21 December 2006 (my flat in Ugbowo)
It just occurred to me that I haven’t yet discussed my research, the main purpose of my being here. This is as good a time as any to take a pit stop, as the week is now ending, and we are preparing for the holiday.
Let me try to sum it all up in few lines. I am trying to construct a history of the Western Niger Delta before the coming of oil, between 1927 and 1960. I want to understand how discourses of ethnicity and minorities developed over this period and came to define how we understand the Niger Delta. I would argue these debates over the attributes of citizenship and the “problem” of minorities (crystallized during the 1950s) set the tone for postcolonial political dynamics in Nigeria. All sorts of other things come into play here, which make the story really interesting: post WWII development ideology, anti-imperialist activism, and nationalism… Let me leave it at that for now…
I decided to come in December because I knew it would take me some time to physically settle in: acclimate, organize my living situation, connect with my extended family, make initial contacts with faculty at the University of Benin and the University of Ibadan, have a look around and get my bearing. I hope to get my research routine started in January. I’m glad I set it up this way. It turns out that the History Department at UniBen (University of Benin), besides botching up my visa, had lost all record of correspondence in the year and a half I have been in contact with them. My primary point of contact with the department, Dr. O, was unreachable up to the day I physically walked into the department in search of him.
That was three Wednesdays ago.
Things have been moving very slowly. Aside from the very real problem of the History department at UniBen carrying out end-of-year examinations, there is plenty of protocol and red tape involved in formalizing my presence here. None of this formalization began until I arrived. It is clear I need to be careful not to bruise egos or to assert myself in any way that may threaten this process. Dr. O informed me (always with an air of contempt) that I had to learn how things are done here; that the situation here is not the same as in the U.S., which he seems very keen to point out regularly. There is a palpable Gentlemen’s Club atmosphere here. Perhaps this is why communicating with the former Head of Department was difficult (Dr. O insisted on leading this discussion as well).
Setting these initial exchanges with the department aside, I did meet up with Dr. C. O., a colleague I had met briefly in London through my mentor. Dr. C. O. teaches at the University of Ibadan. Luckily for me, he is on sabbatical at UniBen this year. This means I will have easy, regular exchange with him while I’m in Benin. His own work looks at the post-independence period. He deals with the effects of oil and criminalization on Niger Delta communities. He is very congenial, and has so far been very helpful. He has also invited me to join the Nigerian Historical Society, and to take part in one of their upcoming conferences in Lagos. This will be a good way to get involved in the local academic/intellectual scene. Better to focus my energies on these sorts of connections.
I have a few other leads, which I will follow in the New Year. I still have to find the Benin City Archives. No one in the History Department seems to know where they are. This is disturbing. It speaks to the degree of decay in the institutions here…at least in Benin. The entire university is a ghost of what it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was new and vibrant. Many of the windows in the buildings are broken or missing. Most things are covered in dust. Roofs leak. Once manicured lawns, bordered with flowering shrubs and trees, are now dull expanses dried out either from the Harmattan or neglect.
I wonder how this campus compares to that of the University of Ibadan, which still has a fair reputation. All the other American Fellows decided to affiliate there. I now wonder if I made the right decision to come here instead. My project focuses on the Niger Delta, I will be interviewing people based in the Delta, and I will seek local and personal archives here. These are all seemingly logical reasons to base myself here. I will be making periodic trips to Ibadan, to the National Archives. I have a couple of other contacts there. Putting all this together, I will be a busy little bee come 2007! Let’s hope I have the patience and fortitude to get through it all…
A comment on gender and sexual relations on many of Nigeria’s university campuses… The difficulty and unease I was feeling at the University of Benin prompted me to have conversations with female students who lived in my neighborhood, in Ugbowo. Every single one of them had stories of sexual harassment: sexual favors for grades, for passing exams, for access to resources. It is a very big problem in the universities and high schools in Nigeria, but this problem has to be understood within a broader context of unequal gender relations in Nigerian society, where patronage and power run rigidly vertical and men are most often at the top. Women and girls have begun to speak out, but there is a long way to go.