A Professor of Pragmatics and English Linguistics and pioneer Vice-Chancellor of the Ahman Pategi University, Patigi, Kwara State, Mahfouz Adedimeji, speaks to GODFREY GEORGE on his journey, achievements and other issues
You have loads of work experience in different capacities and roles. What will you say is responsible for the many successes?
Honestly, it is Allah. Whatever I am is the manifestation of grace, which is God’s ability in one’s inability. I have no special sagacity or extraordinary talent; I am just a typical guy next door. With the grace of God, however, ordinary things appear extraordinary.
Has your journey always been rosy?
Rosy? That’s the last word in the dictionary for me. It has never been rosy. It is still not rosy. Life is not a bed of roses. What applies here is what Dr Samuel Johnson said and I remember I quoted him in my undergraduate project several years ago. He said, ‘Life affords no higher pleasure than that of surmounting difficulties, passing from one step of success to another, forming new wishes and seeing them gratified’. The journey has been that of surmounting difficulties and trying to overcome challenges. Our life is wired that way. The road is rough; the task is tough, and I can’t say that enough.
Did you grow up in Ilorin?
Not at all. I came to Ilorin for the first time when I followed my late father to join his teacher and bosom friend, Shaykh Adam Abdullah Al-Ilory, at the inauguration of a mosque built by the late General Tunde Idiagbon. I remembered that I prayed that night at Omoda Quarters in Ilorin that God should bring me to Ilorin, Kwara State, as I loved everything I witnessed. A few years later, I resumed study at the University of Ilorin in the then Department of Modern European Languages. Since then, I haven’t been out of Ilorin for more than a year at a stretch.
What was it like growing up as a child?
Growing up was fair. English playwright and poet, Williams Shakespeare said, ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’. There were good, bad and ugly moments, but everything panned as interesting ultimately. My childhood played a huge role in shaping my adulthood as it was much about learning and studying. My late dad, Shaykh Ahmad Mahaly-Adedimeji, believed that education or learning was the best preparation for the future. I was stressed and stretched because being the second best was not acceptable to him. He made me repeat a class for coming third in our Madrasa (Islamic lesson). He argued that I should have come first despite combining it with conventional schooling.
Has it always been your plan to be a lecturer from childhood?
It has always been my plan to be knowledgeable and teach – at any level. My desire to be a lecturer started in my first month at the university. I intuitively felt I could do what my lecturers were doing if I had the opportunity. So, immediately after I completed my National Youth Service Corps, I didn’t wait for any advertisement. I was just visiting tertiary institutions and applying. Eventually, I got appointed by the only university among the seven tertiary institutions (Colleges of Education and Polytechnics) that I applied to and that is Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso, Oyo State.
Why did you choose to study English? Was it so popular at the time you went to school?
English was and is still a popular course. It used to be the most preferred course in the Faculty of Arts before History was rebranded as History and International Studies/Diplomatic Studies. You know, it is the foundation of all courses and there is nowhere English is not needed. It is the next course to Law; it is what Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology are to Medicine. I initially wanted to study Mass Communication at the University of Lagos, Lagos State. I even left Iwo, Osun State, for UNILAG with the assumption that I had been admitted. But my name disappear from the admission list, where it had already been sighted. After being ‘jammed’ by the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination for the second time, I reasoned that if I studied English, it would be Mass Communication plus. That was after I had developed interest in schooling in Ilorin after visiting the town. Incidentally, my elder brothers, Adam Adedimeji and Dr Abdul Hafeez-Adedimeji of blessed memory, encouraged me tremendously in that regard.
What kind of parents did you have?
My father was an Islamic scholar and top functionary of the League of Imams and Alfas in Yorubaland from its inception in 1964 till his death in 1999. He established the first modern Arabic and Islamic school in Iwo, Osun State, in 1962. He was a notable scholar, respected Imam, public speaker, versatile preacher, Quranic exegete, disciplinarian and community leader. My mother was a typical housewife and petty trader. She traded in ogi (pap) and doughnut, which I helped her to hawk even while in secondary school. They were both strict but loving.
What standards and statutes do you live by?
Goodness is a comprehensive term that describes it all. I hold on to the maxim that if one lives right and does right, everything shall be alright. So, I try to be good and live by the ideas, ideals and ideology of Islam. I strive to be a personality defined by such values prescribed by religion in speech, acts, actions, reactions, interactions and transactions, while avoiding inactions and distractions. I know if I live by those standards, I will deserve God’s blessings. I see myself as a work-in-progress, but God is faithful.
Which schools did you attend?
My education is a bit eclectic.
How do you mean?
I attended Markaz Shababil Islam (Islamic Youth Centre), Iwo, and Markaz Ta’aleemil Arabi (Arabic Training Centre), Agege, Lagos. I attended St Anthony RCM, Ile-Idisin, Iwo, and St Mary’s Grammar School, Iwo. I am a thoroughbred alumnus of the University of Ilorin. I still trained at the Virtual Institute of Higher Education Pedagogy under distinguished Prof Peter Okebukola when he was the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, and Virtual Institute for Higher Education in Africa under Prof J. Shabani. I also received training at Governors State University, Illinois, and Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Notre Dame University, Indiana, United States of America.
You majored in Pragmatics and Applied English Linguistics. What drew you to this area?
Those are just the major areas of my research interest as a specialist in English. Words have always held a special appeal to me right from the beginning and pragmatics is the study of invisible meaning, the Austinian how to do things with words, how you mean what you don’t say and say what you don’t mean. That’s intriguing to any curious mind and that is why it is one of the fastest-growing areas of linguistics. I am also keen on applying the theories and concepts of linguistics to diverse areas of human endeavour; from communication and media studies to religious studies, peace and security studies; education, and to syntax and sociolinguistics. The two areas (Pragmatics and Applied Linguistics) are wide and the need to be dynamic and cross-cutting drew me to them. I haven’t always liked the notion that professors are those who know so much about so little. Eclecticism remains a powerful theory. So, Applied English Linguistics allows me to navigate many areas where language (English in this context) plays a role and I so much love and look up to the scholarship of Prof Noam Chomsky, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now of the University of Arizona in this sense.
How has the journey been so far as a lecturer and university administrator? Was there any time you felt like giving up?
It’s been so far so good (laughs). It has never been easy but every cloud has a silver lining. I have been a lecturer all these years and even now, I teach my students at APU courses in English and General Studies. I have definitely had moments of feeling like giving up at the beginning of the current journey. But you see, what keeps me going is that I have worked and related closely with some former Vice-Chancellors and excellent personalities like Prof Is-haq Oloyede, Prof Razaq Abubakre, Prof Abdul Ganiy Ambali, Prof Hussein Oloyede, Prof Musbau Akanji and Prof Bayo Lawal. These are people I can call any time. What I do on some occasions is to imagine how each of them would deal with whatever challenges. Psychoanalysing them, putting myself in their shoes and applying their personality traits help me to forge ahead, think out of the box and work out solutions. I see far because I sit on the shoulders of giants.
What keeps you going when the chips are down?
What keeps me going is the belief that I am not alone; Allah is with me. I have absolute trust in Him and I believe like the innocent child that smiles when he is flipped into the air by his father, that, whatever it is, I am safe in His hands. I believe that prayers keep us strong, patience keeps us going and planning keeps us fit. That’s why these words keep on reverberating whenever the chips are down: ‘You are not alone’.
How did you become the VC of APU?
It happened exactly as God wished. I received a call to submit my CV to an email address. That wasn’t a big deal. Three days later, I received a phone call that I would receive another call. Then, the call came and it was Honourable Aliyu Ahman-Pategi and he said he would like to see me urgently in Abuja. I said I was on the eve of my postgraduate students’ examinations. He said it was urgent. So, I booked a flight and we met the following day and that was the day I received my letter of appointment after having an interaction with a small team of three persons. He made me speak to or meet some stakeholders, who expressed utter satisfaction with what they had scooped up about me, including the Etsu Patigi, Alhaji Ibrahim Umar Bologi.
What have been some of the toughest decisions you have made as the VC of APU?
Being a pioneer VC of a university that is still in its infancy, I won’t say I have encountered scenarios warranting ‘toughest decisions’ by my assessment. What tough decisions will a two-year-old child make, if you compare the life of a university to that of a man? Nevertheless, it was a tough decision to begin the academic session in October 2021 and it was tough for me at the time to even decide to soldier on due to the teething but monumental challenges.
Looking back at the beginning of this journey as VC, what progress have you made and what do you think you could have done better?
My vision at the beginning is what I called Vision 5:25:50:500, which means to, within five years, make the university one of the first 25, 50 and 500 in Nigeria, Africa and the world at large ceteris paribus(other things being equal). The university is less than two years old, which automatically means that it is less than two years since I assumed office. The progress made is that the mandate of the university is being discharged at the levels of teaching, research and community development. We matriculated more than 250 students for a start and I am building a solid research culture. Three books were published between then and now in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, bearing the imprimatur of the university. One of our lecturers, who started his career with us, is on a research fellowship in France. Our students, who were then in the 100 level, competed well with other universities at the ninth edition of the All Nigeria Universities Debating Championship and the second edition of the All Nigeria Universities Quiz Challenge hosted by the University of Ilorin between February 13 and 19, 2022.
My university is one of the partnering universities in the production of a major book in honour of the Chief of Staff to the President, Prof Ibrahim Gambari, a foremost academic and first-class diplomat. We are impacting significantly the host community and making dreams come true. Just last week, the university partnered in providing leadership training in preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution with a leading non-governmental organisation, Peace Building Development Consult, at the National Orientation Agency, Abuja. There is nothing I haven’t given my best shot at, including teaching. Things are only not aligning much at the beginning due to the current situation, but I am hopeful that with the efforts being made, everything will get better with time and they will be a foundation upon which others after me can build.
You are also a prolific writer with many articles in numerous journals. How do you do it?
Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest sportsmen to ever live, was asked a similar question and he responded, ‘It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up’. I just do what I do because it is my job to read, research, teach and write.
How do you balance writing, lecturing and administrative work with your social and personal life?
Anything noble and great is always difficult by default. I trained hard, especially when Prof Is-haq Oloyede was our VC at UNILORIN. I set my priorities and goals; I haven’t done anything spectacular by my own assessment. I haven’t accomplished half of what I set for myself because of my human frailty and the fact that I owe people around me responsibilities. I try to achieve a balance by giving everyone their dues and apologising for expectations that I cannot meet. My social life revolves around occasionally visiting family and friends, and sharing their joys.
As a former member of the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association, what was your role?
I was on the Governing Council of the IPRA when I was the Director of the Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies, UNILORIN. My role, with other council members, was to promote peace studies, advance its scholarship through research and engagement with peace scholars and practitioners around the world.
You are a member of the Nigeria Inter-religious Council. Looking at the country, how will you assess the religious space and how can things be done better?
Nigeria is unique because it has almost an equal number of Muslims and Christians. Most countries in the world are not like that. This situation has made some religious leaders manipulate their followers and promote the virus of unhealthy competition that one person’s gain is the other person’s loss. For instance, what is anyone’s headache about people’s headscarf and hijab whereas in the developed countries, even the police and armed forces have their religious rights protected? But here, it is still an issue as bigotry seemed to be deep-rooted even after the judgment of the Supreme Court.
NIREC is playing an amazing role in dousing tensions and building bridges among religious leaders. His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, and Co-Chairman of NIREC is a national treasure and divine blessing. He has been working assiduously with successive co-chairmen and presidents of the Christian Association of Nigeria to prevent conflict and manage differences. Things can be better when we accommodate and understand one another. Ignorance is a misfortune, and if leaders don’t manipulate or indoctrinate their followers with hatred, there won’t be tension. If Muslims are true Muslims and Christians are true Christians, there will be no bigotry and we will live and let live. But the major problem is that people, including religious leaders, politicise theology or religion and theologise politics.
There has been a lot of fuss about the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress’ decision to field what many have termed as a controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket. How do you view this?
Who are those ‘many’ who term it a ‘controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket’ and what is their percentage among Nigerians? How did you arrive at ‘many’ among 217 million Nigerians? Who conducted the study and what was his/her research instrument? The history of the same faith ticket, as the scenario is otherwise called, is not recent. It is only being sensationalised by the media, which often serve as ‘the barriers that block the truth’, as Stephen Littlejohn and Karen Foss note in their book, ‘Theories of Human Communication (2005)’. The truth is not being told that it is not new at the national and sub-national levels. I think a group, The Companion, addressed it in a release titled, ‘Weaponising Bigotry in Nigeria’s Civil Space: Enough is Enough’ on October 5, 2022.
My view is that people are mixing religion with politics, and the mixture is toxic and combustible. I wrote a column recently titled, ‘Towards detoxifying Nigerian politics’, which addressed the issue. Politics is about making choices and politicians are concerned about winning elections. If we don’t like party ‘A’, there are parties ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’. Politicians don’t ask religious leaders which candidates to field for elections in their parties.
As the Rapporteur-General of the Presidential Retreat Committee on Education in Nigeria, what was your role?
A rapporteur is a person appointed to report on the proceedings of the meetings of an organisation or group and that was exactly my role. It was an honour to work together with Professors Emeriti Michael Omolewa, (Chairman); Pai Obayan, Nimi Briggs, Olu Jegede and other distinguished Professors like Peter Okebukola, Is-haq Oloyede, Abubakar Rasheed, Olu Obafemi, Rasheed Aderinoye, Joshua Ajiboye as well as Dr Noel Ihebuzor and other leading lights of the Nigerian intelligentsia. I thank the President through the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu; and the Registrar of Joint Admission Matriculation Board, Prof Is-haq Oloyede, for the opportunity to serve.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities just suspended its strike. You were in the public university system before you became a VC. What do you think should be done to avoid the issues that led to the strike from cropping up again in the future?
I think the government should simply honour the agreements it willingly entered into and live up to its responsibility of funding education in line with global best practices. As it was just done, a compromise could have been reached much earlier in the spirit of give-and-take.
The Nigerian educational system has lost many lecturers to the West. Students and other talents are also leaving. Where exactly did the nation get it wrong and what can be done to salvage the situation?
Someone said that destroying a nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or long range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in examinations by students. We got it wrong at the point of relegating teachers in the eyes of the public, paying them peanuts and making them appear unworthy in the sight of their students. Scholars should be projected as role models. We will reverse the brain drain and even make a lot of brain-gain with the influx of foreigners into our educational system when we accord education, which is the bedrock of development, its due priority. Teachers and lecturers should also be paid what their colleagues earn elsewhere.
How do you view the Nigerian literary space?
The Nigerian literary space is a reflection of the Nigerian publishing industry. Though there are many budding writers coming up, the space is not conducive enough for much impact at home. The reading culture is pathetically poor and the young ones only read now to pass examinations. Watching skits, posting on Facebook and tweeting have distracted people from exploring the hidden treasures of literature. It is unfortunate that our suffocating environment is not allowing literary efflorescence as it should have been if writers were to be encouraged. The opportunities are abundant but they are not fully tapped, because society doesn’t attach value to knowledge.
Do you think Nigeria has a lot of writers of critical essays and research?
Certainly, yes! Nigeria is still the intellectual capital of Africa. Scholars are only limited by facilities and equipment. The Times Higher Education recently released its 2023 World University Rankings and Nigerian universities that did not feature in earlier rankings are making impressive appearances in global rankings. The top 10 African countries in publishing scientific research are South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Algeria, Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Ghana and Uganda. If we invest more in education and avoid scenarios that make lecturers embark on strike, Nigerian researchers can easily out-perform other Africans as they do in other climes.
Most of the research conducted by undergraduate and graduate students ends up on the shelf. What exactly can be done to make sure that the time and effort put in by researchers are recognised and imbibed moving forward?
What should have been done is to convert them to innovation. We should form a synergy between universities and industry. Universities should be the brain box of the country, because they deal in ideas. The government has a lot to do in making research propel policies, projects and programmes that add value to the society.
As a linguist, do you share the view that children should be taught in their mother tongue?
Yes, I do. But they should also be taught in a second language like English in order to promote vertical integration and national unity. If we all teach in our native languages only, definitely, we will be living in the days of the Oyo Empire, Benin Kingdom, Kanem Bornu Empire, Jukun Kingdom, etcetera. I favour a bilingual educational system in which indigenous languages and English are used pari passu.
You won the conference and research grant from the Association of Commonwealth Universities and co-won the research grants of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. How did it feel?
It felt nice and it is awesome that the outcomes of the studies have been published in books in the UK and Nigeria.
Do you also consult for the United Nations Development Programme?
I did. I consulted for the UNDP on ‘Integrated Approach to Building Peace in Nigeria’s Farmer-Herder Crisis’ between 2019 and 2020. I also did it at the strategic training workshop on conflict prevention, peace-building and election monitoring for senior officers of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps in 2014.
You are arguably one of the youngest VCs in Nigeria. How does it feel?
It feels good to have the job description of about 200 Nigerians out of our population. But like perfume, I smell that feeling only, and I don’t swallow it, because ultimately a job is a job. The manager and the messenger are both important to the smooth running of an organisation. Besides, no one remains there forever.
How did you meet your wife? Was it love at first sight?
We knew each other right from our secondary school days. I was her senior boy when she was in JSS 1. We later met in Ilorin and became acquaintances when I was completing my undergraduate programme. Then, one way or the other, we started exploring the possibility of a future together just before I proceeded to the NYSC camp in Katsina.
How do you love to dress?
Dressing was the least of my worries. I used to say anyone who did not like how I dressed should not greet me. Like the pencil, it is not the wooden exterior that matters, it is the graphite inside. But for some time now, I realised the import of the saying that, ‘You dress the way you want to be addressed’. I wear native and English dresses. When I wear a suit, I rarely wear a tie.
What is your best relaxation exercise?
I walk or do some indoor aerobics. These days, I play badminton and ping-pong when the opportunity avails itself in Patigi.
What is your best Nigerian food?
It is amala, ewedu and gbegiri, especially when I am at home.
What will make you more fulfilled?
It is living a life of purpose and aligning myself with the purpose of life. Having more time to focus on why I am here and accomplishing set tasks will always make me more fulfilled.
What will give you ultimate happiness?
It is gaining Allah’s pleasure, because life is transient. You wake up today, tomorrow you are no more. If Allah is pleased with me, no feeling beats that for me. Ultimate happiness lies in being pleased with God and God being pleased with me. Of course, I am happy to see my goals accomplished and plans successfully executed.