By Obi Nwakanma
I MET Adiele Afigbo, the eminent historian, the first time in 1982 at the Government College, Umuahia. I was in the fifth form and in Simpson. Professor Afigbo had brought his son to school from Nsukka to register him into his freshman class - Form One - and he had been sent to Nile.
I happened to have been, possibly, the first person they met that day on arrival to school, I, returning early from the blocks after preps, and he walking with the young Afigbo down the College drive. He struck up a short discussion with me, and I was apparently in my best manners, and it was all an assurance that his son would have interesting times in Umuahia. I helped take them to the Nile common room, and a brief handshake later, was on my way to other things.
Many years later during the Igbo Studies conference at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, organized by the now late Don Ohadike in April 2003, I again met Adiele Afigbo, who had given a brilliant keynote statement, and introduced myself. He had a clear memory of the “lad” who met him over 20 years thence.
Perhaps that is the true gift of historians - clear memory - and Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo was the giant among historians in his era. Born in Ihube Okigwe in colonial Eastern Nigeria in November 1937, Afigbo’s path was shaped by the time and events of his society. His promise was spotted early in primary school where he came to the mentorship of the formidable teacher and Methodist missionary, Mr. Iheukwumere from the neigbouring Uzuakoli.
From the Methodist Central School Ihube Okigwe, the young Adiele Afigbo went on to secondary school at St. Augustine’s College, Nkwerre, and among his contemporaries at St. Augustine’s were people like the famous literary critic and scholar, the late Obi Wali whom he also met up with later at the University College, Ibadan into which Afigbo himself was admitted in 1956.
From what we can glean from Adiele Afigbo’s biography, it seems that he came under the considerable influence of certain key figures at both St. Augustine’s Nkwerre and at the University College, Ibadan, whose direction helped ultimately to point him towards his own clear ambitions. At St. Augustine’s, Afigbo came into contact with such people as Mazi F.C. Ogbalu, the famous Igbo cultural nationalist and linguist, who spent his professional career dedicated to the promotion and propagation of Igbo language and culture. F.C. Ogbalu taught Afigbo at Nkwerre.
So also did G.I.C Eneli - an old Umuahian himself and foundational student of the University College Ibadan, who spent his first career after leaving Ibadan in 1953, teaching history at St. Augustine’s Nkwerre. Eneli, one of the finest scholar-athletes of his time would later on in 1957, join the first corp of Nigerian Foreign Service officers when it was established, serving in his last post as Nigeria’s Consular-General in Rome before the civil war and years later, after the Nigerian civil war, would become an entrepreneur and chairman of GICEN. But it is apparent that his influence as a history teacher in his first career bore even more magnificent fruit, for he left a great imprint on Adiele Afigbo, his best student at St. Augustine’s.
In his letter to Dr. Kenneth Dike, then Principal of the University College, Ibadan, in 1955 intimating him of his desire to pursue scholarship in history at Ibadan, the young Afigbo, in brash confidence wrote that if all it required to be admitted into Ibadan was mental or intellectual energy, that he felt himself more than adequately endowed and prepared, especially since he had always come at the top of his peers in the subject of history.
There is no evidence now to show Kenneth Dike’s reaction. But it may say something about Kenneth Dike, doyen of modern Nigerian history, that he gave benefit of the doubt to youthful confidence and apparently showed more than amused interest, for Adiele Afigbo was admitted to the highly elitist University College, Ibadan in 1956, and true to his claim, emerged top of his class in the department of history which included such notable and talented scholars in their own rights, Obaro Ikime and Philip Igbafe.
He graduated ahead of his class in 1964, and was conferred with the first Ph.D of the University of Ibadan in 1964. He was thereafter employed as a young lecturer in the Ibadan history department, and could have settled to a career at Ibadan. But the crisis of 1966 disrupted all that, driving Afigbo, and many other Eastern Nigerian scholars out of Ibadan to the East. It was thus that Adiele Afigbo moved to Nsukka. But in between his scholarly life at Nsukka was the disruption of the war. In Biafra, he was employed in the Directorate for War Propaganda.
The war over, Afigbo settled to an exciting academic life at Nsukka, where he made a great impact. He was head of History and Archeology. He rose to the Deanship of the Humane Letters. He served as Director of the Leon Hansberry Institute of African Studies, and had been seconded from Nsukka as the first Director of Research of the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies. He was also, between 1984 and 1987 Commissioner for Education, and later, for Local Government in the “old” Imo State.
Energy of scholarship
He was also awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit - Nigeria’s equivalent of the Nobel. Afigbo retired from Nsukka in 1992 and was feted by his peers as a great and humane scholar. It was on account of his significance and the breadth of his work at the University of Nigeria, that Chibuzo Abdulaziz Ude endowed a chair in his honour as Professor of history at Nsukka to continue his work.
Adiele Afigbo’s formal retirement from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did not prohibit the energy of his scholarship or his quest to distillate the questions of his time and impact them upon a new generation of students.
He was invited to positions at the Abia State University in Uturu, and later at the Ebonyi State University at Abakiliki. Afigbo spent time in 2005 as a senior research fellow at Cambridge, and the pace of his work remained a continual challenge and inspiration to younger scholars.
Indeed it was in acknowledgement of this that the historian Toyin Falola of the University of Texas, Austin, organized a colourful celebration of Adiele Afigbo’s life on the occasion of his 70th birthday at Nsukka in November 2007. Adiele Afigbo died three weeks ago, on the morning of March 10, 2009.
As the Igbo, his kinsmen would say, a great tree fell. Adiele Afigbo was such a giant in the company of the giants of historical scholarship on Africa in the 20th century.
His reconstruction of the history of pre-colonial and colonial Igbo and the surrounding world is without compare, and was a tone clearly set when he gave the prestigious Ahiajoku lectures in 1981 on the topic: “The Age of Innocence: the Igbo and their Neighbours in Pre-Colonial Times.” Afigbo’s conclusions were startling, clear, and daring. Of his many works, Warrant Chiefs in Igbo Land and Ropes of Sand will stand in the pantheon of great books that have come to clarify, with great insight and empathy the pre-colonial and colonial contacts of the Igbo, one of Africa’s most intriguing cultures.
It was a duty and labour borne out of great love that Afigbo spent his life reconstructing their footprints through time in what will now be a timeless account. His work is done. Adiele Afigbo rests with the greatest of our world who have now made their home in immortality. Afigbo is immortal because his work in cold print now lives warmly preserved by time.