Text of the Book Review Read at the Public Presentation of Connecting with my Past: Midlife Memoirs by Usman Oladipo Akanbi at Mustapha Akanbi Library and Resource Centre, Water View, G. R. A., Ilorin on Nigeria’s 60th Independence Anniversary Day, October 1, 2020
SUCCESS AT LAST: A REVIEW OF USMAN AKANBI’S CONNECTING WITH MY PAST
Book: Connecting with my Past
Author: Usman Oladipo Akanbi
Reviewer: Mahfouz A. Adedimeji, Ph.D.
Publisher: Rextun Books
Year of Publication: 2020
Recently, a retired professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, who was voted as world’s topmost public intellectual alive, Noam Chomsky, described what it means to be truly educated as a response to a question. According to the world’s “most important intellectual alive today”, as Chomsky was further characterised by the New York Times, being truly educated means “knowing, understanding many things but also, much more important than what you have stored in your mind, to know where to look, how to look, how to question, how to challenge, how to proceed independently, how to deal with the challenges that the world presents to you and that you develop in the course of your self-education and inquiry and investigations, in cooperation and solidarity with others.”
The quest to find one’s voice and feet in a world populated by 7.8 billion people is a daunting task and intense struggle demanding balanced education that transcends schooling. The consciousness of this need, the determination to pursue it and the purposefulness to apply it are the hallmarks of success in our world where things are not actually the way they seem until a deliberate effort is made to seek, to yearn and to know.
What I call balanced education is the functional combination of traditional, Islamic and Western education, which Prof. Ali Mazrui had famously described as African’s triple heritage regarding traditional culture, Islamic culture and Western culture all synthesised (Adedimeji, 2020). Usman Akanbi’s Reconnecting with my Past is evident of the desideratum of this balanced education in the making of a Total Man who the author is, a conclusion that would be easy to reach by every keen reader of his book. The success of this book is foregrounded by the author’s capacity to deal with the challenges of life based on his robust, true, functional and balanced education which undoubtedly is the need of this age.
Usman Akanbi’s latest book is an autobiography for the simple reason that a palace is basically a house. But in all fairness, a palace is more than a house; so, this thrilling narrative is an ‘autobiography plus’, not a conventional one. This is because an encounter with Connecting with my Past is not just a voyage into the life of the author, it is also an excursion into the culture and ethnography of Ilorin, the history and politics of Nigeria and a reflection on the state of the world.
More specifically, the book offers a dispassionate commentary on the state of the Nigerian nation, a critical appraisal of student unionism and a reconnection with a rather tumultuous journey through life, with an inimitable gift for recalling names and details. The saying that without knowing where you are coming from, you cannot know where you are going finds resonance in the authorial leitmotif.
As a matter of fact, for those who see the author from a distance without reconnecting with his past, it would be tempting to assume, given his unassuming mien and genteel visage, that that he is one gentle person without realising that here is a dogged fighter, an independent thinker, a resilient radical and a committed activist who is impassioned by the desire to make his society better. Besides, it would be clear that he has been somehow influenced by his no-nonsense father and national icon, the late Honourable Justice Mustapha Akanbi, who once dismissed a snitch that being a unionist is not bad or despicable: “Babakibaba lo nbi omokomo (bad fathers give birth to bad boys) I was also a unionist, it all depends on the cause” (p.39).
Structurally, the book is divided into seven parts with such appurtenances as references and index that readily give out the author as an academic. The first part is “In the Beginning”, where the author provides the cultural context of the book as the author unfolds his appreciation of Ilorin and aspects of its traditions, from marriage to Islamic education system, from Ramadan season to Eid festival, from naming ceremony to other cultural nuances. This background feeds his “Education and Training”, the subject of Part II, where his primary, secondary and university education is presented including his views and impressions about people and places he traversed, from Kano and Ilorin to Port-Harcourt. His interesting and turbulent student life as a foremost student leader is provided with telegraphic details though the central theme is on his education.
In Part III, “Student Unionism and Youth Activism”, the author undertakes an appraisal of student unionism in Nigeria and how the students of today appear to have derailed from rectitude in riveting penmanship. According to him, “The salacious movie scenes, musical acts and realities (sic) shows on the audio-virtual mediums are great motivations to the lewdness that has permeated major campuses of Nigeria society (sic). Just like the now banned cigarettes and alcohol advertisements, these motivators have had the great influences on the average youths – their dress senses, hair styles, manner of speaking and tastes in general” (p.45).
Though many Nigerians are wont to blame only the government for all our national woes, it is perceptive that the author holds everyone, including parents, elders, teachers and the society at large, responsible for what has become of the country. In his words, “Hushpuppi and his likes are a reflection of the failure of government to effectively harness the youth potentials, failure of those in government to show the desired direction/leadership, failure of those in government, in all strata, to lead by veritable examples, failure of our education system…failure of a society that now glorifies those with ill-gotten wealth, failure of a society that has lost the true meaning of what patriotism to one’s country really means, failure of elders in upholding those noble and decent ideals that helped built (sic) great nations around the world – on and on goes the list of our failures.” (p.46-47).
In Part IV or “Career Trail”, we are taken on a journey through the travails and victories of the corps member teacher at Government College Ibadan (GCI), debonair banker at First Bank, civil servant at the National Maritime Authority (now Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency), consummate administrator of a World Bank-assisted Fadama Development Project, family man and academic, with interesting insights and thought-provoking prognoses.
The same theme, more or less, runs through Part V, which the author calls “My Other Sways and Fraternities”, where he discusses his dalliances with party politics and his engagement with creative writing that culminated in a number of works and becoming Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Kwara State Chapter. He also sheds light on family, friends and foes alike in a manner that shows him to be sensitive. In giving all these accounts, the author is brutally honest and self-critical.
In Part VI or “My Travelogues”, Usman Akanbi expectedly takes us on a cruise to Ghana, Kenya, Benin Republic and Ethiopia while providing some highlights of his pilgrimage to Saudia Arabia and a professional workshop he attended in The Netherlands. His experiences no doubt have further shaped his personality and reinforced his keen perception of Nigeria. “One remarkable thing I noticed among nationals of the countries I visited is the spirit of loyalty and patriotism for their country; unfortunately, Nigerians are largely conditioned by their ethnic and religious sentiments and what’s more, unrestricted greed, avarice and personal aggrandizement, all at the expense of building a great country,” he notes (p.92). Any Nigerian who knows Nigeria would find it extremely difficult to disagree with him.
In the last part of the book, which he calls “Random Thoughts and Commentaries Crystallized”, the political history of Nigeria is briefly interrogated while taking a panoramic overview of his understanding of global events and developments, especially the recurrent racism in Trump’s America. As an economist, an appraisal of the Nigerian economy is also undertaken; as a lecturer, he takes Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and Government to task on the perennial strikes and as an analyst, he draws some vital lessons out of the debilitating coronavirus pandemic.
Francis Bacon once noted that some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. I am convinced that Usman Akanbi’s Connecting with my Past also belongs to the last category especially on the strength of its wide-ranging and far-reaching thematic concerns as well as its crisp and eloquent style.
Deeply engaging and downright unputdownable, the author’s fluid language and impressive narrative technique make the book taste like honey. One agrees fully with Moshood Shehu-Atagisoro in his masterfully written foreword that the beauty of the book lies in “how the author has woven a personal odyssey, spanning space and time, into a rich and embroidered tapestry of commentary on history, culture, marriage, religion, education, student activism and management of failure and success.” It is a rich and fantastic addition to the growing Nigerian literature of autobiographical sub-genre.
From a critical angle, Connecting with my Past is an excellent book but it is not perfect. The aim of every responsible writer is to attain excellence, not perfection, which is God’s exclusive preserve. The book appears to have been written in a hurry, perhaps to meet a self-imposed deadline, especially with reference to some infelicities bordering on mechanics some of which are evident in the cited extracts. The tone with which two or so accounts were also presented could be moderated because blood is thicker than water and having ‘frienemies’ is natural or automatic for anybody who is somebody like him to have in abundance.
Generally, Usman Akanbi’s autobiography plus is a compelling read that takes a reader through a life of struggle with contending forces at home in Ilorin and at other places like Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Kano, Minna and Ibadan where the author schooled or resided at one time or another. It is a veritable source of inspiration to the youth in particular and the readers in general that the journey of life is not a walk in the park but a sail through the storms and that with a sense of purpose and determination, one can rise above one’s limitations and challenges.
Undoubtedly, Connecting with my Past is a sound and resounding testament to the author’s Chomskyan true education. It clearly shows that the author knows his onions and understands many things, including the scriptures of Islam and Christianity, the quotes from which garnish the book, among other quotes, and he also understands where to “proceed independently” and “deal with the challenges that the world” presents before him. The implication for us is that just as true or balanced education has made him succeed in overcoming obstacles, surmounting challenges, making new beginnings and thriving ultimately in the ongoing journey of life, anyone can also succeed if they also strive as success is not accidental.
Based on its vast merits as a confluence of rich ideas and crucial information about diverse areas of life in a world that is constantly evolving, Connecting with my Past is definitely a book that is worth reading again and again. It is of historical relevance, social importance, political significance, cultural value and personal development. It transcends the confines of just another personal story as it has the potential to change the perspective of viewing and adjusting to life generally. The youth especially will find the pearls in it useful in ornamenting their life through appreciating that true or balanced education is the summun bonum of life.
Adedimeji, M. A. (2020). Fostering Functional Education System for Peaceful Co- existence in Nigeria: Islamic and Western Perspectives. In Jimba, M. M., M. A. Adedimeji, M. A. Lawal and M. S. Abdullahi (2020) (eds.) Language and Religion for National Development: A Festschrift for Prof. A. G. A. S. Oladosu. pp. 127 – 137. Ilorin: Department of Arts Education, University of Ilorin.