Anyone who has ever met Professor Emeritus Ayo Banjo would immediately be struck by the force of a gentle soul with a mental magnitude that belies gentility. With a soft crown of grey hair, a face wizened by age, experience and wisdom; and a gangling figure that moves slowly but steadily as if always on a mission to achieve more and more, you know that you are in the presence of an intellectual force. I am describing a grand old man, my own vice chancellor whom I take much pride in beyond the fact that he signed my certificate at UI, but whose life projects a trajectory of learning and grace from which fountain I drank so heavily. Professor Ladipo Ayodeji Banjo is one of the few intellectual colossuses that serve as reference points by which we can compare what used to be with what we have now. From the trajectory of his life and the upbringing he got all goes to the making of a brilliant mind who is not just an intellectual but a man who has come to signify the dexterous combination of intellect and character. It is this trajectory I mean to chart in this piece.
Can we get an insight into what a man can be from where such a man is coming from? Or, to put within a wider perspective: Is the greatness of a man the sum of all his contexts and circumstances? In his autobiography, Morning by Morning (2019), Professor Ayo Banjo enthusiastically narrated the language-learning method that ensured that his generation was taught first in Yoruba before doing the same in English. This learning context was further complemented for the young Banjo by his encounter with the teaching and cultural mandates of the famous D. O. Fagunwa, the novelist who brought the Yoruba culture and worldview alive in the minds of the young school children.
Francisco Sionil Jose, the Filipino writer once wrote the following words: “The influence of teachers extends beyond the classroom, well into the future. It is they who shape and enrich the minds of the young, who touch their hearts and souls. It is they who shape a nation’s future.” These are golden words that prefigured for us the development of Ayo Banjo in the hands of many teachers, from his immediate ones to the critical teaching provided by his formal religious and cultural environments. Professor Ayo Banjo emerged from within these environments as a conscious and conscientious teacher himself, with a sense of historical mandate to replicate what he had learnt and to serve others too.
In the first paragraph of this piece, I spoke to a specific impression of Ayo Banjo as a grand old gentleman. This is not a picture that came out of a vacuum. It is actually not a persona that the emeritus professor just assumed in old age. On the contrary, it had been cultivated as a result of the education that he received in the best tradition of the humanities education that Britain had to offer when he studied there. And this is not an ordinary point to make. Irwin Miller asserts most fundamentally that “The calling of the humanities is to make us truly human in the best sense of the word.” Ayo Banjo’s intellectual maturation completed the turn of events in his life that eventually conditioned both a character and intellect that we should have no fear in calling him an Omolúwàbí in the genuine Yoruba sense of that word. Being an Omolúwàbí, for the Yoruba, is essentially an ethical endeavor. It speaks to a virtuous disposition that places a self or a person in relation first to itself, then to other selves or persons and finally to the society within which the selves or persons must exist and relate.
An Omolúwàbí is a template of moral horizon which all individuals are enjoined to pursue. To be an Omolúwàbí is to be considerate, moderate, thoughtful, kind, tolerant, respectful, sincere, decent, committed to duties and socially responsible. An Omolúwàbí is not only human but equally humane in his or her dealing with others. To be regarded as an Omolúwàbí is to be seen as possessing gentlemanly traits or respectable characteristics. In essence, the humanities train us to be Omolúwàbí and I am honored as a humanities scholar myself to celebrate Prof. Banjo as a unique exemplification of that noblest of traits! In the case of emeritus professor Ayo Banjo, the Omolúwàbí ethos was founded at the juncture of a solid Yoruba upbringing, a conscientious Christian maturity and a serious humanities education.
Celebrating Ayo Banjo is not just an occasion for recounting his existential achievements up to date. It is also fundamentally about learning crucial lessons from someone whose life embodies the virtues that seem to be missing in a society that ought to be the conduit for transferring virtues from generation to generation. But then, it is difficult to separate a man’s legacies from his achievements. And Ayo Banjo is an achiever par excellence. And this ranges from being a National Merit Award winner to being a former pro-chancellor and currently, chair of the governing board of NUC. Yet my attention is somewhere else. I am more fascinated by the unique trails that the emeritus professor of English has blazed. Let us start with Professor Banjo’s first love, the English Language, and transformational grammar. No doubt it takes a very good teacher to bring thorny ideas and concepts alive in the minds of the students. We have for instance the testimony of no less a figure than Professor Biodun Jeyifo about how an encounter with the grammar class of Ayo Banjo opened his eyes and mind to the inherent possibilities of transformational grammar and its generative capabilities. For such a scholar who made a success of studying and teaching the English language, it is logical that Nigeria’s plural linguistic context would instigate several researches into how a virtue can be made out of the necessity of speaking a colonial language. This is what led, first, to Professor Banjo’s brilliant inaugural lecture, “Grammar and Grammarian” (1983); and then later to an even more brilliant book, Making Virtue of Necessity: An Overview of the English Language in Nigeria (1996).
Professor Emeritus Ayo Banjo is also an institution-builder. His groundbreaking works in the standardization of Nigerian English is complemented by several successful attempts to build intellectual and academic structures, processes and institutions that will ensure the solidity of the tradition of learning that he himself grew up with. This was one of the reasons that informed his enthusiasm in collaborating with other eminent scholars, to follow up on the establishment of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. There is also a critical involvement in the Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Literature Prize in the capacity of its inaugural chairman.
Ayo Banjo, with his very existence, delivers a stentorian challenge derivable from his life and intellectual legacies: higher education and intellectual qualities are achieved not only for their own sake. On the contrary, they are meant, first, to mold the lives that pursue them; and second, they are meant to imbue education with virtuous elements. A robust education ought to lead to the emergence of truly diligent and truly committed souls transformed by what they have learnt in order to transform the society. We therefore return again to the critical point about the contributions that the humanities make to the building of characters that in turn lend virtue to the understanding of the objectives of education.
All these of course lead inevitably to deep reflections about the present state of higher education in Nigeria. This is so because any discussion about Ayo Banjo must in the end gravitate towards higher education and its reform: how the tertiary institutions—universities, polytechnics and colleges of education—could be reassessed and rehabilitated in ways that will transform them into institutions for producing truly exemplary individuals, like Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, who represent the best that these institutions were able to produce when the educational system was still graduating humane students who understood the relationship between the educational and social objectives. As a former helmsman of at the University of Ibadan, Professor Ayo Banjo had garnered the critical experience that enables him to speak not only to the predicament of higher education but also to proffer worthy solutions. Ayo Banjo’s reform ideas are all encompassing, requiring first the total overhaul of the educational system from the primary to the tertiary levels, then the reform of the JAMB mandate, the imperatives of financing the universities, staffing it with adequate and morally worthy teaching and non-teaching staffs, and infrastructural development that will make learning fulfilling. These are all issues that are still outstanding as far as resolving the predicament of the Nigerian educational system, and higher education, is concerned.
Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo is still serving the university system which produced his moral and intellectual stature. From where he is coming from, holding a sinecure is unbecoming of someone who is an intellectual omolúwàbí. He would not use the demands of old age to wager any free meal or payment from the university. Old age, for him, demands more responsibilities. And what better and nobler responsibility is there than offering sagacious reflections and more conscientious service in salvaging a university system that is fast fading from the luminous beacon of social transformation and national development that he used to know and cherished?