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Richard Carrier Tai Solarin

Tai Solarin: His Life, Ideas, and Accomplishments (1995)

Richard Carrier


The most famous and controversial atheist and secular humanist in African history (if not the only one of any real renown) was the Nigerian nationalist Tai Solarin, who sadly passed away at the age of 72 in 1994. I wrote a paper on Tai a year after his death for a course in African History, and I was recently inspired to add this paper to my collection online for various reasons. Africa tends to get ignored in the West as somehow brutal and backward, even though its condition is even more the fault of Western nations than is the condition of other Third World continents like India and South America. We should not allow ourselves to turn our backs on what could become a very important land, a land to whom we owe a sad debt. Because of this ignorance, however, men like Tai are little known in the West, much less anywhere else outside of Africa, so telling their story on the internet is the greatest tribute I can offer. Finally, Tai’s story tells us a great deal about what it means to be a godless yet selfless humanitarian in a troubled country, and yet even what it should mean in a relative paradise like the United States. He embodies the ideals of Secular Humanism in such a way that stands out even more brilliantly against the background of religion-and-war-torn Nigeria. May there be a million like him, there and the world over.


Tai Solarin was famous in Nigeria as both a social critic and an educator [1]. Affectionately known as "Uncle Tai" by his admirers [2], he was usually found wearing sneakers, shorts, and a khaki hunting cap, inspiring some to remark that he looked more like a "village eccentric" than a great intellectual [3]. Although there are several people and organizations in Nigeria and Ghana attempting to educate the public about secular humanism and its ideals, Tai Solarin is by far the most interesting of them all.

Tai Solarin was born in 1922 and had a long and interesting history. A native Nigerian, he was educated in a Nigerian missionary school, served in Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II, and finished a bachelor’s degree in history and geography at the University of Manchester, Great Britain, in 1952 [4]. Tai returned to Western Nigeria to become Principal of Molusi College from 1952 to 1955 [5]. Because Molusi’s governing board forced him to open each school day with hymns and prayers, and march his students to church every Sunday, he protested and eventually quit [6]. He wasted no time. He started his own school in 1956, calling it the Mayflower School, followed by the Mayflower Junior School in 1959, both located in Ikenne, southwestern Nigeria, where Tai lived for the remainder of his life [7]. He briefly returned to England to pursue graduate studies at the University of London. [8]. Then, in 1976, he turned the original Mayflower school over to the government, though it was still run under Tai’s direct guidance and innovative principles until his death [9]. Dr. Solarin also became chairman of the People’s Bank of Nigeria in 1989 [10], a position he held until his death.

Tai Solarin married Sheila Mary Tuer in 1951 (who remained with him until his death) [11] and they had two children, a son and a daughter [12]. His mother was a devout Christian, a member of the Church Missionary Society [13], but he always maintained a loving relationship with her and all of his family, loyally fulfilling his brother’s wishes by personally overseeing his religious burial in 1965 in spite of Tai’s personal atheism [14]. Dr. Solarin died in his home on July 27, 1994 [15]. According to Tim Madigan, executive editor of Free Inquiry magazine, Tai Solarin and Kofi Mensah, now the leading secular humanist in Africa, were good friends and were trying to set up an organization together, but Tai’s death and the increasing unrest in Nigeria have halted those plans for now [16].


Tai Solarin wrote consistently for the Daily Times since 1958 and the Nigerian Tribune since 1967 [17], and he has contributed to numerous other papers in Nigeria like The Guardian [18]. He is the only known Nigerian columnist to have a continuously running column lasting over twenty years, and he routinely wrote well over thirty articles a year [19]. Tai himself could proudly say that there are people in Nigeria who have eagerly read his column for ten straight years or more [20]. Besides his writing, which included several books, Dr. Solarin often joined in public talks and symposia at schools and colleges all throughout Nigeria [21].

As a columnist, Tai was a relentless critic of Nigerian military rule, as well as of corruption in the government and church, and this had a tendency to get him into no end of trouble [22]. Tai was marked for assassination in 1966 by the corrupt civilian government left in place by the British in 1960, but his life was saved by the January 15 military coup [23]. Tai was often jailed for his public remarks, the worst being in Jos in 1984. Lasting seventeen months, Jos was the longest detention he had ever suffered in his life, all for simply suggesting that the military should surrender rule to the public within six months [24]. He was detained regularly again by the government in 1990 for similar upsetting remarks [25].

The government is not the only one that Tai’s fierce remarks have upset, and he had many enemies in Nigeria and beyond. Some have publicly heaped scorn on him, including the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who once called him "an unfeeling, dry-as-dust logic-chopper with no capacity at all for respecting human anguish." [26] (all for merely suggesting that English replace all the native languages of the country). Nevertheless, despite Tai’s renown as an outspoken atheist, even some religious leaders have had kind words to say of him. Professor Sam Aluko, a Christian consultant and participant in the World Council of Churches, remarks that although he disagreed with Tai on religion, he was nevertheless his best of friends, and often agreed with many of Tai’s criticisms of both the government and the religious excesses of many groups in Nigeria [27]. Loved or hated, there can be no mistake that Tai was among the best known citizens of Nigeria. He was so well known that a friend, Segun Oyebade, retells a story where an Englishman mailed a letter addressed only as "Tai Solarin, Ikenne, Nigeria," and it quickly found its way to Tai’s house [28].

For nearly forty years, Dr. Solarin has persistently fought for free and compulsory education (from first grade through high school) for all Nigerian children [29]. He established the Mayflower School on January 27, 1956, and seventy students attended that year. By 1992, the attendance at Mayflower had expanded to 1,900, including over 800 girls [30]. The Mayflower Junior School had 1,300 resident students as well as 300 day students by 1992, and both schools are so much in demand that parents petition the Nigerian minister of education to get their children in [31]. Tai chose "Mayflower" as the name for his school after the name of the ship sailed by the Pilgrims in 1620, because it evoked images of escaping persecution for a new life of freedom. "It was to be a school for all children," Tai said, "discriminating against none." [32]

The original Mayflower is a full high school (junior and senior grades) [33]. In Ogun state, there are over five hundred comparable schools, and Mayflower has ranked first among them all for the past fifteen years. Some have suggested that it may be among the top ten high schools in all of Nigeria. The parents of attending students love the school so much that they raised their own funds to build new classrooms and purchase desks and chairs to fill them [34]. American humanist Norm Allen, Jr., in 1995 the Executive Director of African-Americans for Humanism and Public Relations Director for Free Inquiry magazine, visited Tai’s school in 1991, and was very impressed with what he saw there. He later wrote of the experience: “I was immediately impressed by the seriousness and dedication of the students. Secular messages stressing the importance of education and self-reliance were posted all over the walls of the school. Everyone seemed inquisitive and eager to learn.” [35]

Dr. Solarin was from the very beginning opposed to "white collar" education, believing that children should learn to get their hands dirty by mastering practical crafts, alongside their regular education [36]. "We go all out to tackle the problems of life," Tai explains, "instead of spending several hours of the week explaining the significance of the deity." [37] Only recently has the Nigerian government accepted the fact that primary and secondary education must include technical skills in order for their nation to be truly industrialized. Tai had been telling this to the public for nearly thirty years. True to his own words, he made agricultural science a compulsory aspect of Mayflower education [38]. Boys and girls once built their own dormitories, and continue to make cocoa from home-grown beans, and breed their own pigs [39]. As a lesson in technique and industry, students harvest three seasons of their own corn every year, instead of the usual two seasons harvested by most local farmers [40].

So successful has the Mayflower School been that employers actively recruit from its graduates, because they have earned a wide reputation for hard work and honesty that is not matched by any religious school in the region. In fact, Mayflower produced Nigeria’s first female engineer, and continues to encourage students to pursue badly needed technical expertise that will benefit Nigeria. Mayflower students who are accepted into foreign universities are urged to take Summer jobs in technical roles such as plumbers, electricians, or tractor drivers, so they can bring that expertise back with them along with their university degrees [41].

Above all, Dr. Solarin teaches self-reliance as well as a commitment to Nigeria as a nation [42]. Tai has made every Mayflower student memorize a poem by William Ernest Henley that ends "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." He makes that the center of his school’s curricula, and he points out that such a phrase amounts to blasphemy in Islamic states like Kano, Sokoto, or Borno [43]. Furthermore, as far as Tai knows, Mayflower is the only school that does not teach a particular religion or lead the students in hymns and prayers [44]. He has actively opposed church ownership of the schools since 1952, yet they still remain almost entirely sectarian [45]. Tai remarks that if national devotion to religion is what makes a country great, then Spain and Portugal should have become the greatest nations on earth [46]. Nevertheless, he allowed his Christian students to build their own chapel on the school grounds, as long as no school money went into its construction or maintenance, and no time was lost from their studies [47]. Tai also blames the many sectarian schools for dividing his nation. Because of their innate competitiveness, they undermine any chance of teaching a common Nigerian nationalism [48]. The result is that, rather than rallying behind Nigeria in a national crisis, people rally behind the banner of their particular creed, and that leads to ethnic violence (and has almost led to the brink of civil war) [49]. Because of this conviction, Tai’s Mayflower students are not taught to give their first allegiance to any god or church, but to Nigeria "first and foremost." [50]


As an atheist and vehement critic of irrationality and hypocrisy, Tai Solarin has few kind words for religion in his country. "Nigeria is dying today of religion," Tai proclaims, "outrageous religious beliefs." [51] Africans, says Tai, are taught by religion and superstition to fear too many things. "Witches, angels, the Devil or Satan, thunder, lightning, nocturnal birds are all objects that generate fear." [52] He tells the tale of a magistrate in Lagos who refused to decide a case because he believed "juju" men were casting spells on him [53], and his successor, Kofi Mensah, recounts tales of taboos and superstitions that have thwarted attempts at halting the spread of disease, the feeding of starving regions, or the controlling of population growth, as well as prevented progress in industry, education, and human rights (especially for women) [54]. "The worst bane of African nondevelopment," Tai insists, "is chronic dependence on the deity to solve all earthly problems." [55]

Dr. Solarin says that "blacks hold onto their God just as the drunken man holds on to the street lamp post–for physical support only." He paints an interesting analogy from a childhood memory. He made a long journey with his mother once, who gave him a "bicycle" to help him finish the journey–which was really just a wheel he had to hit with a stick to keep it going. He says that without the "bicycle" he would never have made the forty mile walk, but upon reflection he realized that he had really carried himself and the bicycle all along. Religion is like that bicycle, Tai says. We only need it when we lack the confidence and determination to face the world alone [56]. "To get the young Africans weaned from their almost congenital reliance on fate," Tai says, "they must be educated to stand on their feet." And the best way to accomplish that is for the government to copy the Mayflower School throughout Nigeria [57].

When Tai writes about his own moral and philosophical ideals, his true humanism is well revealed. "I believe in man," Tai declares, "by ‘man’ I mean man, woman and child. I believe that my duty to man is total service….outside man I owe none else any duties." [58] He asserts that "anything that man wants to do must be done by man himself. Anywhere he wants to go, he must, himself, aggressively propel himself in that direction." [59] These are true humanist ideals, echoed by secular humanists the world over. Tai teaches that prayer is useless, and that it is better to teach people how to solve their problems, and to give them the power and freedom to act. "I do not want to be seen giving alms to the poor," Tai once wrote, "I want to be seen teaching the poor how to live creatively by making use of his hands and feet." [60]

His humanism had led him to express a fondness for the governments of China and the U.S.S.R., because of their socialist guarantees of free medicine and education for all. But he still upholds the ideals of freedom and democracy [61]. One of Tai’s favorite freethinkers is Robert G. Ingersoll, whose writings gave him the courage to accept his doubts and speak out against what he believed was harmful or untrue. Tai says of Ingersoll: "He tore off the dingy curtains across my mind’s eye, and let me stand, unafraid, to wend my way through life." [62] He recommends Ingersoll as a necessary addition to anyone’s library, alongside Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Margaret Knight’s Worlds Without Religion, and Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. [63]

Many have tried to criticize secular humanism, and atheism in particular, for leaving people unhappy and lost without a moral compass to guide them. Dr. Tai Solarin says that is all rubbish. "I maintain great comfort and infinite happiness living as a humanist." [64] Although he has always taught open defiance of conservatism and "deadly orthodoxy," he has also taught that people can become, and should become, whatever they choose to be [65]. "Morality," says Tai, "is a question of leadership." He cites great atheist humanitarians who reformed their countries, whom he admires, including Jewaharlal Nehru (first Prime Minister of independent India) and Kemal Ataturk (who led the formation of the secular republic in Turkey) [66]. Tai believes wholeheartedly in the Golden Rule, and ensures that it is the basis of his students’ moral education [67]. He teaches morals to his students by telling the stories of famous people who have done good through virtues such as determination or honesty [68]. Most of all, Tai stresses that the purpose of morality should never be forgotten, and that its purpose is not to gain salvation in another life, but to attain a good life here and now, within a peaceful, cooperative society. "A man is morally good," Tai instructs his students, "when he lives a happy, and symbiotic existence with other men." As a message to us all, Dr. Tai Solarin declares that "morality has to do with life and only in its mundane and down to earth consideration." [69]

When we see religious violence in Nigeria, from the religiously-inspired Kano riots of December 1980 (when four thousand people were killed and millions of dollars of property was destroyed) [70] to the attempted coup in 1991 (when Major Gideon Ockar attempted to seize the government, declaring that "true Nigeria" is the Christian South) [71], it would do well to pay attention to Tai Solarin. Not only Muslim-Christian conflict, but inter-Moslem violence, often in the form of anti-Sufism [72], has added to the rampages of anti-academic Christian groups who burn cars, destroy laboratories and other school and college property [73], to prove that religion in Nigeria has forgotten the purpose of morality: to help men and women live in peace. Unfortunately, the Nigerian people no longer have Tai Solarin to remind them.

[1 ]. Obituary, "Tai Solarin, 72, Nigeria Educator and Critic, Dies," New York Times 7 August 1994, late ed., p. 43.

[2 ]. Norm R. Allen, Jr., "An Interview with Tai Solarin," Free Inquiry, Winter 1993/1994, p. 37.

[3 ]. Op. cit., Obituary.

[4 ]. Op. cit., Allen, p. 37.

[5 ]. Op. cit., Obituary.

[6 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 37.

[7 ]. Op. cit., Obituary.

[8 ]. Op. cit., Obituary.

[9 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 38.

[10 ]. Ibid.

[11 ]. Ibid.

[12 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 39.

[13 ]. Tai Solarin, Towards Nigeria’s Moral Self-Government, Mayflower School, Ikenne, 1959, p. 70.

[14 ]. Tai Solarin, "What I Believe In: Man," Daily Times, 25 June 1965, reprinted in Timeless Tai, Akinbayo Adenubi, ed., F & A Publishers Ltd., Marina, Lagos, Nigeria, 1985, p. 167.

[15 ]. Op. cit., Obituary.

[16 ]. Timothy J. Madigan, "Re: African Humanism," electronic correspondence, America Online, 10 March 1995.

[17 ]. Akinbayo Adenubi, "From the Editor," op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. vii.

[18 ]. Op. cit., Allen, p. 37.

[19 ]. Op. cit., Adenubi.

[20 ]20. Tai Solarin, "Forward," op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. vi.

[21 ]. Op. cit., Adenubi, p. viii.

[22 ]. Op. cit., Obituary.

[23 ]. New York Times, 20 January 1974, p. 14.

[24 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 38, 40.

[25 ]. Helen Chapin Metz, ed., Nigeria: A Country Study, 5th ed., Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1992, p. 309.

[26 ]. Chinua Achebe, "An Open Letter to Tai Solarin," Daily Times [Nigeria], 7 November 1966, reprinted op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. 202.

[27 ]. Professor Sam Aluko, "Religion and Me: Where I Stand," Nigerian Tribune, 17 October 1977, reprinted op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. 179.

[28 ]. Segun Oyebade, "Dr. Tai Solarin is All Out for Humanism," The Sunrays [Nigeria/Ghana], October-December, 1991, p. 4.

[29 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 40.

[30 ]. Ibid., p. 37.

[31 ]. Ibid., p. 39.

[32 ]. Ibid., p. 37.

[33 ]. Ibid.

[34 ]. Ibid., p. 38.

[35 ]. Ibid., p. 37.

[36 ]. Walter Schwartz, Nigeria, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, NY, 1968, p.50.

[37 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 37.

[38 ]. Op. cit., Adenubi, p. viii.

[39 ]. Op. cit., Schwartz.

[40 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 38.

[41 ]. Ibid., p. 37.

[42 ]. Ibid.

[43 ]. Ibid., p. 38.

[44 ]. Ibid., p. 40.

[45 ]. Tai Solarin, "Forward," op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. v.

[46 ]. Tai Solarin, "Morality Without Religion," Nigerian Tribune, 24 April 1972, reprinted op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. 59.

[47 ]. Tai Solarin, "Interview with Tai Solarin," Nigerian Tribune, 24 April 1972, reprinted op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. 64.

[48 ]. Tai Solarin, "Christian Education: Nigeria’s Unwanted Legacy," The Sunrays [Nigeria/Ghana], October-December 1991, p. 7.

[49 ]. Tai Solarin, "The Future of All Voluntary Agency Schools," Nigerian Tribune, 13 December 1971, reprinted op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. 74.

[50 ]. Ibid., p. 75.

[51 ]. Op. cit., Allen, p. 39.

[52 ]. Ibid., p. 40.

[53 ]. Op. cit., Solarin, Towards Nigeria’s Moral Self-Government, p. 76.

[54 ]. Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, "Thoughts from Africa’s Leading Secular Humanist Activist," African-American Humanism: An Anthology, Norm R. Allen, Jr., ed., Prometheus, Buffalo, NY, 1991, p. 195.

[55 ]. Tai Solarin, op. cit., Allen, p. 38.

[56 ]. Ibid., p. 40.

[57 ]. Ibid., p. 38.

[58 ]. Op. cit., Solarin, "What I Believe In: Man," reprinted in Timeless Tai, p. 168.

[59 ]. Op. cit., Solarin, Towards Nigeria’s Moral Self-Government, p. 70.

[60 ]. Op. cit., Solarin, "What I Believe In: Man," reprinted in Timeless Tai, p. 169.

[61 ]. Op. cit., Adenubi, p. ix.

[62 ]. Op. cit., Allen, p. 40.

[63 ]. Ibid., p. 41.

[64 ]. Ibid., p. 39.

[65 ]. Op. cit., Solarin, "Morality Without Religion," reprinted in Timeless Tai, p. 65.

[66 ]. Ibid., p. 61.

[67 ]. Ibid., p. 63.

[68 ]. Ibid., p. 64.

[69 ]. Tai Solarin, "Soviet Youths Keep a Strict Moral Code," Daily Times, 31 October 1968, reprinted op. cit., Solarin, Timeless Tai, p. 68.

[70 ]. Op. cit., Metz, p. 304.

[71 ]. Ibid., p. xxxii.

[72 ]. Ibid., p. 303.

[73 ]. Op. cit. Aluko, reprinted in Timeless Tai, p. 181.

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