Pius Adesanmi: A Selfless Encounter/

Pius Adesanmi: A Selfless Encounter

​Early morning in Saskatoon yesterday, I opened my eyes, after a quick prayer for the families of everyone who had died in a plane crash I had read about online, to watch soccer while also revising a draft Professor Pius Adesanmi had enthused about in his usual boisterous and encouraging manner. And then somebody called from Nigeria: “James, I have bad news for you.” He had barely finished his statement when I screamed. My daughter, startled and scared, responded to my cry by saying repeatedly: “baba, it’s alright.” That broke me. It was not alright. I embraced her and cried on her small shoulders, thinking about Tise and her mum—directly impacted by a death that has come too soon; thinking about the giant shoulders many in the African studies scholarly community can no longer stand on.

Such a fine and selfless mentor. After surviving a car crash in which he was the lone survivor in Nigeria, Pius chose to attend my doctoral defense as external examiner, against medical instructions not to travel. We had exchanged several emails and phone calls, but that occasion in the summer of 2018 was the first time we would meet in person. I did not know then it would be the last. From his hotel room to a restaurant in the downtown area of Saskatoon, he kept looking out for the interests of those of us he shared space with. He not only took selfies with us, but he also got children on his lap to play with them. I saw in that visit the love for the daughter he wrote so much about extended to two little girls with us at dinner.

While there are several books, newspaper columns, and social media posts that remain insightful records of his profound intellectual stature, I will forever cherish the examination report on my dissertation he had submitted to my examining committee. And weren't the members of my committee impressed with Pius’s laughter, ebullience, and deep insights on the topic of my dissertation—Nigerian social media, a terrain largely pervaded by the muse and spirit of a certain Ottawa professor who endlessly spoke truth to power in Africa? When Pius spoke during the exam, everyone did not listen to him because of his role as an external examiner; we all did because he had so much to say and he articulated these with dignity, hilarity, and respect for difference. At a point during the defense, he even rebuked me for a needless display of intellectual modesty, urging me to assert the merit of my work. My reticence was informed by my appreciation of the huge place Pius occupied in what I wrote about, but he would have none of it.

While at all of these, Pius’s leg, still healing from the wounds sustained in the road accident, was a source of clear discomfort, but he remained positive and was happy to midwife an important academic rite of passage. I will forever be grateful for that selfless encounter. He did not have to come to Saskatoon, but he chose to. And long after most external examiners have bowed out of the defense process, he was still mentoring me and many others through various channels, including the Facebook group, The African Doctoral Lounge which he created for advising and mentoring a young demographic of African scholars around the world.

It is rare to find a Nigerian netizen at home or in the diaspora who has not encountered Pius Adesanmi’s selfless engagement with the Nigerian state and the country’s ruling elite. His presence on social media and his writing made him an enemy of the state, but he cared not for himself, daily producing satirical critiques that unsettled Abuja on numerous occasions. Even when targeted by the Nigerian state, as it became evident in the days following the accident, Pius remained dogged in his commitment to using social media as a platform for disseminating prized thoughts on civics and good governance.

I still cannot possibly describe the devastating realization that Pius Adesanmi has indeed gone into the night. He and I still spoke on phone last week, exchanging a couple of emails in which he guided me on a major aspect of the academic job market in North America. Besides, I am expecting a notification about a postdoc application this week. If successful, I should have been working with Pius Adesanmi at Carleton’s IAS. I had looked forward eagerly to a much closer mentorship space with a selfless and lively scholar whose goal was the intentional cultivation of the agency of younger voices. He may have entered the void of unending silence, yet his words, ideas, and perspectives will continue to ring loud and clear in our minds, and in the national consciousness of a country he loved and served till death. For that, we are grateful, even as our thoughts and prayers are focused on his wife and daughter.