Wednesday 24th May, 2017
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OBUMSELU: Professor of universal ideas

OBUMSELU: Professor of universal ideas

The commonplace description of Prof. Ben Ebele Obumselu as a scholar of universal ide­as has always seemed to have an in­elegant semantic slant suggestive of some form of tautology. This is be­cause conventionally, a professor’s familiar turf cannot be anything other than the cosmos, the world in its unabridged form. Ideally, schol­ars, whether ensconced in the ivo­ry tower or operate outside of its provenance, should have the globe as their plaything, nay their field of discourse. However, since the de­mise of Obumselu, I have revisited that praise-epithet and found it ger­mane. In these days of rank philis­tinism among the younger gener­ation of intellectuals, a situation exacerbated by the current econom­ic depression in our land resulting in the culture of mediocrity in di­verse fields, perhaps it is important to hoist up some of our good hands to serve as role-models if not to the nation in general, at least as men­tors to young or junior ones in their respective fields or vocations. For me, Obumselu clearly fits into this mould given his vast experience, depth and finesse of his scholar­ship in English studies, now com­monly referred to as literary studies.
Prof. Obumselu is an acclaimed man of many parts- a great schol­ar, a communication guru- a me­dia mogul and consultant, a busi­nessman, a power- broker, patron of many well-heeled socio-cultur­al groups like Oha-na-eze Ndig­bo. From innumerable testimo­nies, Obumselu deeply affected many lives positively, a factor that accounts for the wide breadth of his relationships- friends, acquaintanc­es and well-wishers. In my person­al encounter with him, he had been my lecturer while an undergradu­ate at then Imo state university, Ut­uru. Interestingly my set was the last he taught before he took his fi­nal leave of university lectureship. Besides, we had also met in Lagos while at the University of Lagos at his Torch media base to discuss vi­tal issues with regard to scholarship. However, our meeting at Awka, An­ambra state in September 2007 was remarkable given that I had attend­ed the 2007 Igbo Day Youth Work­shop, as a resource person to speak on “Why Igbos abhor engagement in ritual killing as a means of live­lihood.”
He was one of the brains behind the programme. Unknown to me and others, the organizers had a booby-trap for us: contrary to our expectation, we were all asked to present our papers in Igbo language without code-mixing (i.e. yoking Igbo with English). There, Obum­selu was obviously an inspiration- If a reputable scholar like him, I rea­soned, who had straddled the world of intellectuality- for he had attend­ed University College, Ibadan and Oxford University, London coupled with his uncommon experience of teaching in some of the best uni­versities in Europe and Africa- and those who knew him can attest to his impeccable mastery of the Eng­lish language- both spoken and written, could speak flawless Igbo to that rowdy audience, why would I not attempt it ? I scaled the hurdle tenuously to his admiration. He was later enthused and remarked that he was waiting to see me at the apex of my career and hailed my then prin­cipal who was his good friend, Sen­ator Dr Sam Egwu, the former Gov­ernor of Ebonyi state.
Now “the ploughman homeward plods his weary way and leaves the world to darkness and me” (from Thomas Gray’s famous poem “El­egy written in a country church­yard”). Now, the great mind of our time has played his role on the stage of life and exited, as Shakespeare would say, how do we assess his so­journ on earth? For me, when the thundering ovation would have died down, the glamour of his ex­ploratory life of intellectual and ar­tistic adventure dim and the story of his mundane exploits would be told and re-told to a gossamer thin insig­nificance, his redoubtable contribu­tions to literary scholarship will en­dure. This is both an intellectual and prophetic assertion? At a stage, Wil­liam Shakespeare apparently boast­ed in his sonnet 18 that as long as men live and they can read, they (must) give life to his lines (his writ­ings). And true to expectation, he achieved unprecedented fame and has continued to cradle immortali­ty hundreds of years after his death. Without doubt, Obumselu is one of the finest literary scholars to have emerged from Nigeria and Africa.
The point has been made almost ad nauseaum that the quality of his intellectual output far outstrips their numerical strength in print. True, but when any of his asser­tions are weighed against the back­drop of any literary yardstick- local and global- they sure pass muster and indeed can tower above even some feeble utterances of some so-called international scholars that are idolized in the developing nations. Without any attempt at exaggera­tion : I have pored over tomes of classical writings of literary schol­ars and critics like T.S Eliot, Pound, Coleridge, Dryden , Arnold, Leavis, to mention only these few, Obum­selu’s output is not subpar; in fact, he is as rigorous if not more de­manding in that he oscillates ef­fortlessly between the global theo­ries and African literary landscape. His emendation if illumination of Eliot’s seminal pronouncement re­garding the entailments of literary criticism is valid- the critic’s duty is not only to elucidate a literary work but also to interpret and sit­uate it among the panoply of other literary works- classical and mod­ern. Through Obumselu’s perspica­cious insights, a re-reading of Eliot’s Tradition & Individual Talent and The Metaphysical Poets begins to yield more fruitful results.
Africa has produced its own fair share of cerebral and engag­ing critics and scholars. Indeed, a number of them easily come to mind: Charles Nnolim, Abio­la Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, Theo Vin­cent, Obiechina, Izevbaye, Eme­nyonu, Chinweizu, Echeruo, Nkosi, among others. You cannot under­estimate the foundational work done on Achebe’s fiction by both Nnolim and Emenyonu, neither would you give short shrift to Nwo­ga’s early work on African poets as seen in his The West African Vers­es. In the same vein, Vincent and his Ghanaian counterpart, Senanu had done some original taxonom­ic categorization of African poet­ry into different genres in their A Selection of African Poetry just like Soyinka’s Poems of Black Af­rica. But Obumselu, besides be­ing an influential teacher who has groomed many young scholars to the peak of their calling, has right­ly earned the title of the critic’s crit­ic and the writers’ patron-saint. He mentored Africa’s foremost lyri­cal poet, Christopher Okigbo, by the latter’s testimony, into a world renowned artist by “guiding him on the path of greater clarity.” In­deed, many established writers and scholars today owe their maturity to Obumselu’s seasoned dexterity as an accomplished hand in the trade.
Prof. Otu teaches English and literary studies at the Federal Uni­versity, Ikwo, Ebonyi State

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