Diaspora Ph.D. candidates and the bias of funding in African studies

It would be nice to devote a panel at the next ASA conference in Boston or at other similar venues to the question of African diaspora doctoral students who are routinely excluded from opportunities reserved for their colleagues back at home. There is the assumption, normalized by most funding agencies/units/organizations both in African and Euro-American locations, that once a graduate student ‘escapes’ Africa, their economic fortunes naturally become better than those of their colleagues elsewhere.

That this belief is far from the truth is not my interest; what vexes me is another problematic it embeds, namely: if those at home are rendered disadvantageous by circumstances not of their own making, then they have to be extra motivated to achieve success. Herein lies the problem: the muted idea is that African doctoral students who are abroad, because of their locations, are guaranteed academic/career success. This is a curious politics of geography that gives too much agency to non-African spaces while masking the rigour, both academic and economic, most students in exilic locations must apply themselves to just to be able to succeed in academia, to travel to conferences and present a paper. The same argument can be made about the plight of postdocs.

And is there a graduate student abroad that is not gutted each time they click on a web link to a funding announcement only to discover their location already debars them from applying? In the words of the Nigerian writer Adunni Adelakun to me in a private conversation, “you are marginal here [in the West], and still marginalized [at home] and your reality does not cohere with the politics.” In other words, you cannot fathom how organizations like ASA will provide travel fund for Africa-based scholars to attend conferences here in North America, while you who live in a neighbouring city cannot attend because you can neither afford a hotel bill, or there is no provision for daycare

If you have done your graduate program in a western location in which Africa-related research is not a big deal, you know what I am talking about. You are in a frustrating limbo; your scholarly interest is not a big deal where you are, as it is not one for the canons, and those you left at home think by virtue of your not being home, you have suddenly become some sort of hero.

But of course, you know you are not one. You still have to struggle to pay for conference fees from your personal, limited income. Like one doctoral candidate at a famous Institute of African studies in the US mid-west said to me, “once you pay [hotel] accommodation from your stipend, you’re back to broke” because the 500 dollars you got as travel funding was hardly sufficient.

Never mind that, while at that, you still have to grapple with issues arising from your visa and immigration status with money from your tiny purse. And you want to get married too? Are you okay? But of course, you did, and now you have to be supported by a spouse who gives up their own dreams to ensure you finish your program as soon as possible, while your white colleagues in the home country wonder why you are in a hurry to finish your program and face the precariousness of the job market. Never mind that they too have the burden of student loans to bear.

I am probably wrong and may be accused of an inclination to share in the scarce resources of colleagues back at home, but that mindset is what I believe to be the problem. As far as I know, some of the best brains of Africa-related research are on the continent, and while they may aspire to the (unknown, precarious) conditions of some colleagues abroad, the truth is that they grind out brilliant ideas and success narratives from their often limiting spaces at home.

And there you have it; we are not different after all. Home or abroad, we thrive, we survive, and we do our best to learn new areas of research that animate ours (and, yes, get us funding in some cases). Perhaps a good strategy for doctoral candidates abroad is to make themselves visible to scholars at home while engaging with knowledge canons and formations from the continent. That way, they can retain their interests in Africa before funding to travel home for conferences arrives. Hopefully from organizations such as CODESRIA that offers scholarly opportunities that often include non-continental Africans. Groups such as The African Doctoral Lounge on Facebook that provide a space for mutually benefitting conversations for African academics in Africa and the diaspora offer invaluable resources.

If you are like me, you can also choose to engage Africa-based scholarship by deliberate citational practices. Read and cite scholars from Africa as a necessary homage and ritual of connection, while waiting for a travel grant.

One can only that when next there is a gathering for African graduate students in Accra or Nairobi, some organizer will do well to reserve a space for one or two African students who may want to travel home to connect, network and learn. It enriches the powwow.

A Republic of Extraverted Pentecostals

Ebenezer Obadare’s Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria masterfully captures the troubling intersections of state politics and religion in Nigeria, staging vividly Pentecostalism’s unabashed appropriation of political power in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. What Pentecostal Republic accomplishes the most is how it makes intelligible the transformation of the political by the forces of religion. The author tracks and solidly analyzes the ascendancy of a brand of Nigerian Pentecostalism that impacts the performance and discharge of official power in Nigeria, arguing that an “enchanted democracy” (15) is the outgrowth of “the social visibility and political influence of a Pentecostal ‘theocratic class’” (23) whose grips on Nigeria’s democracy further consolidates a vexing desecularization of the country. As a participant observant of the Pentecostal dynamics Obadare writes about, I find Pentecostal Republic to be a magisterial account of the way in which certain vectors of Pentecostalism renders visible an enthronement of hegemonic totalities that stress a theocratic imaginary both in the processes of governance and in public discourses.

That said, the brilliant analysis of this book, and this position comes from critical and ethnographic encounters with Pentecostalism in Nigeria, is contingent on the assumption that Pentecostalism in Nigeria and Prosperity Christianity (based on the so-called prosperity Gospel) are the same. They are not. Obadare’s framing of the Pentecostal in the context of Nigerian politics appears to be an essentialist categorization that hardly captures the full spectrum of the Pentecostal experience in the country.

Prosperity Christianity has as its chief aim a morbid desire for the accumulation of capital, which provides an ideological imaginary for the rituals of Christian behaviour and the performative excesses that have come to be associated with a large section of Christianity in Nigeria in recent decades. Its major impulse is the practice of Pentecostalism as a response to the privations and deprivations of the postcolonial moment in the country. The condition for the existence of this brand of the Pentecostal is the desire to transcend the precariousness of economic hardships and failed sociopolitical experiments through an uncritical reliance on the benevolent spectacles of a self-made and ever-present Deux ex machina by which many Christians interpret meaning and reality. Yet, it is upon this premise that Obadare appears to construct his most enduring argument — the belief that state power in Nigeria is burdened and overdetermined by Pentecostal inflections that shaped the politics of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. This thesis is true, but only to the extent that the mode of Pentecostalism that has been intelligently and vigorously analyzed is, in fact, a manifestation of only one of several valences and temperaments of Nigerian Pentecostalism.

Although it is a work that offers a compelling narrative brilliant and gripping in every sense, Pentecostal Republic also ignores a huge swath of the Pentecostal population in Nigeria, a section of Nigerian Pentecostalism that constitutes an alternative strand. There is a sense in which this group might be seen as a puritanical subculture of mainstream Nigerian Pentecostalism, but it should be more appropriately defined as an Introverted Pentecostal culture, as against the extraverted Pentecostalism which Obadare lucidly writes about. Introverted Pentecostalism is marked by a strict insistence on holiness and missionary activities, rather than position itself to perpetuate the “deflection of theological emphasis from holiness to prosperity” (22) as does most of the Pentecostal actors and leaders Obadare’s work examines in the context of the struggle for political dominance in the Nigerian state. Introverted Pentecostals are likely to be given to Christian apologetics as well as an intense focus on Christian discipleship, theological domains that are peripheral mostly in practice among mainstream, extraverted Pentecostals, who, ironically, are more visible in the public arena.

While the extraverted Pentecostal appears to shape the explicit discourses and narratives of Nigerian Christianity, it is the introverted Pentecostal that implicitly embodies the quintessence of biblical morality. There could be the argument that this latter group is too reclusive to compel any meaning changes in the politics of state; this is a similar argument that may be made on behalf of moderate Islam which equally seems to stand at the margin of the ascendancy of political Islam on the cusp of global terrorism. To that charge, I will offer an example, noting the obvious imbrications in the ritual expressions of both the Introverted and the extraverted. For instance, Gbile Akanni’s Peace House in Benue State gathers thousands of Nigerian Pentecostals to its campground in the city of Gboko every year, and among them may be found some of the most prominent actors of the Fourth Republic that is the focus of analyses in Obadare’s book. This fact is in addition to the numerous times Gbile Akanni himself speaks in several meetings organized by state governors and state parliaments across the country. The aim of this evangelical effort is not to seize political power, but to have Christian disciples who quietly live out the principles of the doctrine of Christ in the corridors of power.

This example is not a rare singularity or an exception; there are many other groups that may or may not be visible in the way their practice of Pentecostalism shapes national politics, although we can also acknowledge the recent emergence of an urban middle-class Pentecostal culture (such as Poju Oyemade’s church in Lagos) that is savvy in its use of social media, seeks to shape national conversations through secular-rational platforms, and which is highly critical of the crass materialism of prosperity Christianity. I imagine that sequels to Obadare’s Pentecostal Republic will attend more critically than I could ever attempt to do to these other groups. Without any intention to romanticize this group, I would suggest that any argument that imagines introverted Pentecostals as a mere conservative bloc of other Pentecostals that may also surrender to the enticing allure of material gains dangled by members of the ruling class that interact with them will be shown to be a misreading of what Introverted Pentecostalism signifies.

I close by reiterating that the vision of Pentecostalism presented in Pentecostal Republic foregrounds prosperity in a manner that departs from the biblical morality of Introverted Pentecostals which, rather than ‘demonize’ them and all of reality as extraverted Pentecostals do, accepts and celebrates social problems as a necessary and an essential component of the Pentecostal experience. At the unconscious of this paradigm of Pentecostalism that explains every socio-economic malady in spiritual terms, therefore, is a quest for survival that surrenders agency to that which is empirically untenable. The Nigerian political space has a character informed by the capitalist cooptation of state resources. The diversion of public funds for private gains is something that has perennially undermined economic progress in Nigeria. With religion thrown into that mix, what is produced is not only a wanton display of avarice but also a mélange of the impulses of prosperity Christianity and the accumulative propensity of a thieving political class. In other words, both prosperity Christianity and the politics of the Fourth Republic, and indeed most of the Nigerian political space, are driven by the same ideological impulses — the will to capital. It goes without saying that in this framework, religion is not just a mechanism of escaping precarity, it is the means by which state power and resources are distributed, and with prosperity Christians in the locus of this, there is an intensification that assaults common sense.

Unfortunately, the summation of prosperity Christianity is its attainment of political significance and the rendering of reality solely through a logic of spirituality. The problem of the critic is, therefore, not Nigerian Pentecostalism. It is with the practice of prosperity Christianity in Nigeria. In Obadare, the slippages and contradictions produced by this theological project that brazenly insinuates itself into politics are excellently charted. There is so much to learn from Pentecostal Republic. I enjoyed reading it.

Desert Journeys

About noon they arrived to its scorching welcome,
A Sahara of arid wind unfurling before them.

There the sun radiated proudly, burning their skin
with the touch of its beams, unwanted companions.

One of the travellers trudged wearily through shifting sands
avoiding a fall on prying Cacti calling out with colourful pokes.

Another steadied a backpack drenched with dust
Blowing haze and fears from miles afar.

Or so it seemed. Until sooner
When the real danger that lurks in their minds

Appeared from a distant: the veiled ones
welding guns and trafficked drugs. And girls.

The journeying duo said their last prayers
to an unknown god. But the Tuareg greeted them with a smile.