Prof Ayodeji Oladimeji Olukoju is one of Africa’s foremost Maritime Historian. He pioneered Maritime History in Nigeria and served as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Chrisland University. A former two-term Vice-Chancellor, Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State (2010-16), he is a specialist in Maritime, Economic and Social history. He was elected the first-ever African on the Executive Committee of the International Maritime History Association in 2008. He was named the Best Researcher in the Arts/Humanities by the University of Lagos in 2006 and 2009. Prof Olukoju has written over 160 scholarly publications include five sole-authored books to his credit.
The Nigerian Maritime News (TNMN) met him for a chat. He speaks of his journey into Maritime History and the Industry. We hope you enjoy this piece.
TNMN: Why did you choose maritime history?
Prof Olukoju: I went for my Masters in Ibadan. We were admitted in 1981 and expected to have resumed by September 1981 but there was a big ASSU strike. The strike was called off very late in December 1981. So, the first lecture took place that year December. I wrote my project between January 1982 and August 1982. I needed to have 60% to cross over from Masters to PHD. When I crossed over to PHD class, the question was, what would I do? I had written on Local government in my Masters so, I thought to go into International Relations, to study Mandate System- German mandate to Cameroun or Togo. Somehow, I dropped that idea. I wanted to study the Tin Mining Industry in Jos but dropped the idea too. My supervisor, Professor Adewoye (who later became the Vice Chancellor of Ibadan) was a great reader and wanted a challenging topic. Then, I remembered that A.G Hopkins had written a thesis on Lagos- “An Economic History of Lagos from 1880 to 1914” and I reasoned that nobody had done anything on that thesis of 1914. Professor Adewoye said yes to it. In the course of that work, I stumbled on a book on “Maritime History of Colonial North America” at the University of Ibadan and that is how I got into the world of maritime.
I started reading up the industry. I went deeply into literature and discovered that geographers have done a lot of work on Ports. I got to meet the late professor Obafemi Ogundana who became my mentor as far as Nigeria is concerned. He died in 1982 even before I finished my project.
After reading so many works, I discovered I was not into the regular history stories anymore. I discovered that if I was to approach maritime as a subject, I needed to do it through the lens of port geography and that was how my journey into maritime history began. I was going to work on Maritime trade in Lagos and the title was “The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos” but Professor Obarokime- he was Head of Department at the time- asked for the title “Maritime Trade in Lagos 1914-1950: Its Nature and Impact.”
When I later turned that work into a book, I removed chapter one and two from the thesis. I also wrote the history of Lagos – 1900 to 1950. Both works are today titled “The Liverpool of West Africa” and “The Dynamics and Impact of Maritime Trade in Lagos”.
TNMN: At a time when Maritime History was obscure in Africa, you were already a prominent feature in many international journals and maritime conferences. You also sit on some of their boards as the only black, how did this happen?
Prof Olukoju: I would say it was just divine. Many months after I wrote the two books, I saw a journal on Transport system while at the library in Kaduna. I looked at it, got their address and while still in Kaduna, I sent them the first paper for my thesis titled “The Development of the Port of Lagos”. I got the acknowledgement slip with a card. They also sent the Journal of Transport History- the world’s only specialist journal of transport history. My heart gave way. That was 1992 and the paper I sent was published! In 1993, that journal was turned 40 years old. They put together the best papers in Aviation, Maritime, Railway and Road Transport and my paper was there. I was surprised.
I also asked a friend from Moscow who worked at the Journal to recommend other journals in the field to me and that is how I knew that there was the International Journal of Maritime History (IJMH). There was a field known as maritime history and I didn’t know! I got published at IJMH. I sent my paper to them. The paper was on the Background to the Establishment of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). Nobody ever wrote on that topic until I wrote that paper. People didn’t know how NPA came into being even though it had been written since 1920. I documented it in the thesis I sent to them.
One of the ironies of life is that when University of Lagos was to access me for professorship, I didn’t know they sent my papers to the editor-in -chief at IJMH. They didn’t tell me. I went to Spain for an International Conference for Maritime tutorials where I met the editor-in-chief for the first time. He was happy to see me and kept telling people that I was the best man in maritime history in Africa. Then he said, “I have even sent his report to the Vice Chancellor for professorship, he should be a professor by now.” I did not even know he was the one that assessed me. I became a professor on paper at 39. I paid my dues.
Maritime history is broad and the kind of maritime history I have done is unique. I have written on Ports, Inter-Port Competition, Comparative Analysis of Ports, Port Engineering, Port Administration etc. The Port is an entity. We have the marine, railway, shipping …all vying for the same entity. There is Finance involved, charges around the port – tariffs but you have to run a port. I also have written on seafarers/sailors. I have written on fishing, stranded fishermen, the littoral, maritime security and maritime policy to mention a few.
TNMN: Is Maritime History Important given the technicality of the Maritime Operations?
Prof Olukoju: Everything stems from history. We need to know where that revolution came from, how people coped etc. If you don’t understand how people coped with challenges in the past, how can you face your own? The job I do gives me a wide global comparative perspective. I go deeply into records. I go to the “how’s” and “why’s” so, I learn a lot from it. People who don’t have this background may not have the patience for that. Do you know that historians make very good administrators especially in managing paper work? Paper work is a critical part of administration. If you want to write anything meaningful about history, go to the archaic, to the archives. In Port Administration for example, I will be interested in reading the Minutes of the Board at NPA before Independence. There will be so much to learn. It will give us an understanding of the port today. An archived correspondence between a Director of Marine and a General Manager of Railways for example will show the process of their exchange, the ideas and process of decision making. In the course of researching into this, you are being trained to be an administrator yourself. You will also discover so much. I think that anyone who wants to administer the port must know where it started from, the ideas that shaped decisions, the failures and successes and events. Some people will call this ancient but some principles are universal. Some are specific but you really need to understand them too. You also need to understand and learn from the past of others, particularly those who failed. Why did they fail? Those who succeeded, what were their strategies? History shows that many events of life are just repeated. If people keep saying let us forget about the past, then half of that person’s life is gone! The West, Singapore, China – they will never lose sight of their history! They always learn from what has happened. We need to learn from the past to understand the present. Like they say history is for change but not many things change. There is something we call Change and Continuity. You can never crack continuity unless you have understood history itself. Change is about what happened in the past and Continuity is about continuing what happened in the past. If you are made the MD of NPA today, and you didn’t even bother to read the handover notes of your predecessor and you say, “I know it, after all I have a PhD”, then you don’t know anything. You need to see what has been done and what they failed to do. In academics, you can never write a paper without Literature Review even if you are talking about engineering, we need to know that history.
Lagos received its first Ocean vessel in 1914. There was a time that the centre of activity within Lagos was on Lagos Island then, it was moved to Apapa …railway was a huge debate then. Some said if we want to develop the port, we have to shift the railway to Apapa, some opposed it but Apapa ended up becoming the outlet of not just the port now but the railway. So, people who don’t want to study history and just want to focus on the present are making a mistake. You cannot do anything meaningful or impactful without knowing the history.
TNMN: Sir, many people have identified the gap between the academia -researchers- and policy makers -regulators-in the industry. How much good will a marriage of both yield the industry?
Prof Olukoju: The way to learn is to do comparative studies. The Japanese developed a policy that you do not develop a policy just for trade, you develop a port to develop a region. Kashima port is a classical example and they succeeded. Before Kashima however, there was Port Harcourt and what Kashima did was what Port Harcourt was meant to do. Number one is to create an outlet for the Coal at Enugu and secondly to create an outlet for tin mining and it happened. They drove down the railway to link it up. But there is a fundamental question. What is the distance from this port to the open sea, the accessibility of their channel and then the draft when approaching the harbor? Even if we have the fastest train serving Calabar without addressing the fundamentals, we won’t achieve. Shipping is useless without port and port without shipping. History as well as comparative studies helps us see what has happened over time and how to overcome deficiencies of the past. The Singaporean government long decided to only make policies that are fact- based. We can only learn and do better by embracing comparative studies.
TNMN: How would you say your journey as a pioneer of Maritime History been?
Prof Olukoju: My late mother was childless for five years before she had us. When she eventually had seven living children, she always said; “…And here we are by the grace of God”. That quote I will never forget. My journey in life has been very interesting and is an expression of that saying.
I became a professor on paper at 39 but I had paid my dues and I didn’t cheat. I love my work. I obtained a B.A. (First Class Honours) degree from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1980, and MA and PhD in History from the University of Ibadan in September 1982 and April 1991, respectively. I taught at Ogun State (now, Olabisi Onabanjo) University (1984-87) before joining the services of the University of Lagos, Akoka-Yaba in September 1987.
Adversity has always worked for me. After years of delay, in 1998, the University advertised that they needed Professor, and the Dean at that time Prof Eruvbetine asked me go straight to professorship and I did. I was appointed Professor of History in 1998 and University Distinguished Professor in 2018. I was awarded Best Researcher in the Arts/Humanities in the University of Lagos 2006 and 2009.
My wife died in 2014. It was traumatic. Every day, we were at LUTH, hoping she would get well. We did our best but she died. I was in shock. I would grief in my bedroom and pull myself together when I am outside. It was painful. I later remarried.
TNMN: Tell us a bit about your childhood
Prof Olukoju: I was raised in the same house where my grandmother lived. She was an only child, a highly organised woman. There is no child who grew under her care that is not organised. Three of her kids are still alive and I visit them without notice and it is the same.
My parents were teachers. My father was a politician as well. He was selected into the Western region House of Assembly in 1960. At that time the Western region stretched from Badagry and went as far as Asaba. He was there till 1965 when there was another election. So, each time I discuss with colleagues on the faculty platform I always say I am here as a professor but I had a very strong political background. I saw violence as a child. There was a day thugs came to invade my father’s house say around 9am in the morning because we just took breakfast, my father instructed one of his brothers to carry me on his back.
My father’s house was built on the rock. My uncle carried me on his back and climbed the hills kept me in a stick house till 4pm before I came back home. So, how will a child not remember that? Everything that happened then I saw it. When Nzeogwu was killed I knew even as a child because I read the papers. The caption said “Nzeogwu killed.” As a child, I was wandering what kind of drama that was. I didn’t know that journalists have their own kind of captioning. My parents were very supportive and in all I had a very unique childhood.
My mantra is the Just shall Live by his own Faith. I was going to publish my autobiography recently. I sent it to my friend Kemi Rotimi, he is the number one Police Historian in Nigeria. He advised me not to do so yet that more would unfold for me. Not long after that discussion, I got a phone call from the owner of Chrisland School- Mama Awosika and I was appointed the Chairman of the Council. I was so surprised, I didn’t see that coming.