Reconstructing the Global Academy: Falola and African Scholarship, By Tunji Olaopa

In my last reflection on the global personality, Professor Toyin Falola, the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, United States of America, and Africa’s preeminent historian, I situated a critical dimension of his intellectual eminence within the triad factors of Nigeria’s, and Africa’s, development, the contradictions of higher education and the troubles that have attended the significance of the humanities in Nigeria and in Africa. With Falola, as with all those we have considered as significant intellectuals, scholarship goes on at the intersection of several dynamics that speak to not only knowledge production, but also to the relevance of knowledge production in a particular context within which that knowledge is produced. At a recent seminar on retrieving Nigerian universities for the task of engendering national development, which held at the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Professor Falola facilitated the coming together of several major actors in Nigerian tertiary education, including vice chancellors, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and a significant representation of the civil society. The occasion was to generate more policy insights that will complement and further articulate those already in Professor Olufemi Mimiko’s new book, Getting Our Universities Back on Track, a quasi-autobiography that narrates his experience as a vice chancellor and the challenges and perspectives that could regenerate the universities in Nigeria as agents of transformation.

Falola has distinguished himself as someone who has traversed several societies, institutions and countries of the world, building linkages and networks of intellectuals and scholars. What distinguishes Falola’s scholarship, as I see it, is the attempt to build a solid framework of alliances, from the diaspora to Nigeria and across the continent, that could imbue scholarship with a robust cross-continental, cross-cultural, cross-intellectual understanding and practices that will make scholarship serve its mandated responsibility of fashioning new thoughts, ideas, insights, perspectives and paradigms that will enable us as Africans rethink our postcolonial direction. This requires not just speaking at conferences, writing books about postcolonial recovery or agitating for Africa’s development. It literally means taking steps to see some of these ideas come to live. Let me illustrate with some questions that will make my point about the scholarship of Falola. In what ways does African scholarship provide a better understanding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that decimated Africa? How do intellectual productions significantly affect Africa’s unenviable status as the poorest continent in the world, and the most underdeveloped? How can the deployment of knowledge production be made so strategic as to infuse our efforts at transforming our situations as Africans? In attempting these questions, we come to the very heart of what makes Toyin Falola one of the most distinguished of African scholars. Scholarship, for him, goes beyond just producing tomes and treatises that get published and advance the scholar’s status and fortune. I cannot boast of having a deeper than acquaintance knowledge of Professor Falola, but it is very easy to gather his itinerary across the globe by paying critical attention. I, however, know sufficiently enough to surmise that he seems to be more in Nigeria and traversing across Africa than in the United States, to assure us that he has not been swallowed by the diaspora and its contradictory influences.

His involvement with UNESCO is connected with a slave trade project that could facilitate more and better understanding of slavery. He is also involved with the African Union as well as other continental and global organisations, including being a significant scholar linked to the Library of Congress in the United States, and not least, affiliated with the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP). All these signify a crusading scholar who constantly poses to himself the question of what his scholarship can do for Africa, and restlessly pursues means and ways by which he could give the answers institutional forms. For instance, when he founded the Pan-Africa University Press, it was an initiative motivated by the imperatives of knowledge production that privileges Africa as a centre. The Africa Conference that holds yearly at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as the Toyin Falola Conference on Africa and the African Diaspora, which has become a yearly gathering of African scholars, are both established and aspiring to brainstorm and deliberate on Africa, its challenges and future possibilities.

Last year, 2016, I was present at a lecture Falola delivered at the Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan, on what he calls “ritual archives”. The thesis of that lecture was a critical challenge to African scholars to rethink the concept of the archive and its dominant western and imperialist meaning which has deprived our own cultural heritage of their archival and epistemological relevance as sources of legitimate knowledge for understanding our being and ourselves. A lecture like that is far from being merely intellectual. On the contrary, it calls African scholars to immediate and urgent actions on the relevance of their pontifications. Scholarship must always have consequences. And the consequences must always flow from our understanding of how what we research, write and teach impacts the dynamics of social actions and cultural issues across the continent. Africa today is in the very midst of a critical postcolonial predicament that has not only incapacitated development but has equally undermined democratic governance. Today, Africa represents poverty, unemployment, war and conflicts, infrastructural gap, and all manners of dysfunctionality. Yet, in a radio interview he granted to the Diamond Radio, the official radio station of the University of Ibadan, after yet another keynote address to a conference on the humanities, Professor Falola painted the picture of an incurable optimist about the future of Africa. If Africa could overcome the slave trade and the ravages of colonialism, according to him, then Africa can overcome its protracted assortment of postcolonial ills and come of age as a continent of hope and development.

Falola’s solution derives from firmly grasping the two horns that define the dilemma of African scholarship. How can African scholarship remain significantly essential to African postcolonial challenges without forgoing the benefits of the global academe? And how can it be integrated into global scholarship without losing itself and its core responsibility to Africa? Pan-Africanism is the reigning ideological framework that defines Africa’s relationship with the world. It is the ideology that has received its most elaborate exposition and advocacy from Cheikh Anta Diop, Kwame Nkrumah, Ali Mazrui, and others. It is also the major ideology that Toyin Falola espouses. Yet, there is a nuanced understanding of this ideology that separates Falola from, say, Cheikh Anta Diop. This understanding seeks to integrate pan-Africanism into a balanced view of globalisation in a way that keeps Africa in the full view of world events, developments and happenings, while sufficiently careful enough to maintain a solid hold on Africa’s cultural being in that world. This perspective, Falola calls pluriversalism, the opening up of the universe to multiple intellectual dynamics in a bid to undermine the spurious universalism of the West.

After the official end of colonialism, Africa finds itself enmeshed in a larger fight captured by the concept of globalisation and the rising hegemony of global capitalism. The effects of this capitalist ideological dynamics transcend the vagaries of global and national economies to infuse scholarship and the very definition of research and pedagogy. It became the norm of global academy that the basics of knowledge production became situated right in the West. Even the matrices for ranking universities worldwide were constructed in the West. The result was therefore that everything from ideology to theoretical frameworks were imported from Europe and North America. Take, for instance, social science theorisation in Africa. One could argue that it mostly took its underpinning from the United States. There can therefore be no doubt about what results we should expect when Africa’s predicament is analysed and theorised from the perspectives of foreign theories, paradigms, ideas and theoretical frameworks. In Social Science as Imperialism, Claude Ake became one of those who first got to the critique of the Western epistemological hold on Africa. Ake’s charge was leveled against the colonial objective that the social science was meant to establish. Thus, just as the Bretton Wood institutions have specific ideological predilection that imposes conditionalities on African economies, so also do the social science literatures and theories possess distinct ideological orientations that dominate the intellectual directions of African scholars.

I do not know what specific demands the pluriversal methodology imposes, but I am clear about the responsibility it imposes on African scholars and scholarship. For one, pluriversalism insists on taking Africa as the centre of research and scholarship. Thus, from Claude Ake through Ali Mazrui to Toyin Falola, we see a new face of African Studies that strenuously makes the point for a decentered global academic structure away from the West to plural multi-points across the world. If, according to Thomas Mann, “every intellectual attitude is latently political,” then every intellectual offering from the West must be critically subjected to a healthy dosage of critical inquiry. And this attitude applies more to theories and intellectual fads that we have hitherto taken for granted in Africa. What Falola specifically calls for is a methodological invasion of the global academy in a way that enables Africa scholars to privilege Africa rather than the West. This requires that African sources, African insights, African-derived theories, African epistemologies, and African experiences become the major framework that motivates scholarship from the continent. But, and this is critical to Falola’s arguments, there is no escaping the imperatives of global scholarship.

Of course, there are so many things wrong with scholarship on the continent. And many of these arise from the dysfunctionality of higher education in a postcolonial context that challenges everything. It would seem that the more tertiary education is ravaged by the sociopolitical climate of Africa, the more the quality of research and pedagogy declines, and the more Africa loses her best brains to the global academe. There is therefore a lot to learn from a pluriversal global dynamics of higher education, and especially from those that deploy knowledge production to the service of development and sociocultural imperatives.

Scholarship carries a significant burden which is all the more crucial in postcolonial Africa. In the first instance, it must be done with a certain level of intellectual vigilance that does not allow the erosion of Africa’s uniqueness by foreign intellectual accretions. And in the second place, African scholarship must be aware of its own mandate in restoring Africa’s intellectual dignity as well as being vigorous in its own advocacy for the opening up of the global academe while also learning and unlearning it. In this wise, Professor Toyin Omoyeni Falola represents a significant figure whose entire corpus points us in the right methodological direction for a postcolonial intellectual restructuring of the African continent.

About the Author: Tunji Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP); Email:,

Source: Premium Times

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