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A Fulbright Interlude in Nigeria

by Henry E. Mattox   

Nigeria Today

a context-setting introduction supplied by former west african affairs director roy melbourne:*

A generation of thirty years has passed since Dr. Mattox’s Fulbright sojourn, completely recasting the Nigeria of General Ironsi and Colonel Gowon, who led the federal military government during Nigeria’s civil war. Leaders of that period would be shocked to see the present situation. They could not have imagined the current small motivation for education, the disregard for public order other than by the gun, or even the unbridled corruption and repression by the current military masters.
Nigeria after independence was a state with one quarter of the population of Africa south of the Sahara. The country benefited from the legacy of the best-trained civil administration in the area. Further, Nigeria’s economic future seemed secure, being possessed of plentiful resources such as large oil reserves. And it was still a nation full of promise after a civil war, the largest indigenous African military operation ever, that further guaranteed the prime objective of the Organization of African Unity: stabilizing the existing boundaries of the new African states.
Today’s contrast is startling. The country, after a series of military dictatorships, has seen the seedlings of democracy virtually destroyed. Military control operates a system of widespread, open bribery and rampant corruption. A further tragic result is the scanting of funds for education, with the university system now reduced to a travesty of the earlier British objectives.
The situation at what was known as Ife University, as described by Henry Mattox, would have been unbelievable to Nigeria’s founders. Clearly it will take years for the country to climb out of the abyss into which it has fallen.

*Dr. Melbourne, a member of this journal’s editorial board, served as director of West African affairs in the Department of State from 1966 to 1969.

Heavens to blankety-blank! or something of that ilk, I expostulated to myself. There must be thousands of them!

Returning in my decrepit Peugeot sedan from a weekend in Ibadan that Monday morning, I had just turned in at the ornate main gate to my upcountry Nigerian university. As I topped the rise at the beginning of the long, landscaped drive to the campus proper, about half a mile away, I had a view suddenly of something almost unbelievable up ahead: an extraordinary number of human beings gathered in the distance, a mass of people covering several acres in front of the main complex of buildings. The unexpected sight gave me the impression of a movie mob scene with the proverbial cast of thousands, one in which a large group of irate citizens mills around, ready to vent their anger on their foes. A Parisian mob of 1789, or perhaps a small army of “natives” about to attack foreign invaders of their domain. Sioux warriors at the Little Big Horn as they prepare to repel Custer’s incursion into the Black Hills.

The presence of that mass of people, made up in this case, I knew, of students on strike against the university administration, gave me a slight chill despite the usual oppressive West African heat. I did not consider for a moment continuing down the main road in my university-owned automobile, even though I personally had done nothing to offend the striking members of the student body. Instead, I made a quick U-turn and sped off to the only other gate to the sprawling campus. Once on the grounds, I would seek safety in my small campus apartment if I could reach it, or alternatively, at the home of one faculty friend or another.

At that back entry to the university some three miles away, the government security police, a tough lot that stood on guard outside the gate but not on the university grounds, ordered me out of the car, interrogated me on my reason for being, searched the vehicle, and only with ill grace let me continue on my way. For a while I wondered if I might have been better off taking my chances with the huge crowd of students blocking the main entrance.

I get ahead of my story, however. This is the tale of a Fulbrighter abroad teaching American history and international relations during the 1990-1991 academic year to young scholars at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University located at Ile-Ife, about 140 miles by road — and there was no air or rail service — northeast of Lagos.

From our hot, dusty classroom perched three stories above the campus we could enjoy the view of the sun-lit green countryside surrounding our fair university. If one ignored the heat and disregarded the confusion and noise of students wandering through the open-air hallways and leaving classes in nearby buildings, the setting lent itself to the learning process. The fact that we had little else to do on our remote campus aided us in our search for truth and knowledge. This was no bustling urban center of learning such as the University of Lagos.

Africa it truly was, and beautiful, with a rolling plain leading off to the town of Ile-Ife (a large city, actually, in population terms) a few miles away, and the rugged hills pockmarked with huge boulders immediately behind our building in the other direction. But the scenery, although spectacular, somehow never seemed to me to be truly “African,” certainly not in any Hollywood sense. One could see nothing remotely akin to a jungle, and to me, a newcomer to the sub-Saharan region, the countryside had a somewhat unexceptional appearance; it did not look like, in my mind’s eye, even the fabled savannas of East Africa. Nevertheless, I soaked up the grandeur of it all with appreciation from the classroom balcony or from my office one floor below. Often I had occasion to take stock of my stay at Obafemi Awolowo thus far and of my Fulbright teaching assignment during the Nigerian academic year.

The first term of the academic session, the “Harmattan” semester, supposedly began in the fall and ended at mid-winter; the “Rain” or spring semester followed, lasting in principle until about June. Not so in reality, as I found out upon arrival. Nigerian school years march to a different drum. University students have a history of going out on strike annually, at one or several or nearly all of the twenty-odd federal government-supported universities nationwide. These strikes lasted for weeks or months at a time, strikes undertaken to try to publicize a range of grievances, from their own overcrowded living conditions to dissatisfaction with the nation’s authoritarian military government.

History Department Faculty
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

Obafemi Awolowo, as I came to appreciate, had able scholars and administrators. While boasting also a scenically attractive setting and featuring strikingly modern architecture, it suffered badly from a long-standing lack of funds for salaries and upkeep, due above all to the decline in world prices of oil, Nigeria’s principal export. The priorities of the colonels running things in Lagos further significantly contributed to funding shortfalls. Faculty members were barely scraping by and the university plant could be described in a word as shabby.

Having arrived in Nigeria from Marseilles by freighter in October (my USIA contact in Washington had told me I need not be in a great hurry to report in), I found myself at the university as a senior lecturer under the Fulbright Program, holding forth thrice weekly on a subject something less than familiar to the students — American history. One anecdote will illustrate the point: “Are you trying to tell us,” incredulously asked a bright, outspoken student at one of my early lectures, “that the United States was once a colony of Great Britain?” He seemed unbelieving and perhaps in doubt about my scholarly qualifications to teach the class. Obviously, the young man, like many of his peers, had not previously conceived of the American colossus of the late twentieth century as being anything other than a world superpower, a nation to be admired in some respects and viewed critically in others by citizens of the Third World.

At that, however, I found that my students knew a lot more generally about the United States than their counterparts in U.S. universities with which I had any experience knew about Nigeria. Happily, the USIS offices in the Embassy at Lagos and the branch office at Ibadan (the latter city sixty miles west) had recently provided to the history department and the university library dozens of copies of new, first-rate text books for use in American history survey courses. Neither the students individually nor Obafemi Awolowo had funds for such materials, making the USIS book program a priceless boon. We had the textual materials and the setting and presumably the motivation on the part of the students.

Nonetheless, I faced a difficult task, especially given that the Persian Gulf Crisis took place during my stay. The faculty and student body followed those events with close attention through BBC shortwave broadcasts; no live CNN television coverage of the conflict for us, and even reception of the Voice of America proved impossible from our location. The Oba, the regional “king,” in nearby Ile-Ife reputedly had satellite television in his palace, complete with CNN, but this service remained no more than an intriguing rumor as far as I was concerned.

In addition to the U.S. history survey course, at the request of the university’s international relations department, I was conducting a graduate seminar on the topic “The Great Powers in the Middle East,” which proved to be an example of fortuitous timing in the scheduling of courses.

Congress designed the Fulbright Program for exactly the purpose for which I had been sent to OAU: the exchange of ideas between American and foreign scholars and students, and in my particular field, to fill in blanks abroad about American history. The Program has been in operation since 1946, in recent years sending about 1,000 American scholars abroad annually to more than 125 countries. Additionally, the Program places some 600 U.S. graduate students abroad each year, along with more than 200 mainly secondary school teachers. The Fulbright international exchange effort further promotes partnerships between U.S. and foreign universities.

So there I found myself, a lecturer under Fulbright auspices at OAU, until recently named the University of Ife, and there I stayed for close to nine months (my wife returned to the United States soon after our arrival, as planned, due to her own commitments).

How well did I do as a provider of information on the United States, past and present? I admit readily that I achieved only mixed results. One faculty colleague told me upon my departure that it was unfortunate that I had to cut short my stay during the second semester — about which more later — because the students had found my courses informative and actually enjoyable. He seemed mildly surprised that such could be, possibly because Nigerian universities, as a consequence of their British heritage, feature a more formal approach to learning than do U.S. institutions. The students and faculty at OAU exist in markedly different social and intellectual spheres and rarely do the twain meet for free, informal give and take or for the purpose of encouraging young scholars. For example, to my surprise I witnessed faculty members, usually the younger lecturers, administering fierce tongue lashings to students in public, encounters which in the United States might well have resulted in law suits.

An exception to this sweeping statement about the lack of scholarly interchange applied to the practice of occasionally holding faculty panel discussions open to student audiences, fora which permitted questions from the audience. I gathered that these conclaves addressed current international questions from time to time, but never national economic or domestic political issues.

In that setting I made a contribution as a Fulbrighter, I believe, largely by virtue of my American nationality, but also because I carried the cachet of being a former U.S. diplomat. I was one of the very few Americans for many miles around, this at a time when Nigerian students and intellectuals focused their attention closely on the United States, the United Nations, and the Middle East. I had occasion frequently to appear by invitation on faculty panels before large, interested student audiences, not as an historian, but as a spokesman on Persian Gulf matters for my country, the UN, and the West in general.

This seemed to be my fate that school year of 1990-1991, whether or not I particularly wanted to debate faculty opponents of UN actions taken during the crisis or to field hostile student questions. Most faculty members with whom I had contact, and the great majority of the hundreds of students who showed up for these sessions, supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the confrontation with the West, even though not always eager to defend Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The panel presentation scene proved trying at times, but somebody had to do it and the atmosphere lightened remarkably immediately after the resounding, unexpectedly quick military success of the UN coalition in Operation Desert Storm. Praise for Saddam as the next leader of a pan-African movement, a popular idea going the rounds of the campus that had mystified me, immediately disappeared from the conversations of both colleagues and students. Pious expressions of hope for peace replaced the bellicose pronouncements and challenges common up to that point.

But I digress.

My point above about a premature departure relates not to any unpleasantness brought on by conflicting opinions during the Gulf War, nor to inability on my part to get through to the students in the classroom, nor to personal boredom at this remote outpost, nor certainly to any lack of support by the USIS posts in Lagos and Ibadan. Nor, lastly, did my departure from Obafemi Awolowo University arise from sickness; somehow I remained healthy, even while my Nigerian colleagues periodically dropped like flies with malaria. I had no important difficulties of any sort and expected to remain for the full academic year.

The student body, or rather a radical element thereof, decided otherwise. Halfway through the second semester, at a time when it appeared all would go well in completing the 1990-1991 session more or less on its already delayed and abbreviated schedule, to my surprise the student body suddenly went out on strike. (My faculty colleagues, having lived through many such episodes before, were far from astonished.) Student groups declared a complete boycott of all classes, enforced by beatings of students and faculty bold enough or incautious enough not to be in compliance. Fights between rival factions ended in the stabbing death of one student. The administration closed the university, only to declare it reopened in a matter of days, hoping thereby to avoid the virtual loss of the “Rain” semester.

Soon thereafter, a mob of about 200 strikers, including many first-year students reportedly concerned about failing their science courses if the semester were permitted to continue, mounted a raid on the staff elementary school, near my apartment. The disaffected students kidnapped sixty-two youngsters, ranging from six to twelve years of age, including the son of a good friend of mine, an international relations professor. The student mob carted the children away in a bus “liberated” from the university motor pool and held them ransom to demands for better living conditions on the campus and, quite unrealistically, for reforms in the national government in Lagos.

There followed a tense standoff of some twelve hours. The university’s top administration headed by a new vice-chancellor proved ineffectual in the crisis. Saving the day, an ad hoc committee of parents of the kidnapped students conducted nonstop negotiations to keep the federal riot police, located in force nearby in Ile-Ife and just outside the boundaries of the university, from intervening. Everyone fully expected that if those very tough policemen took a hand, as they gave signs of wanting to do, blood would flow and no one could say with any certainty whose blood it would be. Eventually the kidnappers released the children; the youngsters had not been harmed, but naturally had suffered quite a fright. Their parents, even more naturally, were livid with anger at the student faction.

The tense confrontation had not yet ended. Shortly after releasing the grade schoolers, radical students kidnapped three faculty wives, two of whom also held appointments as lecturers, and held them in one of the student enclaves. Again it was touch and go whether the federal police would enter university grounds to effect a rescue. The students released their captives after about eight hours and this incident also ended peacefully. Nonetheless, university authorities now closed Obafemi Awolowo indefinitely and sent the student body packing by locking them out of the dormitories.

While much of this took place — the kidnappings and tense negotiation with the riot police, accompanied by demonstrations by thousands of students, the blockage of campus traffic by student “check points,” and student strikers burning rubber tires on campus roads for no readily apparent reason — I laid low. Some of the time I spent with faculty friends (virtually everyone lives on campus in university housing) and other days I traveled off to Ibadan, the seat of another major university and the site of the USIS branch office. My OAU colleagues earnestly advised me that this latest crisis, too, would pass, that classes would sooner or later recommence. By this time, however, some eight months into my stay in the country, with no firm prospects for the university to reopen and little or nothing possible professionally, I had had enough.

I waited around a couple of weeks on the almost-deserted campus, but nothing developed about opening up again, not even any rumors. So at the end of June I said farewell to my friends and valued colleagues and took off for Lagos, on my way home via London. I learned long afterward that OAU reopened and finished up the interrupted semester two and a half months later, at a time when my Fulbright grant had already expired.

One more adventure still awaited me in Lagos, an experience that signaled with an exclamation point the end of my Fulbright interlude in Nigeria.

Before dawn one day soon after arriving in the capital city, armed with a ticket and a confirmed reservation on a Nigerian Airways flight to Heathrow, I presented myself at Murtallah Muhammed International Airport outside Lagos. I joined the lines of at least a hundred other would-be travelers in the terminal, but none of us went anywhere that day. The airline unceremoniously canceled the flight.

This procedure continued for another four days. Other would-be passengers who had arrived up to several days before I had, and who were sticking it out, experienced commensurately longer waits. Daily about noon the word would filter down to us that the early morning flight once again, without explanation, had been canceled. The airline, we heard eventually, found it financially advantageous to divert its one aircraft scheduled for the London flight to the pilgrimage route to Jidda, but we had no knowledge of this at the time, nor, of course, would the information have done us any good.

Each day, very early, we would form up again in ragged lines curling around the cavernous terminal lobby, the numbers of aspiring travelers steadily increasing, everyone with a ticket and a reservation. Friendships came to be formed among those of us standing around or sitting on our suitcases hour after hour, day after day.

Finally, very late at night on my fifth day at Murtallah Muhammed we ticketed passengers who had good luck or some influence or, in my case, efficient assistance from Embassy expediters, plus the requisite stamina and patience, managed to reach the inner sanctum of the departure lounge. At further length, we boarded a flight that actually went to London.

I arrived at Heathrow with my fellow veterans of the Lagos airport purgatory early in the morning of the Fourth of July 1991, which proved to be one of those spectacularly beautiful summer days in England that one sees only rarely. Although the United States still lay 3,000 miles to the west, I felt as though I had almost reached home.

[Author Henry Mattox]Henry Mattox, who is this journal’s editor, remains an active member of the Fulbright Association.

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