Eighty-year-old former Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka, and ex-member, National Boundary Commission, Emeritus Prof. Anthony Asiwaju, shares the story of his life with SIMON UTEBOR
Can you tell us more about your background?
I was born on April 27, 1939 in Imeko, Ogun State.
How did you know you were born on that day?
My parents were strict Roman Catholics. My father was literate in Yoruba. So, he wrote the date down. Besides, I was baptised barely two weeks after my birth on May 14, 1939. It was close enough to be able to say that what my father wrote down was correct. My date of birth was recorded in my baptismal card.
Tell us about your siblings.
My parents had three children – three boys from the same mother. I have an elder brother who is five years older than I am. He is 85 this year and he lives in Imeko, Ogun State.
I have a younger brother, who is in the University of Lagos with his family. He was in the civil service. He retired recently. He was born in 1956, which means I am almost 18 years older than he is. We have a half sister of the same father born in 1961.
How was your growing up?
My parents were peasant farmers and they lived in and around Imeko up to 1947. In 1947, they moved to Oyede village in Ado-Odo in the Ado-Odo Ota Local Government Area of Ogun State. I grew up in a village setting; first in Imeko, later in Oyede village, near Ado-Odo.
I was not meant to go to school. In the practice of my parents’ generation’s Roman Catholics, the focus on educating children was on the first born and in our own particular case, it made sense because, as I said, my younger brother came very late. For a long time, we were two children of my parents, both boys. It didn’t make sense even if it was not the practice to send only first born to school. It didn’t make sense to my father, who was a peasant farmer, to send his two boys to school, who was going to help him on the farms. I was retained for the farm work and my elder brother went to school. That was when we were in Imeko. He came to Ado-Odo area to start school.
When we relocated to meet him, where we were working with my uncle, my father changed at his own risk – at his own absolute inconvenience – to say both of us should go to school because in the village where we moved to near Ado-Odo, my father was a migrant farmer; he had no land of his own.
The land he farmed belonged to his brother, who was my uncle, whom we came to live with. So, if you trained me as a farmer, what farmland am I going to inherit? He took that decision that both of us should go to school. That was why going to school was an afterthought of my parents, I didn’t start early enough – I started at 10.
Which year did you start your primary education?
I went to school in 1949 and finished primary school at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Ado-Odo in 1955. In 1956, I gained admission to St Leo’s Teacher’s Training College (Grade 2). It was for four years and I graduated at St Leo’s College in 1959 with certificate dated January 1960.
I was a teacher, a Grade 2 certificated teacher in various schools and Catholic mission schools of the old Archdiocese of Lagos. The whole of Ogun State now was part of that archdiocese. Our parish – Ado-Odo parish – was part of that archdiocese. I taught in different mission schools in Ado-Odo and in Abeokuta.
I later became a tutor at St. Mark’s Teachers Training College in Iperu Remo. It was from Iperu Remo that I gained admission to the University of Ibadan in 1963 to train as a historian, which training took two stages – first my BA honours, 1966, and PhD up till 1969 when I was employed in the University of Lagos in 1969. That employment delayed my PhD a bit.
Did you do master’s?
I did not do master’s, but I was able to finish the PhD thesis in 1971.
Was it possible to do PhD without master’s then?
Yes, in the UI; if your first degree is of the quality of second class upper and above and in my own days, nobody thought of giving BA honours higher than a second class upper.
First class was a no-go area, but if you made it at second class upper and return for higher degree, first, you are registered for master’s, but if within one year your performance justifies being placed on PhD programme, then, after some exams and assessment in the department, you are put into the programme – you skip master’s.
By 1969, I became a lecturer at the University of Lagos. For me, it is like continuing to be a teacher and I still pride myself as a teacher. I was trained as a teacher; I taught as a Grade 2 teacher in primary, secondary, college and went to the university. After BA, PhD, I remained a teacher in a university – tertiary level and was in UNILAG for 35 years when I retired in April 2004 at 65 (statutorily). But now it is 70.
Tell us more about your career.
My career is the career of a teacher all the way. I began as a teacher in the primary school. Then, from primary school, because I did well in Grade 2 teachers’ exams, I was moved from the primary school in the village to a secondary modern school (St. Stephen’s) at Ado-Odo, which was a big prestige then. I was in Ado-Odo till the end of 1960 when I was transferred to Abeokuta to be the primary six class teacher.
My performance, GCE O level, GCE A level drew attention that I should again be transferred as an elevated status of tutor of the teacher training college (St. Mark’s Teacher Training College) Grade 3 TTC in Iperu Remo up till 1963. I was employed in 1969 in UNILAG. But as I said, I finished PhD in 1971. I became a lecturer grade two in UNILAG in 1969, lecturer grade one 1973, senior lecturer in 1975 and professor in 1978.
You are regarded as an emeritus professor. What does that mean to you?
In the UNILAG and other universities, when you retire, not all of them are professor emeritus. What distinguishes a retired professor and elevates him to the status of emeritus professor is evidence of his continuous engagement with research and scholarly contributions even after retirement.
Usually, when you are to be nominated to be appointed (it is an appointment) as an emeritus professor, the person nominating you from the department asks for your updated CV, updated publications. When he is impressed, he puts you forward through the department, faculty and to what is called Honours Committee of the Senate of the university and those of who get approved, get appointed. I was appointed emeritus professor in 2011.
Is there anything attached to the appointment?
Prestige is attached to it. As a professor emeritus, you are supposed to make yourself available in the department. It does not attract any special payment. You go on your retirement salary but you are available. Where the facilities exist (and they ought to exist anyway), you come into the department at an appointed time of the week, of the month, so that you interact with the academic staff and students, particularly students. He can even volunteer to supervise PhD thesis, master’s thesis, as an emeritus professor. It is an academic status.
When did you marry?
I married in 1970. She was a lovely woman, very cooperative, caring and we are blessed with four children – a man, born in 1972 and three women. They are all delightful. But I lost their mother in 2003 painfully. My four children are all products of the University of Lagos. I married in UNILAG in 1970.
Why did you study history and not law, medicine or any other profession, which were popular at the time?
The truth of the matter is that there was no way I could say I wanted to read medicine. The school I did my primary school, secondary school in TTC. The secondary school in TTC already put me in a profession – teaching – and I had no cause to be envious or jealous of those in medicine; so that ruled out medicine.
The other profession that people talked about is law. I did not choose law because in our own days, Humanities is the thing and in Humanities, History is the thing. It carried a lot of prestige when you earned a BA (Hons) History.
My choice of history was based on that prestige it carried, and more importantly than that is the natural flair. I have the natural turn of mind for history right from primary school through TTC and into higher degrees in University of Ibadan.
What landmark achievements did you make during your appointment as commissioner of international boundaries?
The National Boundary Commission was created to operate in two major functional wings – international boundaries and internal boundaries.
My department was concerned with international boundaries. Part of the problems that led to the creation of NBC was a rising tide of conflicts between us and our neighbours, particularly Cameroon.
As an expert in international boundaries, what is your take on the ceding of Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon?
There was nothing ceded to Cameroon. You know modern African state territories and boundaries are inherited from colonialism. They were colonial territories before they became independent state territories. If you look at the state territories – the territorial structure of Nigeria and the boundaries that defined it – they are boundaries that are based on international treaties that we were not responsible for.
Britain negotiated with other European powers that owned territories around the Nigerian territory. When you look at those treaties, they were not in our favour in respect of Bakassi Peninsula. Secondly, the naval charts that emanated from those treaties also did not put Bakassi on the Nigerian side of Nigeria/Cameroon border; it was put in the Cameroon territory. The cartographic data, similarly, even the atlas that we used in schools, put Bakassi Peninsula in Cameroon. That was it and when we did the research to advise the Federal Government, the research we did (comprising historians, lawyers, municipal lawyers, border lawyers were all in the team; some surveyors were also in the team), it became clear that if Nigeria must own Bakassi Peninsula, it had to go for negotiation and we also advised this in 1990 when we submitted that report. But there were people who felt that our position was technical and that our position was scientific. We went to court in 1994 after military skirmishes, it was clear to me that there was no way we could win that battle in the court because you must argue and the instrument for argument were those I have enumerated. Nigeria’s defence team did their best but the International Court of Justice was more concerned about the treaties. What did the treaties say? What did the naval charts say? What did the international agreement say? It was on the basis of this that in spite of eight years of litigation in the International Court of Justice, we lost Bakassi to Cameroon. It was not ceded.
History has been removed from the secondary school curriculum. Are you bothered as a historian?
I have always been bothered. History has always been my best subject in primary and secondary school. It was the performance at those two levels that gave me the base. I have joined forces with other historians to continue to hammer on the return of history to the curricula of primary and secondary school. I am happy that today, the battle is won because the Muhammadu Buhari administration has made a policy statement that assured us that history will return in October this year.
Do you think Nigeria still needs history in modern times?
Absolutely, we need history. How can you understand yourself when you don’t understand your past? The scope of history goes beyond elasticity level. History is everything and everything is history.
Do you have any regrets in life?
No, because one area that often causes regrets for man is the course of his career. A Yoruba adage says, ‘May we not do the work of another person’.
Did you remarry after you lost your wife?
I did remarry customarily. She is a beautiful woman and very supportive too. He used to be in the secretariat of History Department. By the time I lost my wife, she also had become a widow and so we have been married for that long.
Are you fulfilled in life?
I am very fulfilled. I am fulfilled in my career and in public life; nothing is as good and as pleasant as being found relevant to my local community, Ogun State, Federal Republic of Nigeria, Africa and the world on matters of applied knowledge.
How do you relax?
Not much, but work and research have introduced an element of relaxation while working. My research is highly involved in travelling.
What is the secret of your longevity?
God; I believe much in God. I eat well but moderately.
What is your favourite food?
I like amala with vegetables, okra, ewedu and gbegiri. I was diagnosed for diabetes at 60. Since then, my wife has continued to supply me with unripe plantain flour – it is more diabetic-compliant.
What about drinks?
I do not drink at all, except occasionally red wine with food.
What music do you enjoy?
I like church music and classical hymns. I also like Nigeria’s indigenous music like bolojo and others. I dance them very well and sing their songs.
What advice do you have for younger generation?
They should be focused, hard working and eschew cutting corners. They should not be in a hurry to be rich and must be delighted to earn income and shun bad company.