May 1, 2013
Acclaimed as the first Professor of Russian in South Sub-Saharan Africa, an awardee of the respected Pushkin Institute (Moscow) Medal of Honor, (Otunba) Olusegun Odunuga, has died. Known as the pioneer and founding member of the Modern European Languages Department at the University of Ibadan, Odunuga would be missed not only as a great academic, but also as one who brought awareness to the study of Russian in Nigeria.
His death came on April 13, 2013. Born in 1937, Odunuga hails from Ijebu Ode Ogun State Nigeria, where he attended Ijebu Ode Grammar School from 1952-57 and became one of the first set to take the West African Examination WASCE, required as a prerequisite for University education. After high school education, Odunuga worked briefly as a journalist but all along, he wanted more education at a time when Nigeria was still under colonial rule.
When the opportunity came to study abroad, Odunuga chose the former Soviet Union at a time of widespread racial tensions in Europe and the United States, when color was an issue and a barrier to aspiration of African nationals. Odunuga did not allow the challenge to alter his aspirations. His sojourn took him to Moscow (Russia) where he attended the prestigious Moscow Friendship University and after years of study, he obtained a terminal doctorate in Eastern European languages and culture.
Odunuga knew there was the need to give back and pass on the education he got abroad. As a Soviet Scholar of the Cold War, he returned to Nigeria and accepted a position to teach Russian at the University of Ibadan where he became a Professor and Head of Modern European Languages Department. He would later become Dean of the Faculty of Arts and after more than 40 years of distinguished service at the University, he retired in 2004.
At a conference organized to mark his retirement same year, the speaker noted that Odunuga became a lecturer at the Department of Modern Languages in 1966, where he singlehandedly taught until 1976 when another lecturer, joined to teach the increasing number of students with keen interests in the language he helped set up in Nigeria. Quoting from the Russian Syllabi for both the University of Ibadan and the University of Lagos, Dr. (Mrs.) Aduke Adebayo a lecturer in the French Department, indicated that Odunuga facilitated the exchange program between University of Ibadan and Pushkin Institute (Moscow), and helped create interest in the language “he gave birth to in Nigeria.”
The Department of Modern European Languages created in 1962, would later have its name changed to the Department of European Studies. At insistence of Odunuga and in cooperation with his faculty members, he saw the need to assume the new designation to show the scope of the department, in the teaching and study of European civilization and culture that reflects not only the Eastern bloc but also contemporary European societies. The last designation took effect from the 1995/96 academic sessions and has remained so till this day.
Writing in the 2012 issue of the International Journal of Russian Studies (IJORS), Dr. Kayode O. Omotade, a lecturer in the Department of European Studies, noted that while explaining the reason for the name change, Odunuga has this to say: “I changed the name so as to change the orientation of the Department of European Studies. From what I envisaged, Language would be one of the core courses to be taken, but then, you must have a broad knowledge of Europe. That is why we call it European Studies. My intention is to get my students to deepen their knowledge of Europe, to widen their scope and let the market open to them.”
As one of his students majoring in Russian during the 1992/94 Sessions, I noticed his ability and unique approach to teaching Russian history and civilization. Odunuga drew attention by using his experience while a student in the Soviet Union, to teach the history of the former Soviet Union and modern-day Russia, before and after the reconstruction.
At the break of the Soviet Union in 1991, he noted the change to take place and worked to prepare us for a new Russia before our departure for the exchange program at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. While his student, I saw his leadership ability as he worked with Dr. Mrs. Alla Fawole, a (Russian) and former lecturer in the department and Dr. Mrs. Olga Sobaloju, now (Olga Igbo) another Russian, who together with Odunuga helped set up the teaching of Russian language in Nigeria.
At a recent seminar in Ijebu Ode, entitled ‘Sustainable Peace For a Sustainable Future,’ organized by the Center for Alternative Development and Self Enhancement, Odunuga said Nigeria needs a peaceful environment to guarantee economic development and called on Nigerians to “always give peace a chance to reign,” while they resolve conflict through dialogue and diplomacy. “Nothing good is achieved in a violent environment,” he said. He also encouraged the Nigerian leadership to give Nigerians “true dividends of democracy,” for enduring peace and guaranteed national security.
Odunuga returned home to Ijebu Ode after his retirement from the University of Ibadan, to help establish Russian studies at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), formerly known as Ogun State University, where he held a position as Professor of Russian studies until his death, according to his LinkedIn profile. He also helped in other capacities to keep up academic standard of the institution, founded in 1982.
While a hard worker, he believed in social gathering and made himself available when needed. At the weeding of the daughter of Provost Ogun State College of Health and Technology, Odunuga who chaired the occasion, said: “You have just started your life as a couple. You must be patient with each other and be tolerant as well. But above all, always communicate very well with each other so as not to give room for undue interference by those around you…”
While warning on unnecessary elongation of differences he said; “I want to advise you to always share views together, iron out issues without necessarily asking for the intervention of outsiders whose counsels might lead to eclipse of your fledging marriage. May God be with you as you sojourn in your marital life and I pray your union will be fruitful.”
It is incontestable the place he held as a pioneer of the study of Russian language and culture, would have a lasting effect in academic discourse. His contributions to the growth of Russian studies in Nigeria will make him one of the leading scholars to help shape foreign languages and their teaching not only in Nigeria but also in Africa.
Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available at Amazon Follow on Twitter @san0670.
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