Obaro Ikime (1936 – 2023)
Obaro Ikime was a man of many parts whose demise marks the end of an illustrious era in academia. The Professor Emeritus belonged to the second generation of Nigerian scholars that were trained at the University of Ibadan. Though a renowned historian, his trajectory in life was replete with defining moments that shaped Ikime’s history, and a lesson for many.
Notably, Obaro was a towering intellectual giant at a time of unparalleled vibrancy in the academic circle in Ibadan. He mirrored social consciousness through his scholarship in a manner that gives life to history. He understood that scholarship should not be in a vacuum, and he was able to adopt it as an instrument of social communication and building of social consciousness of the past, present, and potential futures. Today, Nigerian history is incomplete without Ikime.
The intellectual setting of his heydays was also an enabler for national unity, for which Ikime and his contemporaries championed from the fore. He served as an illustrious member of the Ibadan School of History, a nationalist intellectual tradition whose more prominent members included Professors Kenneth Dike, Saburi Biobaku, Adiele Afigbo, and J.F Ade Ajayi. The entire atmosphere was for pure scholarship, as it never mattered who came from where. Ikime was a promoter of national unity. He understood the discomfort of not being able to identify properly with people of other ethnic groups. Therefore, his legacy for promoting policies that recognise diversity and embrace ethnic differences cannot be forgotten.
It is against that background that his transition, on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at the ripe age of 86, has continued to draw rain of tributes, celebrating Ikime’s towering profile as renowned scholar, great historian, and “one of the finest academic commentators to have come out of Africa.”
Another giant historian, Prof. Toyin Falola, attests to Ikime’s heavy contribution to the body of knowledge on African history, when he remarked that his works remain pivotal “to shaping how we have come to understand and conduct research on inter-group relations in Africa and Nigeria, as well as how such relations tie back to nation formation, nationalism, cultural history, and civilisation.”
In addition to editing one of the most authoritative and most comprehensive books on Nigeria’s history: Groundwork of Nigerian History, published by the Nigerian Historical Society in 1980, other history-related classical offerings by Prof. Ikime include: Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta: The Rise and Fall of Nana Olomu, Last Governor of Benin River; Niger Delta Rivalry: Itsekiri-Urhobo Relations and the European Presence; History, the Historian and the Nation, as well as, Can Anything Good Come Out of History?
Born in a village called Anibeze in Arohwa clan in the Isoko South Local Government Area of Delta State on 30 December 1936, Ikime had a flying start in education. He was head boy at his secondary school, Federal College, Ughelli. He was the Hall Warden of Kuti Hall. He played football and cricket, becoming the Badminton Champion of UI from his undergraduate days at the premier university. He earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in History, from the same university. He also taught in the premier university from 1964 to 1990. He made history by obtaining his PhD at 29 and becoming a professor at 37 at UI. But he was forced to retire at 54 in 1990, 11 years short of the mandatory retirement age at 65 for professors then.
Two significant events that provoked his distinguished career as an academic and a pre-eminent historian were both dramatic and interesting. Prof. Ikime detailed the narratives, three years ago, in an interview he granted in a national daily thus: “History was my best subject in CMS College in Ughelli, and my History teacher, Mr. Ihejirika, had boasted to fellow teachers and students that Obaro Ikime, his student, would score A1 in the school certificate examination. But when the result came out, I scored a C.
“I was sad, as I perceived the result as a disappointment to my teacher. I went to his house to apologise, but he asked his wife to tell me that he didn’t want to see me. But I refused to leave. I appealed to his wife to beg him for me. After about an hour, he came out and asked what he should do for me. I apologised to him and begged for his forgiveness. He said I had made him a liar and my apology will not solve it, but I had to prove to the world that I knew the subject. He was very hurt. I left his house and took it as a challenge.”
So, he went on to study History at the University of Ibadan up till PhD level and kept updating Mr. Ihejirika about his progress. But Mr. Ihejirika kept challenging him to prove his mettle. “When I had my PhD, I went to inform him, but he still didn’t congratulate me. He only repeated that I should prove to the world that I knew History. He didn’t congratulate me until the day I went to inform him that I had become a Professor of History.”
In the same newspaper interview, Prof Ikime revealed how he had wanted to make a career as a secondary school teacher. The principal of his alma mater had given him a job while he was awaiting his first degree result. Ikime said: “But when the degree result came out, my principal invited me to his office and gave me a resignation letter, and said I should sign it. I told him I had the right to make a decision as a teacher and not as his student. He then echoed ‘sign it, you fool!’ He said I needed to return to school for my PhD. I signed the letter and returned to Ibadan for my PhD.”
Indeed, Prof. Ikime meritoriously served the academia, the church and the country in different capacities. He also had his brushes with authorities, including being hauled into detention for 90 days in 1990. He was kept in a dingy, mosquitos-infected cell where he slept on the bare floor, and had only a set of clothes.
It is this sad aspect of Ikime’s life that Prof. Falola would reference as an irony of “another national icon whose works helped put Nigerian history on the scrutinised, refined, and tailored academic approach that is now widely used. Yet, this hallowed historian has not enjoyed the attention and respect that should be accorded to a national hero because, in Nigeria, we marginalise the living and forget the dead.”
But come what may, Ikime would continue to live on in the minds of many and in history itself. Adieu Prof. Obaro Ikime.