Black Orpheus and the Organic Intellectual Remembering Abiola Irele and Raufu Mustapha

This essay honours two polyglot Nigerian intellectuals—Harvard University’s Abiola Irele and Oxford University’s Raufu Mustapha—who grew up in different parts of the country from their ancestry, and died abroad a month apart from each other in July and August 2017 respectively. I honour Irele’s work on culture and poetry, and Mustapha’s on religion, ethnicity and identity politics; as well as Nigeria’s foreign policy.


Francis Abiola Irele, who died in Boston on 2 July at the age of 81, was undoubtedly the foremost prophet of Negritude who devoted five decades of his intellectual life to expounding this concept. When I first met him in 1985, I was an undergraduate studying German at the University of Ibadan, and he was the Head of the Department of Modern Languages and a Professor of French. At the time, with the social distance typical of such relationships, he struck me as aloof and absent-minded. Later in my academic career, I would meet ‘Prof’ in diverse American cities during annual African Studies Association (ASA) conferences. We would sit down to a coffee and talk about various issues relating to Nigeria, Africa, and the world. I still remember his magisterial M.K.O. Abiola lecture on ‘African Studies as Discipline and Vocation’ during the African Studies Association meeting in Indianapolis in November 2014.

After Irele’s death, tributes flooded in from around the world. Harvard-based Nigerian scholar, Biodun Jeyifo, described him as ‘indisputably the world’s greatest scholar of Negritude’; Kenya’s Princeton-based Simon Gikandi called him ‘a walking archive,’ before noting that ‘More than any other scholar of his generation, Irele brought a forceful intellect, a cosmopolitan outlook, and authoritative voice to the study of African literature’; eminent Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare, described him as ‘a man and scholar constantly re-inventing himself and his ideas, an ageless humanist with an astounding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age’; Nigerian academic, Remi Raji, praised Irele as ‘the original olohum iyo (salt-tongued artist), and teacher of teachers’; while American academic, Kenneth Harrow, eulogized him as ‘a major voice for African studies, a generous humanist, an insightful scholar…an iroko tree in our forest of scholars.’

Abiola Irele was born on 22 May 1936 in a Nigeria still under British colonial rule for the first 24 years of his life: an experience that shaped his fierce Pan-Africanism. Though he was born in Ora in Edo state, he moved to Enugu at the age of six (after his father, who worked as a civil servant in the Post and Telegraph Department, was transferred there) where he grew up speaking Igbo. He would return to Lagos to attend St. Patrick’s, St. Mathias, and St. Gregory’s Catholic schools in accordance with his family’s faith. Irele was exposed to folk tales and oral poetry even before entering the University of Ibadan in 1957, where he studied as a contemporary of J.P. Clark, Florence Nwapa, and Christopher Okigbo. He was not just a scholar in Ibadan, his appearance in the opera, ‘The Magic Flute’ and his singing of librettos with a golden voice in the university’s Trenchard Hall, are all fondly remembered by his peers.

Abiola moved to Paris in 1960 to obtain a doctorate in French literature from the prestigious Sorbonne University. He lived in Paris’s Latin quarter near the offices of Présence Africaine—the leading literary journal on African and Caribbean literature in the francophone world—for which he wrote even as a student, immersing himself in Pan-African circles. Returning home with the proverbial golden fleece of the doctorate, he put his Pan-Africanism into practice, teaching at Ghana’s Legon University as well as the universities of Ife, Lagos, and Ibadan in the 1970s and 1980s. Irele’s inaugural lecture at the University of Ibadan in November 1982 ‘In Praise of Alienation,’ became the stuff of legend. He edited the journal, Black Orpheus, between 1968 and 1975.

A deep thinker and fluent writer, his body of work focused obsessively on Negritude, prioritising its two leading figures: Senegal’s Léopold Senghor and Martinique’s Aimé Césaire. Irele traced the antecedents of the ‘African Personality’ to West Indian scholar-diplomat, Edward Blyden, and credited the birth of Negritude to the poetry of Césaire—whom he termed the ‘arch-poet of Negritude.’ He, however, regarded Senghor as the concept’s greatest theoretician and philosopher, with the Senegalese Poet-President’s definition of Negritude as a ‘cultural and spiritual endowment of the Black man’ based on African mysticism. Irele often recognized radical French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre’s role in expounding on the concept of Negritude, while noting Sartre’s cultural limitations in not belonging to the black cultural world. Interpreting Senghor, Irele noted that ‘Negritude functions as a synonym of the ‘collective soul’ of all the Black peoples.’ This movement glorified black culture, looking back nostalgically at a rich African past, and affirming the worth and dignity of black people across the globe.

Irele shared both Senghor and Césaire’s love of French language and culture, but—unlike them—was also deeply immersed in his own traditional African cultures. He was, for decades, the most articulate, and one of the few, prophets of Negritude left after many had abandoned the creed in the post-independence era. He often proselytized in the wilderness, sometimes discovering an oasis through which he could quench the thirst of the few faithful devotees of a dying religion. Irele became the very personification of the Negritude he had mastered in all of its complexities. He firmly believed that both Negritude and Pan-Africanism would be essential foundations for the reconstruction of a new African identity in the modern world. He thus sought to keep updating the doctrine for new generations to understand and relate to their own particular circumstances. The ultimate cultural bridge-builder, Irele constantly interpreted the francophone world of black poetry and prose for an anglophone audience, leading Biodun Jeyifo to describe him as ‘the greatest border crosser of [his] generation.’

Abiola was the ultimate ‘Renaissance Man’: a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, a bon vivant, and connoisseur of opera, wine, and good food. He was as comfortable with the Greek and Roman classics as he was with African art and music. He discussed Yoruba and Zulu linguistics and poetry, as easily as he sang Mozart and recited Dante. One of the most commented upon qualities of Irele was his deep humility despite all of his undoubted accomplishments. He always disagreed with the multitude of critics of Negritude such as Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, Martinique’s Frantz Fanon, and Benin’s Stanislas Adotévi, who saw it as essentialist, apolitical, glorifying European culture, and/or demeaning black culture; with decorum and civility, often showing great respect for their scholarship. Irele was self-effacing to a fault, reluctant to put himself in the limelight, but instead maintaining the role of the detached literary critic seeking to mediate fierce intellectual disputes as an ‘honest broker.’

One of the most important and often unheralded aspects of his career was his tireless mentoring of two generations of younger scholars. As Wisconsin-based Nigerian academic, Tejumola Olaniyan, noted: ‘his biggest accomplishment was a careful cultivation of junior scholars.’ During his early career in Nigeria, Irele published younger scholars in the student journal, The Horn. His New Horn Press later introduced to the literary world young poets such as Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Harry Garuba, Mabel Segun, and Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard. Osundare would later recall how Irele had published his first collection of poetry and coined the book’s title: ‘Songs of the Marketplace’. Simon Gikandi reminisced about how as a young Kenyan struggling to establish himself in the American academe, Irele took him under his wing, pushing him to write a monograph on Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the Cambridge African Writers series which Irele edited, before asking Gikandi to co-edit a two-volume Cambridge history of African and Caribbean literature with him. Niyi Osundare dedicated his 2017 book of poetry, Only the Road Could Talk: Poetic Peregrinations in Africa, Asia, and Europe to Irele.

In 1989, Irele joined the ‘brain drain’ from the continent to teach African, French, and Comparative Literature at America’s Ohio State University in Columbus. He left Ohio in 2003 to join Harvard as a Professor of Africa and African American Studies. His publications include: The African Experience in Literature and Ideology (1990); The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2001); The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature (2004); and The Negritude Moment: Explorations in Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Thought (2010). Irele was also general editor of the Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature series, and co-edited the prestigious Transition journal for five years. He selflessly coordinated new editions—with critical essays—of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal. In 2011, Irele’s colleagues published—under the editorship of Biodun Jeyifo—The World in Africa and Africa in The World: Essays In Honour of Abiola Irele based on a conference at Harvard commemorating his 70th birthday four years earlier.

In 2010, Irele returned to Nigeria to become the founding Provost of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kwara State University. He generously donated his library to the new institution, and edited a start-up journal, The Savannah Review. Irele, however, returned to Harvard shortly after. Kwara State University, nevertheless, established an annual Abiola Irele Seminar in Theory and Criticism in his honour.

The last time I saw ‘Prof’ was two weeks before his death on 2 July 2017. He presented a paper on Léopold Senghor and chaired a panel on African philosophers at a three-day conference on ‘The Pan-African Pantheon’ hosted by my Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in June 2017. Even after missing his connecting flight in New York, Irele still made this 16-hour journey, determined to keep his commitment to a younger scholar. Many of the seminar participants commented on Irele’s intelligence, charm, and humility. He was in great spirits during my discussion with him before a dinner in Johannesburg and was looking forward to writing a series of essays for Harvard’s prestigious W.E.B. Du Bois Institute on ‘The African Renaissance: From Léopold Senghor to Thabo Mbeki.’ He generously noted that my own short 2016 biography of Mbeki which I had gifted him in 2017 at the African Studies Association meeting in Washington D.C. had been useful in this regard, and I promised to send him more literature on Mbeki.

Unfortunately, this important book will now never be written: a great loss to the field of Pan-African Thought. During the last conference that Irele attended in Johannesburg in June 2017, he gave me a copy of his 2011 collection of essays on The Negritude Moment—dedicated to the memory of what he described as an ‘exemplary father’. His inscription in the book simply read: ‘To Adekeye with admiration!’ It is a book I will always treasure. Ironically, Irele’s last conference was on the topic of the Pan-African Pantheon. He has himself now joined the ranks of the ancestors, and will take his rightful place among what late Kenyan intellectual, Ali Mazrui, described as ‘After Africa’s’ literary deities such as fellow prophets, Césaire and Senghor. He is survived by his wife Bassey Efiom ‘Eka,’ and five daughters: Regine Oladunni, Omolola Folashade, Augusta Atinuke, Louisa Aya, and Idia Franca who attended the Universities of Pennsylvania State, Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Emerson College.

Irele—the ‘Black Orpheus,’ and last prophet of Negritude—has finally entered the ‘Dead Poet’s Society.’ As his friend of five decades and Nobel literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, wrote in his poem ‘Olohun-Iyo’, in memoriam:

‘You join the absent throng of griots, preceptors,
Their arms wide open to enfold you. Enter.
Suave medium of their grand accord – Damas,
Depestre, Okigbo, Aimé Césaire, Walcott, Sedar Senghor –
You made their lives your own. From rubble of the Tower
Of Babel, smoothed paving stones to float an isthmus – Black
Continent to island beaded Caribbean. You spun
A rainbow of insights over the waters of Dispersal.’


Abdul Raufu Mustapha died in Oxford on 8 August 2017 at the age of 63. He had taught African politics at Oxford University for two decades, having previously studied and taught at two Northern Nigerian institutions: Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and Bayero University, Kano. Raufu attended secondary school at the Federal Government College in the Northern Nigerian city of Sokoto. His father, Ishola, was a foreman at Niger Motors, while his mother, Rabia, was a trader. Mustapha himself was from Ilorin: the geographical, cultural, and political crossroads of Nigeria. He sought in his scholarship and activist politics to serve as a bridge between North and South, debunking stereotypes about each region, and seeking to interpret and explain North to South, and South to North.

Raufu was a classic embodiment of Nigeria’s complexity: having been born in the Eastern Nigerian city of Aba, he spoke the country’s three main languages of Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba fluently. He was the ultimate polyglot Nigerian and a passionate believer in his country’s future. Mustapha was also atypical of the stereotypical brash, boastful, and loud Nigerian: he was quietly outspoken, humble, and warm-hearted.

The only time I ever saw him angry was when Raufu spoke about the petty politics of his almost lily-white Oxford Africanist colleagues. He, however, enjoyed a close friendship with his South African mentor Gavin Williams—to whom he dedicated two books—who had taught him at Oxford where he obtained his doctorate. He was also particularly proud to have been an A.H.M. Kirk-Greene fellow, named after the late British Nigerianist to whom Raufu had also dedicated a book. Mustapha was a staunch Pan-Africanist who was active in the work of the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), serving on its Scientific Committee. His areas of intellectual interest ranged from democratisation in Africa, to identity politics and ethnicity, to the politics of rural societies in Africa: topics which he approached with a commitment to equity and humanity. Raufu was an organic intellectual who sought to communicate the ideas of the marginalized masses to a wider audience, and to put his ideas into practice in the cause of social justice. He was always on the side of the talakawa: the poor and marginalized commoners, with whom he directly and empathetically interacted in his research on rural development.

Mustapha was a first-rate scholar who wrote and spoke lucidly, thought profoundly, and was always open to considering other perspectives. He was, however, never afraid to take an independent line, once he felt this to be the intellectually honest path. While studying and teaching at ABU, he was active in the struggles of students, trade unionists, and academic unions, particularly during the dog days of General Sani Abacha’s tyranny (1993-1998). He conducted field work for his Oxford doctorate on agrarian politics among disenfranchized village communities near Kano. He wrote with anguished passion about Nigeria, consistently highlighting its potential, while castigating its profligate political class. Raufu always insisted on complexity and nuance in understanding his country. He was not afraid to place the blame for the origins of the Nigerian crisis squarely where it lay: with British colonial engineering, noting that the imperial power had created profound and long-lasting fissures in the Nigerian polity. He observed that the British Governor-General, Lord Frederick Lugard, had run two separate administrations in Northern and Southern Nigeria, even as much larger countries such as India and Sudan had single administrations. But Mustapha also placed the blame for more contemporary problems on the ‘intense elite manipulation of religion and ethnicity for political ends.’

In an article in The Guardian of London in June 2010 titled ‘Nigeria: Africa’s Flawed Diamond’, Mustapha outlined signposts which he felt demonstrated the contradictory nature of the complex Nigerian state, asking elegantly: ‘Is such a country Africa’s superpower—or its superproblem?’ He went on to note four diverse characterisations of the country in the British media: negative depictions of the lack of a proper transition by the then ailing Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua (in another Guardian of London article in January 2010, Raufu had strongly castigated Yar’Adua and his cabinet for failing to respect the Nigerian Constitution); and coverage of sectarian killings in the Northern city of Jos. He contrasted these two negative views of Nigeria with the rave reviews of 12th century sculptures from the ancient kingdom of Ile-Ife at a British Museum exhibition; and also noted the ‘enduring ‘can do’ spirit’ of Nigerians depicted in a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television trilogy ‘Welcome to Lagos’. Mustapha went on to make the insightful point that while most large countries in Africa such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan had suffered effective disintegration due to regionalist rebellions, Nigeria’s federation continued to endure. He also noted the country’s regional leadership and peacekeeping role in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s (when over 1,500 Nigerian soldiers had died), arguing that ‘No system of international governance in Africa will endure without Nigerian cooperation.’

In another article for South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper on Boko Haram in April 2012, Raufu offered a sophisticated understanding of the militant Salafist group which has now killed over 20,000 people and internally displaced 2 million in North-Eastern Nigeria. He warned that Boko Haram’s ‘gnawing at the religious, ethnic and regional fault lines of Nigerian society’ threatened the nation-state, before going on to demolish what he regarded as the various myths peddled about the group in Northern and Southern Nigeria, as well as in the Western media. Raufu described these perspectives as an ‘unhelpful cacophony of domestic and foreign noise.’ He dismissed the Southern Nigerian conspiracy theory—citing specifically Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, as a prominent advocate—that Boko Haram was the creation of Northern Muslim politicians seeking to constrain Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern president between 2010 and 2015. He equally rubbished the Northern conspiracy theory that Boko Haram’s attacks were not the acts of Muslims, but an attempt to discredit Islam by American-backed agents seeking to dismember Nigeria.

Raufu similarly criticized American scholar, Jean Herskovits, for describing the militants as ‘criminal gangs’, and for insisting that Boko Haram had been militarily defeated in 2009. He ridiculed The Economist’s far-fetched assessment that the group consisted of disenfranchized Northern Nigerian youths seeking to tap into generous amnesty funding enjoyed by demobilized youths in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta. Mustapha went on to explain Boko Haram as an outgrowth of Nigeria’s massive North-South divide in which the North lagged behind in education, health, and other key social indicators, having poverty rates 15 times higher than in the South. He further noted that the militants were providing education, basic services, and jobs to their socially marginalized supporters.

Raufu argued that the sobriquet of Boko Haram—‘Western education is sin’—had misled many analysts into depicting the group as an atavistic, anti-modern movement ‘frozen in sixth-century Islam.’ He, however, insisted that the militants be viewed as an evolving rather than a static group, noting that they actually represented a contemporary manifestation of the high poverty levels and human rights abuses in Nigerian society. Mustapha was, as usual, scathing about Nigeria’s leadership, noting that ‘conspicuous consumption of ill-gotten wealth by this elite breeds hopelessness and recklessness.’ He concluded that ‘Boko Haram is the symptom of the failure of nation-building and democratic politics in Nigeria.’ Demonstrating his usual balance, Raufu went on to praise the insights and understanding of Boko Haram by American diplomatic officials in Abuja.

I co-edited a book with Raufu in 2008 titled Gulliver’s Troubles: Nigeria’s Foreign Policy After the Cold War. We launched the volume together at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in Lagos in 2008 with former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku. I remember Raufu adamantly and successfully insisting—even on foreign policy—that we needed a strong Northern voice as a discussant (current Nigerian Ambassador to the UN, Tijjani Muhammad Bande) for such a launch, in order to balance the preponderance of Southern voices.

In his rich chapter in the book, ‘The Three Faces of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy: Nationhood, Identity, and External Relations’, Raufu demonstrated his intellectual versatility in seamlessly linking the country’s domestic and foreign policies. He identified three distinct ‘faces’ of Nigerian foreign policy: first, the formal world of diplomats, technocrats, national institutions, and formal negotiations; second, the way in which Nigeria’s ‘fractured’ nationhood continues to constrain its foreign policy goals; and third, the impact of Nigeria’s global reputation for widespread corruption and fraud—though, he argued that this was often unfair and not nuanced—or ‘identity’, on its foreign policy. Mustapha noted that since the last two ‘faces’ imposed unnecessary costs on the pursuit of Nigeria’s foreign policy goals, they needed to be prioritized in the formal foreign policy process. He was particularly scathing in his criticism of Western scholars like Frenchman, Jean-François Bayart, for interpreting increasing criminal activities in Africa and their convergence with politics as a cultural expression of African societies, noting that such views ‘display more paternalistic prejudice than sober-minded social science’ and help to fuel attacks against African migrants in the West. Mustapha was also one of the earliest scholars to recognise the importance of remittances from African Diasporas—like Nigeria’s—which have now surpassed foreign aid to the continent. His conclusion in Gulliver’s Troubles made the profound point that: ‘Nigeria needs a social contract with its citizens as a basis for demanding their loyalty and support for both its domestic and foreign policies.’

Among Mustapha’s other publications are the co-edited volumes: the 2010 Turning Points in African Democracy; the 2013 Conflicts and Security in West Africa; the 2014 Sects and Social Disorder: Muslim Identities and Conflict in Northern Nigeria; and Creed and Grievance: Muslim-Christian Relations and Conflict Resolution in Northern Nigeria, which was published posthumously by 2019. He was particularly fascinated by the presence of white Zimbabwean farmers in Nigeria, and conducted innovative research on this topic. My biggest disappointment about Raufu’s passing was that the magnum opus that he was crafting on Nigerian politics for James Currey publishers was abandoned, as he selflessly devoted his energies into collaborative projects on the country’s religious and ethnic-fuelled conflicts with younger Nigeria-based scholars. This was a huge loss to the world of scholarship in a critical area in which very few scholars had Raufu’s lived and varied experiences, as well as his diverse, profound, and unique understanding of the Nigerian situation.

Among the many tributes that poured in after his death, Sierra Leonean scholar, Yusuf Bangura’s moving obituary described Raufu as having ‘lived a life of courage, commitment and fulfilment’; Nigerian scholar, Jibrin Ibrahim, noted that ‘For Raufu, the purpose of life was the construction of a better society’; while Nigerian intellectuals, Anthony Akinola and Shehu Othman, described him as ‘a scholar and well-admired gentleman…a kind and generous patriot.’

Former Nigerian foreign minister and veteran UN troubleshooter, Ibrahim Gambari—a fellow indigene of Ilorin who had been Raufu’s professor at ABU in the 1970s—delivered a memorial lecture in Abuja on the domestic challenges of Nigeria’s foreign policy in Mustapha’s honour shortly after his death. Raufu was buried in Ilorin. He is survived by his devoted Canadian wife, Kate Meagher, who lived in Nigeria for many years and currently teaches at the London School of Economics and Political Science; as well as by their two children, Asma’u and Seyi, graduates of University College London and Oxford University.

The world of scholarship bids farewell to a gentle soul, a national bridge-builder, and an organic intellectual to whom I devoted my 2017 book, The Eagle and the Springbok: Essays on Nigeria and South Africa.


Both polyglot scholars—Abiola Irele and Raufu Mustapha—were ‘de-tribalized’ Nigerians who spoke at least two of its languages—Yoruba and Igbo—fluently. Both were bridge-builders: Irele, between the anglophone and francophone worlds; and Mustapha, between Northern and Southern Nigeria. Both studied in Nigerian universities before receiving their doctorates at elite Western institutions: the Sorbonne and Oxford. Both taught in Nigerian universities before becoming part of the ‘brain-drain’ to the West, eventually joining two of the world’s most prestigious universities: Harvard and Oxford. Despite being in exile for decades, both committed patriots maintained strong ties to Nigerian universities. Both were widely praised for mentoring young academics from Africa and beyond. Both had children who largely attended elite Western universities, becoming Afropolitan global citizens, comfortable in both African and Western cultures.

But there were, of course, also differences between the two: while Raufu was a social activist, Abiola was a theoretical intellectual; while Irele focused on poetry, Mustapha prioritized prose; while Abiola was deeply steeped in French culture and spoke the language fluently, Raufu spoke no foreign languages; while the Francophile Irele married a Nigerian woman, the Afrophile Mustapha married a Canadian woman