Celebration of Life: Pius Adesanmi, The Public Intellectual

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These were the last words, posted on the heavily trafficked Facebook account of the Nigerian-Canadian academic, writer, satirist and public analyst, Pius Adesanmi. The words were accompanied by a picture of Adesanmi, sitting at the airport, clutching a boarding pass tucked in between the pages of a Canadian passport.

Adesanmi was on his way to Nairobi, Kenya to attend the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) meeting organized by the African Union scheduled to commence on 11, March 2019. He would go on to board the Ethiopia Airlines Airbus 737 MAX 8 that crashed on the morning of 10, March shortly after taking off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 persons on board. He was 47.

Left to mourn him are a wife, two daughters and an aged mother.

Until his death, Adesanmi was a professor at Carleton University, Ottawa in Canada where he taught English and African studies. He joined the Carleton community in 2006 and served as director for the University’s Institute of African studies. In this role, Adesanmi was able to influence not just academic discourse, but the lives of the students he came in contact with as well. Carleton President and vice-chancellor, Benoit-Antoine Bacon paid tribute on the University website, describing Adesanmi as ‘’a towering figure in African and post-colonial scholarship.” He continued, “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and all those who knew and loved him, and with everyone who suffered loss in the tragic crash in Ethiopia.”

Easily one of the widest known (and read) Nigerian scholars, Adesanmi’s research interests encompassed postcolonial writing and social media, African & black diasporic literatures and cultures in English and French, popular culture, street culture plus postcolonial and cultural theory. He also did some work in third world feminist discourses and Yoruba Language literature and was published in several continents from Africa to the Americas.

Away from the structured environment of academia, Adesanmi enjoyed a considerable readership base with his satiric essays and opinion pieces published on several online platforms. At some point, he ran two weekly columns dealing on political affairs plus social commentary on modern Nigerian living concurrently on Sahara Reporters and the defunct NEXT newspapers. The popularity of these columns led to syndicated essays published on YNaija.com, Nigerian Village Square and Premium Times where he served on the editorial board.

He may have been based in the diaspora for long periods of his professional life, but Adesanmi was also very active on the lecture circuit back home, delivering the Save Nigeria Group Lecture, Reparations: What Nigeria owes the tortoise in 2012, only the first of many to come with the group. In 2014, he was the keynote speaker at the Obafemi Awolowo birthday anniversary symposium convened by the Obafemi Awolowo foundation. And his performance appraisal, Building Rome in a day with one kobo: El Rufai & the challenge of 21st century Kaduna was delivered at the 2015 inauguration of Mallam Nasir El Rufai as governor of Kaduna state in 2015.

Adesanmi’s close relationship with the Kaduna state governor did not stop him from weighing in- per usual humor laced, yet incisive style- on the controversy that played out two years later when El Rufai landed in hot water for a high-handed decision to sack 22,000 teachers in the state workforce. Adesanmi’s 2015 TED talk titled Africa is the forward that the world needs to face was a media sensation and he appeared on The Platform, a televised national event.

It is hard to tell how much influence newspaper columnists actually exert on the culture but Adesanmi’s clarity of thought and quality prose made him one of the most vital voices in political discourse. Read widely by elite class and common folk alike, Adesanmi’s hot takes were widely shared across several social media platforms. He was reliably trusted to help make sense of the relentless circus that is the Nigerian news cycle and his 2015 book, Naija no dey carry last was a curation of some of his reflections on Nigeria.

In turns loving, frustrating and exasperating, Adesanmi’s relationship with Nigeria was complicated. He was constantly expressing these frustrations via his columns and social media posts and only last year did he survive a ghastly road accident while travelling along the Oyo-Ogbomosho expressway on his way to Lagos from Ilorin. “Two hours after the accident, no help came. The evacuation culture was zero,” Adesanmi told Premium Times in a telephone interview following the accident.

But at the heart of these frustrations remained a fierce dedication to offering solutions to the many problems prevalent not just in Nigeria but across the continent. Adesanmi was constantly engaging through his work, crisscrossing the academic, media and development circles. He maintained a robust network of contacts within the country and outside and gave generously of his expertise, obliterating the gulf between town and gown through his work.

Some of these engagements include the Abiola Irele Seminar on Theory and Criticism for PhD students and lecturers at the Kwara State University where he served as associate director. Adesanmi served for five years as faculty and consultant to University of Ghana’s Pan-African Doctoral Academy, an annual summer school for doctoral students from the West and East African subregions.

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He spent his sabbatical in Ghana designing a new Ph.D. program in “African Thought” for the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. In South Africa, he worked with the University of Johannesburg and Wits University to train and mentor doctoral and postdoctoral students in interdisciplinary research methods. Adesanmi was a member of the editorial team of the Nigerian Village Square online platform and served on the Advisory Board of the Ake Arts & Book Festival.

Born in February 1972 in Isanlu, Yagba East Local Government area of Kogi State, Pius Adesanmi obtained a First Class Honors degree in French Studies from the University of Ilorin in 1992. A Master’s degree and a PhD in the same discipline from the Universities of Ibadan and British Columbia respectively followed shortly after. Adesanmi enjoyed fellowships from the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) from 1993 to 1997 as well as the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS).

Prior to joining Carleton, Adesanmi taught at the Pennsylvania State University, USA as an assistant professor of comparative literature. In 2017, he was the recipient of the Canada Bureau of International Education (CBIE) Leadership Award for personifying “CBIE’s central value propositions of “Expertise. Knowledge. Opportunity. Leadership”.

A decorated author, Adesanmi won the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing, initiated by Penguin Books in conjunction with Chinua Achebe with his manuscript,You’re Not a Country, Africa. He also published a poetry collection titled, The Wayfarer and Other Poems which won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2001.

Throughout his life and career, Adesanmi was guided by the work of Nobel Prize winning Mexican Poet, Octavio Paz Lozano, a proponent of intellectual abstract thought as an invaluable aspect of nation building. “Thinking is really the only debt that the public intellectual owes his society. Thinking is all I believe I owe Nigeria and Africa,’’ Adesanmi once told the London based African Writing magazine.

He strived to fulfill his end of this bargain. But he did a lot more too.

Bernard Dayo writes on film, TV, and culture. You can follow on him on Twitter @BernardDayo.

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