|Urhobo Historical Society|
Omafume Onoge: Tribute and Reminiscence
By Onigu Otite
Retired Professor of Sociology, University of Ibadan
August 21, 2009
IT requires a heavy heart to write about a departed close friend and colleague. Omafume Onoge and I came to Ibadan together in 1969 without a fore-knowledge that we both belong to the same ethnoterritory.
We also both shared in the rigourous training and specialisation in the social anthropological field of scholarship, but with different traditions and perspectives, he from Harvard and I from London. We respected and regarded each other highly in what we had to say or what we wrote. It ended there academically, for although he studied partly under the influence of Talcott Parsons, a structural-functionalist in the broad area of equilibrium theoretical perspective, Onoge broke the academic chains through extremely wide reading and became thoroughly Marxist in outlook. He got committed to socialist-Marxist explanatory models for theorising and changing Nigeria towards a better state of affairs.
In this, Omafume went beyond academics to prefer a socialist way of life, growing a luxuriant beard and purchasing artifacts made in the Soviet Union, including a red “muskovich” car which had a devastating toll on his time and limited financial resources; this forced him out of that technology.
Omafume had a huge body with a likeable impressive personality. However, he was, and is, more important to us as an idea, an idea which has continued through his academic and professional descendants, thus making his physical departure to eternity less painful. Like our sociological ancestors he embraced and laboured to uphold the point that ideas are the ruling forces in life.
It is inconceivable that Omafume’s sharply perceptive brain lies silent, grabbed by the irresistible and non-discriminating cold hands of the inevitable phenomenon of death. Both of us can no longer engage in tireless controversies arguing different perspectives over the same thing.
We have lost his intellectual wealth. Indeed, I always referred to him as an intellectual powerhouse, a solid and consolidated fountain of knowledge. His writings, including two chapters in two of my edited books, testify to this fact, in addition to his stimulating contributions elsewhere and during symposia, intellectual debates and lectures. Anytime Omafume Onoge was scheduled to speak at a symposium or give a lecture, it was enough guarantee for a full house with attendants overflowing outside. This was mainly because he was always ready to dish out new forms of radicalising and intellectually stimulating ideas essentially in a thorough Marxist sense.
Though with a Parsonian background, he radicalised sociology at Ibadan and elsewhere as a committed Marxist thinker and analyst. He gave a Marxist content to whatever he handled. He taught Sociology and Social Anthropology, not only at Ibadan and Jos, but also at Harvard, Macallester College, his Alma Mater for his first degree, and Dar-es-Salaam. He presented even such neutral courses as Sociology of Belief Systems, and Sociology of Literature with a Marxist orientation.
Professor Onoge linked us with other Departments of Sociology including that of the University of Nigeria where our common friend, late Professor Ikenna Nzimiro was a leading Marxist scholar. Although Omafume was mentally alert even during the moment of sickness, it was painful to watch him physically wasting away to eternity.
Onoge despised the institutions of Kingship and Chieftaincy as feudal and exploitative, yet he later earned the position of a High Chief, and membership of the King’s Council in Ugborikoko in Uvwie Kingdom, Uvwie LGA in Delta State. In his later life, he was not keen on contesting this contradiction and new position which most of us, Professor-Chiefs or Kings earned long ago.
Omafume Onoge’s influence on some of his mentees at Ibadan and many of his enthusiastic followers was near-total. Some of his male students and admirers even learned to grow luxuriant beard like him, during his early life at Ibadan, following their glorified socialist-Marxist thinkers and mobilisers in the old USSR and China, with big conference bags hanging from their shoulders.
He was not alone on U.I staff in interpreting things from a Marxist angle. Akin Ojo (Physics) and the late Ola Oni and Bade Onimode (Economics) were Onoge’s Marxist angelic scholars who pulled crowds at public and normal class lectures. Regrettably, enthusiasm in Marxist scholarship dwindled with the departure of three of these men of outstanding knowledge. Even shining Faculty academic giants and mentors like Professor Mabogunje and late Essien-Udom, Billy Dudley and Ojetunji Aboyade, admired the worth of these Marxist members of staff in the Faculty of the Social Sciences. They understood what the Marxist scholars said.
When Onoge and I arrived at Ibadan, we met Professor Okediji and Imoagene, and, soon afterwards, Ogionwo, Soleye, Sofola and Akeredolu-Ale: and others such as Erinosho, Arowolo, and Oke joined us. We became a mixed group with various backgrounds and specialisations assembled from various overseas highbrow institutions, the most formidable Department of Sociology in English-speaking West Africa at that time, Omafume Onoge was the strong intellectual challenger with his completely Marxist arguments. Some analysts referred to this period as the golden age of the Department.
He was a thoroughly Marxist-socialist oriented social critic and with his friends, Ola Oni, Bade Onimode and Akin Ojo, they were misunderstood and tossed out of the University by an ignorant regime which refused to understand the nature of academic disputation as the hallmark of alternative innovative ideas of how malfunctioning failed states and their societies may be x-rayed and reconstructed to leave a better deal for the masses, the unemployed, and the vulnerable, including women and children. But he had no political power to back-up his theoretical postulations. He died as the best Senator or governor that we never had in Nigeria. We pray for his soul to rest in perfect peace.
- Professor Otite lives in Warri, Delta State.