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Philosophy in Africa

Whither Philosophy in Africa?>

Moses Akin Makinde
FISP Committee on Teaching Philosophy

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Abstract: This paper examines the position of philosophy in Africa from the time African and expatriate philosophers engaged in the debate on whether or not there was a uniquely African Philosophy. I argue that where this debate, prompted by the earlier writings of some colonial anthropologists, was going on, there was serious teaching, although not writing, of Western Philosophy. Major writings focused on the African Philosophy question. However, positive work was done after the publication of positive work on African Philosophy, leading to the abandonment of serious publication on Western Philosophy. In spite of this, the presence of expatriate staff in many departments of philosophy between 1975 and 1984 led to great expectations of the discipline on the African continent, as shown in my published work in 1987. Unfortunately, philosophy in Africa has been deteriorating since the end of the 1980's due to neglect and lack of funding by military governments (e.g., Nigeria). In addition to the bad economic situation which led to an exodus of prominent philosophers from Africa to the West, pioneering philosophers have retired and died. These unfortunate developments leave a bleak future for philosophy in Africa, as there may be no experienced philosophers to supervise undergraduate students, leaving a lack of viable replacements for the older philosophers. While resolution of this problem appears difficult, this paper is written in hope that the World Congress might intervene to counteract this desperate situation.

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Since I wrote my paper on "Teaching Philosophy in Africa" (1) a lot of changes, though negative, have taken place in relation to the fate of the discipline in Africa. To put it straight, philosophy in Africa has gone on the decline for the past ten years in many parts of Africa. For example, in Nigeria, the so-called giant of Africa which boasts of about thirty seven Federal and State Universities scattered all over the thirty states of the Federation, there has been a general decline in the fortunes of philosophy in the various institutions which showed initial excitement about the teaching of the subject.

In the late 70's, there was a great enthusiasm about philosophy and its teaching in virtually all the African sub-regions, with the following regions or divisions as prominent examples: North Africa with Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan as prominent examples; West Africa, with Nigeria and Ghana taking the lead among the Anglophone countries while Benin Republic, Ivory Coast and Togo represent the Francophone countries. In Central Africa there is Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Kenya in East Africa and Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa in the Southern Africa sub-region. It must be noted, however, that most of the philosophy departments of these universities do combine Philosophy with Religious Studies, owing to lack of adequate staff and/or financial resources. Be this as it may, the South African countries must be congratulated for paying the highest salaries to academic staff on the African continent up till the present time.

One country that would have made a great impact on the propagation of philosophy as an academic discipline in Africa is Nigeria. In Nigeria alone, there are thirty-seven universities (both State and Federal). (2) Nigeria alone accounts for more than one quarter of all the universities in Africa. Prominent among the universities with departments of philosophy in Nigeria are the Federal Universities of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, University of Lagos, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, University of Port-Harcourt, University of Calabar, University of Benin and University of Uyo. Among the State universities that have departments of philosophy are the Bendel State University, Ekpoma (the pioneering work was done by an American Philosopher, Prof. Gene Blocker of the Ohio State University, Athens, Ohio, USA), Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti, Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye and Lagos State University, Ojoo, Lagos. Between 1975 and 1984 there were many expatriate staff mostly from the US, Britain and Canada teaching philosophy in Africa, most of them in Nigeria. As for Nigeria, the expatriate staff left one by one as soon as the Structural Adjustment Programme took off in the country under General Babangida's Military Administration when the Naira was heavily devalued, from N1 to 1.30 US dollar in 1983 to N22 to 1 US dollar in 1985 and , since 1996, N85 to 1 US dollar! As at the year 1990, there were not more than six Professors of Philosophy in the country. Unfortunately, Nigerian universities have not lived up to expectation in the kind of leadership role she ought to play in keeping the discipline alive and boosting its image to the outside world.

Philosophy in Africa, as it should be anywhere, consists of various activities known as teaching, research and writing in the discipline. In this regard, it really does not matter how many universities there are in a country or continent. What really matters, I believe, is the level of philosophical activities such as teaching, research and publications going on. If Oxford University were the only university doing philosophy in the United Kingdom, philosophers all over the world would know more about Oxford University than all the African Universities put together. This, in fact, has been, and should be, the case. What applies to Oxford University here also applies to Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Toronto University. Since doing philosophy is not only teaching but more importantly writing philosophy, (3) our appreciation of the excellent status of philosophy at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Toronto will most definitely be greater than that of philosophy in the whole of Africa if at these universities philosophers do philosophy not only by teaching it, but also by writing it as if their very lives depend on it while, in Africa, African philosophers do more of teaching than writing philosophy. Very few philosophers, dead or alive, have acquired their reputation through mere teaching of philosophy. In fact, there is no way a philosopher at Oxford will know his colleagues in Harvard through their teaching alone. Students also do not come to know philosophers from another university through their teaching which, as students, they might not have witnessed. In short, it is by the activity of writing philosophy that eminent philosophers and reputable departments of philosophy are born and known.

Many of us 'knew' Professors Karl Popper, A. J. Ayer and R. B. Bratihwaite when they were alive, and 'know' Professors W. V. O. Quine, Hilary Putnam, Henry Kyburg Jr. who are still alive, not by acquaintance but by reputation through their published work. Although I should say I had the opportunity of meeting with Professors Karl Propper and A. J. Ayer by their invitation to me to discuss my Ph.D. Thesis on John Stuart Mill's Logic with them at Fallowfield, Buckinghamshire and New College, Oxford respectively in the winter of 1972, (4) and Professors Braithwaite and Henry Kyburg Jr. as my teachers at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, in 1969/70 academic year I should also say I had known them by reputation before I knew them by acquaintance. I also believe that it is by knowing philosophers through their work that students in philosophy often choose their heroes, and postgraduate students make their choices of philosophy departments where they will like to pursue their graduate studies. It is even very common for universities in North America to hire reputable philosophers at great costs in order to boost the images of their philosophy departments and attract good students, just as it is common nowadays for owners of football clubs to hire top rated footballers for millions of dollars in order to give the particular football clubs big names. From this point of view it can safely be said that departments of philosophy parading great scholars really do make their names and quite easily attract students in the particular fields of these great scholars. I must confess that I fell a victim to this scenario of magnetic attraction when I had to leave Toronto to do my M.A. degree at the University of Western Ontario under two visiting Professors, R. B. Braitwaite and Henry Kyburg Junior, in the 1969/70 academic year. I went back to Toronto when these two great scholars left for their respective universities at Cambridge and Rochester.

From the above, one can now examine the satus of philosophy in Africa, past and present, and see why African departments of philosophy had not made any recognizable impact on the continent. In the past, i.e. early 70's, philosophy appeared to be a serious luxury in Africa except, perhaps, in the then apartheid South Africa. The pioneers in the field of philosophy, after the ethnographical approach of the colonial anthropologists like Levy-Bruhl, Alexis Kegame, Rev. Father Tempels and others, were philosophers of African origin, like Professors John Olubi Sodipo of Nigeria, Pauline Hountondji of Benin Republic, Kwasi Wiredu of Ghana, Odera Oruka of Kenya and, of course, expatriates like Professors E. Ruch in Southern Africa, Robin Horton in Nigeria, and Gordon Hunnings who also doubled as the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lesotho, among others. Unfortunately, these philosophers spent most of their time debating on whether or not there was African Philosophy. (5) The debate actually arose from the earlier writings of expatriate scholars who were mostly anthropologists, all of whom had lived and written in Africa. (6) John Mibiti was the only African in this category of writers. (7)

Following the lead of Levy-Bruhl, the author of Primitive Mentality (8)

whose thesis maintained that Africans were incapable of second order thought, the central issue in subsequent debate on African Philosophy was the thinking that African Philosophy was ethno-philosophy or group mind without any philosophical method as known to Western philosophers. More than a decade was devoted to this controversy and, in 1980, Bodunrin reviewed the controversy in an important paper. (9) However, the present writer who started his career as a philosophy teacher at Ife in December, 1974, did not join in the debate because he was not impressed by a situation where we had to teach and write African Philosophy by just debating its existence or non-existence. If there is African Philosophy, do it rather than talk endlessly about it, or even talk about talks about it. (10) If there were no African Philosophy, then there was nothing to debate or talk about. Consequently, my own contribution to African Philosophy was not a debate but positive work on the emerging discipline (11) . Those positive work contributed to the demise of the controversy to the extent that Professor Bodunrin confessed to me that he had no choice but to teach African philosophy as a visiting professor in the department of philosophy, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio after I had initiated the course as a permanent offering in the 1983/84 academic year. My research led to a publication of the book titled African Philosophy, Culture and Traditional Medicine. (12) This book is being used in the teaching of African Philosophy.

The generally poor status of African Philosophy has made the teaching of the subject inferior to that of Western Philosophy in Africa. As I said in one of my earlier writings, in Africa

"the teaching of African Philosophy is generally poor when compared to the teaching of Western Philosophy. This is so because many of the African philosophers who write on African Philosophy as a controversial subject do not teach it. They just talk about it, or write on the talks about it as a refreshing exercise in Western Philosophy " (13)

While the controversy on African Philosophy went on, the teaching of Western Philosophy was in top gear for most part of the late 1980s. Apart from the traditional core areas i.e, Logic, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics and History of philosophy which were taught to single honours students in philosophy and to students from other Faculties like Law, Social Sciences, Medicine and Environmental Design and Management, other courses in the special fields of Philosophy were also taught at the Obafemi Awolowo University and most of the Federal Universities. After the demise of the controversy on African Philosophy, there was a positive change in the teaching of the discipline. At Ife for example, African Philosophy is taught to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The same is true of other Federal Universities and a few of the State Universities where emphasis is given to the metaphysical, epistemological, logical, ethical and social-political issues in African Philosophy. The emphasis on the traditional core areas in the teaching of African Philosophy became necessary if African Philosophy must be taken seriously. From then on African philosophers developed more interest in publications in African philosophy than in Western Philosophy. But then, not much impact could be made on the teaching of, and publication in, Western Philosophy such as would have given African philosophers some reputation in the discipline known as philosophy. The irony of the case is that, at its inception, only the teaching of Western Philosophy was taken seriously among African philosophers whom I had called Euro-African Philosophers somewhere else. (14) Now, African Philosophy, which was previously despised, has become very attractive, especially in the areas of metaphysics, ethics and social and political philosophy where there have been many publications. But there remains a poverty of publications in Western Philosophy.

Perhaps the situation with respect to writing, as opposed to teaching, of philosophy in Africa might have improved but for the anti-intellectualism of many military governments in Africa, and the bad economic situation that usually accompanies the era of military governments. Lack of funds, poor salaries and a general neglect of the university system did a great havoc that actually led to a general decline in the teaching and writing of philosophy in Africa, as from the late 1980's. Many of the African philosophers had no access to funds by which they could attend international conferences abroad. It also became virtually impossible to purchase books and journals on Western Philosophy as a result of the declined values of African currencies. Under this situation one could see that publishing in philosophy on the African continent would require a lot of ingenuity and improvisation on the part of African philosophers who have no ready access to current books and journals, and who make do with obsolete equipment like archaic typewriters and rolling machines. As for computers, there are none. In fact, there is not a single computer in my faculty, or in the Dean's office, as of today. (15)


From the beginning of the 1990s philosophy suffered a great set back in Africa. The most notable cause is poor funding and the urge for technological development. Much attention was paid to science and technology to the detriment of the humanities. Even by any standard, the funding of science and technology through Research and Development (R & D) is generally poor when compared to that of the Western world. All this can be traced to the anti-intellectual stance of many African governments who, more often than not, indulge in reckless spending on the military at the expense of Education, Health and Agriculture. Before now, there were philosophy journals which published regularly, and philosophers had the opportunity to attend local and international conferences. For instance, there were the East African Journal of Philosophy, Thought and Practice in Nairobi, Kenya; Second Order at Ife, Nigeria; Universitas at Legon, Accra, Ghana and Presence Africaine, one of the oldest journals of philosophy in Africa. As of today, none of these top journals is publishing, owing to lack of financial support. The Universitas died when the editor, Professor Kwasi Wiredu, left for the US, and Thought and Practice died long before its editor, Professor Odera Oruka, died last year. Second Order, of which the present writer is editor, died twice before, and is only being revived, hopefully, for the third time, through an expected subvention by the University Research Committee of Obafemi Awolowo University. As for attending international conferences, one would be advised to forget it. Even the present writer could not obtain a return ticket to the US in order to deliver a Plenary Address, along with Professor Ninian Smart, at the East-Meet -West Conference in Long Beach, California in April, 1993, in spite of the fact that the organisers of that conference was to pay for his bed and board at the Long Beach Hotel aswell as pay some honorarium for the delivery of his address.

There are, of course, other journals, mostly new ones, which have come on stage since the non-performance of the older journals. These are Uche, published at Nsukka, Journal of Philosophical Inquiry, (Ibadan), Journal of Philosophy and Development, (Ago-Iwoye) and Imodoye, (Lagos). These journals, however, do not publish regularly. I don't know much about the situation in Northern and Southern Africa, but there is at least one African journal that is regularly in business - Quest, in Zambia. From all indications, therefore, the writing of philosophy in Africa is extremely poor, as the avenues for publishing is almost non-existent. This bad situation has its negative impact on teaching philosophy as both students and staff rely on publications in foreign journals and the occasional publications of African philosophers in irregular local journals. Even many of the publications in these local journals do not meet international standard and, for this reason, are probably not worth courting.

Apart from journals by which the propagation of philosophy in Africa are supplemented, there used to be regional conferences namely, the Nigerian Philosophical Association (NPA), the Philosophical Association of Kenya (PAK) and, at the continental level, the Inter-African Council for Philosophy (I.A.C.P) with its headquarters in Cotonu in the Republic of Benin. In the opinion of its then general secretary, Pauline Houtondji, the objective of the Council was to act as a Federation of National Associations of Philosophy and Departments in Africa, while its main task, apart from coordination, was to organise an ongoing forum for exchange of views among African philosophers. If this Council had continued to function, it most certainly would have been like the American Philosophical Association with Western, Eastern, Central, Northern and Southern Divisions (of the Council) in Africa. But as of today, the Council seem completely dead, as dead as Dodo. When alive, it made no appreciable impact on the development of philosophy in Africa. Such a Council, if it functioned properly, would surely have helped in the standardization of the teaching and writing of philosophy, both African and Western philosophies, on the African continent. As for the Regional Associations, it is sufficient to point out that the Nigerian Philosophical Association founded by Professor Sodipo in 1975, and the Philosophical Association of Kenya, probably a baby of Professor Odera Oruka (late), are not in good health, and are as good as forgotten. I know that the Nigerian Philosophical Association (NPA) has not met for five years and could not dissolve its Executive!

As if all this was not enough, the bad economic situation, especially in the West African sub-region, and Nigeria in particular, has led to an exodus of some good philosophers from Africa, first, of expatriates to their home countries, and second, of Africans to the United States of America. Professor Wiredu, one of the well known philosophers in Africa, left the University of Ghana for Tanmpas in Florida. The Obafemi Awolowo University lost Professors Gbadegesin, Femi Taiwo, Drs. Leke Adeofe and Mrs. Nkiru Nzeogu also to Universities in the United States. Even a candidate sponsored by Ife to do his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science at the London School of Economics, Dr. Kolapo Abimbola, preferred to stay away from Ife after the completion of his Ph.D. degree. The present writer who is now the Dean of the Faculty of Arts is the only Professor in the department of philosophy at Ife. We may say that this phenomenon is not peculiar to philosophy alone in Nigeria. Like in other discipline such as medicine where there has been a great brain drain mostly to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the USA some scholars in Fine Arts, English Language and Literature, and African Languages have also left Nigeria for the United States for economic reasons as well as for job satisfaction. By and large, it is the same economic situation and lack of job satisfaction that led many of the African philosophers to look elsewhere for their salvation. In the Benin Republic, philosophy had a brief set back when Pauline Hontondji took up an appointment as the Minister of Education in the government of Professor Soglo. I should believe he is now back to work in his department.

Just as we were counting our loses, Professor Sodipo retired from Ife in 1996. Professor Odera Oruka died also in 1996 and, very sadly indeed, the second Professor of Philosophy in Nigeria after Professor Sodipo, Professor Peter Bodunrin, died on 23 April, 1997. Thus we can say that philosophy in Africa has never had it so bad as it is today. It is a bad situation that has built up since a decade. Surely, the exodus of African philosophers to the western countries as a result of bad economic situation at home and the retirements and deaths of some professors of philosophy must have a negative impact on Graduate programs. The consequence of this can be disastrous on philosophy in Africa. Simply put, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to train postgraduate students who would replace the older teachers after retirement. I am afraid there may be no second or third generation of philosophers in Africa in the next decade.

If the prevailing condition of philosophy in Africa is anything to go by, we may just as well begin to sing the Nunc Dimitis of this important discipline in Africa. If a few departments of philosophy in Africa can boast of well known philosophers as in our previous examples of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale etc. and these few departments are well funded, perhaps they could put the name of Africa on the philosophical map of the world. That is to say, we shall then rely only on quality rather than quantity of philosophy departments and philosophy teachers in Africa. However, in as much as the situation is getting worse each year I do not foresee the growth of philosophy as we would have wanted it in Africa, unless some drastic situation occurs such as would bring about a reversal of fortune for the discipline, or there is a conscious effort made by the world body to quickly intervene in this rather tragic situation. Yet Africa remains a part of the world of philosophy and philosophy in Africa should not be allowed to die a premature death. I do believe that Africa can still make its own contributions to a global philosophy. My fear, however, is that although we know why such an intervention is necessary for bringing philosophy back to life in Africa, or some parts of Africa, I must confess we really don't know what form such an intervention would take, and how it would be accomplished. We can only hope, though not without doubt, that philosophy in Africa would not suffer the same fate of many African Journals which existed in one moment and went out of existence the next moment. It is very unlikely that the continuous existence of philosophy on the African continent would in any way be guaranteed by God, as Berkeley said of material objects. This, then, is the totality of my submission to the world congress of philosophy about the condition of philosophy in Africa. As of now, the question is apposite: Whither philosophy in Africa, on the eve of the 21st century?

Thank you for listening.

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(1) See M. Akin Makinde: "Teaching Philosophy in Africa", in Teaching Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 227-238

(2) The proliferation of Federal Universities occurred during the civilian administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari which created Universities in some parts of the country for purely political reasons, between 1980 and 1983. Some of these Universities are known as Federal Universities of Technology and Federal Universities of Agriculture, side by side with the establishment of some conventional Universities. The State governments followed suite by creating Universities of their own. But then, all these Universities could not admit up to 50% of candidates who applied for admission each year, since the average enrollment in each University is pegged at between ten to twelve thousands. But this is not the case in Western Countries. At the University of Toronto alone, there are more than one hundred thousand students.

(3) See M. Akin Makinde, opt. Cit. P. 236.

(4) I had sent a six page abstract of my Ph.D. thesis on "John Stuart Mill's Theory of Logic and Scientific Method as a Rejection of Hume's Skepticism with regard to the validity of inductive reasoning" to Professors Karl Popper, A. J. Ayer, J. L. Mackie, R. B. Braithwaite, Peter Alexander and others for discussion in 1972. Professor Propper, A. J. Ayer and others wrote to invite me for discussion, Popper by an express mail and others by ordinary mail. That was when I knew them by acquaintance, after I had known them by reputation. The Thesis was eventually completed and defended in November, 1974 at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with acknowledgement of contributions from these eminent philosophers in Great Britain, the country of David Hume and John Smart Mill.

(5) On the debate see, for instance, W. A. Hart: "The Philosopher's interest in African thought". Second Order, Vol. 1, No. 1, January, 1972, p. 643-52; E. A. Ruch: "Is there an African Philosophy?" in Second Order , vol. 3, No. 2, July, 1974, pp. 3-21; Kwasi Wiredu: "How not to compare African Traditional Thought with Western Philosophy", in Ch'Indaba, No. 2, July/December, 1976, and "On the African Orientation in Philosophy", Second Order, vol. 1, no. 1, 1972, pp. 3-13; P. O. Bodunrin "The Question of African Philosophy", in Philosophy, vol.56, 1981, pp. 161-179, and a series of other articles on the same issue in Richard A. Wright ed.: African Philosophy: An Introduction, New York, University Press of America, 3rd edition, 1983.

(6) For example, see Lucian Levy-Bruhl, the author of Primitive Mentality, New York: Harper and Row, 1975; Alexis Kagame, the author of Rivandan-Bantu Philosophy of Being, Brussels, 1956; Rev. Father Placide Temple, Bantu Philosophy, Paris: Presence Africaine, 1959 and Janheinz Jahn, the author of Muntu, New York: Grove Press, 1961, among others. For a more detailed account, see M. Akin Makinde: African Philosophy, Culture and Traditional Medicine, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1988, Chapter 3 on "The Question of African Philosophy".

(7) See John Mbiti's two important work: African Religious and Philosophy, New York, Double-Day Publications 1959, and Concepts of God in Africa, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.

(8) See our Note 6 above. Although Levy-Bruhl later renounced his position in his posthumous work, Notebook on Primitive Mentality, New York: Harper and Row 1975, that renunciation was not as well known as his earlier classic. Primitive Mentality, which was first published in 1923 and reprinted in 1966, and 1975.

(9) See P. O. Bodunrin, in our note 6 above.

(10) See M. Akin Makinde, "Teaching Philosophy in Africa" above, p. 236.

(11) The most important of my positive contributions to African Philosophy, apart from the book already cited above, are "A Philosophical Analysis of Ori and Human Destiny" (with a Preface by Prof. R. H. Popkins), International Studies in Philosophy, xvii, No. 1, 1985, pp. 53-69; "An African Concept of Human Personality: The Yoruba Example", Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1984, pp. 189-200; "Immortality of the Soul and the Yoruba Theory of Seven Heavens", Journal of Cultures and Ideas, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1983, pp. 33-59; "Ifa as a Repository of knowledge", paper presented on my behalf at the xviith World Congress of Philosophy, Montreal, Canada, 21-27 August, 1983, also in ODU: A Journal of West African Studies, No. 23, 1983, pp. 116-121, "Of Chance Philosophy and Obsolete Philosophy: Some Anti - Scientific Features of African (Traditional) Thought", Second Order ( New series), vol 1, no.1, January 1988, PP 1-27.; "African Cultures and Moral Systems", Second Order (New Series) vol.1, no.2, July 1988, PP 1-27 and " Asuwada Principle: An Analysis of Akiwowo's Contributions to the Sociology of Knowledge from an African Perspective", International Sociology vol.3, no.1, March 1988, PP 61-76.

(12) See our note 6 on African Philosophy, Culture and Traditional Medicine above. This book was an outcome of my research as Visiting Fulbright Professor at the Ohio University, 1983/84 academic year, and a revised and enlarged version of the Fulbright Lecture which I established and later gave on 4 May, 1984 at the same University.

(13) M. Akin Makinde: "Teaching Philosophy in Africa" above, pp. 235-236.

(14) See M, Akin Makinde: African Philosophy, Culture and Traditional Medicine above, p. ch. 3

(15) On the effect of availability of current books and journals and modern facilities on a scholar's capability to do research and publish in philosophy or in other disciplines, my experience as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in the department of Philosophy at the Ohio University, Athens, USA, in the 1983/84 academic year readily comes to mind. At the Ohio University I had access to current books and journals and worked under a pleasant atmosphere with available modern facilities that were virtually non-existent in my home institution. Naturally, on my return to Ife in the autumn of 1984, I wrote a report on my experience (as it was required by my home institution) in which I pointed out, rather bluntly, that what I achieved in the areas of research and publications in one year of my stay in the USA was more than I had achieved in six years before that time at Ife, obviously owing to lack of conducive atmosphere, current books and journals, constant electric supply and other relevant facilities that were virtually non existent in Nigerian Universities, but which are essential to intellectual pursuit. Unfortunately, as of today, the situation has gotten worse than in 1984, and is badly in need of a drastic remedy.

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