One of Nigeria’s best scholars and literary critics, Prof. Benedict Ebele Obumselu, died on March 4 at the age of 85. The cerebral academic was regarded as one of the founding fathers of African literary criticism.
Obumselu had a distinguished teaching career in universities at Ibadan, Nsukka, Zambia, Zaire, Birmingham, Botswana, Swaziland and Okigwe. To many of his admirers and colleagus, the iconic literary critic and philosopher was humble, frank and friendly.
With the passage of Obumselu, Nigeria, Africa and the global literary community lost an intellectual treasure. He was a highly respected educationist, administrator, linguist and role model. He touched many lives through his engaging intellectual power, integrity and honour. A notable critic and lecturer at the University of Jos, Obu Udeozo, has affirmed that “his rare outputs attained global circulation because of their philosophical, intellectual and oracular powers.”
Born in Oba, Anambra State, on September 22, 1932, the deceased attended Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, 1945-1949. Later, he went to the University of Ibadan, 1951-1957 and obtained his B.A. (Hons) in English. He got his D.Phil in English from the University of Oxford, England, 1960-1963.
The erudite academic started his career as Assistant Registrar of West African Examinations Council (WAEC), Accra and Lagos, 1958-1963. He worked as a lecturer, University of Ibadan, 1963-1966; lecturer, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1967-1971; Senior Lecturer, University of Zambia, 1971-1974; Visiting Professor, University of Zaire, 1972; and John Cadbury Fellow, University of Birmingham, 1975-1976.
Obumselu was appointed Associate Professor and Head, Department of Literature and Languages, University of Botswana and Swaziland, Swaziland Campus and Dean of Humanities, Abia State University, Okigwe, 1983-1984. He later became the Managing Director, Torch Publishing Company, Ikeja, Lagos and SIO Press, Apapa, Lagos.
He was the president of the University of Ibadan Students Union as well as the first President of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), a precursor of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). He was the first Black and African lecturer of the Department of English, University of Ibadan. He was a close associate of the late poet, Christopher Okigbo and the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka.
Some of his students when he became a lecturer at the University of Ibadan include Stanley Macebuh, Dan Izavbeye, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Theo Vincent. In appreciation of Obumselu’s numerous contributions to African literary criticism, Prof. Isidore Diala of Imo State University, Owerri, edited a book of essays in his honour entitled, The Responsible Critic: Essays on African Literature in Honour of Professor Ben Obumselu.
During the Nigerian Civil War, Obumselu was one of the advisers of the Biafran leader, General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. He reportedly played a vital role in the production of the Ahiara Declaration of 1968, the manifesto and philosophy of the Biafran Revolution. The deceased was also actively involved in many national and international programmes aimed at advancing the cause of Igbo nation.
He was, at a time, the Deputy President-General of the pan-Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo. He played a prominent role in the effort to realise the Igbo dream and agenda before his demise. He served the governments of Governors Jim Nwobodo and Peter Obi, of Anambra State, in various capacities. Until his death, he was the chairman of Compact Communications Ltd, Lagos.
Obumselu will be remembered for his dedication to scholarship and literary criticism, as well as his numerous contributions to national development. No doubt, he will be sorely missed by friends and the literary world. We commiserate with his family, friends and the literary world on his demise, and urge that he should be immortalized on the nation’s literary scene for his valuable contributions to literary scholarship.