To dobale or not to dobale: speaking back to my oga culture

So in the early 1990s, you enroll in a Ph.D. program as a brilliant mathematician but spend the next 22 years of your life on it, seeking perfection (in the hope that you win a major prize one day) and never actually completing it until you pass on. Allegedly because of suicide. That’s the official narrative of a series of events authorities at the University of Ibadan are describing as “strange.” Without knowing the particularities of Aminu Zubairu’s situation, it is difficult to effectively assess things, but to a large extent, like anybody who has attended a university in Nigeria will tell you, Zubairu’s protracted doctoral training at UI is not an isolated event.

While not interested in circulating any essentializing narratives of the University of Ibadan as the first and best institution of higher learning in Nigeria, we can at least expect the country’s leading campus to welcome some scrutiny and reflection. For one of the best universities in Africa, you wonder why the need to insist on institutional practices not tainted by mediocrity trumps the more crucial task of addressing the enabling circumstances that facilitate a doctoral training of over two decades. In its haste to defend what the University of Ibadan believes to be its excellent academic culture, the university authorities failed to recognize an important opportunity to have a necessary conversation on the often long completion rate of Ph.D. education in Nigeria. As the leading postgraduate center in Nigeria, that should matter to UI.

Important also is the failure to recognize the lingering mental health problems that arise from a well-known vindictive culture that victimizes its own students and insolently demands servitude, as well as the general culture of graduate education, which many students would disavow for its complicity in their academic misfortunes.

For those defending UI’s position on the Zubairu case, invoking the anecdotal testimony of a former head of Zubairu’s department who writes to discredit the views and experiences of a certain alumnus of the institution (Samule Edet) cannot be enough. Who does not know that the dobale culture many speak about is a reality for most Ph.D. candidates? As a matter of fact, some of us heard the politics of dobale for the first time from professors who endured a similar fate and who appeared to believe all hell would be let loose on them if they did not perpetuate the same morbidity. We can surely do better than the politicians we love to hate and curse in the ivory tower, knowing that the same politics of patronage we see in Abuja is rife on many campuses in Nigeria. To call UI or another elite campus out on issues such as the parlous misreading of a tragic moment is not a Freudian impulse to “kill” our academic forbears and derogate an alma mater that is dear to many. It is to eschew the culture of mediocrity that UI believes cannot be found in its ranks.

Until we abandon a system in which my Oga or Oga mi (the Ph.D. supervisor) as the idiom of the power imbalance in our student-supervisor relationships is the norm, it is hard to visualize how students can be the focus of their own training, owning their learning without unnecessary deference for cultural politics that have no relevance to professional training. I thought a good way of responding to Zubairu’s tragic circumstances was to disavow the prebendal culture many students complain about and to publicly affirm our commitment to disrupting it at an institutional level.

But of course, oga culture says it is career suicide to speak back to your teachers in Nigeria. How dare you have an opinion? My Oga “trained” and “made” me. I, therefore, have no moral right to question their actions or practices. if I must, I have to be tactful and position myself discursively to show a certain performative deference. As somebody who has had more training abroad, Your boldness to speak back to oga culture makes the most arrogant scum of the earth. “Just because he traveled out of the country, he thinks he is now better than the rest of us,” oga would wager. Never mind that at some level, Oga knows and has experienced a working system at Oxford or Capetown, but how dare you speak truth to power? To do so as a young alumnus who lives in Nigeria is to risk being discredited and even threatened in some cases.

The default psychological response to the tyranny of oga’s victimization is Stockholm syndrome: oga takes delight in having students that cower before him, students who mobilize cultural and religious incoherences to justify their own subjugation as a practice of surviving the oppressive weight of oga’s tyranny. Although there are many progressive ogas in places like UI who are not conditioned by oga culture, unfortunately, they are in the minority. Even these are often viewed as eccentric for their refusal to surrender to oga’s pathology.

Just to be clear, the paradox is lost on university authorities who attempt to silence students seeking to exercise the same values of free speech and critical thinking the university proudly teaches in the first place. You do a disservice to the rich tradition of humanistic enquiry for which a campus such as the University of Ibadan is famously known when we foreclose the perspectives of students because of their age, location, or status. I am not acquainted with Edet the alumnus the former chair of UI’s Mathematics department responded to in his interview with the press, but I do know that UI can take this opportunity to reflect on the welfare of students and university practices that make many academic environments in Nigeria a hostile space that fosters depression and many other serious mental health problems that are routinely normalized by Oga culture.

My first response when I heard about Aminu Zubair was to inquire from Tim and Dipo former colleagues at UI about a professor of mine whose Ph.D. was also taking forever to complete. I doubt if he completed it as at when I concluded my first degree. He probably did later, after my own seven years of UG and grad studies at UI. Unfortunately and painfully, I would not be surprised if he has not. Oga culture is that bad in Nigeria. Those were years of hard work and the best of training from some of the most rigorous and finest scholars in the world. It is because of their student-centered and activist pedagogy that I dare to comment on an unfortunate event.

I agree that UI cannot be made to bear the outcomes of another’s actions or inactions. The oga culture I write about is condemnable for as long as it is used as the basis for a culture of mediocrity that delays the successful completion of students’ programs; but, hey, there are many others who complete their PhDs every year in UI and elsewhere in good time, without an uncritical dobale or oga culture which undermines intellectual capacity. I really do not think we should judge an entire institution by its few abuses, but when there is a cultural or systemic order that makes graduate education a needlessly tedious and oppressive experience, we need to be alert to scrutiny, irrespective of its source. I hope UI will shun oga culture, out of respect for Zubairu and his family, by concluding what they have called an investigation into the case.

Rather than a defensive posture, it is time to reflect and respond to the many variables that complicate student welfare on campus. One hopes they also address the larger problematic circumstances that make oga culture thrive. It is the right thing to do.

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