Professor Ben Obumselu was an exceptionally brilliant literary critic and scholar whose contributions to the birth of Modern African Literature are as significant as those of his contemporaries; Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo. Through his teaching and scholarship, Obumselu inspired a generation of literary icons who still attest to the intellectual ingenuity and literary sagacity he possessed. On August 25, 2022, a memorial lecture was inaugurated in his honor, with the theme: “The Intellectual and Public Service in 21st Century Africa”.
The Inaugural memorial lecture which took place on Zoom was moderated by Chioma Agwuegbu who read a brief citation of the late Professor Obumselu. The panelists were: Chuma Obumselu, Dele Olojede, Mudi Yahaya, Ayo Obe, Prof. Niyi Osundare, and distinguished Prof. Dan Izevbaye. Prof Isdore Diala, who was Obumselu’s student, and now a professor of African Literature at Imo State University, Owerri, read a tribute to Ben Obumselu during the event. Diala described Obumselu’s devotion to research as “exemplary, typically encyclopedic in speculative resources, characterized by analytic rigour, scholarly precision, and consummate phrasing”. Ben Obumselu taught in England, Zambia, Ghana, Zaire and Swaziland.
The renowned novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, who was the keynote speaker—drawing from Ralph Emerson’s The American Scholar —addressed the need for action to be an integral part of public intellectuals who, she admitted, are exposed to real-world dangers. She connected Ben Obumselu to Emerson’s model of a public intellectual—a complete person. However, she suggested that public intellectuals should perceive the role as an obligation to self. Adichie further stated that the goal of a public intellectual is to talk to the public in a clear language, and therefore, emphasized the need for them to communicate with context. For Adichie, a public intellectual should imagine our future, offer us context for the present, and most of all, draw from our past. She encouraged public intellectuals to engage in educating the public, showing us, that unity is indeed possible. Adichie also pointed out that public intellectuals, should be aware of the limitations of their knowledge and therefore should acknowledge their prejudices. Chimamanda Adichie concluded by saying that public intellectuals give language to ideas that people might already have.
After a couple of questions from the audience were addressed, Lawyer and Human rights activist, Ayo Obe spoke on the need for public intellectuals to be conscious of the nuances of the public in their intellectual endeavor. Literary critic and Poet, Professor Niyi Osundare firstly, considered the memorial lecture as an effort to not let Obumselu die. Going further, he spoke on Adichie’s anxieties, which she had expressed at the Nigeria Bar Association conference on Tuesday, on the lack of role models in Nigeria. Osundare insisted on the existence of role models, however few. His instances were Professor Izevbaye and Professor Wole Soyinka who are both his former teachers. For Osundare, not only the living should be considered role models, but great individuals who are now late, such as Mandela and Achebe, can also serve as role models. Prof Niyi Osundare also suggested that in our effort to understand our society, the following questions should be asked: what are the values of Nigerians? What are the values of the public intellectual?
Distinguished Professor Dan Izevbaye when he spoke, criticized the Emerson model of a public intellectual, claiming that Emerson was influenced by the renaissance tradition in which an individual ventured into various fields in their lifetime. Furthermore, Izevbaye opined that while the idea of an all-around public intellectual might have worked for Obumselu, it is important for public intellectuals of this age to remain in their areas of specialization to ensure effectiveness in public service.
The virtual event ended after questions from the audience were addressed.