Omotoye Olorode: Theoretician, intellectual, revolutionary extraordinaire
Ahead of the event later today on Prof Toye Olorode of Nigeria, Omolade Adunbi, another Nigerian and a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, United States serves this appetiser:
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“WE must practice revolutionary democracy in every aspect of our Party life. Every responsible member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of others. Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…”
― Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea: African People’s Struggle
IN one of his speeches to comrades during the struggle for the liberation of Guinea Bissau from the clutches of Portuguese colonial exploitation, Amical Cabral admonished comrades and revolutionaries to take their responsibilities seriously, refrain from telling lies, respect all comrades regardless of their age, admit mistakes when one is made and desist from claiming easy victories.
All of these characteristics epitomise the life and commitment of Prof. Olorode to the struggle for a better Nigeria—a struggle he has devoted his entire adult life to prosecuting. As we celebrate this scholar, revolutionary intellectual and an ‘iroko’ of the people’s struggle in Nigeria, I want to ponder a moment to reflect on my personal encounter with him. I decided to start with this famous quote from Cabral because Olorode and Cabral have so many things in common – both were trained in the sciences. Cabral trained as an agronomist while Olorode trained as a botanist. Both were theoreticians, intellectual powerhouses, mobilisers of people, and fervently commitment to the ideals of socialism and the emancipation of all Africans, brutally honest and down-to-earth.
Thus, how might one start a write about such an icon and an epitome of modesty in a country where conspicuous consumption and gluttony are the markers of success? In Nigeria today, those who engage in conspicuous consumption of our commonwealth at the expense of the toiling masses are daily celebrated. Pages of our daily newspapers and weekly magazines are often filled up with advertorials celebrating those who daily engage in the pillaging of our national wealth using the same stolen wealth to pay for the advertorials. In the age of neoliberal appurtenances where digital platforms have also become a site for the display of such profligacy, our sensibilities are daily bombarded with different forms of wealth celebration—again stolen wealth—such that the louder your social platforms are, the more pungent your celebration becomes especially in the ‘comments’ and ‘likes’ sections of such platforms. The world of our youths, engineered by the marauding capitalist elite, is now defined by the number of ‘likes’ and emojis you can acquire through your Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat platforms. Today’s youth now measure success by the number of emojis posted and not the degree of iconoclastic ideas that can transform our country. In the midst of the folly where rational beings who put national interest above all else are now considered irrational because of their repugnance at the pursuit of wealth by the ruling elite. It beholds on all of us to roll out the drums in celebration of our icon and champion of the working class and oppressed people of Nigeria, Africa and the world.
As we roll out the drums to celebrate Professor Omotoye Olorode on his 80th birthday, it is imperative to pay attention to the significant contribution that this iconic figure has made to the development of a Nigeria where justice, fairness and equitable distribution of our national wealth mattered. My first encounter with Professor Olorode was in 1989 when I attended a National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) zonal meeting hosted by the University of Ibadan Students Union. I was a teenager and an undergraduate at the then Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti (OSUA), and had just been inducted as a member of the Marxist Youth Movement (MYM). Thus, I was selected as part of the delegation to attend the zonal meeting as an observer. On our way to the meeting, we stopped at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, to meet with comrades and officials of the union. It was that stop-over at OAU that began a life-long friendship and appreciation for the important contribution that Prof. Olorode continues to make towards making Nigeria a better place for all. As we finished our initial consultation with comrades at OAU that evening, Comrade Yomi Gidado, who was president of the OSUA Students Union, suggested we go see Prof. Toye. As a young and enthusiastic member who was attending a big meeting for the first time, I asked, “who is Prof. Toye?” Yomi responded that he was referring to Professor Olorode, a botanist and Marxist. We all marched to his office in the Department of Botany. On entering the office, Prof. Toye immediately stood up, extended his hands of welcome to all of us with his usual unassuming voice in a way that suggested he had known all of us for a very long time even when people like myself were meeting him for the first time. This amazed me and made say, “If this is how Marxists behave, then I am proud to be one.” We were in the office for a brief period but his words of encouragement and support for what we were doing endeared him to many of us.
Our path would cross again a year later after his release from over three months of illegal detention by the brutal General Ibrahim Babangida military dictatorship. On April 22nd, 1990, there was a failed coup against the Babangida administration. The coup was led by Major Gideon Orkar, who, in his early morning broadcast, had announced the overthrow of the administration, levelling several allegations including corruption and lack of respect for human rights, against the regime. The coup failed and the Babangida administration used the opportunity to tighten his hold on power by clamping down on many voices of dissent across the country. Among Babangida’s targets were intellectuals, revolutionaries, human rights and pro-democracy activists. As history has shown, the greatest fear that every authoritarian regime harbour is always the fear of revolutionary intellectuals. Revolutionaries are always ready to defeat might with ideas. To the Babangida administration, Professors Olorode and Idowu Awopetu of the Obafemi Awolowo University represented this threat, hence their decision to illegally detain them. Olorode and Awopetu found company in Professor Obaro Ikime of the University of Ibadan. They were accused of ‘teaching’ the students what they were not being paid to teach. Teaching what they are not being paid to teach is the usual refrain by every successive administration in Nigeria for describing lecturers considered to be radical. Few days before their arrest, Olorode and Awopetu had visited the offices of comrades John Odah and Chom Bagu, both staff members of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) in Lagos. As I recall, the visit led to the suspension of comrades Odah and Bagu by the Paschal Bafyau-led conservative NLC for their audacity to host ‘renegades’ in the Labour House. Comrades Odah and Bagu were later recalled to their position after serving one week of suspension but they were lucky to have escaped the jackboot of the Babangida administration who was desirous of using the opportunity of the coup to ‘destroy’ all voices of opposition in the country. Professors Olorode and Awopetu were not that lucky. They were both detained and summarily dismissed from their job at OAU, Ile-Ife, by the military dictator.
On their release from illegal detention, the Students Union Government of the Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti, with the support of the Marxist Youth Movement (MYM) organised a symposium in their honour.
Few days before the symposium, the university administration told us to cancel the event for ‘security reasons and order from above’ but we refused. Of course, we knew that the administration was acting on the orders of General Babangida who had declared Olorode and others persona non grata on university campuses and in the country. They refused to be cowed. The symposium held, Olorode and Awopetu spoke and the entire students at the university were appreciative of their knowledge and commitment to the struggle for the emancipation of the people. I remember vividly how thousands of students swarmed around Olorode and Awopetu immediately after the symposium. Fearing for what the state could do to harm them, we quickly ferried them to a ‘safe house’ in the Ado-Ekiti area.
While many of us were fearful for his life, Olorode remained resolute and never stopped talking about the next step in reclaiming the country back from the jackboot of the military. He also made it clear to us that we were not just fighting against the military dictators but that the struggle transcended just ousting Babangida from power. As Olorode told many of us then, “Comrades, our effort would amount to naught f we succeed in sending the military back to the barracks only for them to be replaced by their civilian counterparts”. These words remain indelible as I continue to ruminate about the state of our beloved country, Nigeria today. We succeeded in driving the military back to the barracks, but they have only been replaced by their civilian counterparts who have mastered the practice of pillaging our national wealth and engaging in conspicuous consumption while the majority of our population languish in abject avoidable poverty.
Professor Olorode’s idea about the struggle for a better Nigeria is anchored on three important and interconnected pillars. The first is the notion that a vibrant students’ movement and an educated student represent the pillar of any sustained struggle against oppression. A vibrant students’ movement and an educated students’ population must also see the staff and faculty at the university as an ally in the prosecution of a successful struggle against oppression. Thus, a university community should be seen as a microcosm of how and what a struggle for emancipation should be like in any nation-state. Connected to this is the idea that labour represents a center that welds all sites of struggle together. Labour as a center, Olorode believes, must be the source of inspiration that brings all segments of the Nigerian society together in order to form a solid foundation for a vanguard party that leads the people to freedom from the claws of capitalism. While labour might serve as the bedrock of the vanguard party, the education of the working people, students and peasants on the centrality of power to the attainment of economic power is what would make the vanguard successful. Without the proper education of the masses through a reinvigorated curriculum that shows the fangs of capitalism and its failings, the struggle of the people would stand the chance of being truncated by the bourgeoise. In order to avoid this pitfall, Olorode is of the school of thought that believes strongly in the notion that all the three pillars, the university (students, staff and faculty), labor (workers unions, peasants, farmers unions etc.) and the vanguard (the political party) must act in concert in order to be successful. For many years, Professor Olorode has devoted his life to the actualisation of these three pillars by working tirelessly with labour, students and several other organisations across the country. Olorode’s ideas, in many ways, resonate with those of Amical Cabral. As Cabral noted during his address to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January 1966, “When the African peoples say in their simple language that no matter how hot the water from your well, it will not cook your rice,” they express with singular simplicity a fundamental principle, not only of physics, but also of political science. We know that the development of a phenomenon in movement, whatever its external appearance, depends mainly on its internal characteristics. We also know that on the political level, our own reality — however fine and attractive the reality of others may be — can only be transformed by detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices” (The Weapon of Theory).
Olorode is not only a theoretician, revolutionary intellectual and a mobiliser of the people, he is a bridge builder who puts into practice Cabral’s notion that we can only transform society if we study it, have adequate knowledge of the reality of the people and are ready to make sacrifices to actualise what we stand for. He is a comrade who embodies the spirit and letter of Marxism. The maxim, do not just do the talk but work the talk, is crucial to him, hence you will not only see him theorising about the revolution, but he will also be in the trenches with you. Age and hierarchical organogram have no place in his lexicon of revolutionary struggle. Everyone, regardless of your race, ethnic origin, age, religious affiliation is welcome in his comity of friends and comrades as long as you are respectful, honest, committed and ready to put into practice what you have read in the books. It is rare in today’s Nigeria finding a comrade like Toye Olorode. As we gather to celebrate his 80 years of revolutionary commitment to the social transformation of Nigeria, I join many of his admirers and comrades in wishing him good health and many more years of revolutionary service to Nigeria and the world.