Scholar-Elect Promise Frank Ejiofor talks about his intellectual and international journey from philosophy and politics to development studies.
It’s not about theories that are detached from people for me. I want to focus on the experiences of people on the ground and to help people in my country.Promise Frank Ejiofor
Promise Frank Ejiofor has been on an intellectual journey over the last years, starting with philosophy and moving through international relations, politics and anthropology before arriving at development studies.
He has also studied in a variety of different settings, from Ghana and Azerbaijan to Hungary and Cambridge, which has also given him a broad perspective. Along the way he has had to face horrendous racism.
Throughout, Promise’s desire to explore ideas that will have a concrete impact on people in Africa has been an underlying motivator.
That multidisciplinary, multinational perspective means he has all the skills he needs to investigate some of the fundamental challenges facing his continent, challenges that are often overlooked in academic literature that tends to focus on the European or US context.
Promise’s PhD, which he begins in the autumn, will study accountability and corruption in Nigeria’s informal economy. Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, but has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world at only six per cent. Promise’s study will involve an ethnographic assessment of the veracity of the hegemonic discourses on informality. He says: “As a man of ideas, I strongly believe that education and research are conducive to social, moral and political revolutions. I am confident that my research will inform policy interventions given the functional holes in Nigeria’s labile taxation system.”
Promise  was born in Umuahia in South East Nigeria and grew up in Port Harcourt in Rivers State. He was very introverted as a young child and struggled academically when the family first moved to Port Harcourt in 1997 because of language differences. His mother is an English teacher so she started giving Promise and his older brother novels to read. They had up to two weeks to read the books and then had to write a 400-word summary of the story.
As Promise read more, he got more into his studies and started excelling at school. By the end of primary school, he was top of his class. He finished secondary school early – at 16 – because he was ahead of his peers and had done so much extra reading, particularly of his older brother’s books.
After school Promise became interested in becoming a missionary, having spoken to a priest about it. He spent some years figuring out if he wanted to be a priest before deciding to leave the priesthood and go to university to study philosophy. “The more I read philosophy the more my faith was challenged,” he said. His parents thought he would study medicine. His older brother was studying law. Philosophy was a bit of an unknown, but Promise loved it.
From philosophy to international relations
His course at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana lasted four years and introduced him to a variety of disciplines in the social sciences, including anthropology, psychology and sociology. “It got me interested in so many things about the world and opened up my interest in many forms of knowledge,” he says.
When his course ended, he headed back to Nigeria to do his national youth service at the Federal University Oye Ekiti. As Promise [pictured right] had a first class degree he had been hoping to lecture, but the university didn’t have a philosophy department so he ended up working in the registry department ‘shifting paper’.
Having read a book on cosmopolitanism by his role model Kwame Anthony Appiah which discussed peace, conflict, international relations and how the world should be organised, Promise decided that he wanted to study international relations and “connect more to the world”. He looked at programmes in international relations and diplomacy and opted to take up an Alimardan Bay Topchubashov Fellowship at Azerbaijan’s leading university which he thought would give him the opportunity to see the world in a new light.
It was to be Promise’s first experience of overt racism. “For two years people would stare and laugh, take pictures and call me names every day,” he says. “It was the most devastating period of my life. My blackness was seen as a problem, even in class.” Not only that but he was aware of the country’s oppressive attitudes towards women and government clampdowns on freedom of expression. “The only thing that kept me going was other black people,” says Promise. “We stuck with one another. We cooked together. We were afraid of going out alone. We always locked ourselves in the apartment because we were frightened.”
He recalls one occasion when he was coming from the metro station and there was a football match. A group of people from the match started booing him and then dragged him along the street. He felt very scared, not knowing what would happen. Eventually a taxi driver intervened and the group ran off. Although the course and lecturers were very good and he won two awards for outstanding academic achievement, Promise was very glad to leave the country.
He wanted to continue his studies, but felt international relations was too abstract. He applied to the Central European University [CEU] to do a master’s in political science for which he received the CEU’s Master’s Excellence Scholarship, a full postgraduate scholarship, and arrived there at a very chaotic period in the university’s history when Hungary’s nationalist government was looking to withdraw the university’s licence to teach in large part because of its pro-democracy stance and criticism of the government.
Promise became involved in the university’s student government. He says he was very impressed by how the lecturers got on with their job and were not distracted by the political threats to the university. However, as with International Relations, he found the curriculum was very European.
Promise found the lecturers very supportive and was even invited to a dinner with the president and rector Michael Ignatieff and Kwame Anthony Appiah. It was hinted that he should apply for a PhD which could include fieldwork in Africa.
Another suggestion was to move into the field of anthropology. Promise deferred his PhD and applied to do a master’s in anthropology at Cambridge, starting in 2019. He loved his time at the university. “I was with the brightest minds and had the freedom to read what I wanted. It pushed me to think about myself and reflect on my career,” he says. Whilst at Cambridge, he helped Trinity College with admissions outreach initiatives, visiting schools around the UK and encouraging black students to apply, and supervised exams. At the time he was the only black master’s student at the college. “I felt I had a mission,” he says.
Promise was considering a job in the UK when the pandemic hit and everything was cancelled. With help from a friend, he managed to get the last flight back to Nigeria in 2020 before the border was closed. There he finished his course work. Unable to do his fieldwork which was a huge component of his thesis, he had to do a literature review instead which resulted in his lowest university grades.
In the meantime, Promise did some freelance writing for a new magazine, focused on getting articles published, worked on his proposal and started a PhD at CEU, working online from Nigeria. After a while, he tried to get to Austria only to be met by a visa application process that he describes as “institutionally racist”. It involved not only getting multiple certificates and paying 600 euros, but also having an official come to his house to question his parents. The process took three months and during that period his police certificate expired so he had to pay the 600 euros again. “It felt like I was never going to get a visa,” he says.
While he was still in the process of applying, Promise heard that he had won a scholarship to do his PhD at Cambridge. “It was the first good news I had had since the pandemic,” he says. Later he learnt that he had also got the Gates Cambridge scholarship. He was over the moon. In addition to his PhD at Cambridge, Promise will complete his PhD at CEU which focuses on collective memory and its role in ethnic conflict, with a specific focus on the legacy of the Biafran war. “I am looking at issues that are very pertinent to the African context,” he says, adding that there is a lot written about the state, but that he wants to look beyond that. “There are so many problems related to the nation state. In Nigeria, the dreams of Biafra are still very much alive. I am interested in the everyday activities of people and how these reproduce secessionist movements through collective memory and in how people consume and perform Biafran nationalism.”
Promise emphasises that he wants his research to be about real people and to have an impact on them. He says: “It’s not about theories that are detached from people for me. I want to focus on the experiences of people on the ground and to help people in my country.”