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Abiola Francis Irele (1936-2017)

One of the nation’s foremost literary critics, Prof. Abiola Francis Irele, passed on in a Boston, United States hospital on July 1. The death of the versatile critic, polyglot, orator and academic has further depleted the ranks of the nation’s renowned African literary theorists and critics.  Irele, who distinguished himself with his brilliant criticisms of both Anglophone and Francophone African literature, lived all his life teaching and researching African literature, both in Nigeria and overseas.

The demise of the literary guru has expectedly been greeted with eulogies from the academia and the literary world, all extolling his sterling qualities. In his tribute, the President of the Nigeria Academy of Letters, Prof. Olu Obafemi, described the deceased as a major library and repository of knowledge in global literature and the humanities. He affirmed that Irele was a groundbreaker in African literary criticism and human philosophy, whose contribution to the development of literature in Africa and explication of the concept of Negritude are unmatchable.  In the same vein, another notable literary scholar and critic, Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, observed that the centre of Irele’s work and accomplishments as a scholar, teacher and critic revolved around Negritude. He also described the departed scholar as indisputably the world’s greatest scholar on Negritude. 

To the renowned poet and scholar, Prof. Niyi Osundare, Irele had an overriding passion to discover, nurture and promote a new crop of writers after the phenomenal achievements of the Achebe-Soyinka-Clark-Okigbo generation.  He also testified that the deceased was admirably cosmopolitan, inspiringly literate, and had staunch hope in the future of African literature. Osundare pointed out that Irele was a scholar who constantly re-invented himself and his ideas; an ageless humanist with an outstanding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age.

Prof. Femi Osofisan, the renowned scholar and dramatist, averred that Irele’s “flippant exterior” and his “buoyant cultivation of the manners of the bon vivant,” were deceptive, as they masked a deep inner core of acute insightful intelligence, which demanded no less perspicacity from his interlocutors and companions. Osofisan surmised that Irele was suave and cultured; polyvalent and cosmopolitan; blessed with lithe and nimble feet for dancing, an ear for languages, and a voice for mellifluous song.

Also, Prof. Chidi Maduka of the University of Port Harcourt, noted that Irele was a colossus in literary theory which he fondly cultivated to help him comparatively bring out the constants and variables running through the Anglophone and Francophone literatures of Africa and the Diaspora, especially in their various forms of encounter with Western imperialism institutionalised in slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Born on May 22, 1936 in Ora, Edo State, Nigeria, Irele attended St. Gregory’s College, Lagos from 1949 – 1954 and the Nigerian College of Arts, Ibadan, 1955-1957. He attended the University of Ibadan from 1957-1960 and got his Ph.D in French at the University of Paris, France, 1960-1966.        The deceased held teaching positions at the University of Ghana, Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Ibadan and some universities abroad. He edited journals such as Black Orpheus in the 1960s and Presence Africaine. He was appointed Professor and Head of Department of Modern languages, University of Ibadan, in 1977.

Abiola Irele was, indeed, globally recognised as a doyen of African literature. His strong passion and deep commitment to his chosen profession are worthy of commendation to the younger generation of literary theorists and academics in the country.  We commiserate with his family, the literary community and the academia on the passage of this great literary/cultural activist. May God grant his creative soul eternal repose.

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