On Friday, June 28, 2019, news broke that an alumnus and former lecturer of the University of Ilorin, who is also the Vice-Chancellor of Kwara State University (KWASU), Prof. AbdulRasheed Na’Allah, had emerged the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Abuja. It was a delightful news item and my first impulse was to congratulate the University of Abuja on its fortune of having such a prodigy at the helms of its affairs, with every promise of taking the university to its apogee.
As a phenomenal Vice-Chancellor of KWASU, Prof. Na’Allah would be resuming his new office with a truckload of experience spanning a whole decade. Given the feats he has achieved at KWASU in all realms of its development, with a world class library and a radio station just added to a long chain of accomplishments, what everyone who knows knows is that this is a new sheriff who would take the University of Abuja to where it should be, far from where it is. This is because, to paraphrase Rosalyn Carter, Prof. Na’Allah is not just a leader who takes people to where they want to go, he is a great leader who takes people to where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.
Though I didn’t meet Mr Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah at the Department of Modern European Languages, University of Ilorin, when I resumed as a freshman in 1994 because he had left for his PhD programme in Canada two years earlier, his presence still loomed large on campus then as the true definition of excellence. After academically encountering him through his well-acclaimed Introduction to African Oral Literature (two volumes), which he co-wrote with the talented late Dr Bayo Ogunjimi, who taught me for two years, it became obvious that this great man of letters is a legend.
I would subsequently meet Prof. Na’Allah personally in 2006 during my stint as a cultural ambassador to the US as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant to Governors State University, University Park, Illinois, under the auspices of the Institute for International Education, New York. His friend, Dr Abubakar Imam Ali-Agan of the Department of Religions, University of Ilorin, had graciously given me his phone number especially as I was also in the state of Illinois, where Prof. Na’Allah served as Chair of the Department of African American Studies, Western Illinois University, Macomb.
Apart from his intellectual ebullience and academic fecundity, what was intriguing and thrilling to me was the way Prof. Na’Allah managed to raise his children in such a way that they could speak Yoruba and imbibe the culture of Ilorin in that foreign environment. They recited the Qur’an with a native-like accent as he made me understand that their teacher was/is a Syrian and they knelt down to greet the visiting uncle. This left a deep impression in me about an African scholar in touch with his roots in theory and practice. At his house in Springfield, the capital of Illinois, the children are an epitome of cultural consciousness lacking in many homes in Nigeria as Omoluabis to the core and the best of Ilorin heritage.
On my academic visit to his university on May 17, 2006, Prof. Na’Allah graciously facilitated my presentation of a seminar on “A Comparison of the Nigerian and American Ways of Life: A Phenomenological Approach” at Conference Room A (Morgan 207B) of the Department of African American Studies. I observed the ease with which he moved around the campus, the conviviality with his colleagues and the huge respect members of his Department and academic community had for him.
It was during the same trip that I had the pleasure of visiting, with Prof. Na’Allah as a kind host and guide, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the only house that Abraham Lincoln owned, preserved and maintained as it was when Lincoln lived there from 1844 to 1861. It was nice then being in the living room, kitchen and ambience of the man who Illinois proudly proclaims on its number plate, “Land of Lincoln”. An icing on the cake was seeing a memorable documentary on Lincoln’s life and struggles at the Visitor Center in the same compound. It was an unforgettable experience!
The choice of Prof. Na’Allah as the pioneer Vice-Chancellor of Kwara State University in 2009 must have been inspired by God as a round peg in a round hole. Working relentlessly and using his vast networks in North America to bring traction to the infant University, KWASU would soon become a magnet attracting the biggest names in many disciplines, especially literature and cultural studies, from Wole Soyinka, Abiola Irele, Pius Adesanmi and Ahmed Yerima to scores of others drawn from Ivy League universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and Princeton to its campus.
This 1988 graduate of the University of Ilorin would also use his tremendous goodwill and administrative sagacity to make KWASU a world class institution, including keeping the university afloat at a time of financial challenges. As Dr Jamil Salmi of the World Bank noted in a thought-provoking keynote address on “The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities” he delivered at the International Conference on 50 Years of University Education in Nigeria, co-organised by the University of Ilorin and the National Universities Commission (NUC) on September 27, 2010, three critical factors that underpin the making of world class universities are concentration of talents, abundant resources and favourable governance. The transformational Na’Allah undoubtedly brought these three factors and more to bear on KWASU such that no one can contest today that KWASU is a huge success story.
It was therefore little surprising that the university community was unanimous, from the Governing Council to the staff and students, in resisting an attempt to shove him aside at the tail-end of the immediate past Administration of Kwara State. I saw the emotional video clip of the hero’s welcome he received after the Visitor to the University was compelled by the public to maintain the status quo and allow Prof. Na’Allah complete his tenure. That a prophet is not honoured at home is belied in this case as it was evident that Prof. Na’Allah is well appreciated by and beloved to the academic community he leads.
The same zeal with which he worked in KWASU has been brought to his new assignment at the University of Abuja as he had hit the ground running on assumption of office on Monday, July 1, 2019. There is no doubt that like his alma mater, the University of Ilorin, which he is very proud of, by the time Prof. Na’Allah completes his current assignment and makes history as the longest serving Vice-Chancellor in Nigerian history, the University of Abuja too would have also become, in the words of the illustrious Prof. Peter Okebukola, “far, far better by far” than it is now.
Born in Ilorin in 1962, Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah received his M. A. in Literature-in-English at the University of Ilorin in 1992 after his first degree in 1988. Some years after, as a lecturer in the former Department of Modern European Languages, University of Ilorin, Na’Allah proceeded to the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, where he received his PhD in Comparative Literature in 1999. He later joined the services of an American university and was indeed the Chair of the Department of African American Studies, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois, for years.
A multiple award winner, prolific writer and resourceful academic, Prof. Na’Allah has written scores of academic papers published in reputable journals and outlets across the world, including The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought. He is also an author and/or editor of many books including Globalization, Oral Performance and African Traditional Poetry (2018), Cultural Globalization and Plurality: Africa and the New World (2011), African Discourse in Islam, Oral Traditions and Performance (2010), Africanity, Islamicity and Performativity: Identity in the House of Ilorin (2009), Ahmadu Fulani: An African Poetry (2004), The People’s Poet: Emerging Perspectives on Niyi Osundare (2003), Almajiri: A New African Poetry (2001) and Ogoni’s Agonies: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria (1998), just to mention a few. He is a member of many academic associations and professional bodies including Canada Comparative Literature Association, Flora Nwapa Society, International Comparative Literature Association, African Studies Association and African Literature Association, among others.
Here is wishing the phenomenal Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Na’Allah, a very successful and memorable tenure at the University of Abuja.
We are proud of you!