The title of this piece was informed by a public lecture recently delivered at the University of Abuja by a renowned historian, Professor Toyin Falola. It was the maiden Humanities Lecture Series of the Faculty of Arts, which held on Thursday June 17, 2021 at the institution’s main campus. “Decolonizing African Knowledge System” was the title of the lecture.
While the event was chaired by Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed who was represented by Mr. Sunday Baba, a Director in the Ministry; Ado M. Yahuza who is the Executive Secretary of the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) served as the Special Guest of Honour. Other dignitaries that graced the occasion include the Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria, Her Excellency Clara M. Pulido-Escandell; Professor Nuhu Yaqub who is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Abuja; Professor Tanure Ojayide; Professor C. B. N. Ogbogbo; Professor Chimalun Nwankwo; Dr Oyedekpo; and host of distinguished academics and scholars.
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Born in 1953, Prof Falola is a Nigerian historian and Professor of African Studies. He earned his PhD degree in History in 1981 at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Falola is author and editor of over one hundred books and has, at different times, held short-term teaching appointments at the University of Cambridge in England, York University in Canada; Smith College of Massachusetts in the United States; the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia; and the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos.
The guest lecturer began his conversation by defining the objective of university education as helping the society to become better. In a metaphorical language, Prof Falola described the university as ‘the gown’ and the society as ‘the town’; adding that the gown derives the problems it needs to research on from the town and thereafter propose solutions; meaning that university exists to solve or resolve society’s challenges. However, he lamented how African universities, being products of colonialism, were created to resolve the problems of colonial master’s society.
Given the exodus of graduates of African institutions to Europe and America, one could not but agree with the erudite scholar when he said “African universities do not necessarily prepare scholars to solve local challenges but rather serve as a talent-mining ground for the colonial masters.” Truly, the education system in Africa is a reflection of the lack of independent thought; the same disease that has made African societies to remain backward.
Falola blamed African researchers for relying too heavily on western models and refusing to develop African heritage. He said secrets words exist in every society. But while the Whiteman developed his to the advantage of his society by inventing email, WhatsApp, and zoom technologies; Africans rather used their secret words, particularly witchcraft, to kill and under-develop their society.
According to Prof Falola, the systems and structures existing in African universities have not been customised to solve indigenous problems, which in his opinion, explains why universities in this continent have made little or no impact in the society. He sadly lamented that “unemployment is a major indicator of the failure of African education system.” This writer is not surprised at this dysfunction of African institutions. Of course, how could universities built on foundations that are not African solve African problems?
Describing the approach of African universities which imitate every model propounded by universities in the developed world as “a side effect of colonialism”, this pan-Africanist scholar said it is time for Africans to deconstruct colonialism, and hence, decolonize African education system. Proposing a way out of this mental imperialism, Falola stressed the need for universities in Africa to refocus their research scope in order to meet the demands of and resolve the chaos in African societies.
To get the message of his call across in specific terms, Falola said “University of Ibadan should focus research on problems in Ibadan and Nigeria; UNILAG should do the same for Lagos; and every university should do the same for the community in which it is located.” Nigerian universities should address socio-economic problems of their immediate environment even before looking at Africa. I found the opinion of this ‘Library of Knowledge’ called Falola apt when he advised African institutions to produce graduates that would demonstrate a sense of African identity, promote Africa’s culture, heritage, and value systems. He concluded by de-emphasising the modern narrative of “building a world class university” and advocated for universities that meet the needs of the society.
Listening to this great scholar did not only remind me of late Professor Ali Mazrui but also made it easier to understand that the appetite of many Africans in terms of what they eat, wear, admire, hate, and even the way they think is still controlled by colonial factors. This was the remark of this writer at the public lecture when he was called upon to give a vote of thanks as the Dean of Arts, the faculty that hosted the lecture.
Yes, while a Whiteman in Nigeria insists on looking for western food, dress, and music; a Hausa man from Nigeria is craving for western food, dress, music, ideas, and concepts at the expense, for instance, of local dishes such as tuwon dawa, zogale, and miyan kuka. I think the choice of colonial masters to colonize African education system was deliberate. To permanently change a society (for good or bad), education is a powerful instrument because of its overwhelming influence on the human mind. Through westernized education, the psyche of Africans has refused to disconnect from colonial impact. In their search for solutions to the country’s critical problems including poverty and unemployment. Nigerian elites, for example, think and act like Europeans and Americans.
In furtherance of Prof Falola’s call, this writer urges African scholars, researchers and students of knowledge to blend western methodologies with African indigenous intelligence to provide solutions for challenges confronting African people. May Allah guide us to focus more on problems that are critical to our respective countries, amin