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‘At 70, urge to make humanity better remains my passion’

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Professor Olufemi Obafemi, a poet, playwright, author and Professor of English and Dramatic Literature recently clocked 70 years, having been born on April 4, 1950. A household name in the academia for his contributions, not only through his creative ingenuity but also as an administrator, was widely celebrated by the Nigerian university community.

For his roles in human capital development and nation-building in 2018, he was bestowed with the award of Nigerian National Order of Merit (NMOM). Besides, he has served the nation in various capacities including as the National President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Director of Research, National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) as well as the Chairman, Board of Directors, National Commission for Museums and Monuments. He is currently the National Chairman of the Nigerian Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria (REPRONIG). In this encounter with BRIDGET CHIEDU-ONOCHIE, Obafemi insists he is better positioned now to work towards ameliorating the plight of the masses, his septuagenarian age notwithstanding.

Congratulations Prof on the occasion of your septuagenarian age! How does it feel to be 70 years?
Well, days and weeks before I became 70, I was filled with trepidation and anxiety wondering whether indeed, that transition will have some colouration, some physical leap unto some new heights or different phases but I can tell you right now that I don’t feel in any sense, any different either in terms of psychology or in terms of my physic. Maybe it is too soon to start feeling the pain of age, the difficulties that come with depreciating physical agility or indeed, the mellowing of senses and the gradual decline in competences but right now, I feel almost the same and I really, I don’t feel any major difference in my chemistry or do I say, in my psych-chemistry or psycho-physical chemistry.

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What are some of your highpoints as well as low points in your trajectory thus far, particularly as regards your life in the academia?
That has been asked many times. There are many aspects of my travail in the academia that are still too fresh for me to run into soon. I am sure one day, if I live long enough to write my memoir, I will let those aspects out to the world. But I might just say in passing that I have had a lot of good moments in the academia, the least of which was actually the rising process in terms of moving from one grade of lectureship to another. That seems to have been the most uneventful of my academic life. Once I find time out of my very crowded schedule to write my academic papers, publish my poems, my plays and so on, those aspects were taken care of by university regulations. I have never really had any obstacles, either from the university authority or from any obstructing agency from rising in my academic career. In 1981 when I defended my PhD, I recollect that during the little party held in my house, my supervisor, one Professor Banham remarked: “that all things being equal, Olu Obafemi should be a professor in 10 years.” And quite prophetic, I became professor in 1990. I was one year faster than he predicted. I am saying this not for any vein glorious purpose but just to say that really, I have had no obstruction, no hitches, no impediments, rising to academic hierarchy of the university. So, that is the least problematic in my career.

Well, I have the privilege to serve in various institutions either within the department, the faculty and so on. As head of department, I have been a member of Senate, a member of Council for several years. Again, it has been quite an experience – in university administration and all that it takes to fulfil in those capacities. Again, those are not the areas I can comment upon for now. As a sensitive individual, as somebody of a materialist disposition, we have been engaged in many battles in trying to get to move towards the path of progress, despite obstructions by the state. We have used our works, our energy and our times as citizens at various levels in the academic staff union (one of the few organizations that one had been involved in). Those were the most challenging areas of our lives as leaders of ASUU in the early 70s through to the mid-80s. We had engaged the state, especially during the era of military dictatorship. We had dared many times to break the silence and speak on behalf of the society and we had had our own share of punishment or reprisal for it. Once or twice, we had been put in detention. Many times, we were busy running. It is not like now when criticism was possible. In those days, we in the leadership of the union or peer groups kept running. Not running out of fear but just making it difficult for the state to pick us cheaply. Those were very interesting days because even within the ASUU platform, we had pursued our functions as not just welfarist issues, bread and butter issues for the members of our union, but to challenge the decadence that was going on through the functional governance, and I can say that those were the more challenging days. Unfortunately, as it turned out, part of the low points was the period of crises within the union itself. Again, as I said, I am not willing yet to comment upon that.

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However, one must say that one has no regret at all in the service, either of the academic community or the Nigerian society. In the process, a lot of sacrifices has to be made, families have to suffer and so on but looking back, I would do the same again if I have my chance.

Retiring from the academia where you spent most part of your life, many are wondering about your next phase. Where would you be headed?
Well, I think it is too early for me to say. I just like to let things float for now but of course, I can foresee a life of renewed engagements. The things that I wanted to do, the participation in social reconstruction, the effort that we are making to make our society better, more equitable, more egalitarian will continue, maybe different ways, maybe different strategies, maybe different techniques but of course, it will be difficult at any point in life not to feel interested in, or to be indifferent to the plight of the citizens, the plight of the masses, the plight of society. May be of course, not just the keeping arms of gerontocracy or the decline in physical ability, even the mellowing of things, will make activism less attractive but the concern for the plight of society, the urge and nudge to make humanity better and improved will continue to be the preoccupation for my life. I am sure I will have more time to do the things I would really like to do. There are many unwritten scripts, many unresolved issues of intellectual engagements and so on that I am sure I may find more time to do. I am sure it is almost unimaginable that I will just park in and fold my hands and raise my legs on the chair. I believe that that will be quite difficult. Whichever form it has to take will depend on the kind of opportunities and conditions that I find myself. But I think that it will be totally unimaginable that I will say goodbye to all that.

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