We will shortly have the honour of welcoming Dr Olukoya Ogen to the African History Project to discuss his work on the history of religion, particularly his work on religious pluralism and identity among the Yoruba of Nigeria.
On 13 October 2021, Dr Ogen was afforded one of the highest honours in African scholarship when he was inducted as a Fellow into the esteemed Historical Society of Nigeria. Many people will know the Society from their Journal, which published its first edition in December 1956 and remains the leading academic journal of African history today. Dr Ogen’s induction as a Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria comes after acting as an Associate Editor of the Society’s Journal for a number of years.
Dr Ogen’s induction was in recognition of a career dedicated to the championing of African historical narratives and African scholarship. Obtaining his Doctorate from the University of Lagos in 2006, Dr Ogen was a lecturer at Adekunle Ajasin University and Obafemi Awolowo University before taking up a professorship in history at Osun State University, where he is currently based. His career has also included prestigious international appointments including as a Leventis Scholar at SOAS, University of London, a British Academy Visiting Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and an American Council of Learned Societies Postdoctoral Fellow. He has published widely on many aspects of African history, including his 2017 co-edited collection of essays “Beyond Religious Tolerance: Muslim, Christian and Traditionalist Encounters in an African Town”.
The Historical Society of Nigeria was founded in 1955 and owes its genesis to the pioneering work of the scholars of the Ibadan School, a revolutionary intellectual school that spearheaded the movement in critical nationalist history within the African tradition. The thinkers of the school were largely based at the pioneering Department of History at the University of Ibadan launched in 1948 and headed by the great historian, Dr Kenneth Dike.
In a recent AHP seminar on the periodisation of African history, Dr Seraphin Kamdem of SOAS University spoke of the need to not forget that, in the African tradition, history is first and foremost a social utility, a tool through which the people demonstrate what they understand about themselves and what they understand about the world. This sentiment permeates through the Preface to the first edition of the Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria published in 1956. Infused with a decidedly democratic spirit, the Journal stated its aims as being to act, not only as a vehicle of original historical thought, but as a forum for discussion on what history is and how it should be taught. In addition, in its desire to champion the work of both professional historians of the western school and the actual holders and proliferators of African knowledge, the indigenous intelligentsia, the Journal and the Society recognised the need for knowledge production in the academy to always and forever be connected to the people.
That first edition of the Journal included a research note by the historian Dr S O Biabaku on The Yoruba Historical Research Scheme launched in 1955. It noted that ‘the Regional Government set aside the sum of £40,000 under the head of “Cultural Research” for a scheme of research into the history of the Yoruba people’. The research was to include ‘the theory of Yoruba migration from the Near East’, which would have considered the possibility that Islam is as indigenous to the Yoruba people as African religion. Given Dr Ogen’s passionate work in Yoruba history, and his pioneering work in religious pluralism in Yorubaland, it is safe to say that, had he been there in the founding years of the Society he has just been inducted into, he would surely have been included on this esteemed research team!
In Dr Ogen’s collaboration with the African History Project, it is clear that the members of the Historical Society of Nigeria are staying true to their founding ethos, never losing connection with the community, and always ensuring that their work seeks to be of use to the people at the centre of it.
This is particularly true of Dr Ogen’s work in religious pluralism. This has long been a defining feature of African identity, nowhere more so than among the Yoruba of West Africa, where Ifa, Islam and Christianity have each contributed to the shaping of national consciousness. However, in light of the rise of ethno-religious nationalist rhetoric across Africa, and particularly in Nigeria, as well as increasing participation in indigenous religion on the continent and in the diaspora, we have to ask, is Africa still able to successfully reconcile its multiple identities, or are we entering a post-tolerance age? Dr Ogen will be leading us to explore these issues. He will take us through the historic and contemporary relationship between Africa’s three religions; the impact of pluralism on indigenous epistemologies, pedagogies and identities; and his thoughts on the future of religious tolerance as a defining feature of African identity.