A timeless fascination with scholarship
Against the weight of time, there is certain timelessness in the Zaria years when I first made my acquaintance with Yusuf Bangura. It was in the early 80s and I was a graduate student, studying telecommunications in the Faculty of Engineering at ABU. Having been a member of the radical student movement in my undergraduate years, it was almost automatic that I gravitated towards the circle of the radical lecturers, mostly located at the famous Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at the time. FASS in those years was not only the centre of radical scholarship in the country but also a centre of intense ideological debates on the left. For a long time, Bala Usman, the descriptive historian with a peculiar rebelliousness was seen by many a young academics and students as a role model. This was the time when left wing rhetoric, if not activism, was almost like a fashion. The arrival of the young Yusuf Bangura, a brilliant intellectual with a sharp mind was unsettling to the established order. Soon his analytical mind would remove the facade of radicalism on the scholarship that Bala Usman was expounding and this, along with other disagreements, sealed the break between what was referred to as the BBB tendency and the Zaria Group.
By this time of course the authoritarianism that characterized the World Bank dictated Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) that the military junta had introduced from 1986 in the country had taken root and the government was busy emptying the universities of intellectual culture that was seen as dangerous to the SAP project. The universities not only suffered decline and decay but were directed by government to weed out radical scholars. Many academics were being forced out of the country and it was under this circumstance that Bangura left and eventually joined UNRISD.
It was also the context in which a number of academics set up independent research outfits. This was how the Centre for Research and Documentation (CRD) in Kano was established by some members of the Zaria group and what could loosely be termed the Kano Group. Bangura’s personal collection donated to the CRD became part of the nucleus of the research library of the Centre which, till date, is named the Bangura Collection and through that and his continuing contributions to the CRD and other intellectual undertakings; he has remained a major contributor to the development of social science scholarship in Nigeria.
There is something infectious about the Zaria experience. It has turned all those who went through it nostalgic which is why whenever any number of them meet at any international meeting, it is not only that in spite of being scattered across the globe, they tend to agree in most elements of their scholarship but even much more, they are sure to set up a mini conference, using the night as session to catch up with each other and clarify on new projects. This is most common in the CODESRIA meetings where you are sure to find many a number of them. From Kampala to Dakar, Yaoundé and more recently Rabat these sessions were just as intellectually engaging as the main conference itself and Bangura was simply at his elements in those sessions.
I have followed the work of Bangura at UNRISD both through conferences such as those organized by CODESRIA and by emails. He always seems refreshing and not afraid to raise controversy. When we convinced him to join us at the last of a series of annual conferences on civil society that was organized jointly by Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Research and Training, Mambayya House, Kano; the Centre for Research and Documentation, Kano; and the Politics of Development Group of Stockholm University, Stockholm, Bjorn Beckman and I schemed to get Yusuf to additionally speak on his rather last major work at UNRISD Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics. We knew it was going to generate a lively intellectual debate.
At the seminar that Yusuf addressed at Mambayya House on 25 November 2010 he was simply cerebral, the facts on his fingertips, the logic impeccable while the arguments just flowing: drawing from the research of the UNRISD book, Bangura had argued that Nigerian democracy as it was (and still is) could not deliver development in the sense of poverty reduction. For Nigerians who have been recently been sold on democracy being the harbinger of development, there is the actual disappointment that 12 years since the return to electoral democracy, the country seems to regress but there is the unyielding belief that surely democracy must bring development.
In the debate that ensued I could see the flicker of the Zaria years. In those years, the dominant tendency was that development could bring democracy. And development was only possible through the displacement of imperialist control over the local economy. Then we moved to the promise that democracy was the tool to bring democracy and this would happen only when foreign control of the economy is allowed unfettered freedom in the local economy. Bangura took the torrent of questions calmly and overall most contributors wanted him to be more explicit whether Nigeria’s democracy would work but he sees a lot of difficulties that have to be surmounted for this to happen.
What this reinforced in me was that from Zaria to Geneva, Bangura is just merciless with facts and logic which was all the more reason why he had to leave Nigeria but happily he got hooked at UNRISD where there is respect for such scholarship. UNRISD will surely miss him but they are reassured that like Mkandawire before him, Yusuf Bangura has helped in uplifting the research profile of UNRISD especially in Africa where his works are well regarded.
Y. Z. Yau wrote in from Kano