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For Pius Adesanmi, for Nigeria!

Pius Adesanmi

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.

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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 take-off 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.

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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.

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.”

Onumah is author of We Are All Biafrans: A Participant-observers’ Interventions in a Country Sleep-walking to Disaster

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