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Prof. Tamuno: A Man Who Changed My Life

By Matthew Hassan Kukah
10 May 2015   |   12:47 am
NO, I did not have a road to Damascus experience with the legendary Professor Tekena Tamuno. And, no, he did not contribute to my vocation as a priest, nor did he pay my fees. However, looking back, this great man, unknown to him, really and truly changed my life. And, might I add, perhaps my…

Prof. Tekena Tamuno

NO, I did not have a road to Damascus experience with the legendary Professor Tekena Tamuno. And, no, he did not contribute to my vocation as a priest, nor did he pay my fees. However, looking back, this great man, unknown to him, really and truly changed my life. And, might I add, perhaps my life would have taken a different turn but for my encounter with him. Each time I thanked him he would naturally dismiss it but deep down, I still believe I owe him so much.

Again, I do not remember the year, but I think it was in 1980 or 1981 when I received a letter signed by him. In the letter, he stated something to the effect that he was in charge of a project on the History of Nigeria and that he wanted to invite me to participate in the project. I was stunned. First, who was this man and how had he stumbled on my name? Even more importantly, how could I be asked to write a chapter in a book that was being written on the history of Nigeria, especially when I was neither a historian nor was I a University teacher? The letter specifically said I was to write a chapter on the history and contribution of the Catholic Church to Nigeria or something to that effect. I did follow up on the assignment and to my surprise, I got a letter not only acknowledging my contribution but also saying he had liked it. Much later after the project, he graciously sent me bound copies of all the volumes of the work.

In-between that period, we had no other communication and I did not know what he looked like. I later moved from Kaduna to Abuja to get the Catholic Church off the ground in the new Federal Capital Territory. However, in 1985 I felt I had done enough in helping Cardinal Ekandem to settle down and get hold of the Catholic Church in Abuja. I now decided I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. I had deliberately decided that I did not want to pursue a Ph.D when I finished my Master’s programme at the University of Bradford in 1981 immediately. I had decided to return home to the chagrin of most of my friends and fellow priests. I needed to return to Nigeria so I can think a bit more clearly about my areas of interest. I also did not want to write a theoretical Ph.D so I felt I would return home, spend a year or two and then think a bit more clearly. I had barely settled down when the Cardinal asked me to come and work with him in Abuja. That is a story for another day.

We had a conversation with the Cardinal about following up with my Ph.D. As far as he was concerned, all I needed to do was to go and do a Ph. D on the Media. He said I needed to develop my writing skills so I would become an authority. I liked the idea, did not want to argue with my papa and decided I would go to Columbia University. My good friend Mohammed Haruna had spoken so much about their Journalism programme. I decided to seek out Dan Agbese to ask for his views and recommendations because I think Mohammed was still away. Dan told me outright: You do not need to study Mass Communications. God has given you a gift and you write with a style that is a gift. He suggested I should do a Ph.D. in another subject but definitely not Journalism. I bowed to his argument and told the Cardinal so.

Next I decided I would return to a subject I had always loved – History. I had remained rather unhappy that my Seminary training had not given me a chance to read history. I was anxious to understand my own country and its history. The only person who came to my mind then was Professor Tamuno. I was not sure he would remember me but I decided to look for him. At this point, the only University in the world I wanted to go to was Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. On a brief visit in 1977, my friend Fr. Joe Faniran had taken me there. The sheer beauty of the environment just took my breath away. However, I did not know anyone in Ife and I decided that first, I would like to find out if my thinking was right and how would I pursue a Ph.D. in History, especially as I had not read it as a first degree? I decided to head to Ibadan to look for Professor Tamuno and to seek his counsel.

I made no appointment and sought no address. I just imagined he would be in the University. I arrived at the University and did not have much difficulty finding his house. I had made up my mind that I would stay for as long as it took me to see the man and seek advice. Happily, when I knocked on the door, he opened the door as if he had been waiting for me. He greeted me with so much warmth. I had not seen a photograph of him but somehow I knew he must be the one. I greeted him and said I am Fr. Kukah. He immediately stepped forward and embraced me with so much warmth as if he had been waiting for me.

He welcomed me into his spacious sitting room and sat me down. Within a short time, I felt as if I was talking to an uncle of mine. So, what brings you to Ibadan, Father? He was taken aback when I told him I had come to see him. I have a problem, which I have come to discuss with you, I said to him. He tilted his head and between a big laugh said to me ‘but you are a priest and we should be bringing our problems to you, not the other way round.

I adjusted my seat and told him that I had come to see him because I genuinely wanted to do a Ph.D, but in a Nigerian university. I told him I did not want to study outside the country and that I was really keen on studying here in Nigeria. I want to read African History, I said, and I want to read it in Ife. He looked at me rather curiously. Why Ife? We have a great Centre for African History here and we have some really good scholars here. I paused, not knowing what to say, but feared that Ife was slipping away.

I summoned some courage and told him that whatever it was, I had already made up my mind that it would be either Ife or nothing. I decided to come clean with my convictions. I told him that I wanted to study in Ife because I fell in love with sheer beauty of the University environment. I told him that it was the serenity, tranquility and breathtaking beauty of the place that attracted me. Then he adjusted his sitting position, gave me an infectious smile, with measured assurance that genuinely came from the bottom of his heart. It was as if he saw through my innocence.

I still remember our conversation very well. I cannot quote him, but I recall him saying something to this effect: ‘Father, you are a bright young man and I know that the Catholic Church will not want you to be away for a long time. I also know that they will make good use of you. However, I do not think studying in Nigeria is the best option for you. I am happy you want to read History and I could keep you here in our African History programme, but there are two problems. First, you will end up staying for many years here to do a Ph.D. Since you did not read History as a first degree, they will require you to do a first degree, which I think will be a waste of your time. By the time you do a first degree and go on to a Masters and then a Ph.D, God knows how many years that will be. I am not sure your Church will be that patient with you.’ I reluctantly nodded, seeing my Ife dreams gradually flying out of the window. But the great man was not finished yet.

‘Now, you know,’ he said, ‘in our Universities here in Nigeria, there are too many problems and I will cite just two for you. We never have water and light at the same time in this campus. If there is light, there might be no water and if there is water, there will be no light. If we have light and water, the staff will be on strike. Let me make a suggestion and you can think about it: London University is a good place. I studied there and my own daughter is now in the Law School in the University of London. If you go there, I am sure that in three years or so, you will complete a Ph.D. What is more, you will not have the problems we have here in Nigeria. I strongly believe that this is the best option for you. It will be good for you and the Church.’

As a parting shot, he said: ‘I know the Catholic Church can pay your school fees and what is more, I know they will be happy to invest in you.’ I felt dazed but convinced by his argument. Then, Professor Tamuno ushered me to the table for lunch. I left the presence of Professor Tamuno convinced and assured of what to do. I left his presence amidst the warmth of friendship and his effervescent humility. It was as if we had known each other for a long time and were mates of some sort. The rest as they say is history now.

I met the great man in a few places and occasions after my return. He was pleased that I had opted to go to the School of Oriental and African Studies. He was even more pleased that I had indeed finished my work in three years. I told him that although I had not read History, I had worked under a renowned Historian, Professor Richard Gray, whom he said he knew quite well. Somehow, I said to him, I had achieved part of my dream.

In 2012 or so, we met at the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt, where I was staying in the course of my work with the Ogonis and Shell. He exuded his usual warmth and I pleaded with him to give me a few minutes so we could have coffee in the lounge together. He broke away from his friends and we sat down together. I reminded him again of how much I owed him, but he dismissed me saying it is he who should feel most honoured. We chatted a bit about Nigeria and where we were going as usual. He was serving in one of those Niger Delta initiatives by the Federal Government. He said how very proud he was with what I had accomplished, but again he demurred when I told him that I was sure my life would have been totally different if he had not given me those words of wisdom. In his self-effacing manner, he smiled and said he was glad that God used him. We went on to talk about the lingering and unending Nigerian problems. That was my last encounter with him.

His exit almost closes the door to a generation of what scholarship was all about in the 1960s. I look back in sorrow about what might have been and wonder again ‘where did we take the wrong turn?’ Such legendary and outstanding scholar-Historians like Professor Dike, Ayandele, Ajayi, Usman, Afigbo, Obaro, Nzimiro and a host of others have gone to the great beyond and have thrown the nation into historical darkness. They all seem to have been buried with our History. The subject has seemingly fallen into oblivion and lost its glamour, allure and appeal.

Today, Africa and our nation should remain grateful to people like my good friend Professor Toyin Falola, a finely cut diamond of an intellectual that continues to garner international accolades all over the world. He is at present grooming a generation of young historians hoping to restore some dignity to one of the most important subjects in the life of any nation. Our national sense of history is quite pathetic and we are now breeding a nation of young men and women seduced by filthy lucre who are navigating through life without the compass of history.

Totally unprepared for life, our youth have become trapped in the labyrinthine paths of the internet with unprocessed knowledge. Little wonder our present is in danger because we have no past from which to draw. In the 90s, a teacher asked her children what the capital of Nigeria was and one child raised his hand and said, “Ma, the capital of Nigeria is Julius Berger!” Nice try, but things might get worse. Rest in peace, great man. His family should be proud, not sorrowful that they gave the nation such an outstanding man. Nigeria’s queue of good men has grown shorter.

• Kukah is the Catholic Bishop, Diocese Of Sokoto