Toyin Falola at 70: The Reminiscing about a Scholar and Legend

by Prof. Tunji Olaopa

TF, as Professor Toyin Falola, is known all over the world, has gracefully been inducted into the exalted and hoary circle of the septuagenarians. And strangely, his self-effacing self would not acknowledge nor celebrate this momentous occasion with at least a seminal offering as we are wont to. Sometimes in November, 2022, I raised the issue of the approaching 70th birthday with him. “What should we be expecting?” I asked. I had in mind the type of elaborate intellectual celebration that heralded his 65th birthday in 2018. TF replied immediately to my query, “It will be in May 2023.” I was momentarily confused. But going by how disorganized and absent-minded I could be sometimes, I took the statement for a kind of mix up on my part, hoping to get back to the conversation in earnest. But then, when I got the invitation a few days ago to chair this birthday event slated for January 1, it immediately became clear to me that TF’s response to me was the usual diversionary and evasive tactic to shift attention away from a celebration of his immense self. Well, thank God it has not worked! Didn’t Ralph W. Sockman, the famous American Protestant radio pastor, say that “True humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves. It makes us modest by reminding us how far we have come short of what we can be.”

The truth is that TF is the type of person who would not want to put himself ahead of others. And this is all the more so if the circumstances and occasions are not auspicious. His sense of self necessarily reflects on his understanding of and care for others. This is the sense projected in the Yoruba proverb: Àìfinipeni, àìfèèyàn-pèèyàn, lará oko-ó fi ńsán ìbàntẹ́ wọ̀lú (“A lack of proper regard for others, a lack of proper regard for people, is what emboldens the country bumpkin to venture into town clad only in a loincloth”). In other words, TF is not one to discard others in the service of self-glory or self-positioning. And yet, the truth is that while tragedies, setbacks and disturbing circumstances will always be part of us; but crossing the 70-year mark, and especially for a well-regarded icon, will never happen twice. And neither will the challenging times ever justify our not counting the days of the deserving, so we could order our feet unto wisdom, as the scripture enjoins us.

In the best sense of Yoruba cultural understanding, TF is a gbajumo of a most distinguished sort. His larger-than-life stature is a function of many illustrious credentials, from the academic and the intellectual to the sociocultural. This makes it very difficult to arrive at a template that will capture the multidimensionality of his being and contribution. But let me create my own template, however insufficient, with what I consider an apt description: TF knows books and knows people. Being born in Ibadan comes with a lot of cultural endowment that connect TF not only to tradition and heritage but also to people. One needs to read the two pieces of autobiographical narration—A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt and Counting the Tiger’s Teeth—to understand the historical trajectories of an Ibadan boy that grew within the ambit of a culture that places value on people—people as clothes that wrap a person with iyì (prestige) and ẹ̀yẹ (honor). When the Yoruba say that Ẹni tí ò lówó a léèyàn (whoever lacks money will be rich in people), they speak about a robust dynamic of social relations that connects a man solidly to his immediate and extended family, friends and colleagues, community members, and practically the whole of humanity. This is the framework of TF’s investment in people. That investment connects mentoring to a sacrificial proclivity to bear the burdens of others.

This is how one understands the grueling regimen of travels, hospitality, care and attention that focuses TF’s attention on people. TF traverses various continents of the world for the sake of his commitment to others. This is the point where one must salute the courage of the woman—Yeye Bisi Falola—who dared to marry a man like TF. I suspect she is the only woman who could have stayed with TF for these many years. Thus, behind and beside every successful man is a woman. But then, Bisi Falola is not just any woman; and TF goes beyond being just a successful man! And TF’s investment in people also translates into a huge investment in ideas and discourses. Indeed, every encounter with people is an intellectual exercise. Let me throw a question: what stands TF out as an intellectual and a scholar? And what sustains his superhuman energy and productivity? Like the trajectories of his life, this question will also generate different responses. Permit me to privilege mine. And there are three I see. First, TF is a provoking and provocative agent (agent provocateur) in the original and literal sense of that word. You needed to have either encounter him on the USA-Africa Dialogue listserv that brings thousands of intellectuals and scholars together from across the globe, or be in conversation with him over several instances. The breath of his insights is just too vast to track. And so, one does not need to wonder why books after books, and keynotes upon lectures keep coming off the mind of a master of ideation.

And this brings me to my second point—the transformation of a historian to a scholar that roams the vastness of the humanities. Of course, the discipline of history possesses the credentials to provide the baseline for launching into other disciplines. What discipline does not possess a historical trajectory? This is what his professorial endowment, as the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, recognizes—a scholar whose restlessness cannot be contained by the disciplinary limitation of history. From African studies to gender to Yoruba studies, to governance, development and politics, and from history to education to the study of religion, TF has laid a foundation of humanities scholarship in Africa that translates into an intellectual legacy already. And the worry and delight are that he has not laid down his pen. This is a scholar who has a reputation for not sleeping! When you have a restless scholar who does not sleep, and takes the whole of the humanities as his space, what you have is a humongous contribution to the corpus of thought itself.

And then the last point. TF stands as the centerpiece of a number of networks, platforms, and communities of thought that push ideas and insights into the service of mankind and the rehabilitation of the African continent. TF is a master organizer. From rallying friends to the assistance of others in needs, to putting together conferences, he pushes the conjuncture of discourses and community, and of theory and practice. The paradigm of Africanizing knowledge goes beyond just the imperatives of decoloniality and pluriversalism; it also involves recalling the benefits of cultural values for managing the stress of modernity. With TF, scholarship is a form of activism, from the individual to the nation and then the development of the continent. Being a public intellectual is not just a mere designation; it is a responsibility for him to, for instance, keep speaking truth to power. And scholarship is much more about building the minds of others, and about legacies of all sort. How, for instance, would Yoruba studies not have a journal that attend to that imperative?

Professor Oluwatoyin Omoyeni Falola will be remembered as an exemplar, a pioneer at the rugged frontier of knowledge production and intellectual mentoring. Even though this generation of Nigerian youth is one he is trying so hard to understand, and the one he is so against in terms of value dislocation, he still remains a reference in terms of values that have gone to the dogs in the eyes of the so-called millennials and Gen. Z. TF represents a cultural framework of values that cannot be wished away in the face of normlessness. He is the very sense of an omolúwàbí that the youths are forced to confront and engage with in the ongoing cultural war around the imperative of moral values as the foundation of the postcolonial Nigerian predicaments.

TF is now a septuagenarian. For those who know him, like I think I do, that reality cannot be a frightening one for him, nor should it be for us too. This is because for Toyin Falola, every new phase of life is the opportunity for some new beginnings—some new books to write; some new ideas and insights to push; some new series to develop; some more people to mentor into prominence; some good deeds to throw into the humanity space; and so on. So, with TF, seventy is a new phase of natality. But there are dimensions to every man’s being that belongs somewhere else. It is written, that whereas the horse can be prepared for the place of battle, but victory is of God. And as selflessness which TF epitomises is the mark of the gods, I stand on every faith that I have, and provoke grace from On-High to sustain you, for encouragement, and for abundant life, in health and all-round prosperity, so that for you Oluwatoyin Omoyeni Falola, the glory of your latter will glow so much that you will not finish until you have finished your mission on this part of existence. Ase Edumare!

Let me then end this piece with a quote from T. S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” As one phase ends today and another begins, may there be many more beginnings with the imprimatur of TF stamped on them!


Prof. Tunji Olaopa

Retired Federal Permanent Secretary

& Professor, National Institute for Policy

and Strategic Studies

(NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State.

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