On November 17, I learnt about the passing of one of Africa’s unarguably foremost intellectual giants, Professor Peter P Ekeh in New York, United States. I first came across the writings of this erudite scholar rather fortuitously during one of my late afternoon conversations with Waziri Ado, executive secretary, at the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), years ago while we worked together.
At that time, I was curiously looking for intellectual direction and impactful postgraduate opportunities. While interesting and equally engaging, I read with poor understanding, Professor Ekeh’s influential work on “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa.”
Ten years later, this same piece of work by Professor Ekeh became the fulcrum upon which the central arguments of my Ph.D thesis revolved. Peter Ekeh was not only knowledgeable and engaging, he was also prolific and visionary. His writings were deep, profound and steeped in originality. His intellectual voyage took him wide and wild – across disciplines in the Social Sciences, just as his teaching career took him across continents. He was not only one of Nigeria’s best, he brought Africa pride and prestige.
He authored many books and articles in his lifetime and was reportedly writing and blogging actively, even a few days to his death. Of all his works, I think that his article on colonialism became one of his most popular and most referenced writing ever. Exuding intellectual rigour, Ekeh uniquely clarified complex historical and theoretical questions on African politics in a very comprehensible language.
Anyone looking for a lucid and empirical explanation of the unique configuration of the political landscape of postcolonial Africa must at some point turn to him. Even those who disagree with him will hardly ignore his point of view. At a time when many young African intellectuals were helplessly looking to the West for conformist prescriptions, Ekeh was bold and different. He invested his sharp contextual lens in scrutinizing dominant assumptions and revealed interesting theoretical perspectives that have remained impervious to time, even forty five years later. He has indeed inspired a proud tradition of unusual intellectual interrogators that I am fortunate to be part of.
The contribution of colonialism to African politics and political culture remain a historical footprint that clarifies the contradictions that have come to characterise the uniqueness of the continent till date. As Ekeh succinctly observed, the colonial experience played an important role in shaping the good, bad and ugly features of African politics. But it is hardly a single story without complexities. For instance, there are those who feel that the time has come to exonerate the colonialists from what has become of Africa. One must not pretend about the fact that the indigenous elite who hurriedly took over from the colonialists fared any better.
In a country like Nigeria that gained independence sixty years ago, one wonders whether it is still justified to agonise over what the colonialists did or did not do. Many scholars strongly argue that sufficient time has lapsed for Africans to have recovered from the colonial hangover. The native political elite who took over the state from colonial officers should have sufficiently shaped their respective countries to whatever they wanted them to become. Obviously, they failed woefully but rather fed fat from the politics of the belly. Professor Ekeh saw this reality and brought it to our attention at the age of 38, capturing the times in a timeless manner.
Yet colonialism (alone) cannot continue to be used as an excuse to justify the duplicitous morality among politicians in Africa. The privatisation of the public realm and betrayal of the collective interests of the citizenry remain some of the persistent toxic characteristics of the African political landscape. Majority of African politicians are consumed in the scramble for how to derive personal benefits and in the process abandoned efforts to chart a course of progress for the continent. Although Ekeh diagnosed and captured these maladies early, there have been very little concrete efforts to cure them through policy interventions. The amorality of the civic public continues to linger and the consequences, directly and indirectly, define the tragedy of the continent.
Although, I did not get the privilege of meeting him in person, I contacted Peter Ekeh during my writing up and he was gracious in his response. I consider it a great honour benefiting from his fertile mind and drinking from the chalice of his wholesome intellect. There are very few scholars who had the level of foresight of Ekeh.
He used his writings to positively influence the African intellectual landscape in a transformative manner. He could maybe only be compared to the late Professor Claude Ake. I owe most of the things I have achieved intellectually to the inspiration that flowed from the prodigious fecundity of these two seminal minds and political experts.
In my view, Peter Ekeh is probably one of the most influential Urhobo men that has ever lived. He was passionate about his culture and founded the Urhobo Historical Society. Before his death, he was at home with his family, including his wife, Dr. Helen Ekeh; son, Professor Akpofure Ekeh, among others. It will be an honour to attend his funeral when it is announced. He deserves recognition for his indelible contributions.
Sadly, Ekeh’s generation of scholars are gradually phasing out without commensurate replacement. Africa needs minds who will be objective and courageous enough to illuminate the contours of politics and in the process challenge received wisdom and convention. However, the vacuum created by diminishing indigenous scholarship has gradually been usurped by brave Western scholars. Nevertheless, their often limited understanding of our peculiar context continues to blur the search for effective home grown solutions to Africa’s numerous problems.
Thus young African scholars must deliberately infect themselves with the bug of the Ekeh generation. It is only then that the world will begin to benefit from this blend of originality and context that deep rooted African scholarship can offer. May the soul of Peter P. Ekeh rest in peace. May the family he left behind be comforted by his global impact and rich intellectual legacy.
NB: Uche Igwe is a senior political economy analyst and visiting fellow at Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He can be reached through [email protected]