Wale Adebanwi on his research on Nigerian history and his work as a journalist during the pro-democracy struggle.
Wale Adebanwi is at the height of his intellectual productivity. Last year his book, the first academic study of the Yoruba political elite, was published to great acclaim. It followed on from a 2013 book on corruption in Nigeria which won praise from no less a figure than Chinua Achebe. He has several more books in the pipeline.
Wale’s work is based both on his academic research – his book on the Yoruba drew heavily on his PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge – but also on years of working on Nigerian newspapers during the struggle for democracy in the 1990s.
Wale  was born in Ile-Oluji in Ondo State in south-west Nigeria. The youngest of six children, Wale’s father was a Baptist priest in south-west Nigeria as well as in the north of Nigeria and Ghana before he retired to Ibadan in 1983.
As a child, Wale always had his nose in a book. He puts his love of books down mainly to his father. “Priests in my father’s era in Nigeria were brought up to value knowledge,” he says. “It’s part of our tradition. Colonialism tried to subvert the educational advances of the missionaries who brought the Western idea of education. In almost all of my literature classes I would have read the recommended reading list ahead of the class.”
Wale attended to two primary schools and four secondary schools. This was because the secondary school population grew rapidly in the 1980s and many new schools were built and children would go to the nearest school to their house.
He went to the University of Lagos to study Mass Communication. He had been interested in writing for some years and wrote short stories which were published in a national newspaper when he was 16. Although he expressed an early interest in studying law, he became fascinated by the media and contributed articles to newspapers and magazines and even had his own column in a newspaper while an undergraduate. He was also editor-in-chief of the press club while studying for his Higher School Certificate.
When he graduated in 1992 Wale worked for two newspapers, first Punch and then Nigerian Tribune. Punch was banned by the government and Wale fell out with The Tribune’s editor-in-chief who supported the military. He left in 1997 in the middle of the democratic crisis which swept Nigeria after elections were annulled by the military in 1993. Wale co-founded a weekly pro-democracy newspaper called Omega. It was dangerous work. The newspaper was forced underground after two men in suits came into the office armed with a gun. During this period Wale completed his master’s and did a PhD on a part-time basis at the University of Ibadan.
In 1999, after the death of the military dictator General Abacha and the return to democratic rule, Wale was offered a post as an assistant lecturer in political science at the University of Ibadan. He also joined the editorial board of the Nigerian Tribune the same year, a post he kept until 2009.
After the Gates Cambridge Scholarship started up in 2001, Wale applied to the University of Cambridge, but he didn’t have much time to submit his application. He was accepted to study Social Anthropology under the late Dr Susan Benson – he chose her because Cambridge didn’t have a politics expert in Nigeria at that time – but he didn’t get a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. “I was disappointed and was going to give up,” he said, “but my supervisor told me to defer and I reapplied for Gates Cambridge.”
While he was waiting he wrote up his thesis for the University of Ibadan. He was accepted second time around and headed for Cambridge in 2003 after doing his viva. He had to start with an MPhil before moving onto a PhD because he had no background in Social Anthropology.
During his time at Cambridge, Wale got involved in Gates Cambridge events and met Bill Gates senior. He threw himself into his studies and says: “I am almost read myself into a stupor. There was so much material and I devoured it.”
He took on the role of Contributing Editor to The News in 2006 and published two articles in peer review journals while he was doing his PhD, one in the Journal of Modern African Studies and the other in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. The latter was based on a presentation he gave at a conference in Bristol in 1999 and it was accepted without peer review because of its quality. One of the reviewers for his article in the JMAS – Professor JDY Peel of SOAS – went on to be his supervisor after Dr Benson developed a brain tumour. She introduced Wale to Professor Peel, who is an expert in Yoruba society. Dr Benson died in 2005.
When he finished his PhD in 2008 Wale got a call from the University of California-Davis and was offered an assistant professor post there. The same year Wale published a book, Trials and Triumph: the Story of The News about Nigeria’s leading news magazine, and their part in the pro-democracy struggles of the 1990s.
He says it took him a while to adapt to the US system where the emphasis was more on books than articles. Since he started working in the US he has been a prolific writer and editor, particularly after gaining tenure in 2012 and being promoted to the post of associate professor.
In 2013 he published Authority Stealing: Anti-Corruption War and Democratic Politics in Post-Military Nigeria, which was selected as one of the three ‘Best Books on Africa in 2013’ by Foreign Affairs magazine. It was recommended by Chinua Achebe, who said it would make the reader cringe "at the extent of debauchery that has enveloped Africa's most populous state".
The book tells the story of Nuhu Ribadu, whom Wale describes as “perhaps Africa's most successful anti-corruption czar”, and his controversial work as the head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). It won impressive reviews. Professor Adeleke Adeeko, Humanities Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University, said: "This book provides the evidence to theorise corruption discourse as the main instrument with which Nigerian rulers invent legitimacy, induce consent from the governed, nurture public goodwill, and sustain continuation. Governance in Nigeria thrives on corruption!"
Last year Wale published Yoruba elites and ethnic politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and corporate agency, the first academic book on one of Africa’s most powerful and progressive elites, the Yoruba elite. The book, which is based on his PhD thesis and is dedicated to Dr Benson, investigates the dynamics and challenges of ethnicity and elite politics in Nigeria, Africa's largest democracy. Wale says it demonstrates how the corporate agency of the elite transformed the modern history and politics of one of Africa’s largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba.
The book was widely reviewed in Nigeria and the launch was attended by many Yoruba VIPs, regional governors and Ibrahim Gambari, former Special Adviser on the International Compact with Iraq and Other Issues for the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He has also edited and co-edited four books on topics including the state, democracy, leadership, governance, Nigeria’s political history and social thought in Africa.
There are more books in the pipeline. In May a book based on Wale’s University of Ibadan thesis will be published. Titled Nation as Grand Narrative: the Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning, it will be published by the University of Rochester Press.
Wale was also recently appointed joint-editor of Africa – its first African joint-editor – one of the leading Africanist journals published by Cambridge University Press. In the past four years, he has also been a co-editor of The Journal of Contemporary African Studies and was appointed Visiting Professor at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa – one of several honours he has won. In addition, he has given a keynote address to the Association for Anthropology in Southern Africa’s conference. “I spoke about what anthropology means in Africa. It’s interesting that we Africans are now studying ourselves,” he says.
He is currently working on a book with a close friend with whom he shared his time in England. The friend, Dr Ebenezer Obadare, was at LSE while Wale was at Cambridge and is now at the University of Kansas. Their book will look at the effect of migration on African countries, especially Nigeria. “It’s not just about those who have left, but also those who are looking to leave,” says Wale. He is also editing a book on the political economy of life in Africa centred around the work of a leading Africanist scholar and anthropologist Professor Jane Guyer of Johns Hopkins University and has started work on a book on newspapers and modernity, focusing on the late colonial period in Nigeria. “I am interested in how newspapers and newspaper men intervened in the debate about modernity in Africa,” he says.
In addition to his industrious work on books, Wale, who is married with two children aged nine and five, sits on the Prestigious Scholarships Committee at the University of California-Davis and helps advise prospective applicants. This is due to his experience as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He hopes he can inspire other students to take up some of the opportunities he has had and which he has used to fuel his restless intellectual curiosity.
*Picture credit: Wale with Professor Peel.