Toyin’s place in the pantheon of world historians is assured and I do not know if anyone will stand beside him any time soon.

NEWSDAILYNIGERIA: I called him a day after his birthday, knowing that as an older brother, I had privileges that could not be questioned. I was also consoled that being a Yoruba man, Toyin would appreciate the socially and culturally defined boundaries between elders and their younger ones. I also know my own obligations because, not to congratulate him would constitute some form of negligence to a younger one. I did not wish to fall into this trap. So, deciding to write this tribute so late is also a deliberate act.

Apart from basking in the euphoria of Arsenal’s current form, few other things gave me momentary excitement in the last one month like knowing that the great Toyin Falola is after all, only my younger brother. I am not big on birthdays and almost every year, I have to beg for forgiveness from aggrieved friends and relatives whose birthdays I forget. The men can live with these social flaws. However, it is the occasional wrath of the females, friends, or family that I dread. It is my much younger relatives and friends that I dread forgetting their birthdays. So, when Toyin turned 70 on 1 January this year, it offered me a chance to taunt him. I call him Toyin because I know he’d rather that I call him that.

I called him a day after his birthday, knowing that as an older brother, I had privileges that could not be questioned. I was also consoled that being a Yoruba man, Toyin would appreciate the socially and culturally defined boundaries between elders and their younger ones. I also know my own obligations because, not to congratulate him would constitute some form of negligence to a younger one. I did not wish to fall into this trap. So, deciding to write this tribute so late is also a deliberate act. Toyin knows he can’t even ask me why I took so long to write this for the same reason. Being his senior, I believe I can write a tribute to him when I want, if I want or not even write at all. Seniority has no rival! Enough said, let me proceed with this tribute to a man I admire, love and respect profoundly.

So, Toyin, one of the most authoritative historians in living memory, I should let you know that knowing you and being your friend is an honour I treasure. I have not met a man more intellectually endowed in my life. I do not know any other human being who has written as much as you have. Today, neither you, Bisi, the children nor any of your colleagues can say how many books, academic or conference papers you have written. Line for line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, title by title, shelf by shelf, row by row, subject by subject, no one that I know of can occupy the space that your books occupy anywhere in the world. But I am getting emotional (an elder cannot do this) and I am ahead of myself.

First, when I called to congratulate Toyin on the 2nd of January, I had made up my mind to really taunt him over our age difference. Sadly, I did not expect him to deflate my balloon with such ease. When I called, he immediately picked the phone, and, as if reading my mind, he said: I know you are my elder brother, Bishop, I know. My plans to rob pepper into his pride were deflated. I felt so disappointed that he had caught me off balance. I therefore simply congratulated him and left it at that. It was the shortest conversation I have ever had with Toyin.

Celebrating Toyin calls for a rolling out of drums from Ibadan, Yorubaland, the South-West, Nigeria or Africa. It will be hard to know who qualifies to celebrate him or what aspect of his life needs to be celebrated. Is it his phenomenal, exceptional and almost unfathomable breathtaking intellectual depth, or his prodigious contribution to redefining the boundaries of Yoruba culture and orature? Any attempt to render Toyin in a local, sub-national or even national appellation does him great injustice. Toyin has risen beyond his community and the Nigerian nation. Toyin has risen beyond Africa. Toyin has taken his Yoruba nation, Nigeria, Africans here and in the diaspora into the orbit of global knowledge. He has placed our history and culture in the pantheon of the gods. I do not know anyone else in living memory who has done so much for promoting black history and culture on the world stage beyond mere drama and theatre. The ubiquitous awards tell the story.

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I am proud to call Toyin my friend. I am; even more so that his friendship gives me a sense of validation at an academic level. Whenever I ask Toyin to read a draft manuscript or a paper, I almost find it difficult to argue with his insightful comments and views. Toyin can return a 200 to 300-page manuscript to you in less than two days and with detailed comments, showing that he has read every line. And for one who is always doing a thousand other things at the same time, I do not know his magic.

Toyin’s mind processes different ideas like a combined harvester, separating, yet storing ideas where they belonged. On the surface, Toyin has what seems like a casual, even careless, carefree and an unserious look. He is far too informal for what he really is, the class he belongs to and what he represents. He comes across as a man who simply says, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t care what impression he makes and does not even try. One day, I paid the price as the man really brought shame to me in London.

I have tried to recall how and where we first met, but with age, a lapse in memory is pardonable. Given the age difference between us, he should have a better memory. Although our friendship started in Nigeria in the 1980s, it developed shortly after I arrived England to pursue by postgraduate studies in 1986. The University of Cambridge offered him a place for his sabbatical leave between 1989 and 1990, I think. During his stay, he did most of the visits and unfortunately, I never really visited him. I took advantage of these visits and used our endless conversations to help in clarifying and giving some direction to the uncharted and pioneering research of my doctoral theses on Religion and Politics in Nigeria.

As a student, I had decided to leave the comfort of an accommodation with priests in north London and settled in a students’ hostel. I really wanted to put the life of privilege of a priest behind and throw myself into the anonymity of student life. I lived through the banter of the smoke-filled bar of SOAS in the ’80s. It was the watering hole for aspiring secret service students and apparatchiks or students with left wing views then. You couldn’t have been in SOAS and not visit the students’ bar, whether you were an imam, a rabbi or a priest. Aspiring student spies often took advantage of the belief that inebriation created the perfect condition for loose lips! Those were the times of the ideological debates of the Cold War.

Toyin would come to London and prefer to stay with me in my student room, with barely a space beside the six-spring bed. He would call to let me know he was coming to London and would stay with me. However, often, it would be impossible to know what hour Toyin would show up after other visits. He could actually come to London House, where I stayed, go straight to the bar before turning up in my room at an unholy hour. The door would be open. Ahead of his visit, I would have booked for a camp bed (the only luxury that students had for an extra guest!). My job was to unfold the camp bed for him because he often would come after I had slept, unless we had gone out together. I looked forward to Toyin’s visits because I was always the beneficiary. His boundless mental capacity meant he could discuss anything and give meaning to any nuance. His visits helped me clarify my thoughts.

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What shocked me was the fact that Toyin seemed to be at his most productive best after he returned from the barOccasionally, I would leave a draft seminar paper for him to read and give me comments. By morning, I would wake up to find that he had read my paper and his comments would be in red ink. He would still wake up before me. Toyin’s brain had the capacity to process and eliminate any unwanted clutter around his ideas.

When I look back, I regret not taking his offer for academic collaboration seriously in the ’90s. He and I worked on our only project, which was later published as, Religious Militancy and Self-Assertion: Islam and Politics in Nigeria (1996). It was meant to be the opening salvo. However, I got caught up with my primary pastoral obligations as a priest and did not take up the subsequent offers. Being Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat did not give one such luxury in those Abacha days. While working on that book, I saw Toyin’s boundless capacity, the magic of his labyrinthine and complex brain, which never seemed to ever sleep. He would take my material and turn his ideas and mine into a crafty mesh with logic and sequence.

Toyin’s mind processes different ideas like a combined harvester, separating, yet storing ideas where they belonged. On the surface, Toyin has what seems like a casual, even careless, carefree and an unserious look. He is far too informal for what he really is, the class he belongs to and what he represents. He comes across as a man who simply says, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t care what impression he makes and does not even try. One day, I paid the price as the man really brought shame to me in London.

Toyin’s place in the pantheon of world historians is assured and I do not know if anyone will stand beside him any time soon. If there ever was a hall of fame for historians, Toyin would be right in the front row because it is difficult to contemplate anyone who has written what this genius of a man has written, across disciplines. His boundless energy has seen him traverse the length and breathe of Africa and the Caribbean, Europe, America and the world at large, constantly and tirelessly resetting new templates for understanding Africa.

I think it was in the winter of 1989 or so that Toyin called me from Cambridge to say that he had been invited to the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, London by a Professor. He offered to take me along and that was quite exciting to me as a student. We agreed to meet at Piccadilly Circus tube station. It was the nearest to Pall Mall. I sensed that given the conservative nature of the establishment, I might be required to wear a tie. Before I left my room, my mirror told me that with my cheap tie and a decent blazer, I could pass as a decent guest. I arrived at Piccadilly Circus tube station before him and waited. When Toyin came out, I was rather disappointed. He wore a cheap turtle neck sweater, a scarf and a winter coat. My heart skipped and I wondered, how can this man appear like this for an appointment in this Club? I had never been there but I wondered what might happen. But what did I know? We walked across to the prestigious Oxbridge Club.

I decided to let Toyin take the lead since he was the special guest. When we got to the door, I heard Toyin introduce both himself and I to the doorman. The doorman obviously had Toyin’s name, but he told us that he could not enter because Toyin had a deficient dress code. Toyin was trying to make a case when our host appeared at the door. He looked at Toyin and I, and knowing that the situation was irredeemable, went back in, retrieved his winter coat and led us to a nearby bar. He apologised for not telling Toyin he needed to wear a tie. While I was nursing this humiliation, and feeling quite uneasy, Toyin behaved as if nothing bothered him. It was all in a day’s job. I admired him because I felt that it was really the measure of a great man so comfortable in his own skin. Toyin is no man of ceremonies. Everything for him is casual, as long as decency and respect abound.

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Toyin’s place in the pantheon of world historians is assured and I do not know if anyone will stand beside him any time soon. If there ever was a hall of fame for historians, Toyin would be right in the front row because it is difficult to contemplate anyone who has written what this genius of a man has written, across disciplines. His boundless energy has seen him traverse the length and breathe of Africa and the Caribbean, Europe, America and the world at large, constantly and tirelessly resetting new templates for understanding Africa. He has raised a generation of historians and made History come alive again. It is to his credit that a generation of scholars across the continent and beyond have set up what is known as; The Toyin Falola Annual Conference on Africa and the African Diaspora (TOFAC). It is a well-deserved honour and a guarantee of a valued legacy.

Toyin, like Prometheus in another life, has successfully stolen the fire of knowledge from the gods and ignited the African continent. The world can now see Africa brightly and differently, thanks to him. Toyin has conferred respect to History and the study of African culture. Reviewing our book with Toyin in 1998, one of the most famous and perceptive minds with the greatest authority on Nigeria in Oxford at the time, Anthony Kirk Greene of blessed memory, referred to Toyin as, “the most prolific African Historian in a decade.” Once, over coffee, the late John Peel of blessed memory and I were discussing Toyin and his writing. John leaned over and said to me, “Matthew, why is our friend Toyin writing to vigorously as if he is being chased by demons?” I said to John, “You should know better, you are an Ijesha Yoruba man in a white skin!’” We both laughed. But nothing prepared any of us for the amount of writing Toyin was going to take up. It was assessing Lionel Messi, while playing as a ten-year-old in Rosario, Argentina. No one could have imagined it would be like this.

In my view, Toyin will be the world’s most prolific historian this century, and it will be so for a long time to come. They don’t make them like Toyin anymore. Let me end where I should have begun by thanking Bisi, whom I will simply call his long-suffering wife. Without her, I have no idea what Toyin would have been but definitely, he would be nowhere near where he is today. She has been the conductor of the orchestra of ideas that have blended to make Toyin such an iconic scholar. Self-effacing and like the good Catholic girl, her steely mind has allowed Toyin to sail in different directions and still come back to a comfortable home. Young man, congratulations! The Lord be with you and bless you. Amen.

Matthew Hassan Kukah is Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto and founder of the Kukah Centre, Abuja, Nigeria.

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