Saburi Biobaku: Unilag’s VC who was stabbed by a student who disagreed with his choice as VC

by | February 4, 2018 1:18 am

Brilliant academic

Professor Saburi Biobaku was a brilliant academic. He had the best of education from the best schools in Nigeria and outside the shores of Nigeria. And he had scholarships galore all through.

According to the erudite scholar in an interview we had with him in 1985, during my stint with Vanguard, “I studied on scholarship in Government College Ibadan between 1932 and 1937, and also on scholarship at Yaba Higher College where I read English and History between 1938 and 1940, and was awarded Higher College Teaching Diploma (the highest teaching qualification in Nigeria then).”

Similarly, he was on scholarship at University College Exeter between 1944 and 1945(after obtaining the intermediate bachelor’s degree in 1942 as a private student), and Cambridge University (1945-1947) where he had his B.A. Honours degree in History and English. Finally, “I availed myself of government facilities for study leave with pay to do my M.A. and PhD in History at the University of London between 1950 and 1951,” he said.

Unilag crisis

Fine academic records, you would agree, but things became awry for him at the peak of his academic career at the University of Lagos. In 1965, he was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos amidst allegations of ethnic favoritism in his choice as vice chancellor. He was stabbed by Kayode Adams, a student radical who believed Biobaku appointment was unfair and ethnically motivated.

According to Professor Ben Nwanbueze, “I was one of the first lecturers appointed in UNILAG. I was teaching in London, and I had to come down with Professor Gawa, my Dean in London School of Economics, to open the Law Faculty in the University of Lagos in 1962. Three years after, in 1965, there was a crisis over the appointment of the vice chancellor. Professor Eni Njoku was the pioneer vice chancellor, and there was trouble between Igbo and the Yoruba and he was dropped for Professor Sabiru Biobaku, and there was a crisis. The students would not have it. I happened to be a leader of the staff in support of Eni Njoku, on principle. This man had done first class work. Why do you want to drop him after three years purely on tribal grounds? And there was a crisis.”

Counter accusation

Meanwhile, the group of teaching staff in support of Professor Saburi Biobaku accused Professor Eni Njoku and his group of tribalism in the running of the affairs of the university. Njoku resigned and became a visiting professor at Michigan State University, United States. In 1966, Njoku was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he remained until the outbreak of the civil war in 1967.

Ben Nwanbueze’s ordeal

Nwanbueze was charged to Igbosere Magistrate Court and convicted because one of the lecturers in the university said Nwanbueze hit him on the head with a chair. He was however released on appeal by Justice JSC Taylor, Chief Judge of Lagos. When General Ironsi took over, he sacked the magistrate who convicted Nwanbueze. All these preceded the Nigerian civil war.

Biobaku was Nigerian scholar, historian and politician, who lived between 1918 and 2001, who was among a set of Yoruba historians who followed the pioneering effort of Samuel Johnson in setting the foundations of Yoruba historiography and creating reference notes of indigenous African historical literature. Apart from being Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, he also served as a pro-chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University. He revealed at the interview in question, “If my father had lived longer, and if he had his way, he would have made sure I became a lawyer. He had a number of lawyer friends whom he admired and whom would have helped make me one”.

Biobaku was born in Igbore, Abeokuta to the family of a prominent Muslim chief and wealthy transporter, Sanni Oloyede Biobaku. On his return to Nigeria, he started his career teaching; he worked as a school master in his former school at Government College, Ibadan. He later became the secretary to the premier of the Western Region, Nigeria. Prior to becoming the Premier’s secretary, he was taught by him early on in his primary school days at Abeokuta. Biobaku also served as a registrar of the University of Ibadan.

His father died at 45 when little Saburi was only 13; so he grew up under his grandparents. His grandfather, who was the Giwa of Igbore Abeokuta, inspired him most. He was his favourite grandson. Said he; “I sat in his horse with him when he visited the Alake of Egbaland Oba Ladapo Ademola II. I sat beside him while he adjudicated. I was thus exposed to happenings, to the history of my people. This kindled my interest in history.”

Later career

According to historical records, in 1957, Professor Biobaku wrote a book on his ethnic group, the Egba’s. The book was titled: ‘The Egba’s and their Neighbours’. It was originally written as a dissertation but later turned into a 99-page text. He focused on the position of Egba’s within historical contexts and factors that effected change in Yorubaland. The book also contained information on Egbaland during the coming of the Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. At the time, the book was the second Nigerian authored historical study published by the Oxford University Press, after Kenneth Dike’s, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta. He later wrote ‘Sources of Yoruba History’, published in 1973, and a few other books.


In the early years of Nigeria’s independence, while serving in the administration of Awolowo, he advocated an optimistic but cautious approach to Pan-Africanism, believing that the freedom the country fought for and gained with independence should be used early on by the government and many others to nurture the individual African personalities that reside the within country especially in matters affecting health, literacy and eliminating poverty. However, he supported the promotion of regional organizations for economic and social aims and the view of Pan Africanism as described by Anthony Enahoro, that it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

In his later years, he was involved in moves to promote Yoruba unity, especially after the demise of General Sani Abacha.He also sought a re-appraisal of the country’s political structure, favouring a four tier system of governance, made up of federal, regional, state and local administrations.

He also served as the chairman of the Nigerian National Antiques Commission, Nigerian Textile Mills and the editorial board of Encyclopedia Africana.


Siaka Momoh