Laja Odukoya: The intellectual as the conscience of society

Ogunsakin Mustapha
9 Min Read
Prof Laja Odukoya

By Owei Lakemfa

Dr Mahmud Modibbo Tukur was an intellectual power house who not only dissected colonialism in Northern Nigeria, but also caused the re-examination and reinterpretation of colonial sources. His death by the roadside on November 15, 1988 at 44, remains unexplained. But very few academics have taken to the path of intellectual rigour that marked his scholarship. One of the later generation that did, is Professor Adelaja Odukoya, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lagos.

Few academics have the intellectual clarity and conviction of the philosopher, Dr Dipo ‘Jingo’ Fashina. He is the academic who in 1971, replaced the famous Angela Davis in the University of California Philosophy Department. Odukoya, a protégée of Fashina took to the same path of courageous scholarship.

Few academics in the country have the fiery and emphatic style of public delivery as Professor Biodun ‘BJ’ Jeyifo. Odukoya is in the BJ class.

A single thread that links Tukur, Fashina and Jeyifo, is that they were former Presidents of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU. In contemporary times, Odukoya has come to represent the face of ASUU especially its insistence on protecting the Nigerian academic, insisting on adequate funding of the universities and, conviction that education should neither be commodified nor priced out of the reach of the Nigerian child.

When in the face of government’s threats to ASUU’s existence in in 2022 during what turned out to be a bruising 234 days or 33-week strike, Odukoya insisted that ASUU must not give up as it has a duty to reject: “ the government’s master-slave posture on labour matters.”

Five months into that strike and, with the salaries of the academics unpaid, Odukoya who was ASUU Lagos Zonal Chairman, called out then President Muhammadu Buhari to implement agreements his administration had reached with ASUU or risk the continuation of the strike.

He also told the nation the reasons the strike has to continue and why the union must not be defeated: “The government has persisted in inflicting misery on lecturers and students in Nigeria, despite their sincere efforts to elevate our public universities to a global standard. ASUU is unfazed in its patriotic endeavours.”

Professor Hassan Ajisafe Saliu, President of the National Political Science Association of Nigeria, NPSA wrote on ASUU and Odukoya: “Prof. Adelaja is an energetic scholar who ordinarily is easy going and minds his business. However, not on all issues. To be sure, he is a comrade who can tolerate any topics under the sun but his mood can easily change when issues affecting ASUU are under consideration.” This is understandable because since 1981, ASUU has been the most consistent force that has stood between public universities and government’s policies to reduce them to poultry sheds and, destroy academic autonomy.

Prof Laja Odukoya

The leader of political scientists in the country, wrote further on Odukoya: “The lessons to learn from this emerging academic giant are many but three of them stand out. One is his readiness to learn from elders, especially in the field of Political Science who he holds in high esteem due to their experiences garnered over the years. Second, he is very respectful. He gives everyone the respect he deserves. Most of our younger ones surely have a lot to learn from him on these scores. Being a notable academic does not mean one should be disrespectful of elders and arrogant in one’s dealings with seniors and juniors. Third, he is loyal to any organisation he belongs. He readily discharges his duties and fulfils his obligations to such organisations without any pressures being applied on him to do so.”

Indeed, Odukoya is an intellectual power house. His publications include those on oil and the Niger Delta, comparative study of privatisation in Nigeria and Britain, Child Labour in Nigeria, political economy and agriculture, continuity and change in urban politics, party system, political conflicts in Nigeria and settler colonialism in Africa.

His passion for democracy has also seen him making publications on Nigeria’s democratic experience. He observed that: “Democracy is supposed to be about the people, but here we are having democracy without the people.

One of the biggest book factories in the world is called Professor Toyin Falola who has produced about two hundred books covering wide areas of human knowledge.

The ubiquitous Falola who strides across continents, said of Odukoya: “I must confess that his past years in the academy are equivalent to some people’s entire careers, and his social contributions are even at par with some well-wishing social stakeholders. Having reached that level of social relevance through his convictions and convocations, I believe the nation has normalized his achievements, and like the sun is normally expected to shine, his temporal contributions are not given adequate attention.”

Professor Falola in making his final arguments like a lawyer before the court of public opinion, submitted: “What is popular about Prof. is his activism and social engagements for the continuous development of the nation…Odukoya’s radicalism does not stop at situational and physical activism, as seen in his handling of issues that concern the education system, but is obvious from the ideologies that radiate his writings.”

I met Odukoya in the arena of mass political struggles including street protests. A tireless mobilizer, he organizes in collaboration with the labour unions, student and activist organizations like the Joint Action Forum, a coalition of pro-Labour Civil Society Organisations.

As an intellectual, he reflected on the problems of progressive student unionism on campuses and concluded that there was the need to reintroduce progressive student clubs and political education on campuses. In 2021, he initiated a meeting of current and past student leaders in the country around the theme of Reinventing the Student Movement.

Comrade Abiodun Aremu, the JAF Scribe said Odukoya is a: “Foremost intellectual like Abubakar Momoh – Late activist Professor of Political Science – He has been the face of ASUU in our struggles in JAF and the Amilcar Cabral Ideological School, ACIS. He is a very reliable and dependable ally.”

Odukoya is also actively involved in international affairs. He and I are active in the 14-year old think tank, the Society for International Relations Awareness, SIRA. SIRA highlights the evolving components of Nigeria’s foreign policy while promoting international awareness and cooperation. We were also engaged in the International Lenin Centenary Conference, Abuja 2024. His paper “Escaping Underdevelopment: Charting a new Pathway for Africa’s Development in a Time of Neoliberalism.” was one of the highlights of that conference.

On May 9, 2024, Odukoya, also called MAO by his friends, clocked 60. His decades of activism and service, are a testimony to the fact that the intellectual can be the conscience of the society and, that any society which neglects such persons, cannot develop.

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