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The Toyin Falola Interviews – A Conversation With Professor Olu Obafemi, Part 7 Of 7

Akorowo (an Epa Masked dancer) from Okun Yoruba. Photographed by Olawole Famule, 2004



Toyin Falola

  1. Does the African Diaspora have any role in the development of African nations—education and civilization?

Olu Obafemi

Africans in the Diaspora have options to make. They live in societies that are already in some socio-economic fulfilment. The infrastructure of good education subtends, the economy is by and large stabilized, no matter the colour of their politics and governance, there is a largely stable structure that compels a certain standard or level of social stability. An average academic has facilities to work with, funds to conduct meaningful research, even carry out purist knowledge content. The laboratories for the most sophisticated research encounter, physical and digital libraries are adequate and there is a certain level of appreciable funding through grants and so on to receive and deliver knowledge in the information technology age. The situation is different in Africa as yet and the Diaspora is expected, not merely to maintain a paternalistic attitude to the homeland or be unduly cavalier. They have the option to do nothing about the home of course, but they have no moral rights to either gloat or to mystify and contemn. The reality is that there is no mental deficiency among academics in Nigeria and Africa. Given the same opportunities with their counterparts in the Diaspora, they will be competitive at least. Many of us have been out there before, either as students or as Faculty and the difference is certainly not in mental power or resources. A conscient or sensitive Diaspora will seek ways and avenues of advancing education at home through what they do or the intangible support they are able to give.



Championing the African Development:

Obafemi on the Role of Diaspora Community

Toyin Falola

In recent times, a cyclone of reactions has emerged from the diaspora environment, and it is gaining momentum by the day. Grievances and agitations are condensed in the emotional responses of several individuals living outside of the continent because their paternalistic responsibility is considered pertinent and essential. The significance of their voices does not lie in the fact that it can coerce the government of their home countries to address their concerns. Still, the diaspora community has given them a platform for the projection of their voices, which they will not forfeit so quickly.

Talking about the level of development at home, particularly in a negative narrative, has the potential to draw the world’s attention to the urgency of their situation back home. And if in the case that the international community is candidly interested in ensuring authentic democratic culture across the world, their voices have the power to draw attention to countries that are not doing so well. However, the ignorance of many immigrants about global politics usually costs them and their abandoned patrilineal setting something grave that cannot be seen on the surface. Apart from being complicit in many of the woes confronting the continent, the international community is indifferent about the African dream of genuine emancipation.

African scholars have been wrongly accused of engaging in frivolities that sometimes compel questions about their capacity. They have been uncritically condemned for engaging in industrial actions without considering how it weakens their country’s education and political system. There have been broad-based accusations of extorting students unduly, which eventually affect their disposition to education generally. These are some of the underlying issues that frustrate the prospect of development in the African educational system.

When asked about the possibility of the African diaspora contributing to building a unique civilization, either by establishing a better educational system or calling for a fair society achieved through a better democratic culture, Olufemi Obafemi’s response is pregnant with connotations that need to be disentangled. He reminds us that most of the Global North countries, which are African destinations, have an existing social framework, political organization, and economic structures that compel a level of stability even in near-anarchy situations. This statement applies to the very recent political challenges that have surrounded America during its power transition. The world is conscious that their presidential elections have witnessed unprecedented polarity in their past and current political histories. Despite the political infractions, the existing American institutions, which are more powerful than any leader’s political attitude in history, came to the rescue and restored normalcy to their country. The economic system was functioning, people’s welfare was going smoothly, and the security architecture did not halt. In essence, the African diaspora in that community remained stable because their economic dreams were not crushed. However, their experience, not only during the pandemic, has shown that a working system would find balance in every chaotic situation of any chaotic experience.

Having this experience is capable of provoking at least two reactions from the African diaspora. One, it makes the diasporans over-romanticize and praises the government of their host countries. Two, it provokes a level of anger and annoyance against their home countries for what they perceive as an inability to build a functional society that could withstand pressure in emergency times. When the former is the case, they indirectly and strangely contribute to their homeland government’s emasculation and paternal identity. Many countries in the continent are developing due to people who organize their social and political activities amicably. As a result, it will take time and goodwill to arrive at a respectful level of development. Appreciating the governments of their host countries is essential, but it should not be done to the detriment of their home countries because historical records show that colonial imperialism has consistently boosted and augmented the Global North, resulting in economic exploitation and drainage of African human and natural resources.

If the second position is the case, their anger will prevent them from offering the necessary assistance to facilitate progress or attract credible investment that would fast-track their anticipated development. In the end, they would have unknowingly confirmed the assumption that Africans are incapable of self-determination and lack the ideas needed for their true emancipation. In either case, none of these assumptions dignifies the African people. Of course, they have the liberty to choose what they do, but it is not morally right to always criticize individuals at home who are making efforts for change, as long as they are indeed doing so.

For those in academia, it is assumed that they have unrestricted access to resources, both financial and intellectual, to consolidate their knowledge adventure and enable them to contribute to knowledge productions. There are adequate facilities, funds for research, an audience to consume their findings without pressure, social security to ensure their family’s economic welfare, basic infrastructures to guarantee a successful implementation of routine activities, and much more. These are some of the fundamental factors on the suitability of the diaspora communities for transformative development.

It inspired Obafemi to disagree that the best reaction African diaspora can give is to condemn their home countries. In academics, which he addresses well, in-house African scholars would have done equally differently if exposed to similar facilities and an encouraging environment. The fact that they are there in the diaspora community does not automatically confer on them the right to disparage the African educational system if they are not making enough efforts to transform it. African academics are not substandard to their contemporaries in the world around. They are, however, victims of the existing system, which is, fortunately, on the verge of revival and reorganization.

Obafemi’s response gives the impression that the African education system is not doing badly as popular narratives have painted. Fortunately, some indices can be used to draw this conclusion. For example, many Nigerian students or graduates who find themselves in the diaspora usually come out with impressive records and results. They demonstrate their internalized excellence and the impeccable academic foundation on which they stand. This suggests that the diaspora scholars’ edge over their African counterparts is not due to a deficiency in mental capacity but can be found in infrastructures and other related differences. They should be ingratiated to the educational structures that increased their knowledge or improved their resolve, making them withstand the new environment’s pressure and demands.

Rather than condemn these academic structures, they would add value simply by not blaming their home countries even if they do not have anything good to say about it. Criticism is good when it is not ill-intentioned. Constructive criticism helps to reevaluate one’s position and encourages necessary changes where they are needed. But when the complaint is vindictive, it becomes an attack and would be very difficult to initiate the required process of development. Obafemi understands that the continent’s image needs protection, and it should not be exposed to more danger. Restoring excellence in the African educational system requires a collaborative effort between the in-house Africans and the African diaspora. As they are exposed to different environments’ ideas and philosophies, they can offer advice and necessary materials to enhance the transformative educational system.

It has been argued that one of the problems ravaging the African educational system is the inability to attract an international standard of intellectual presence in many academic engagements and environments. This factor, coincidentally, determines the rating of schools. Except for countries like South Africa, which has excelled in international collaboration, many African universities have a global presence shortage. The pull factor is low, making it difficult for scholars from other continents to consider exploring their company’s environment. However, Africa cannot be fully understood without multivarious involvement except the usual superficial projections that Africans use to experience from the Western hemisphere. Obafemi, therefore, makes passive comments about the undertaking of the roles of facilitators that have been open to the African diaspora. They understand the political terrain of their offshore residence and can enhance international academics’ interest in Africa.

Except for Nigeria doing relatively well in fundraising and outsourcing academics with international relevance, and South Africa, where educational planners have appropriately managed, not many African countries have grant opportunities, which is one of the most challenging experiences in the African educational system. Whereas their counterparts worldwide have access to funds and grants to facilitate their research engagements, many African schools do not. As a result, their lack of access inhibits them from converting their intellectual power to something concrete that would benefit society maximally and free them from the shackles of dependence.

Funding the educational system is problematic in Africa for many reasons. One, not many individuals who are considered wealthy have a legitimate source for their wealth. In most situations, they are either beneficiaries of the rot of corruption or have a morally questionable income source. This significantly limits their ability to participate in sponsoring academic engagements in the country actively. Simultaneously, it is nearly impossible for the government to undertake the responsibility of financing the educational system of their country alone, considering all other commitments they have as leaders. All of these factors continue to frustrate every effort towards development.

Meanwhile, the essence of Obafemi’s response to the question is intended to reveal the very complex politics of financing that characterizes the African educational system. From a distant observer, it is difficult to understand why the continent’s education is not advancing in the right direction. Many critics have held intellectuals responsible for the lack of productivity, especially compared to their contemporaries in other climes. They have no regard for academics because they believe they are underperforming. In the face of low financial investment, it is tough to enhance quality services in educational engagement. Governments have a share of the blame for their reduced concentration of budgetary allocation to education. In fact, in countries like Nigeria, the money allocated to the legislative arm of government, which has a minimal number of people compared to its population density, surpasses the funds allocated to education. The government runs an expensive political system, making it challenging to commit financial resources to education and increase national productivity.

Since it is already established that the restoration of African dignity, especially in the education system, requires collaborative efforts, Obafemi believes that the African diaspora contributing to its advancement needs no coercion but goodwill. Without being asked to do so, the African diaspora owes the continent the duty to stick their necks out for the good of their native continent. They should not deny their paternalistic beginning the opportunity to rise because official help has not been solicited from them. In the area of funding, they could elicit massive financial assistance through contributions and other means. They tend to organize themselves into a collaborative group, and through this, they could choose to develop a better participatory culture in their home countries’ academic infrastructures. If members of the academic community in the diaspora make concerted efforts to facilitate the importation of seasoned academics into the African university systems, they would have helped their country improve their standard and encourage more creative approaches to academic inquiry. If they assist in funding research, it will provoke a spontaneous and immediate transcendental impact on African educational structures. Researchers would become more recognized, and they would enjoy relative importance generally.

Even when the West believes that the supposed difference between them and Africans in academic topics is underscored by mental superiority, the mindset will change when Africans have access to a better educational environment as their counterparts in other parts of the world. To arrive at this beautiful condition requires active collaboration between the African diaspora community and the in-house Africans, especially the academics. There must be avenues for exchanging ideas and thoughts on the appropriate ways this can be facilitated. Workshops, conferences, and different symposia would encourage providing great ideas about how the African diaspora could have a measurable impact on developing their academic systems back in Africa. At a point in the future, the diaspora community’s people would always have reasons to reconnect with their paternalistic background. The efforts they have made in saving and protecting their continent would count.

Photo: Governor Shettima, Professor Olu Obafemi, and BM Dzukogi at the Northern Nigeria Writers Summit (NNWS) in 2018



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