Akinlawon Mabogunje and the cartography of honour and achievements
Like I wrote in my review of his autobiography, being referred to as the Father of African Geography, according to Prof. Mabogunje, is more of a function of allowing his Ph.D to highlight the skills of quantitative and theoretical geography which contributed to giving urban and regional development an ‘African visibility’ in an evolving intellectual revolution. After a Master’s thesis titled The Changing Pattern of Rural Settlement and Rural Economy in Egba Division, Southwestern Nigeria (1958), Mabogunje went on to produce Lagos: A Study in Urban Geography (1968), and The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective (1980, revised 1989).
There were also series of lectures the most outstanding of which are the 1977 University Lecture titled On Developing and Development and the Sixth Keith Callard Lecture Series in 1969 titled Regional Mobility and Resource Development in West Africa. As these titles made clear, all these theses, lectures, essays and research projects were already defining for Mabogunje the scholar how his discipline intersects the development process, especially in Nigeria.
Thus, almost simultaneous with his intellectual development was also his administrative and policy restlessness to integrate knowledge with action and impact Nigeria. His involvement with the Western Nigerian Economic Advisory Council, Federal Capital Development Authority, DFFRI; his tenure first as Vice President and later as the first African President of the International Geographical Union, as well as numerous private sector responsibilities also combined with a truly pragmatic understanding of scholarship that brought geography into development planning and rural-urban development. It was therefore easy not only to set up the Development Policy Centre with Professor Ojetunji Aboyade in the 90s, but to also channel his convictions and unique scholarship into his understanding of development as a significantly grassroots phenomenon. With the optimum community (OPTICOM) initiative therefore, he meant to redirect government’s development energies in a manner that will yield the ultimate results for the empowerment of the people who really matter.
Unfortunately, like so many brilliant initiatives, OPTICOM has only met with a measure of minimal success. All you need to do is read Prof. Mabogunje’s autobiography—A Measure of Grace—and you will be amazed, again, at how his beloved country has blocked him at every critical point of service and commitment. But there is a reason why Mabogunje’s commitment cannot become ordinary and forgotten. One reason is the multiplication of honours and awards that has attended his pursuit of excellence and service in life.
But I have something else in mind. Many years ago, while straying about on my own course towards excellence in my chosen path of public service reform, I came under the mentoring influence Prof. Mabogunje and his friend, Prof. Aboyade. Between them, they moulded my conception of myself, my life, my profession and my contribution to posterity. Ojetunji Aboyade died many years ago, but Mabogunje took his mentoring of my progress in life by transforming it into an inter-generational platform when he became the Chairman of the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).
Apart from its mandate in getting the government in Nigeria to work better for development and democracy, ISGPP is committed to bringing this about through a unique inter-generational dialogue that brings the creative patriotism of the younger generation in conversation with the experienced commitment of the older generation. It is only fit that a man of Mabogunje’s calibre, dedication, patriotism, experience, and development credentials would chair such an organization with cartographic efficiency. And, it seems to me also that ISGPP is now better placed to follow through on Mabogunje’s OPTICOM development option, especially through the radical resurgence of new and visionary traditional rulers who are taking grassroots development seriously as an alternative to large-scale development that has often failed to affect the people.
At both the cartographic and disciplinary level, therefore, Professor Akinlawon Ladipo Mabogunje’s ascension into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame has taught us all a lesson about life: Providence knows where you are headed; but let hard work, diligence and relentless commitment take you there. Then the whole world will stand in applause. We all stand in loud ovation to this gentle soul who has been so highly honored.