Abd-Rasheed Na’allah: Tribute to a Visionary and ‘Glocal’ Citizen By Bolaji Abdullahi.

Date: 2024-06-07

Saturday June 1, 2024, professors, staff and students of the Abuja Leadership Centre (ALC) gathered for a send forth dinner in honour of the outgoing vice chancellor of the University of Abuja, Professor Abd-Rasheed Na’allah. The world-renowned historian and professor of African studies, Toyin Falola, flew in from Nairobi, Kenya, to deliver the event lecture.

Despite my best efforts, I could not make it to the dinner, which I had looked forward to for many reasons. The obvious reason of course is that I love good food. Secondly, I thought it would afford me the opportunity to finally meet Professor Falola, whose towering intellect and prodigious contribution to African history I have greatly admired over the years.

Thirdly, I wanted to do my duty as a student of the Abuja Leadership Centre of the University of Abuja under the able leadership of Professor Phillip Afaha, who had graciously invited me to the event. And, most importantly, I wanted to honour a good human being, a friend and a brother indeed as he rounds off yet another remarkable tenure as a university vice chancellor.

The story of how I became a student of the ALC is in itself a testimony to Na’Allah’s progressive thinking and relentless focus, in a system that tends to be held captive by ruinous ossification and routine. I had been admitted to the Edward Mason programme at the Harvard University for a Master’s degree in Public Administration in 2011. I had to forfeit the opportunity because I was appointed a Federal Minister at the same time. But I always had it at the back of my mind to return to the classroom whenever I had the chance. 2023 presented me with such opportunity, so I applied for a PhD programme in one of the second-generation federal universities. To my utter astonishment, I was told that I could not be admitted because my WAEC result, which I obtained in 1987, showed that I had a P7 in mathematics, instead of a credit; even though I had ‘A’ in five other subjects and ‘C’ in another two.

I found this quite ludicrous and needed someone to laugh with. The first person that came to my mind was Olusegun Adeniyi, the Chairman Editorial Board of ThisDay newspaper. But Segun did not find the story funny. He wanted me to write about it, “if only to show how backward thinking we are.” I decided against writing because I was still thinking like a politician and therefore did not want to embarrass anyone.

It was with this same WAEC result that I was admitted to study mass communication in the University of Lagos in 1989, where I graduated with a Second Class Upper degree in 1994. It was with the same result that I was awarded the British Government Chevening Scholarship, and was admitted to the foremost school of development studies in the world, the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, where I graduated with a distinction Masters Degree in 2002. It was the same result that admitted me to a Masters in Public Finance at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London in 2018. In addition to these academic experience and qualifications, I was also bringing to the PhD programme six years combined experience in journalism and the civil society and twenty years public service experience at the both the state and the federal government, with nine of those in cabinet level positions.

One day, Professor Na’Allah and I met at the Ilorin airport and I told him the story. He also found it quite astonishing and asked me to please come to the University of Abuja. I thanked him for his gracious invitation, but at that point I had lost interest in pursuing any further education in Nigeria. This had nothing to do with the prestige of a foreign degree. I had told myself that if a university could decide that a credit in ‘O’ level mathematics is the most important factor in deciding admission into a PhD, then something must be terribly wrong with the system. Even if I had had a credit in mathematics 37 years ago, I wondered how it would have helped my education now. In all my higher education and working life, I had never encountered a problem that required Pythagoras theorem or simultaneous equation to solve them.

Nevertheless, I was willing to concede that perhaps in their thinking someone who intends to pursue a PhD in the social sciences should demonstrate the foundational aptitude for quantitative analysis. Yet, it is difficult to see how a credit in secondary school mathematics would be a proof of that. I also wondered if these people realise that the development of software tools that can solve statistical problems and analyse data better and faster than a human being now demands a different skill sets from a researcher. At this stage of my life, if I was going to commit a minimum of three years to anything, it has to be worth my while. So I told myself.

However, each time that our paths had crossed since then, Na’Allah would always remind me of his offer. Then, one day he called and we agreed to meet in Ilorin. He told me about the Centre of Excellence in Leadership and Governance that the university of Abuja had started with the support of the TETFUND. He wanted to me to join and had even designated someone to fill the forms for me.

“A doctorate programme is best as a mutually beneficial relationship between the institution and the candidate. We can give you the theories and the research skills, but your experience will also greatly enrich our programme,” he said.

He said his vision is to build a centre that would one day rival the Kennedy School of Government as the centre of excellence in leadership and governance, where both serving and out-of-office public servants and leaders would converge to learn, research and share ideas. I have been in the programme now for about four months. It is far from being a Kennedy School, but it has really been worth my while and I am glad that I decided to enroll in the programme. It is early days, but I can see already what he had in mind and I am confident that in a few years to come this may well be Na’Allah’s most important legacy at the University of Abuja.

Several years ago, I was Commissioner for Education in Kwara State when he was brought in from the University of Western Illinois, where he was professor and chair of Africa-American studies, to be the pioneer vice-chancellor of the newly established Kwara State University. He also told me back then that his vision was to build a community university with a global outlook. It did not take long before I began to see what he meant. One day we travelled together to the United States, where we met Winston Soboyejo, a Nigerian and famous professor of material science who at the time was a professor at the Princeton university Institute of Science and Technology of Material. We met a few other top academic as well, most of them with roots in Nigeria. In each meeting, Na’Allah was like a marketing officer, carefully laying out the vision for the university and inviting them to visit Malete, where the initial structures had began to take shape. I thought he was wasting his time. But to my surprise, several of these world-renowned professors began to show up in Ilorin. One day, I was in my office when he brought in a professor of aeronautics engineering from the MIT, whose name I can’t remember now. Then, most astonishingly, he brought in the late professor Abiola Irele as provost. For those who may not know, Irele was like Wole Soyinka without the Nobel.

I had to ask him afterwards, “Prof. What do you tell these people?”

He laughed and said, “I sell the vision to them, that’s all.”

“But how do you plan to pay them?”

“Don’t worry Honourable Commissioner, we only need to get our priorities right, we would always find a way,” he said.

For ten years, he sold the vision and found a way as the vice-chancellor of the Kwara State University. Whatever the university has become today, its very foundational philosophy is based on Na’Allah’s vision to build a university that has a global outlook, but also rooted in the community. It is interesting to see how this perfectly matches the description of Na’Allah himself: a global citizen rooted deeply in his local culture. And this is not because he always wears babanriga anywhere in the world and speaks Yoruba with undiluted Ilorin accent.

Culture is the way of life of a people, which manifests through language and other performances such as marriage, religion, burial, dance, festivals, ceremonies, names, dress, music, diet etc. Taking all these cultural expressions together makes it difficult, or even erroneous, to classify Ilorin culture with any particular ethnic group. The Ilorin culture is not Yoruba culture, but it contains and is contained in it. Ilorin culture is not Hausa or Fulani culture, but it contains and is contained in them. Rather, it is a distinct culture on its own born out of the synthesis of these different cultural identities with Yoruba language as the lingua franca and Islam as the grund norm, able to validate or invalidate the various cultural practices and even dictate their contents and forms. But even the practice of Islam in its full ramifications carries distinct Ilorin imprints that cannot be found anywhere else.

Perhaps, no other person has invested as much scholarly energy in interpreting, communicating, promoting and performing the Ilorin culture as much as professor Na’Allah has done throughout his entire career as a writer and a scholar. A cursory survey of some of his works would bear testimony to this: Yoruba Oral Tradition in Islamic Nigeria – A History of Dadakuada (Routledge, 2019); Globalization, Oral Performance, and African Traditional Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2018); African Discourse in Islam, Oral Traditions, and Performance (Routledge, 2010); Africanity, Islamicity, and Performativity: Identity in the House of Ilorin (Bayreuth African Studies, 2009).

With these works and many more, Na’Allah has devoted his uncommon talent to globalizing the local and localizing the global. In a review of one of his more recent work, Dadakuada: Ilorin Art History, professor Falola wrote: “The book covers the cultural identity, performance aesthetics, language, and the most delicate and important part, Dadakuada’s relationship with Islam. It is surprising to note and critically analyze how Na’Allah carefully describes this relationship and discusses how the performers, through their songs and dramatic nodes, are able to successfully accommodate the tenets of Islam in ways that have cemented the necessary survival of Dadakuada as a traditional African art form in a predominantly Muslim community like Ilorin.”

At the public presentation of the book in Abuja in 2021, alongside two others, Omo kewu and Seriya (even the titles of these two books are indisputably Ilorin), the king of dadakuada himself, Jaigbade Alao, was present, in probably one of his last outing before his glorious passing in 2023. Another testimony to Na’Allah’s commitment to globalizing the local was his single-handed promotion of Jaigbade to the global stage and his kind of music to the forefront of oral literature epistemology.

However, it is important to point out that Professor Na’Allah’s work is not just interested in cultural preservation or promotion for the sake of it. In fact, as he has demonstrated in Seriya and Omo kewu, he is also immensely capable of subverting the same culture, where he finds some of the practices inimical to the progress of the people and the community he loves and proudly exemplifies.

Not everyone would agree with his style of administration, but no one would deny that he gets things done, and as he did with the Kwara State University, he is now leaving the university of Abuja so much better than he met it. I have no doubt that in my mind that there is still so much to come from this wonderful human being, a foremost intellectual, and builder of institutions, my brother and friend.

Abdullahi is former Federal Minister of Youth Development and Chairman, National Sports Commission in Nigeria.


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