He was born on May 26, 1929 in Ikole-Ekiti in today’s Ekiti State. His father was the postmaster in the town, hence his local nickname, ‘omo baba postmaster’. His father’s education impacted on all the children. Under constant parental supervision, young Adeniyi Ajayi completed his primary education at St. Paul’s School in Ikole in flying colours at a very young age. He proceeded to Igbobi College in Lagos, where he completed his secondary school at the age of 17.
He later entered as one of the pioneers of the University College, Ibadan in 1948 with a general degree in English, History, and Latin, before moving to the University of Leicester in England to do an honours degree in history, obtaining a first-class degree. He later obtained a doctorate in history from the University of London, serving briefly as a research fellow at the London Institute of Historical Research, before returning to join the department of history at the University of Ibadan.
Prof. Ade Ajayi’s significance is not as much in the string of academic and honourary degrees he deservedly obtained during his academic career: Ph.D. (Lon); Ll.D. (Lon); Honorary. D.Litt (Birmingham) as it is in the stellar contributions he made in more than half a century to historical research in Africa and the English-speaking world. He was a seminal figure in the development of the Ibadan School of Historical Research, a school that became famous for its insistence on development of new historiography to capture properly the unique character of Africa, particularly as a human space with hundreds of years of history making in pre-colonial and preliterate times.
Professor Ade Ajayi constructed a historiography that combined the understanding of the nuances of oral traditions with modern historical research methods as the only credible way to tell the true story of colonial and post-colonial Africa, thus debunking the colonial historiography that made the Berlin Conference the beginning of history in sub-Saharan Africa. He blazed the trail in writing seminal historical works that served as models for several historians after him in Nigeria and most of the Anglophone and Francophone historical research institutes. Simply put, Professor Ajayi was a leading figure in the decolonization of African studies and the rise of nationalism in Nigeria.
In this respect, Professor Ajayi wrote over 200 academic papers and presentations and numerous books. His books include Milestones in Nigerian History (1962), Christian Missions in Nigeria (1969), Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (1971), History of Nigerian Engineers (1995), Development Planning in Nigeria: Bishop Ajayi Crowther vs Taubman Goldie in the Sokoto Caliphate (1999), and African Experience with Higher Education (1996). Books he co-edited include A Thousand Years of West African History (1969), UNESCO’s General History of Africa (1998), and Slavery and Slave Trade in Nigeria: From Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century (2010).
He came to lead the University of Lagos in 1972, with a wealth of administrative and management experience from his alma mater, the University of Ibadan, where he had served as Dean and Deputy Vice Chancellor. As the third Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos between 1972 and 1978, Professor Ajayi contributed immensely to the development of the university. His imprint on the institution is still noticeable decades after his departure from the institution. For example, he was responsible for the building of the University’s biggest hall of residence and the three high-rise buildings on the campus today.
Under his leadership, the University of Lagos became a major comprehensive research institution. Serving as Vice-Chancellor during the infamous Ali-Must-Go students’ crisis, Professor Ajayi defended the independence and integrity of his institution against the dictates of the ruling military junta. He set a high standard of personal professionalism and institutional independence which we recommend to the leaders of today’s institutions of higher learning.
Professor Ajayi was famous worldwide for his prodigious and incisive scholarship; when his flight from Ireland to London was delayed sometime in 1997, a packed room of Oxford dons waited patiently for two hours for him to arrive and deliver his lecture. He used this global reputation for the good of his university, attracting top-flight scholars from other universities to join the research faculty of the University of Lagos in various disciplines including medicine, legal studies, architecture, mass communication, and accounting, performing arts and urban studies.
Having to leave the University of Lagos in the midst of the crisis over sudden increase of fees by the federal military government in 1978, Professor Ajayi returned to the University of Ibadan to continue teaching and research in history. With this, he started a tradition that several vice chancellors after him followed by returning to the classroom after serving as chief executives of universities. An academic leader to the very end, even in retirement his personal library at home was open to use by up-coming graduate research students.
Nigeria and the world of ideas have, in the passing of Professor Ajayi, lost not only an institution builder but also one of the most insightful historians of the century. No nation can progress without building an indigenous intellectual community, including historians who have the duty to interpret the past of the nation so the future can be built on firmer grounds.
He died at the University College Hospital of the University he loved till his end, Nigeria’s premier University in Ibadan on August 9. Popularly known as J.F. Ade Ajayi, the frontline university administrator and renowned academic was one of Africa’s astute higher education administrators. His passing is an irreplaceable loss to the academic world and research communities across the globe.