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Farewell to an organic intellectual

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Late Abdul Raufu Mustapha

Abdul Raufu Mustapha, who died in England last month at the age of 63, taught African politics at Oxford University for two decades, having previously studied and taught at two Northern Nigerian institutions: Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and Bayero University in Kano. Raufu himself was from Ilorin: the geographical, cultural, and political crossroads of Nigeria. He sought in his scholarship and activist politics to serve as a bridge between North and South, debunking stereotypes about each region, and seeking to interprete and explain North to South and South to North. He was a classic embodiment of Nigeria’s complexity: having been born in the eastern Nigerian city of Aba, he spoke the country’s three main languages of Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba fluently. Raufu was the ultimate “detribalised” and polyglot Nigerian, and a passionate believer in his country’s future. He was also atypical of the stereotypical brash, boastful, and loud Nigerian: he was quietly outspoken, humble, and warm-hearted.

The only time I ever saw Raufu angry was when he spoke about the petty politics of his almost lily-white Oxford Africanist colleagues. He, however, enjoyed a close friendship with his South African mentor Gavin Williams – to whom he dedicated two books – who had taught him at Oxford where he obtained his doctorate. He was also particularly proud to have been an A.H.M. Kirk-Greene fellow, named after the English Nigerianist to whom Raufu also dedicated a book. Mustapha was a staunch Pan-Africanist who was active in the work of the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), serving on its Scientific Committee. His areas of intellectual interest ranged from democratisation in Africa, to identity politics and ethnicity, to the politics of rural societies in Africa: topics which he  approached with a consistent commitment to equity and humanity. Raufu was also an organic intellectual who sought to communicate the ideas of the marginalized masses to a wider audience, and to put his ideas into practice in the cause of social justice. He was always on the side of the talakawa: the poor and marginalized commoners, with whom he directly and empathetically interacted in his research on rural development.

Mustapha was a first-rate scholar who wrote and spoke lucidly, and thought profoundly, always open to considering other perspectives. He was, however, never afraid to take an independent line if he felt this to be the intellectually honest path.  While studying and teaching at ABU, he was active in the struggles of students, trade unionists, and academic unions, particularly during the dog days of General Sani Abacha’s tyranny (1993-1998). He conducted field work for his Oxford doctorate on agrarian politics among disenfranchised village communities near Kano. He wrote with anguished passion about Nigeria, consistently highlighting its potential, while castigating its profligate political class. Raufu always insisted on complexity and nuance in understanding his country.  He was not afraid to place the blame for the origins of the Nigerian crisis squarely where it lay: with British colonial engineering, noting that the imperial power had created profound and long-lasting fissures in the Nigerian polity. He observed that the British Governor-General, Lord Lugard, had run two administrations in Northern and Southern Nigeria, even as much larger India and Sudan had a single administration. But Mustapha also placed the blame for more contemporary problems on the “intense elite manipulation of religion and ethnicity for political ends.”

In an article in The Guardian of London in June 2010 titled “Nigeria: Africa’s Flawed Diamond”, Mustapha outlined signposts which he felt demonstrated the contradictory nature of the complex Nigerian state, asking elegantly: “Is such a country Africa’s superpower – or its superproblem?” He went on to note four diverse characterisations of the country in the British media: negative depictions of the lack of a proper transition by the then ailing Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua (in another Guardian of London article in January 2010, Raufu had strongly castigated Yar’Adua and his cabinet for failing to respect the Nigerian Constitution); and coverage of sectarian killings in the northern city of Jos. He contrasted these two negative views of Nigeria with the rave reviews of 12th century sculptures from the ancient kingdom of Ile-Ife at a British Museum exhibition; and also noted the “enduring ‘can do’ spirit” of  Nigerians depicted in a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television trilogy “Welcome to Lagos.” Mustapha went on to make the insightful point that while most large countries in Africa such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan had suffered effective disintegration due to regionalist rebellions, Nigeria’s federation continued to endure. He also noted the country’s stellar peacekeeping role in Liberia and Sierra Leone, arguing that “No system of international governance in Africa will endure without Nigerian cooperation.”

In another article that I had successfully pleaded with Raufu to contribute to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian on Boko Haram in April 2012, he offered one of the most sophisticated understandings of the militant Salafist group which has now killed an estimated 20,000 people and internally displaced 2 million in north-eastern Nigeria. Mustapha warned that Boko Haram’s “gnawing at the religious, ethnic and regional fault lines of Nigerian society” threatened the nation-state, before going on to demolish what he regarded as the various myths peddled about the group in Northern and Southern Nigeria, as well as in the Western media. He described these perspectives as an “unhelpful cacophony of domestic and foreign noise.”

Raufu dismissed Southern Nigerian conspiracy theory – citing specifically Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, as a prominent advocate – that Boko Haram was the creation of northern Muslim politicians seeking to constrain Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern president. He equally rubbished the Northern conspiracy theory that Boko Haram’s attacks were not the acts of Muslims, but an attempt to discredit Islam by American-backed agents seeking to dismember Nigeria.

Raufu similarly criticized American scholar, Jean Herskovits, for describing the militants as “criminal gangs”, and insisting that Boko Haram had been militarily defeated in 2009. He ridiculed The Economist’s fanciful assessment that the militants were disenfranchised Northern Nigerian youths seeking to tap into generous amnesty funding enjoyed by demobilized youths in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region. Mustapha went on to explain Boko Haram as an outgrowth of Nigeria’s massive North-South divide, in which the North lagged behind in education, health, and other key social indicators, having poverty rates 15 times higher than in the South. He further noted that the militants were providing education, basic services, and jobs to their socially marginalized supporters.

Raufu argued that the sobriquet of Boko Haram – “Western education is sin” – had misled many analysts into depicting the group as an atavistic, anti-modern movement “frozen in sixth-century Islam.” He, however, insisted that the militants must be viewed as an evolving rather than a static group, and in fact represented a contemporary manifestation of the high poverty levels and human rights abuses in Nigerian society. Mustapha is, as usual, scathing about Nigeria’s leadership, noting that “conspicuous consumption of ill-gotten wealth by this elite breeds hopelessness and recklessness.” He concluded that “Boko Haram is the symptom of the failure of nation-building and democratic politics in Nigeria.” Demonstrating his usual balance, Raufu also praised the insights and understanding of Boko Haram by American diplomatic officials in Abuja.

I co-edited a book with Mustapha in 2008 titled Gulliver’s Troubles: Nigeria’s Foreign Policy After the Cold War. We launched the volume together at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in Lagos in 2008 – with former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, in the chair. I remember Raufu adamantly and successfully insisting – even on foreign policy – that we needed a strong Northern voice as a discussant for such a launch to balance the preponderance of Southern voices.

In his rich chapter in the book – “The Three Faces of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy: Nationhood, Identity, and External Relations” –  Raufu demonstrasted his intellectual versatility in seamlessly linking the country’s domestic and foreign policies. He identified three distinct “faces” of Nigerian foreign policy: first, the formal world of diplomats, technocrats, national institutions, and formal negotiations; second, the way in which Nigeria’s “fractured” nationhood continues to constrain its foreign policy goals; and third, the impact of Nigeria’s global reputation – for widespread corruption and fraud, though, he argued that this was often unnuanced and unfair –  or “identity”, on its foreign policy. Mustapha noted that, since the last two “faces” imposed unnecessary costs on the pursuit of Nigeria’s foreign policy goals, they needed to be prioritized in the formal foreign policy process. He was particularly scathing in his criticism of Western scholars like Frenchman, Jean-Franços Bayart, for interpreting increasing criminal activities in Africa and their convergence with politics as a cultural expression of African societies, noting that such views “display more paternalistic prejudice than sober-minded social science” and help fuel attacks against migrants in the West and South Africa.  He was also one of the earliest scholars to recognise the importance of remittances from African Diasporas – like Nigeria’s – which have now surpassed foreign aid to the continent.  Raufu’s conclusion in Gulliver’s Troubles made the profound point that: “Nigeria needs a social contract with its citizens as a basis for demanding their loyalty and support for both its domestic and foreign policies.”

Among Mustapha’s other publications are the co-edited volumes: the 2010 Turning Points in African Democracy; the 2013 Conflicts and Security in West Africa; the 2014 Sects and Social Disorder: Muslim Identities and Conflict in Northern Nigeria; and the forthcoming  Creed and Grievance: Muslim-Christian Relations and Conflict Resolution in Northern Nigeria. He was particularly fascinated by the presence of white Zimbabwean farmers in Nigeria, and conducted innovative research on this topic. My biggest disappointment about Raufu’s passing  – as I expressed to him directly – was that the magnum opus that he was crafting on Nigeria politics for James Currey publishers was abandoned, as he selflessly devoted his energies into collaborative projects on Nigeria’s religious and ethnic-fuelled conflicts with the country’s younger scholars based in the country. This was heroic, but also a huge loss to the world of scholarship in a critical area in which very few scholars had Raufu’s lived and varied experiences, as well as his diverse and unique understanding of the Nigerian situation.

Among the many tributes that poured in after his death, Sierra Leonean scholar, Yusuf Bangura’s moving obituary, described Raufu as having “lived a life of courage, commitment and fulfilment”; Nigerian scholar, Jibrin Ibrahim noted that “For Raufu, the purpose of life was the construction of a better society;” while Nigerian intellectuals, Anthony Akinola and Shehu Othman, described him as “a scholar and well-admired gentleman…a kind and generous patriot.”

Former Nigerian foreign minister and UN troubleshooter, Ibrahim Gambari – a fellow indigene of Ilorin who had been Raufu’s professor at ABU in the 1970s – delivered a memorial lecture in Abuja last month on the domestic challenges of Nigeria’s foreign policy in honour of Mustapha. Raufu was buried in Ilorin. He is survived by his devoted Canadian wife, Kate Meagher, who lived in Nigeria for many years and currently teaches at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); as well as by their two children, Asma’u and Seyi, graduates of University College London (UCL) and Oxford University, respectively.

The world of scholarship bids farewell to a gentle soul, a national bridge-builder, and an organic intellectual.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.



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