By Chido Onumah
Pius Adesanmi, Carleton University’s Professor of literature and African studies who died in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash near the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on Sunday, March10, was a consummate intellectual and civic activist. Pius was visible in academic and intellectual circles around the world as he was on social media and other social circles.
A tribute by a mutual friend, Prof E.C. Osondu of Providence College, Rhodes Island, USA, captures the very essence of Pius’s rather short but extremely remarkable life. “Pius was a rare being, ebullient, a razor-sharp mind. He was what the Yoruba call an Omoluabi (a person of honour and good character), yet when it came to polemics, he could easily morph into a jaguda (a ruffian). Nigeria has lost one of those who loved her most,” Prof Osondu wrote in a Facebook tribute on Sunday.
Pius was an embodiment of intellectualism, dedication, hard work, and the community spirit; ever willing to give back his intellect, time and resources for the greater good of his country and humanity. Like many of his followers and admirers, I received the surreal news of his demise late Sunday evening. The world woke up Sunday morning to the shocking news of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX travelling from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, Kenya, that killed all 149 passengers and eight crew on board. The immediate concern about the crash was the eerie similarity to another Boeing 737 MAX—Lion Air Flight 610—crash into the Java Sea, Indonesia, shortly after takeoff on October 29, 2018, with 189 fatalities. Then news starting filtering in that there was a Nigerian on ET Flight 302.
I had a crowded programme on Sunday, March 10: editing additional materials for a new book; a 2:00pm meeting that I had the responsibility of putting together and a 6:00pm condolence visit that was long overdue. Before the 2:00pm meeting, I placed a couple of calls to Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of Premium Times, to confirm an earlier scheduled appointment. There was no response. He would call back much later.
The first thing he said when I answered the call was, “Have you heard anything about Pius and the plane crash this morning?” My heart skipped. All I could mutter—half assuring myself and wishing that the story wasn’t true—was that there was a Nigerian on the flight and that it wasn’t Pius. Then Dapo reminded me that Pius was travelling with a Canadian passport. My anxiety increased. I told him I was aware—according to the manifest—that there were 18 Canadians in the ill-fated flight. He said he was making efforts to reach Dr. Nduka Otiono, another Nigerian and Pius’s colleague at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. I heard a beep and Dapo said he had to take another call.
By this time, I had developed a nervous feeling in your stomach. Once I got off the phone with Dapo, I went on Twitter. There was a torrent of tweets about Pius with most of them ending with RIP Pius. After going through a few tweets, I tried to compose a response, to caution that people should wait until there was an official confirmation—just in the hope that the news would turn out to be false—but my fingers were numb. Then the calls started coming in from all over the world. I spent the rest of the day making or receiving calls.
Each time I attempted to do anything, my mind would go to the plane crash, to Pius and all he represented. Very few Nigerians bestrode the public space the way Pius Adesanmi did. With a first class degree and Ph.D in French, he was at ease with the Francophone world as he was with Anglophone; he interfaced with the Global South as much as he did with the North. He was a renaissance man, a global citizen of the finest hue. But he remained a Nigerian at heart, in theory and in practice. It was evident in his scholarship, his public and social engagements and interventions.
Late Sunday night, as I was still trying to process the news of Pius’s demise, I received a call from an older colleague in the UK. Just as our conversation went on, the story of the plane crash earlier in the day was briefly reported on one of the country’s TV networks. It was a short report, devoid of context and depth. I was miffed. I expressed my disgust at the report and wondered why a national TV channel would not use such a global tragedy that had national and continental implications to bring to its viewers the contribution of someone like Pius to the quest for national rebirth. My colleague interrupted and reminded me that what I had just witnessed was the effect of the collapse of public broadcasting in the country. We agreed that it was not only public broadcasting that was reeling from the effect of misgovernance. Everything this country holds dear, from public education to public health has gone to the dogs.
I was still feeling a bit disoriented when I arrived the office yesterday amid the searing heat and power outage. I walked into an adjoining office to say a quick hello to a colleague and discuss the plane crash that took the life of our friend, Pius Adesanmi. As we talked, I glanced at the newspapers on the table in front of me with headlines about results of the gubernatorial and state assembly elections that took place two days earlier. A particular story drew my attention. It was a story at the bottom strip of Daily Trust with the title, “IBB returns after 3-month medical vacation in Switzerland.”
I was speechless. I flipped through the newspaper to page four to read the details of the story. “Former Military President, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, on Saturday returned to Nigeria after over three months of medical vacation in Switzerland,” the first paragraph read. “Babangida said he was much stronger and better, thanking Nigerians for their prayers and goodwill messages during his vacation,” the story continued. Ironically, the story was directly below the story with the caption, “Nigerian professor, Pius Adesanmi, dies in Ethiopian air crash,” with a picture of the rescue team at the site of the crash and inset pictures of Prof. Pius Adesanmi and Amb Abiodun Oluremi Bashua, another Nigerian, a former United Nations and African Union Deputy Special Representative in Dafur who also died in the crash.
The first thing that came to mind after reading the story on Babangida, Nigeria’s former military dictator and self-styled “evil genius,” was the contempt and impudence dripping from his statement. I wondered the Nigerians who were praying for him: the millions impoverished for decades by his Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP), the millions who would die every year because of lack of access to proper medical care which a succession of pathetic local rulers like him failed to ensure, the millions suffering the effect of the debasement of our democratic ethos which he supervised? You couldn’t miss the irony. Here was a General who ruled Nigeria with guile and high-handedness for eight eminently forgettable years. He couldn’t build a single hospital in the country that would meet his needs. I told myself that these were the kind of things Pius feasted on.
In July 2018, Pius was involved in a car accident along Oyo-Ogbomosho road when the vehicle he was travelling in—a Nissan—had a head-on collision with a car from Ibadan—a Toyota Privia. He was heading to Lagos to catch a flight to Dakar, Senegal. “Two hours after the accident, no help came. The evacuation culture was zero,” Premium Times quoted Pius in a report. “He explained that people just gathered at the scene of the accident, wondering and shouting. Others were screaming and cursing. No one attempted to help,” Pius noted in the report.
If his flight had not crashed six minutes after it took off on Sunday morning, Puis Adesanmi would be alive today. And if he had read Babangida’s utterly bewildering medical tourism story, he would have delivered a fittingly scathing response. Pius didn’t suffer fools gladly and pulled no punches when it came to explaining the dire conditions in Nigeria and confronting the inanities of those responsible for our current national trauma, whether he was writing about the “Parable of the shower head,” (a September 2013 essay) or “NAFDAC-certified virgins,” a February 2009 essay.
“The contributions of Pius Adesanmi to Carleton are immeasurable,” said Pauline Rankin, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, in a tribute. “He worked tirelessly to build the Institute of African Studies, to share his boundless passion for African literature and to connect with and support students. He was a scholar and teacher of the highest calibre who leaves a deep imprint on Carleton.”
Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president and vice-chancellor of Global Affairs Canada, described Pius Adesanmi as “a towering figure in African and post-colonial scholarship and his sudden loss is a tragedy.”
Adieu, Pius Adesanmi, scholar, public intellectual, activist, humorist, and patriot. You will be sorely missed. Your death reminds us of the death of a kindred spirit, Prof Claude Ake, regarded as one of Africa’s foremost political philosophers. Claude Ake who would have been 80 last month was like you a seminal academic and public intellectual par excellence. He was professor of political economy, former dean of the University of Port Harcourt’s Faculty of Social Sciences, and director of the Center for Advanced Social Science, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
A virulent critic of the military junta of Gen. Sani Abacha, the Anglo-Dutch oil company, Shell, and Nigeria’s fiendish oil industry, Ake railed against dictatorship and misrule across Africa. In November 1995, he resigned from the Steering Committee of the Niger Delta Environmental Survey in protest over the hanging of environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight of his Ogoni compatriots. A year later, on November 7, 1996, he would die in mysterious circumstances—air traffic control error, according to investigators—when an ADC Airlines Flight 86 from Port Harcourt to Lagos crashed at Ejirin, Lagos, killing all 144 passengers and crew.
Pius, our heartfelt condolences go to your family. As friends, colleagues and associates gather tomorrow for a “candle light” memorial at Unity Fountain in Abuja and in cities across Nigeria and around the world in the days and weeks ahead, we are consoled by the words of the poet, Chiedu Ezeanah: “Pius Adesanmi must have lived two or more lifetimes in one.”