First Nigerian Professors: Pioneering Achievements in Different Academic Fields

First Nigerian Professors: Pioneering Achievements in Different Academic Fields- Part 1

Nigeria is a country filled with great people. Western education was introduced into what will become Nigeria, in the late 1800s by Christian missionaries. Slowly, schools spread across and a new generation of indigenous students emerge. With the establishment of the first university at Ibadan in 1948, there was a rapid growth in the number of university graduates.

Subsequently, a number of these home-trained graduates travelled across the world, earning higher degrees. They returned to Nigeria to join the newly established universities as lecturers. Notably, these highly skilled Nigerian lecturers climb the academic ladder, quickly emerging as professors years later.

In a five-part series, Postgraduate Nigeria chronicles the first Nigerian professor in different subject areas.


1. First Nigerian Professor of History-
Prof. Kenneth Dike

Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike was a renowned historian, the first Nigerian to hold the position of a professor of history. He was born on September 17, 1917, in Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria, and he passed away on October 26, 1983.

Prof. Dike received his education at Government College, Umuahia in present-day Abia State and later at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone. He further studied history at King’s College, Cambridge. There, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I’m 1948, he returned to Nigeria and began his teaching career at the University of Ibadan, which was then a college of the University of London.

In 1952, Kenneth Dike was appointed the first Nigerian professor of history at the University of Ibadan. It was such a significant milestone in Nigerian academia. He later became the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan in 1960, a position he held until 1967. That made him the first indigenous Vice-Chancellor of Nigeria’s premier university.

Prof. Dike’s scholarship extended beyond his teaching and administrative roles. He authored several books and articles on Nigerian and African history, including “Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885” and “African Historiography: The Contribution of Nigerian Historians.”

Overall, Prof. Kenneth Dike’s pioneering work also involved challenging eurocentric views of history. As the first Nigerian professor of history, his commitment to African perspectives in historical research has had a lasting impact on the study of history in Nigeria and beyond.

2. First Nigerian Professor of Philosophy- Prof. Olubi Sodipo

Prof. John Olubi Sodipo was born in Remo, Ogun state on October 15, 1935. He had groundbreaking academic work in the Nigerian field of philosophy. Consequently, he became the first Nigerian professor of African philosophy.

Sodipo began his education in Sagamu and proceeded to the University of Ibadan (formerly, University College) between 1956- 1960. With a bachelor’s degree, he went to Durham University in the UK for postgraduate studies.

After returning to Nigeria, Prof. Sodipo lectured philosophy at three first-generation universities namely; the University of Ibadan, University of Lagos and University of Ife (now OAU). At Ife, he was the pioneer head of department and attained the rank of a professor. When Olabisi Onabanjo, Governor of Ogun State established Ogun State University, Prof. Sodipo was appointed as pioneer Vice-Chancellor. He passed on in December 1999 at the age of 64.

3. First Nigerian Professor of Linguistics – Prof. Ayo Bamgbose

Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose is widely recognized as the first Nigerian professor of linguistics and was indeed a prominent figure in the field of linguistics. He made pioneering contributions to the study of linguistics, particularly in the context of African languages.

Ayọ Bamgbose was born in January 1932, in Nigeria. He completed his secondary education at St. Andrew’s College, Oyo before attending the University College, Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan), where he studied B.A. (Honours) English. Then, he proceeded to the United Kingdom for further studies. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in English from the University of in 1960. He later earned a Diploma in Education from the University of Cambridge in 1961. His passion for linguistics led him to pursue further studies, and he earned his Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh in 1963. His thesis was on
“A Study of Structures and Classes in the Grammar of Modern Yoruba.”

On completing his studies, he returned to Nigeria and began his career as a university lecturer. Bamgbose was employed at the Department of English of the University of Ibadan in 1963 and became a professor in 1968 at the same university.

Prof. Bamgbose’s career as an academic flourished at the University. He also held several administrative positions within the university. Bamgbose contributed to public opinion on national issues. He was involved in the project to write the Yoruba dictionary in 1981. He was a Visiting professor to institutions in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. In 1994, Prof. Bamgbose was the first African-selected Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America. In 2000, he was elected the first African President of the International Association of World Englishes.

The scholarship contribution to the field of linguistics, especially the Yoruba language are numerous. Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose is still alive at the good old age of 91.

4. First Nigerian Professor of French Language ~ Prof. Abiola Irele

Francis Abiola Irele is a scholar, writer and literary critic. His scholarship focused on various aspects of African literature, particularly the works of Francophone African writers. He is Nigeria’s first indigenous professor of French language.

Abiola Irele was born on March 22, 1936, and passed away on July 2, 2017, in Boston, Massachusetts, United States aged 81. Irele received his early education in Nigeria, including his undergraduate degree in French and English at the University College, Ibadan, Nigeria in 1960. He then went on to obtain a PhD. After graduating, he went to Paris to learn French and completed a Ph.D in French at the University of Paris, Sorbonne in 1966.

Prof. Irele’s academic career spanned several prestigious institutions and positions within and outside Africa. He began his teaching career at the University of Ghana, then the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), and University of Ibadan. In 1989, he moved to Ohio State University in the U.S. as a Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature. Irele was also a Professor of Literature at Harvard University.

5. First Nigerian Professor of Arabic language and Islamic studies ~ Prof. M.O.A Abdul.

M.O.A Abdul was a pioneer Nigerian staff member at the newly formed Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan. He began his career in 1964 and rose to become a professor. He also held the position of Head of Department HOD.

Furthermore, he delivered his University of Ibadan public lecture in 1996 titled, Religious Challenges of National Development. He had a lot of foundational scholarship on Arabic and Islamic religion in Nigeria. Previously, much of the academic work was in traditional Islamic school settings. Late Prof. Abdul can be easily mistaken for another M.O Abdul-Rahmon who is also a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies.

6. First Nigerian Professor of Yoruba and African Literature ~ Prof. Wande Abimbola.

A renowned Nigerian scholar, academic, and traditional Yoruba chief. Babawande Abimbola has made significant contributions to the fields of Yoruba language, culture and traditional religion.

Wande Abimbola bagged his first degree in History from the University of Ibadan (University College) Ibadan in 1963. He proceeded to Northwestern University, Illinois, USA in 1966 and received his Master’s Degree in Linguistics. Upon returning to Nigeria, Prof. Wande capped this with a Ph.D. in Yoruba Literature in 1970 from the University of Lagos. He was the first PhD graduate of UNILAG.

Prof. Wande Abimbola taught in three notable Nigerian universities, namely, the University of Ibadan (1963-1965), the University of Lagos (1966-1972) and the University of Ife from 1972. At the University of Ife, he became the first full Professor of African Languages and Literature in 1976. He would later become the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) from 1982-1989.

Outside Nigeria, Wande Abimbola had been Visiting professor at Indiana University, Amherst College, Harvard University, Boston University, Colgate University, and the University of Louisville. He is a strong advocate for the Yoruba and African traditions.

7. First Nigerian Professor of Music ~
Prof. Lazarus Ekwueme

Lazarus Edward Nnanyelu Ekwueme was a prominent Nigerian musician and composer who is recognized as the first Nigerian Professor of Music.

Prof. Ekwueme was born in January 1936 in Oko, Anambra state. He had his secondary education at Government College Umuahia and later pursued further studies in music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, England in 1962. Laz also received a bachelor’s degree from Durham University UK.

He took up a teaching position at the
The University of Nigeria. Further studies took Laz to Yale in the US afterwards returning to the University of Lagos to spearhead the newly formed Department of Music.

In 1989, Ekwueme made history by becoming the first Nigerian to attain the rank of Professor of Music. He taught and mentored numerous students at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he served as a professor in the Department of Music.

Throughout his career, Ekwueme composed various musical works that encompassed different genres, including classical, choral, and traditional African music. His compositions often blended Western music traditions with indigenous Nigerian elements, creating a unique and distinctive style.

In addition to his teaching and compositional endeavours, Ekwueme held various leadership positions in the music community. He served as the President of the Nigerian Society of Composers, Conductors, and Musicologists (NSCCM). Professor Lazarus Ekwueme was the Igwe (King) of his native community at Oko.

Prof. Laz Ekwueme is the younger brother to Nigeria’s former Vice-president, Alex Ekwueme.


First Nigerian professors continues in another blogpost

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