A Tribute to Literary Icon, Abiola Irele

A Tribute to Literary Icon, Abiola Irele

Nigerian academic and literary critic Professor Francis Abiola Irele died on Sunday, July 2, 2017 at the age of 81 in the United States. He was arguably a leading scholar of African literary studies and African humanities in the world.

Professor Irele began his tertiary education at the University of London where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (Honours in English) through a special relationship with University of Ibadan (UI), Nigeria in June, 1960. He followed it up with a Certicat de Professeur de Franҫais à 1ˈEtranger, Ecole de Formation et de Perfectionnement des Professeurs de Franҫais à 1ˈEtranger, from the University of Paris (Sorborne) in June, 1963.

In November, 1966, Professor Irele earned a Doctorat de 1ˈUniversité, also from the University of Paris (Sorbonne), with a Dissertation entitled Les Origines de la Négritude à 1a Martinique: Sociologie de 1ˈoeuvre poétiquedˈAiméCésaire. That same year, he gained employment to the College of Education, University of Lagos, Nigeria as a Lecturer in French. He also held a concurrent position as an Associate Lecturer, Department of English until 1967 when he was appointed research fellow, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon. While at the university, he organised weekly graduate seminars on African literature and supervised MA theses. Professor Irele also took courses in Francophone African and Caribbean literature in the Department of Modern Languages. In addition, he served as Hall Tutor, Mensah Sarbah Hall from October, 1968 to December, 1969.

In continued pursuit of academic excellence, Professor Abiola Irele worked at Obafemi Awolowo University from 1970 to 1972 as senior research fellow, Institute of African Studies. He taught courses on Yoruba literature at the institute and Francophone African literature at the Department of Modern Languages. In December, 1970 Irele was also appointed co-director (with Michael Crowder) of The Ife Festival of the Arts in and served as part of the Academic Planning Committee for the Yoruba degree programme between 1970 and 1971.

Between 1972 and 1978, he served as a senior lecturer in French at his alma mata, University of Ibadan. Here he also taught courses at undergraduate and graduate levels in French literature and French-speaking African and Caribbean literature. In addition, he appointed head of the department of Modern Languages at the same institution; a position he occupied from October, 1976 to September, 1979; and August, 1983 to July, 1987. Professor Irele gained more recognition for his knowledge, research and scholarship with his appointment in 1978, as a following Professor of French at UI.

While at the Premier University, he supervised PhD students including; Femi Osofisan The Origins and Development of Modern West African Drama, (1974); Olalere Oladitan (The Theme of Violence in African Literature, 1976); Tokunbo Gbadebo (The Novels of René Maran, 1978); Aduke Adebayo (A Comparative Study of the Novels of Rechard Wright and Sembéne Ousmane, 1980); Grace Arowolo (A Structural Analysis of Amadou Hampaté Ba’s L’Etrangedestin de Wangrin, 1982); and Moradeun Adejunmobi (Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo: A Critical Introduction, 1985).

At the University of Ibadan, he also held positions in various committees including; Board of Studies, Faculty of Arts (1972 – 1973); Curriculum Committee, Faculty of Arts (1973 – 1975); Faculty Publications Committee (1976 – 1984) and chairman, Faculty of Arts (1980 – 1984); Appointments and Promotions Committee (1978 – 1979); departmental representative, Faculty of Arts Postgraduate Studies Committee (1980 – 1982); director, Audio-Visual Centre, Faculty of Arts (1981 – 1983) and chairman, University Publications Committee (Ibadan University Press, 1984/1985).

From October, 1989 to June, 2003, the literary academic served as a professor of African, French and comparative literature at the Ohio State University, jointly appointed by the Department of African American and African Studies and Division of Comparative Studies in the Humanities. He also served as research associate, Center for African Studies and held an adjunct appointment in the Department of French and Italian at the same university. During this period, he was a member the Search Committee, Woody Hayes Chair in History (1997). Other positions he held include chair, Graduate Studies Committee, Department of Black Studies (1989 – 1991); Research Grants Committee, College of Humanities (1989-1991); Chair, Ad-Hoc Library Committee, African and Afro-American Studies (1990); chair, Search Committee for Professor of African History (1990 – 1991); Promotions and Tenure Committee, College of Humanities (1991, 1992, 1996 – 1999); editor, Research in African Literatures (July 1992 – September 2003); chair, Departmental Promotions Committee, Division of Comparative Studies (1995); convener, Annual Conference, African Literature Association Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio (March, 1995).

In recognition of his remarkable achievements at the Ohio State University, the prestigious Harvard University appointed him as a visiting professor in the Department of African and African American Studies, as well as the Department of Roman Languages and Literatures on July 1, 2003. He was also made the interim chair, Committee on African Studies.

Alongside an active teaching career, Professor Irele authored many books, including the Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature and The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. He also reviewed and edited numerous academic journals, locally and internationally.

Irele was a recipient of many awards, including the prestigious Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) conferred on him by former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, in 2013.

Not long after he joined the academic staff of the prestigious Harvard University but left shortly, to facilitate a solid foundation for the Kwara State University (KWASU) with forces with pioneer vice-chancellor, Professor Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah.

Professor Irele was also the first director of Kwara State University (KWASU) Press and first editor of The Savanah Review, published by the press, as well as former editor of research in African Literatures, and former member of directors of the Malete Film Village. In 2015, he also won the Nigerian Order of Merit award for Humanities in 2015.

Announcing the literary icon’s demise in an email to the university community on July 4, the vice-chancellor, Professor Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah said: “Irele brought honour and glory to Kwara State University when he left Harvard University to join KWASU, believing in what we all could do together to create an enviable public University here in Nigeria for our people. As a pioneer staff, he was exceptional in his support for staff and students and in his total dedication to and love for KWASU.”

It is on record that Professor Irele donated his library collection sponsored by Harvard University’s Du Bois Centre to KWASU, to enhance research, teaching and learning.

Na’Allah in his announcement, also explained that in laying claim to the goodwill that Irele enjoys all over the world, The Abiola Irele School of Theory and Criticism is named after him. He continued that “His popular Inaugural Lecture, In Praise of Alienation, delivered at The University of Ibadan in the early 1980s, is still among the most discussed piece of African writing till date.”

“Beginning from July 4, 2017, the university will lower its flag for one week, in honour of the doyen of African studies and KWASU pioneer provost of Humanities.”


  1. We have lost one of our most distinguished literary scholars of our time. We must ensure that the present and generations are able to learn from his works and protecting his legacies.
    It is to the credit of Kwara State University that Professor Abdul Rasheed Na’Allah said that “in laying claim to the goodwill that Irele enjoys all over the world. The Abiola Irele School of Theory and Criticism is named after him. He continued that His popular Inaugural lecture, In Praise of Alienation, delivered at The university of Ibadan in the early 1980s, is still among the most discussed piece of African writing till date”

    May his soul rest in peace.

    Prince Lekan Fadina
    Executive Director,
    Centre for Investment, Sustainable Development,Management and Environment (CISME)
    Chairman CISME Knowledge Center and Ijemo Gallery

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