Commuters and residents around Onike area in Yaba, Lagos must be familiar with the 9ft bronze cast image of a man in an academic robe standing on a 4ft marble base pedestal at Onike roundabout. The man died 36 years ago but his status as an engineering genius remains indelible.
He is Professor Ayodele Oluwatumininu Awojobi with several nicknames like ‘Dead Easy’, ‘The Akoka Giant’, and ‘Macbeth’, the mechanical engineering genius who designed a bi-directional Armoured vehicle which can be moved forward and backward without turning it round and named it Autonov 1. He also single handedly converted a car from right hand to left hand and was a renowned activist.
While it is a fact that there are usually more innovations and genius works coming out of the western world, there is a slim chance that such could be seen in Nigeria and Africa, especially in the 1970s.
In the midst of depressing perception about Nigeria and its citizens recently spreading across the world, some Nigerians who have made great exploits are not getting the deserved mentions and are hardly remembered.
Professor Awojobi was much more than an engineering genius, he was an explorer who didn’t limit himself to the field of engineering. He explored the world of art and as far back as over four decades ago his excellence had made a mockery of the popular belief that science students and experts will get drowned in the world of arts if they dip their feet in their field.
He shattered glass ceilings and blazed the trail in engineering and had impeccable credentials of excellence beyond the field of engineering.
Born March 12, 1937 in Oshodi-Isolo local government area of Lagos. His father, who hailed from Ikorodu, was a stationmaster with the Nigerian Railway Corporation while his mother was a trader.
After his primary education at St. Peter’s Faji Primary School, Ajele, Lagos, like many other great men of his time, the legendary CMS Grammar School was the place to be for his secondary education. It was at CMS Grammar School that Awojobi started displaying that he was one of the rising stars to watch out for in Nigeria and Africa.
Describing how Awojobi dazed all with his brilliance at CMS Grammar School, a former governor of Lagos, Babatunde Fashola, in 2009 said: “Professor Awojobi was a true genius. It is on record that in his final year in secondary school in 1955, he played the role of Macbeth in one of the books of Williams Shakespeare. He memorized the whole textbook and was familiar with all the lines that during rehearsals he assisted other actors with their lines”.
After proving his ingenuity to colleagues and staff at CMS Grammar School, Awojobi worked briefly at the Federal Government Secretariat, Broad Street, in Lagos before he left for the Nigeria College of Arts, Science and Technology Ibadan and a similar school in Zaria.Again, he was outstanding and won a federal government scholarship to study at postgraduate at the Imperial College of Science and Technology of the University of London where he bagged a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.
Such a brilliant man would no doubt have opportunities falling at his feet while he was in London. Opportunities that would have earned him more global recognition, but he chose to return home.
When he returned to Nigeria in 1966, Awojobi joined the University of Lagos as lecturer grade one in the department of mechanical engineering. His career experienced a meteoric rise – by 1971 he was already an Associate Professor, three years later he became a Professor and Head of Department (HOD) of Mechanical Engineering in 1974 at the age of 37, setting a new record as the youngest UNILAG lecturer to become a professor.
In the 1970s he made a novel design in the field of engineering. He redesigned a Leyland Jeep, a regular motor vehicle engine which he named ‘Autonov 1’ to be able to run in both the forward and backward directions, utilising all four pre-existing gears in whichever direction. A second steering wheel was introduced at the back, with a central revolving chair to effect the driver’s switch-over position.
The purpose of designing the Autonov 1 was to provide a way out of a difficult situation. He was said to have imagined that his invention would be useful in a situation when a vehicle drives forward into a cul-de-sac and needs to make a fast, backward retreat especially in cases of emergency evacuation procedures or war-time situations. Sadly, a patent for the invention was never obtained before his death.
He played active roles in Nigeria’s political development as a political activist, advocate and social reformer. He formed a political movement called the National Association for the Survival of the 1979 Constitution.
Just like his days at CMS Grammar School, as a University lecturer, Awojobi proved again that he is a master of all and without formal education and training as a lawyer, the erudite professor appeared in court to personally defend his several human rights related lawsuits.
Shaibu Hussein who described Awojobi as a ‘one man constitutional vigilante’ wrote “The distinguished professor was reputed to have appeared in the law court more times than some lawyers do in their lifetime.”
Hussein added: “The Akoka giant distinguished himself as a brilliant scholar, a great scientist, an intellectual and a diligent and inspiring teacher whose widely acclaimed brilliance illuminated many minds and certainly left an indelible mark on many who are today eminent scholars and practicing engineers.”
Awojobi had plans to dip his feet into the murky waters of politics, at least to prove wrong the notion that criticism is easy but critics always fail when given the opportunity to serve, but death came knocking too early.
In an interview on NTA, in 1981, Awojobi had said: “At the age of 65, I will have built the infrastructure. There would be very few illiterates in Nigeria when I mount the soapbox. Then, I will go into proper politics.” He couldn’t achieve the dream, he died on September 22, 1984 at 47.
He was a man of many names – The Giant of Akoka, Macbeth and Professor Dead Easy. His activism at UNILAG earned him the moniker – ‘The Giant of Akoka’, while he was called “Professor Dead Easy” because he was said to have simplified difficult mathematical problems as a lecturer. His oldest alias was earned in 1955 when he memorised the book Macbeth for a stage play during his days at CMS Grammar School.
Awojobi also moderated a quiz show – ‘Mastermind’, on national television in the 1970s where weekly contestants take turns in isolation to provide answers to questions.
Prof Akin Oyebode speaking at a memorial lecture for Awojobi in 2008 described him as a full man and half, that special breed of humans who appear only once in a century.
“Death could only take away great men but it will not take away their good works,” Oyebode, a professor of law said.
Though Awojobi’s legacy and genius status has not gotten the deserved recognition, his novel contribution to engineering deserves commendation and honour.
A former Minister of Health, Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, also said at the memorial lecture in 2008 that it took so long to recognise the works of Awojobi mainly because he was a Nigerian.
“Nigeria is a giant killer. When one dies, he dies with his dream and ideals, then he is buried and forgotten, unlike in other parts of the world where a man’s worth is appreciated long after his earthly journey,” Adelusi-Adeluyi lamented.
Respite came for the late engineering genius in 2009, when ex-governor Babatunde Fashola erected a 9ft bronze cast of Awojobi’s image on a 4ft marble base pedestal at Onike roundabout. The choice of Onike, according to the state government, is to ensure that the monument is situated around UNILAG and a deliberate attempt to encourage all students passing through the route to aspire to greater heights.
The Prof Ayodele Awojobi Design Competition (PAADC) has also been initiated in 2017 by UNILAG Engineering Society to spark ingenuity and creativity among undergraduates across the country.