Babafemi Akinrinade, Assistant Professor of Human Rights at Fairhaven College, talks about his life through a sequence of short narratives. Each one reflects a lesson learned, a turning point, an important realization.
The simple question of "Where are you from?" for instance, doesn’t usually result in a lot of complexity. But when you ask Babafemi, you get a glimpse of a country with a recent history of rapid change, when terms like "North" and "South" are politically loaded.
Map of Nigeria. The Rivers show the
boundaries of the "North," "West," and "East."
"When I was growing up, I would have said I was from the 'Western' region of Nigeria…" Babafemi said, "But now, I'm from the 'South Western' region. If I said I'm from the 'West' today it would sound archaic."
In the colonial period the country was divided into thirds—the North, East, and West—according to the majority groups and along geographical boundaries. By the mid-1990s, there were about 6 "geographic zones" of Nigeria’s 36 states to include more of the country's 250-600 minority groups (depending on which criteria is used to define them).
Babafemi tells of the reality of living in Nigeria while it was a military dictatorship. In 1996, Babafemi's cousin (in Nigeria, he would call him a brother), a retired Chief of Defence Staff of the Nigerian Armed Forces, was one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. His activities, alongside others in the movement, irritated the dictatorship which sought ways of silencing them. Soldiers came to his house looking for him, when they realized he'd fled the country they began detaining his close relations. Soon much of Babafemi's extended family was being held by the military, and his uncle wasn’t sure whether his son and relatives were dead or alive.
One night, while his cousin's son was sleeping, military soldiers poured gasoline throughout their house and lit it on fire. The boy awoke and quickly realized what was happening. He knew if he opened the door from his bedroom he would face an explosion, so he went for the small window in the bathroom. Most houses in Lagos had iron bars covering the windows to prevent burglary. Luckily, his cousin's house didn't. The boy made it out safely, and eventually the other family members were released. Things seemed to fall back to normal, but the memory stuck with Babafemi.
Regardless of personal struggles, he takes note of the unique privilege of education in his family. Babafemi was the younger of 14 brothers and sisters, all of whom were expected to be well educated. His father, Josiah, was a general merchant (what we'd call a "businessman" in the States) and wholesale distributor for manufacturing, and was known in their community for paying for the children from families unable to afford the school fees—even if they weren't related to him—so that they could go to school. He watched as his older brothers and sisters brought home their report cards. "It was unthinkable to bring home even an average grade," he said, "if you did, the pressure became very intense."
In Nigeria, he said, "You can't afford to be average," something his father knew. As they grew older, his brothers and sisters largely left Nigeria to go to Universities in the UK and United States.
As career paths often go, the decisions that led to Babafemi's focus on human rights law were not necessarily as conscious as one might think. While taking the placement test for study in International Relations, for example, his Mathematics score instead landed him in the Law program at the University of Ile-Ife (now called Obafemi Awolowo University). He usually attended the Ife Book Fair, one of the few Book Fairs at that time in Africa. This was where he was introduced to Amnesty International, which usually had a booth at the Book Fair. With books in hand purchased from AI’s booth, Babafemi left the fair with a new awareness of Human Rights issues.
But still, Babafemi had no interest in Human Rights Law. When he began teaching, the law program adopted a new curriculum in Human Rights Law. The head of the department, Dr. George Vukor-Quarshie, asked him to assist with that course. "I was very reluctant," Babafemi explained. “My interests were in other areas of law, including Commercial and Administrative Law.” Eventually he wound up teaching the subject, and in doing so became interested in modernizing the curriculum for human rights and international humanitarian law.
Babafemi teaching a class of Fairhaven students
in the Law, Diversity & Justice concentration.
In the coming years two contests by the British Council and the International Commission on Human Rights (ICRC) came to his attention; the first for designing a Human Rights Curriculum, the second for redesigning and integrating it. Along with his colleagues they won both, gaining additional resources and a full library of books for their new courses. This was a huge achievement, as Babafemi notes most of the libraries in Nigerian Universities were stocked with irrelevant and outdated books purchased through a loan program from the World Bank. "They used our libraries as a dumping ground for those unwanted texts," he said.
Although Babafemi was learning a great deal about teaching human rights law, he was still searching for more ways to educate himself. At a 1998 ICRC Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Babafemi met Garth Meintjes, the Associate Director for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame Law School (the only institution at an American law school with observer status at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights). The meeting eventually led to graduate school at Notre Dame Law School in 1999.
He also decided to pursue his PhD at the University of Notre Dame Law School, where he wrote his dissertation on the impact of State Collapse on Human Rights, with case studies on Somalia and Sierra Leone.
He went on to work as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow for the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University Law School, and later became a post-doctoral instructor at the University of Chicago's Human Rights Program and Center for International Studies, a program that was not embedded in a law school. In his classes was a mix of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. "It was challenging to find a balance," he said, "but it gave me a lot of confidence in working with non-law students to be able to navigate teaching students from different backgrounds."
It was at this point in his career when his interests in International Relations, Law, Human Rights, and teaching clicked together, Babafemi said. When a new faculty position teaching in Human Rights opened at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, he knew it would be a good fit. "I had a very positive experience visiting here," he said. "I remember meeting Raquel and Julie and asking what it was like to be a lawyer working with non-law students. I remember Raquel picking me up for dinner with the other faculty, and she had a good perspective about integrating law with the interdisciplinary style."
Babafemi came to Fairhaven with experience working with some powerful mentors, including people on the International Commission on Human Rights (ICRC), Dr. Juan Mendez, one of the founders of Human Rights Watch, and others. Nearly two years after Babafemi's arrival in 2008, he already has a reputation for being demanding of his students. "A student challenged me the other day, claiming I gave students in one of my classes 60 pages of reading on the first day of class. I did not affirm or deny this, but did mention to her that it was one way I get the most serious students into my classes."
He says he's not sure if he wants to own that reputation, but he knows one thing: The Head of the Department of Public Law at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria also had a reputation for being demanding. He was a stickler, a hard ass, and, according to his students, one of the best teachers they'd ever had.
Dr. Vukor-Quarshie was trained at the University of Virginia Law School (obtained the LLM and SJD degrees), and brought back the technique of interactive seminar classes to the British lecture style schooling of Nigeria. When he and Babafemi taught a Law & Medicine course together, it was clearly for serious students only. "You couldn't just come into class without anything to say," Babafemi said. "You had to participate."
Babafemi playing basketball with a Fairhaven
student at the new student retreat, 2008.
He realized during this course that being demanding as a teacher wasn't necessarily a bad thing (even if the students said it was). "Once, we brought in a very highly respected Medical Forensics Professor to speak to the class. You could see the other students walking by, looking inside the classroom and feeling like they were missing out."
It was also through this class that Babafemi said he realized when he had the chance to talk with his students casually on a walk from one classroom to another, that his students had the same impression of him as they did of Dr. Vukor-Quarshie. He said to them, "You know, I don't like being hard on you, watching you struggle and toil." His students seemed surprised.
"After that, I realized it's so important for students to see us as human, as real people," he said.
"I had a student once who I knew didn't like me, he thought I was too hard on him," Babafemi remembers about a student in Nigeria. "But then, after he graduated, his younger brother came to my office and told me, 'my brother told me I had to find you.'" Surprised, Babafemi asked the younger brother why.
The student said, "He told me you would make sure I got a good education."