Wednesday, January 20, 2021 11:56 am
By Moses Ochonu
Professor Toyin Falola wrote a piece responding in frustration in a particular context unknown to many about diaspora academic critiques of Nigerian academic culture. Predictably, all sorts of characters are now giddily sharing and celebrating the piece as validation and vindication because it was written by the great Falola.
Many Nigeria-based academics and their minions are spreading the piece as evidence that there is nothing wrong with Nigerian higher education, that all is well with research and teaching culture in Nigerian universities, that Nigerian academics are on par with academics in the western world, and that diaspora academics who critique the depressingly poor condition and output of higher education in Nigeria are motivated by arrogance and ignorance.
Even ravenous Buharists have seized on Falola’s piece, sharing it as evidence that Buhari‘s Nigeria is doing very well and that diaspora critiques are unfair and inaccurate in their critical commentaries on Nigerian institutions.
It is a calculated pseudo-nationalist tactic on which different groups of insincere and insecure compatriots have now converged.
This is the problem with pandering and platitudinous discourse. They often have the unintended consequence of engendering denial, escapism, self-delusion, and complacency. They are prone to misuse and misunderstanding, and even though they are often intended to encourage and inspire, they tend to have the unintended effect of lulling people into denialism and complacency while robbing them of the capacity for self-critique.
Falola’s piece is now being plucked from its narrow context. It is being misapplied to and co-opted into a pretentious nationalist narrative that papers over obvious problems and makes a self-comforting pseudo-nationalist virtue out of glaring deficiencies.
In our business, we say context is everything. Not only are the celebrants unaware of the real context of the piece, they miss the irony that Falola’s academic profile and academic journey illustrate the points some of us have been making about the scandalous deterioration in academic standards and in university teaching and research culture in Nigeria.
Falola got all his degrees at Ife (now OAU) in Nigeria and is a world renowned historian. To the pedestrian readers of Falola’s piece, that is evidence that Nigerian academic culture is healthy and on par with Euro-American ones. However, if they weren’t simply looking for something to assuage their inner insecurities and validate a mediocre, collapsing system in which some of them are complicit, they’d have seen that Falola got his PhD in 1980, when standards were still high and academic culture was still healthy and globally competitive, even if the signs of decline were already visible.
At that time, the UI history department was one of the leading programs if not the leading African history program in the world. From the late 1950s-1980, the leading historians and scholars of Africa were in Ibadan, Nsukka, and Ife. In history, you had Ikime, Ajayi, Akinjogbin, Afigbo, Adeleye, etc. You had Bala Usman, Dahiru Yahaya, and others up North. These were the world’s leading historians of Africa who were attracting students from Europe and America.
By the way, even some popular white European scholars studied for their doctorate in Ibadan-Ife. Examples include Murray Last and Karin Barber. At that time, the dream of many would be Euro-American historians of Africa was to either study in these Nigerian institutions or to teach in them as associates of the aforementioned Nigerian historians. These institutions were the centers of African historical scholarship.
Nigerian scholars were publishing effortlessly in leading global journals and participating in the most consequential conversations in their fields.
The question that all this raises is, what happened to Nigerian academic culture between the 1990s and now that Nigeria-based scholars, at least in the humanities and social sciences, are no longer even remotely capable of doing work that will enable them to enter into global scholarly conversations or publish in respectable international venues?
The other day, my friend and Falola’s former student, Roy Doron, lamented that as editor of the Journal of African Military History, the submissions he gets from Nigeria are poorly written, poorly structured, and are barely fit for peer review. Apparently, unlike the time of Falola and the first and second generations of Nigerian historians, very few historians practicing in Nigeria today know how to construct a stand-alone journal article. This is beyond scandalous! Roy Doron is not a diaspora Nigerian academic. He is an Israeli-American.
In my field of African history, I can count on one hand the number of home-based colleagues who are publishing outside the vanity publishing circuits and placing their work in global peer reviewed venues, and I can name only Ayodeji Olukoju of UniLag off the top of my head. This is also true of other fields in the humanities and social sciences.
The question that confronts us and won’t go away with emotional blackmail or false nationalist posturing is that of why and how pedagogy and inquiry have declined to crisis proportions in our universities despite ASUU winning significant increases in salaries and funding over the last three decades and despite the internet increasing accessibility to global scholarship and research resources.
Whatever their differing tones and styles, diaspora academic critics are merely seeking to highlight this reality and spark a much-needed honest conversation and reckoning on it. They are impatient with this worsening reality because some of them were once victims of it and are moreover stakeholders in the Nigerian academy since their foreign residency has yet to strip them of their citizenship of Nigeria.
Diaspora critics are also no longer satisfied with the hackneyed but unconvincing excuses of brain drain, poor funding, and poor secondary schools graduates — all reasons that, while valid to some some degree, fail to account for internal factors that clearly implicate the actions, inactions, and conducts of our home-based academic colleagues and their union, ASUU.
Falola’s career trajectory is a compelling illustration of the fact that our university teaching and research cultures are comatose. Falola and his cohort of home-educated prominent global scholars, many of whom migrated to the West in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrate how far things have deteriorated.
These scholars were well-trained in Nigeria and abroad by people who were themselves well-trained. More importantly, while they were employed in Nigeria, they were publishing their work in top-notch journals in their fields. This was why they were able to transition seamlessly into the Western academy.
These exceptional careers make the case of the diaspora critics that in the last the last three decades, teaching, research, supervision, and mentorship have all regressed egregiously in Nigerian universities while professional accountability has disappeared. They do not invalidate the critiques as shallow readers of Falola’s piece seem to have inexplicably concluded.
A final question to those misreading and misusing Falola’s frustrated reflections is this: if the fact of Falola’s doctoral education in Nigeria and his legendary global scholarly accomplishments is a counterpoint to the narrative of decline and dysfunction in our universities’ academic culture, then why has it become impossible, since at least the 2000s, for Nigerian scholars (in the social sciences and humanities) who got their doctorate degrees in Nigerian universities to break into the Western academy in the way that Falola’s generation did with ease? Why are Nigerian PhDs no longer competitive in the global academic job market?
Clearly, there is a crisis, and that crisis is not exclusively the fault of government and the NUC. There are internal issues that inculpate our academic colleagues in Nigerian universities.
Some of those who are complicit in those issues would like us to change the subject and ignore their complicity. They pursue this escapist path by cleverly latching onto decontextualized write-ups to suggest that all is well, by refusing to acknowledge factors that implicate them in the rot, and by blaming a long list of external factors and entities that now seems to include diaspora academics who purportedly “talk down” a glorious system populated by stellar academics.
-Moses Ochonu is a Professor of History, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, United States