2018 LSA DISTINGUISHED SCHOLAR AWARD: AYODEJI OLUKOJU (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF LAGOS)
Nomination Submitted By
Department of History and Strategic Studies
University of Lagos
With a career spanning over three decades, Ayodeji Olukoju has established himself as a leading Africanist historian. He has expanded the study of Lagos and Nigeria in meaningful ways, re-emphasizing the significant role of a historian as interpreter of the past. Olukoju blended previously untapped primary sources with enormous intellectual energy, and first-rate writing skills to publish books and articles that have shaped the tenor of economic, labor, maritime, and urban history of Africa in meaningful ways. His books, including The ‘Liverpool’ of West Africa: The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos, 1900-1950 and Infrastructure Development and Urban Facilities in Lagos, 1861-2000, among others, opened new frontiers in Lagos and Nigerian history and served as foundations on which many works are built. His over hundred articles in the highest ranked journals in African, urban, maritime, and economic history such as the Journal of African History; African Affairs; African Studies Review; International Journal of Maritime History; History in Africa: A Journal of Method; African Economic History; Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History; and Labour History Review, among others, are a clear indication of his prolific career, which has remained a source of inspiration for upcoming scholars. In recognition of his dedication to the craft of history, he has been rewarded with many prizes, notably the Fellowship of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, the most prestigious honor for scholars in the humanities in Nigeria. In 2012, his former students, colleagues, and mentees, presented to him a festschrift, The Third Wave of Historical Scholarship on Nigeria: Essays in Honor of Olukoju, which rigorously places his career within the broader knowledge production from the 1990s.
When Olukoju began his career in the mid-1980s, much of the ideas and topics that occupied the attention of his predecessors had been over-flogged. In searching for new ways to establish himself, he quickly developed a strong interest in maritime history of Lagos through his doctoral thesis completed at the University of Ibadan in 1991. The newness of maritime history of Nigeria meant that Olukoju would depend almost entirely on his own creativity, ingenuity, and brilliance to develop rigorous paradigms for his works. In pioneering the new field, Olukoju fused themes ranging from economy and colonialism to business, transport, and international trade. The outcome of his carefully nurtured academic agenda are first-class journal articles and books that compel scholars of Africa to rethink existing ideas about the place of Lagos and Nigeria in African history. Instead of focusing on the movement of economic capital in the maritime world alone, Olukoju sheds important light on the human agency. The stories of African sailors, he emphasized, are as important as those of European merchant companies and colonial government, responsible for much of the economic policies of the colonial era.
Without the port, the gateway to the international world, Lagos would not have developed into the quintessential African city we know today. As Olukoju’s career advanced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he opened up new sites of investigation and carved out new areas of specialization to complement his early love for maritime history. He began to pay attention to urbanization with specific focus on infrastructure and urban governance. His Infrastructure Development and Urban Facilities in Lagos is the first book-length account of the history of modern facilities such as electricity, public water, and modern transportation in Lagos. He wrote on sanitation, within the context of superfluous urbanization, class, and location. His articles on urban segregation connect race, medical history, and urban planning in a manner unmatched by similar works in other parts of Africa. If the city is the site through which the narratives of underdevelopment are situated in Africa, Olukoju’s work is the medium through which to place the problem in a historical context. The opposing identities of the city as a tabula rasa and a site of untold hardship predate our era, as Olukoju emphasized in his works. Reading his works on the cost of living and poverty in inter-war Lagos invites contemporary development experts to see the change and continuity in what constitute urban decadence and the long institutional history of “saving” the city, clamored by both the colonialists and the elite Lagosians. What makes Olukoju’s works on urbanization in Lagos interesting is the way he allows social history to speak to urban planning and development issues. Urbanization, he demonstrates in his work, has a human component. And the daily life, struggles, and identities of Lagosians must occupy the center stage of the discourse of urban transformation. Thus urbanization is about humans who created the city as much as about physical and urban planning which would remain abstract if the everyday life of humans is neglected.
Olukoju has also helped to shape academic culture both within his university and the profession at large. He has served as the Head of the History and Strategic Studies Department and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, both at the University of Lagos. He was President/Vice-Chancellor of Caleb University (Lagos) between 2010 and 2016, and member of the governing council of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. While his membership of journal editorial boards has helped him to shape knowledge production in meaningful ways, his keynote addresses at major conferences and convocations gave him the stage to reflect on the future of the discipline and proffer solutions, rooted in a clear understanding of the past.