the Nigerian Council for Management Development in 1976, and at a time, Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Ogun State University. Mabogunje helped to establish, among several other projects and programmes, the Urban Development Bank of Nigeria, the Community Development Banks and the Federal Capital Development Authority. Prof was vice-chairman in the Dr. Peter Odili-led Presidential Technical Committee on Housing and Urban Development inaugurated by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2002. The White Paper from this effort yielded such remarkable outcomes as the creation of a new Federal Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, a major reorganisation of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN), the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), the emergence of the Real Estate Developers Association of Nigeria (REDAN), Building Materials Producers Association of Nigeria (BUMPAN), and the Lagos Mega City Commission of which he was chairman. These institutions and projects bear, one way or other, the imprint of Prof’s outstanding legacies in the housing, real estate and urban development sectors.

At the international level, Mabogunje was a noteworthy actor: he served as African President of the International Geographical Union, member of the Foreign Association of the United States National Academy of Sciences, and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He was awarded the VautrinLud Prize in 2017.

The sheer number of the academic and professional accomplishments of this shining star, an illustrious son of Africa, is in fact staggering. Indeed, these, as testified by President Muhammadu Buhari in his 90th birthday massage have ‘brought glory to the country.’

Now to my anecdotes. I count myself lucky and special to have benefited from Prof’s mentoring, guidance, friendship and leadership. I have therefore chosen to celebrate Mabogunje’s 90th birthday by reflecting on what this enigma of a man meant – still means- to me personally, on ways he shaped my thinking, impacted my life and career, and the life lessons from my close association with him over many years. My first encounter with him occurred during my registration at the University of Ibadan in 1973 as a college freshman where I would study Geography. While I gained admission to study economics in four other universities, the University of Ibadan chose to accept me only to study a subject for which I did not apply. I came to Ibadan to correct what I thought was a mistake. The late Professor Adedotun Phillip who was Acting Head of Department of Economics asked me to talk to Mabogunje who was Head of the Department of Geography before he considered signing me in as an Economics major. As I approached Mabogunje, his smile was so warm and welcoming that I took an instant liking to him. I was immensely impressed at the sense of caring he radiated as he persuaded me to stick with studying Geography and promised me my choice would preserve all my career options for the future. After reading his world-acclaimed book ‘Urbanisation in Nigeria,’ I decided to major in Urban Geography at the university.

My years in the Department of Geography were the turning point for me and would shape my future career life in Urban and Regional Development. Mabogunje recognised in me what I did not see in myself; under his tutelage and mentoring, he brought the best out of me. He planted the seed in me about Geography being the ‘Queen’ of the Social Sciences which turned out to be true as the subject encompassed all the fields that I wanted to study before I graduated, namely Urban Studies, Economics and Demography.

Prof in future years would frequently engage me in intense discussions on urban and housing markets, mortgage finance and Capital Market Finance. He asked countless questions, I answered them all, I believed, to his satisfaction. What I did not realize then was that he was vetting my knowledge and expertise. Once he was convinced of my understanding and skills, he subsequently endorsed me by sending me people to mentor, problems to solve and complex projects to facilitate. All these experiences set me well on my future career path following my further advanced studies in Urban and Real Estate Economics and Finance. I am both proud and grateful to say Professor Mabogunje ignited the inner me, he moulded my career path, and he contributed to the growth of ‘the total me’ that I am today. I thank you sir.

My second memorable encounter with Mabogunje took place in 1990 in Washington, D.C while I was working as a Senior Economist for the National Association of Home Builders. Prof. was on a short study visit at the World Bank Headquarters. I felt deeply honoured when he sought me out and extended an invitation for me to accompany him to the World Bank for two ‘golden’ hours. We went out for lunch and walked a few blocks around the World Bank Offices to indulge in small talk. That visit was intellectually and emotionally nourishing. I was particularly touched that Prof. would take such quality time out of his busy schedule to visit with me. Again, I remain very grateful for such wonderful memories.

A third memorable close encounter with the Mabogunje I would like to share was in the year 2003 when he had asked the then Managing Director of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, Alhaji Tanimu Yakubu to seek me out in one of his visits to Washington, D.C. as we were both attending a World Bank-sponsored Conference on Housing Finance. When Professor later visited Washington D.C., he sought me out. We spent hours discussing best practices for building well-functioning National Housing Finance Systems in developing countries. As a veteran housing expert, I was amazed at the depth of his mastery of issues and concepts of Housing Finance. My family and I hosted him to dinner at our residence, my wife and children felt so blessed by the presence of this good man. Indeed, they ranked Professor’s visit to our home in the top five of quality family time that year, and my children for years afterwards constantly asked about ‘‘that nice grandfather from Nigeria.’’ 

A more recent and as ever memorable, encounter with Prof. that I fondly recall was in October 2006 when he invited me to Abuja to the ceremonies organised to mark his 75th birthday anniversary. As one of the key speakers at the ‘‘Emerging Urban Africa Conference’’ organised in his honour, I presented a position paper on ‘‘Land Management and Urban Economy.’’ Of course, I was not surprised at a large number of partners and friends from all over the world who turned up to celebrate such an amazing man. The occasion further strengthened our friendship. The event was opened by Obasanjo. The then Honourable Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko and I were deliberately seated next to each other during our panel session as pre-arranged and orchestrated by Mabogunje. This I later got to know. Thanks to this deliberate act which, I should think, stemmed from the regard in which Prof. held me, it was the beginning of a lasting personal and professional friendship with Mimiko and it continues to date.

To be continued tomorrow

Megbolugbe, a retired professor at Johns Hopkins University, is a former student, research assistant, and friend of Professor Akin Mabogunje. He lives in the U.S.