Onigu Otite: A founding father of Nigerian sociology

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Onigu Otite: A founding father of Nigerian sociology
Authored by Omoniyi Ibietan

A fortnight before my expulsion, ostensibly for radicalism, from the first university I attended, I was elected the first president of the local chapter of the Nigerian Sociological and Anthropological Students Association (NSASA). As a student of sociology, I had an illuminating encounter with the works of many Nigerian sociology scholars. Professors Onigu Otite and William Ogionwo became particularly prominent in my academic reflections because of their seminal work, An Introduction to Sociological Studies (1979). It was a recommended text by Dr. W.S. Tile, who taught me Introduction to Sociology in my first year.

Otite and Ogionwo’s book became one of my bibles. The period also coincided with my years of atheism and I spent copious times with that book as it became one of the companions I practically substituted for The Bible. The Nigeria condition foisted by the recklessness of our country’s primitive leadership and particularly the docility of majority of our people had ‘forced’ me to abandon Christianity and any commitment to faith-based orientation or belief system. I was just living and worshipping scholarship. So, I am familiar with sociology and I am gratified to reconnect with the discipline – first, through a circumstantial studentship of communication and media studies, second by marriage (my wife is a sociologist), and more recently, through an integrated theoretical framing in a study I conducted. In any case, one cannot disconnect media, communication and cultural studies from sociology and psychology, they are all organically connected and I am not aware of any major split on that matter. It also explains the birth of media sociology or sociology of mass communication, which is both exploratory and explanatory of the intersection of media and society.

Therefore, Onigu Otite, who passed on March 14, 2019 at age 80, will continue to resonate in my thought as a seminal scholar who contextualised Nigerian sociology so distinctively and very much like his Urhobo kindred – Omafume Onoge and Peter Ekeh. Recognised as one of the first set of students to enrol at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka – Nigeria’s first indigenous university – Otite was elected the first PRO of that University’s students’ union.

By the time he completed his doctoral thesis, The Political Organisation of the Urhobo of the Midwestern State of Nigeria (1969), in London, Otite had set out to become a tower in the Nigerian sociological and anthropological scholastic firmament. All his works – and there are many of them singly done or co-authored – speak to originality and uncommon commitment to ethnographic research. I consider his professorial inaugural lecture, The presence of the past, delivered at the University of Ibadan in May 1993 as an astonishing enduring excursion in pedagogic thinking. Otite taught sociology at the University of Ibadan for decades and he tried to replicate himself in many scores going by the sheer number of students that sat to listen to his teachings and learnt under his tutelage in those decades, many of who are already in the professorial rank.

Not a few people continued to be enthralled by the imagination in Otite’s works. One of such creative work is, On The Path of Progress, A Study of Rural Immigrants and Development in Nigeria: The Urhobo of Okitipupa in Ondo State (2002), in which he demonstrated how rural-to-rural migration contributes to both the development of the economy and the growth of small towns. The work is a distinctive item in the Nigerian rural sociological scholarship, very much like the writings of Ibn Khaldum, the 14th century Tunisian Arab historiographer and sociologist.

Equally outstanding in Otite’s collection are: The Ijaw Factor in Urhobo Migratory History (2011), Managing Nigeria’s Ethnic pluralism in a democratic environment (2002), Autonomy and Dependence: The Urhobo Kingdom of Okpe in Modern Nigeria (1973), and Sociology: Theory and Applied (1994). His exposition, Nigeria, Towards Salvaging a Ravaged Society (1996) is a work every patriot should read. It is a benchmark for community development, a central plank of academic life. Likewise, Ethnic Pluralism, Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflicts in Nigeria (2000) is another of Otite’s work that should interest anyone who is sincerely committed to constructive and quantifiable social entrepreneurship and harmonious co-existence of the diverse groups of contemporary Nigeria.

Onigu Otite remains very preeminent among the most referenced scholars on Nigerian ethnic, cultural, political and sociological studies. In a section of my upcoming work, I had the fortune to ground my thinking on Nigeria’s political history and democracy on Otite’s works and those of the leading lights of his generation. His article, Nigerian Peoples and Their Cultures, published in the compendium, Nigeria: A People United, A Future Assured and edited by Ajaegbu, St. Matthew-Daniel and Uya (2000), is a groundwork. His geographical mapping of ethnic and tribal configurations of Nigeria in that work, is profound and pivotal. The piece has continued to guide scholarship and discourses just as his ground-breaking work, Themes in African Social and Political Thought (1978).

Following the transition of the erudite scholar, I revisited the history of the emergence of sociology as an academic discipline, and I easily recalled how Western scholarship re-storied the narrative in a supposed recollection of the founding fathers of sociology. Names like Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, George Herbert Mead among others are prominent on the list. I do not disprove that those are great sociologists. Elsewhere, I had amplified the voice of Christian Fuchs (2017), a critical social media thinker, who constructed a social theory to explain sociality on the social media networks. Fuchs’ works is based on the expositions by Durkheim, Weber, Tonnies and Marx on social relations.

However, I was miffed by the deliberate omission from the list of founding fathers of sociology, the name of Ibn Khaldum – that specially gifted Arab writer, who had engaged in copious sociological writings almost 400 years before Comte and other popularly listed founding fathers of the discipline. Professor Patrick Wilmot drew attention to this seeming Western conspiratorial perfidy in his work, Sociology: A New Introduction (1987), where Wilmot in his characteristic boldness treated Khaldum as a leading light of foundational sociology.

Therefore, as the Nigerian Anthropological and Sociological Practitioners Association (NASA) is meeting next week at its 24th Annual Conference in Bayero University Kano, the time is auspicious to revisit the times, works and teachings of late Professor Onigu Otite, and his peers. A biographical compendium of Who’s Who in Nigerian sociology can be commissioned as a consequence of the conference, so our country can incrementally build a repository on the torchbearers of the discipline. I believe NASA, under the leadership of the able Professor Nkemdili Nnonyelu, would give concrete and practical expression to this proposal or review it and come up with a better agenda in order to put history in context. I think Nigeria owe Otite that duty as an expression of our commitment to the reconstruction of the ‘ravaged society’ which Otite called our attention to. May God rest his great soul.

OMONIYI IBIETAN, a student of communication at North-West University, writes from South Africa

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