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Francis Abiola Irele, who died in Boston on July 2 at the age of 81, was undoubtedly the foremost prophet of the concept of Negritude to which he devoted his entire intellectual career for over five decades. I first met him as an undergraduate while studying German at the University of Ibadan in 1985 when he was head of the Department of Modern Languages and a professor of French. At the time, with the social distance typical of such relationships, he struck me as aloof, absent-minded and remote. Later in my academic career, I would meet “Prof” in diverse American cities during annual African Studies Association (ASA) conferences. Seeing him wandering around on his own, we would sit down to a coffee and talk about various issues relating to Nigeria, Africa, and the world. I still remember his magisterial M.K.O. Abiola lecture on “African Studies as Discipline and Vocation” during the ASA meeting in Indianapolis in November 2014.

After Irele’s death, tributes flooded in from around the world. Harvard-based Nigerian scholar, Biodun Jeyifo, described him as “indisputably the world’s greatest scholar of Negritude;” Kenya’s Princeton-based Simon Gikandi called him “a walking archive,” before noting that “More than any other scholar of his generation, Irele brought a forceful intellect, a cosmopolitan outlook, and authoritative voice to the study of African literature;” eminent Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare, described Irele as “a man and scholar constantly re-inventing himself and his ideas, an ageless humanist with an astounding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age;” Nigerian academic, Remi Raji, praised Irele as “the original olohum iyo (salt-tongued artiste), and teacher of teachers;” while American academic, Kenneth Harrow, eulogised him as “a major voice for African studies, a generous humanist, an insightful scholar…an iroko tree in our forest of scholars.”

Abiola Irele was born on May 22, 1936 into a colonial Nigeria still under British rule for the first 24 years of his life: an experience that shaped his writing in its fierce Pan-Africanism. Though born in Ora in Edo State, he moved to Enugu at the age of six (after his father, who worked as a civil servant in the Post and Telegraph Department, was transferred there) where he learned to speak Igbo. He would return to Lagos to live with his father, attending Catholic schools St. Patrick’s, St. Mathias, and St. Gregory’s in accordance with the family faith. He was exposed to folk tales and oral poetry even before entering the University of Ibadan in 1957, where he was a contemporary of J.P. Clark, Florence Nwapa, and Christopher Okigbo. Irele was not just a scholar in Ibadan, his appearance in the opera, “The Magic Flute” and his singing of librettos with a golden voice in the university’s Trenchard Hall, are fondly remembered by his contemporaries.CONTINUE READING

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