This post is a chapter from a joint memoir that is being written by Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen about their period in Nigeria, September 1967–September 1969, which was framed by the Nigerian Civil War. The chapter tells a personal story and also provides some more general insight into those tumultuous years. They were both working at the University of Ibadan, Selina in African Studies, and Robin in Political Science and describe the visit that Ruth First made to Nigeria, and the friendship that developed.
By Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen
Ruth First was the most extraordinary person we have ever met, and we are far from alone in that view. The bald facts about her are easily-established. She was born in Johannesburg in 1925 and assassinated in 1982 in Maputo, Mozambique, by means of a parcel bomb sent by an agent of the apartheid regime. The regime wanted and needed to kill her as she was one of the most effective opponents of apartheid, ranking alongside giants like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. Simply put, she was a heroine, perhaps the heroine, of the anti-apartheid struggle. When we heard the news of her death it was if the rotation of the earth had stopped. We looked at each other in bewilderment and shock and struggled to catch our breaths.
The particular reason for our distress, is that she had entered our lives unexpectedly and intimately, staying at our home in Ibadan for about 7-8 weeks in early 1968. Selina had known her when she came intermittently into the Anti-Apartheid Movement office in London, where Selina worked prior to our trip to Nigeria. However, Selina did not know her well, so she was surprised when she burst unheralded into her office at the Institute of African Studies, Ibadan, and asked, ‘Can I stay with you?’ In Ruth language that meant ‘I’ll be staying with you.’ Annoyed at the effects of the damp Ibadan heat on her munificent black hair, she complained, ‘This is no place for a white woman!’ Ruth’s parents were the founders of the South African Communist Party and they, and many others in the party, followed the norm of always dressing simply with no concessions to fashion, make-up or hair styling. However, Ruth defied the common stereotype of the austere Communist – she was always elegantly coiffured and fashionably turned out.
While our modest home in Gbenro Ogunbiye Close offered little in the way of comfort, let alone chic comfort, we were friendly faces with compatible political views, even though neither of us had ever been remotely tempted either by the theory or practice of orthodox communism. This was of no consequence to Ruth, who was friendly with whom she chose. For example, one of her closest friends was Ronald Segal, who contributed greatly to the public critique of apartheid through his journal Africa South and Africa South in Exile, but who had married into the Marks and Spencer family and lived with some panache in a manor house in Guildford, Surrey. Again, Ruth insisted on Selina arranging a get-together in London with one of Selina’s cousins, Deneys Williamson, a conservative Justice of the South African Supreme Court, who, she declared, was ‘charming’. (Ruth’s husband, Joe Slovo, also a leading member of the South African Communist Party, and Deneys were fellow lawyers at the Johannesburg bar.)
Ruth’s trip to Nigeria was to research her major book on coups in Africa, titled The Barrel of a Gun (1970). The title was a reference to Mao Zedong’s famous adage that power grows from the barrel of a gun, but perhaps the maxim was unfamiliar in the USA where the book was published in the same year as Power in Africa. Not only was Ruth a powerful political actor, she was an accomplished investigative journalist who later made the difficult transition to becoming a respected academic in the UK, first in Manchester, then in Durham. Of course, colleagues and students had little doubt where her political sympathies lay, but she had a fierce commitment to unearthing the deeper story behind the headlines and an extraordinary capacity to let the motives of social actors emerge from their own lips. This helped her students engage with subjective interpretations as well as theoretical exegesis. Ruth had an unrivalled capacity to drill down to the essence of the matter by asking questions that combined charm with incisiveness.
We watched at close quarters how she pulled off this double act. All Ruth’s contacts and our colleagues and acquaintances on the campus were drawn one by one into her enticing spider’s net and before they knew what had happened to them, they had spilled the beans to their captivating and merciless interrogator. She rapidly trolled through the campus academics, then stretched her net wider and wider in pursuit of more and more information on the military in Nigeria – first to Lagos and then to the north. On one of her fieldtrips to the north, she managed on the slimmest of introductions to talk her way into a meeting of ‘The Interim Council for the Northern states’. The title of this body was deliberately obscure, but, in effect, it was a regional cabinet meeting of senior military officers and administrators that made the crucial administrative decisions on the prosecution of the war and the distribution of resources and revenue. After the meeting she attended, the intelligence services belatedly ran a check on Ruth, finding out that not only was she a leading member of the South Africa Communist Party, but also that at one critical point in 1963 she had made the key decisions about how military and political struggles against the apartheid state should be waged. This triggered alarm bells in Lagos. What exactly was her agenda? When the authorities conducted a retrospective search on who she had met in Nigeria, we got drawn into their investigations, as we describe below. Ruth, needless to say, had long gone.
Our visit to Oshogbo
Ruth was dedicated to researching her book, but we managed to persuade her to join us on a day trip to Oshogbo, about 100 kms away on bouncy roads. We knew a little about the town from Shola and Margaret Adenle, two doctors at the University. Shola was the son of one of the town’s illustrious kings (called Ataojas), Oba Samuel Adeleye Adenle I (in office 1944–1976). It was he who had welcomed to the town a remarkable Austrian artist and sculptress, Susanne Wenger (1915–2009). Susanne threw herself into the life of the community and, in particular, helped to preserve and develop one of the town’s principal religious sites, the Oshun Grove, which later became a UNESCO world heritage site. She had met her husband, the linguist Ulli Beier, in Paris and (rather like us) had married him to secure the spousal visas allowing Ulli to take up a post at the University of Ibadan. Though he left Ibadan a few years later and the marriage did not endure, they remained on good terms for most of their lives and Ulli collaborated on various joint endeavours, including a retrospective celebrating her achievements at Oshogbo, Thirty Years of Oshogbo Art (1991).
To summarize an eventful career, Susanne found her spiritual home in the Yoruba religion and her physical home in Oshogbo. She became a priestess, married the Ataoja’s chief drummer and inspired or helped to create hundreds of sculptures and carvings in the town, some resembling women’s genitalia (this is pretty obvious in the photo of Selina and Ruth). Susanne invited us to lunch, a memorable occasion when two remarkable women, both of whom profoundly identified with Africa, traded their wildly different views on what this meant. We chipped in for the brief moments when we could. The meal, served on a large open-air upstairs balcony mainly comprised little portions of fruit, which we had to snatch quickly, before some pet monkeys (actually not very tame) grabbed them off our plates.
As we left, Susanne suddenly stopped us, insisting that we take a little roan antelope with us back to the Ibadan zoo as someone in her household intended to ‘chop it’. This was a bizarre and inconvenient request and Selina suffered the consequence. Robin took the steering wheel as he could not easily squeeze into the back of our Ford Anglia, Ruth was given the front passenger seat as our guest, while poor Selina was consigned to the back seat with the antelope, which smelled disgusting and quivered in terror. Despite Susanne’s certainty that the zoo would be delighted to receive a new inmate, it was a hard sell and it was only our threat to dump the antelope anywhere that finally persuaded the zookeeper to accept her gift.
As we mentioned, there was a strange and somewhat amusing aftermath to Ruth’s visit. A few days after she left, a messenger arrived in Robin’s office on the campus summonsing him to a meeting with the Head of Security at the campus. He turned out to be a bluff, cheerful ex-copper from Lagos, who had opted for what he assumed would be an easy life on campus. This was not what he found. Students are a lively bunch anywhere and the Ibadan students got up to their fair share of mischief. The caterers at the halls of residence were periodically accused of stealing chickens and selling them at the market, while the houses on campus were a favourite target for thieves. He took this all in his stride but was definitely thrown by the questionnaire about Robin he was asked to complete by the Special Branch (the security agency) in Lagos. The long list of questions included ‘Is he black or white?’, ‘Is his wife black or white?’, ‘Who does he meet with?’ and, amazingly, a question straight out of the McCarthyite copybook, ‘Is he, or has he ever been, a member of a communist party?’ It was striking that the agency was, like in South Africa, then called ‘the Special Branch’ and the gendered and naïve questions could have been framed in Pretoria as easily as in Lagos. The long reach of the colonial inheritance, no doubt. The Head of Security struggled with the answers so, opting for pragmatism, he took the easiest course and called Robin in to help. They shook hands afterwards, thinking it was all over.
Not so. One day, three guys, dressed as workmen, arrived at our home claiming the phone was not working properly and they needed to fix the line. ‘No need’, we said, ‘we don’t have a phone’. The back-up story got a bit confused and there was brief mention of the electricity supply, before they settled on the story that they loved the look of our house and wanted to measure it because they wanted to build one just like it. As it was a bog-standard house using plans easily available at the housing estate office, this was particularly implausible. Anyway, we knew what they were up to – planting bugs – and it seemed pointless to try to stop them. Most of what they subsequently heard was us enjoying our food, but we also had some fun, talking about obscure subjects at length with friends. Mike Sweeney, an American linguist at the university who worked at the library, was a trained glottochronologist and kept the conversation going about the sequences, duration and variations in Indo-European languages, featuring the case of the Mongolian steppes quite frequently.
The bugs were not very sophisticated, and the listeners had to be reasonably close by in the surrounding area. At one farcical moment, the listeners got tangled up with a platoon of watchers, also in the neighbourhood. This had nothing to do with us. A certain military officer was having an affair with a neighbour and had assigned his platoon to various street corners to look out for the husband, in case he unexpectantly returned home. The representatives of the army and the Special Branch got into a turf war and the army won. Of course, the listeners already knew from our bullshit talk that we were on to them, but they had to wait until Lagos ordered them to desist. A day or so later, the house measurers had to measure the house again and the bugs disappeared.
Letters from Ruth
A few of Ruth’s letters have survived. They need a little explanation. In the first letter she is referring to a car accident in which Robin and Chris Beer [a graduate student at Ibadan] were involved. In pursuit of Robin’s fieldwork, they had been driven to the north by the university’s driver, who was somewhat reckless. However, Ruth’s hair, she was pleased to note, had straightened out with the increased altitude! One letter arrived from Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the midst of a coup, which made Ruth exultant, rather than apprehensive. The final letter was written long after we all were back in the UK, and after the birth of Miranda and our son, Jason. However, as it refers to the book Ruth was researching in Nigeria (The Barrel of a Gun), we have decided to include it here.
From Ruth First
Ahmadu Bello University
8 February 1968
Dear Selina and Robin,
Have been worried about how Robin got back to Ibadan, and any sequels to that horrible accident. Looking at the car was unnerving enough and being in it must have been a fearful shock. Hope the worst is long over? Ironically, Essien saved me all that – but that doesn’t make it any easier for Robin and Chris [Beer].
Our mini arrived a half hour before midnight – exhausting progress along shocking roads – but safely. Got a bed in the women’s hostel and have remained here. It’s central, and cheap, though the Nigerian food in the student eating place is a bit much three times a day.
Have a lift to Kano tomorrow and will be back Thursday, after which will try Kaduna. Transport difficult, so have not seen more than the university.
If for any chance you want to contact me the best bet would the Assistant Registrar Mr Abashiya at extension 2 (University no. is Zaria 2624) because he knows me (as Ruth First) and lives next door to the hostel. But this only in case of some emergency, or if you want me to do anything for you. Will Robin come North again? Not immediately, I don’t suppose.
Am missing the Cohen ménage but not the Ibadan climate. It’s highveld here, and wonderful, and my hair is straight! Bright, dry (too dusty) but bracing, and just chilly enough at dusk and after.
See you some time and hope all goes well, accident notwithstanding.
From Ruth First
c/o Mrs M. Obosi
Standard Bank of West Africa
No date (probably around early March 1968)
Dear Selina and Robin,
You were right, the Killams are choice, hospitable people. Cooking à la Français too, and a really pleasant weekend. Eventually landed 4 university appointments (gawd – sounds like jobs, no just meetings!) between the Friday and yesterday, Tuesday, not all conclusive but one at least interesting as far as it went (political sociologist Babatunde Williams who is a Lagosian and fascinating on that elite breed because he is such a feeling representative) and two others that might promise more: A-G Elias and J.P. Clarke, the playwright. Lagos not quite as bad as I had feared, because even if getting to Nigerians is not as easy as in Kaduna, it’s not as difficult as Ibadan, and there are Brits and Yanks and others to have lunch with in air-conditioned places, and when you are stomping the humid sweaty streets you can take every few blocks off to nip into Leventis or Kingsway or a hotel to pinch some air-conditioning. Too soon to tell how it will all go.
Bumped today into an Ibadanite of all people, Professor Ogunsheye of Faculty of Education, the man I was trying to evade the day Robin picked me up in the car between the library and Institute. It made Nigeria feel smaller at least. He’s here for the Commonwealth Education Congress.
Douglas Killam is thinking of coming down to Ibadan on Monday 11th. If so, I’ll probably come with if you can stand me for another night?
I’m to ring him in a day or two to confirm his dates, and will then probably write Sam. He’ll make an appointment or two for me, I think, like Hendrickse, and I can pick up my mail. Unless some water-tight arrangement drops in don’t therefore worry about letters being brought in. If they’ve already gone care the Killams I’ll get them somehow – oh I forgot to tell you why I’m no longer with the Killams after that weekend. It’s just that they live near the University and the University is so far from everywhere else; am living now in Ikoyi with Margaret Obosi, who travels into work each day and is back for lunch and in again.
So, to revert to letters, unless something works almost naturally and the carrier is SURE to leave them chez Killam, don’t strain, and hang on to letters for me to fetch. Unless I have to change all that again.
Mrs Adekoya does come into Lagos, or her husband to Ibadan every weekend and I had talked to her about bringing letters to this end-week but next, but if I’m coming on 11th even that will not be necessary. So, unless everything already en route, don’t worry about post much. I tried phoning Sam the other day, but we were cut off after first sentence.
Is Selina still having contractions? Hope all well, really well.
Don’t think I ever thanked you enough for roof and friendship and all else. How [does one] thank adequately?
From Ruth First
18 March 1968
Dear Selina and Robin,
How are you? I’m back on the Lagos grindstone.
Robin: I had to go through a pile of papers belonging to a journalist now out of the country, and came across a few trade union memos, which I snitched for you, and have posted. There may be something or other useful – didn’t read them.
Selina: there’s a journalist here who shares your taste for the bizarre in crime, lust and sadism, and who wants to write an article on some of the weird pieces in the press. Could you jot down for him the papers, dates, and headlines of the items in your prize collection file? Like the woman who gave birth to a bird, and the digger digged out, and that stuff?
He is Mr Bruce Oudes, L311, Ikoyi Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos.
How’s that baby coming along?
Love to you both, Ruth
From Ruth First
24 March 1968
The trade-union articles in West Africa are written by Kaye Whiteman of the West Africa London staff who flies in here periodically, and who spent a fortnight interviewing trade-union people here.
Hope it puts your mind at rest: he is a professional journalist, no academic.
Letter enclosed for the Killams if you can possibly manage to get it to them some time. There was a bit of a mix-up about ten quid I’d lent Douglas which we forgot to sort out, so I’m asking him to pay it to you so that I shall deposit £10 less in your London account. Which, according to my reckoning, will make it £60?
Did I give you my London address: 13 Lyme Street, NW1, phone 485-1294? Have been getting diminishing returns here and have booked an Accra flight day after tomorrow. Will drop you a postcard.
How’s Selina? And the Cohen baby? Looking forward to some news.
Much love, Ruth
P.S. Let me know when you get the £10.
From Ruth First
Wednesday, 24 April 1968
Dear Selina and Robin,
Walked slap-bang into a C-O-U-P four hours after I got here. Was held up by soldiers’ machine guns: coup just off the ground.
Confused, still. A pay strike of the ranks and/or return to power of some dark horses like Genda with or without connection elsewhere? Don’t yet know. Nor does Sierra Leone. En route homewards.
Do write about that baby and yourselves.
From Ruth First,
13 Lyme Street,
5 January 1971
Dear Robin and Selina,
I’ve not written since June and have heard from you twice since. Sorry but everything Robin wrote earnestly read and appreciated. Comments on the book: I wrote about how bucked I was by your general approval (hell, can’t you offer to review it for, say, Journal of Modern African Studies or something? Publication date 29 October). I live in fear and trembling of the reviews especially as, as you noticed, some will go out of their way to draw the wrong conclusions about some delicate aspects). Detailed points for proofing came rather late though I managed most; and ideas for final peroration demanded by us publisher likewise, but I came around to thinking the book was as finished as I could really make it this round.
As for your comments on the ARG Nigeria piece, first-rate. Exactly what I should have tried to do and wasn’t competent enough to. I gather they’ve had few serious reactions and they’ll be glad of this one and should find it pertinent and invaluable.
The reader I was trying to get Penguins to do. They’ve decided they’re not that keen on Readers. I think the principal reason is that they wrapped up in a mammoth volume edited by Andre Gunder Frank and being done between them and Cambridge University Press. It’s three volumes, and more a shelf of books than one. Includes Marx and Adam Smith to Lenin and Che and Rosa Luxemburg, and also takes in some of the pieces I earmarked like Samir Amin and Verhaegen and encompasses the whole of the Third World plus all the development theory and economic history. I’ve not given up; and am still working on the project. We’ll see.
Met your friend [Peter]Waterman eventually when he came to see about a job. He’s critical of doctrinaire positions with which criticism I mostly agree, but in a doctrinaire, daunting fashion. Hope you don’t leave your correspondence and my rude remarks around.
London is rather grim in August. Decent people are away, and tourists flood the streets. How’s Birmingham? Saw Ledda from time to time at the Rome Conference on Port Territories but no academic there, only behind the scenes grind though he waved over the top of it from time to time.
Love to Selina and you and to Miranda and Jason.
Come to London some time.
Ruth remained a special person to us for the rest of her life. She was warm and supportive to Selina when she was ill in London and in her mumsy concern showed yet another side of her complex character. After our return to the UK, Ruth and Robin became close colleagues and were two of the dozen or so founders of the Review of African Political Economy, first published in 1973 and still going strong. Unusually for an academic journal committed as the self-description proclaims, to ‘high quality research’, it explicitly shows its political colours, paying ‘particular attention to the political economy of inequality, exploitation, oppression, and to struggles against them, whether driven by global forces or local ones such as class, race, community and gender.’ We missed her when she decided to leave London and base herself at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo in Mozambique, but we understood that she needed to be much closer to the scene of action as the progressive forces she had nourished all her life were at last making headway against the decaying apartheid regime. Though it is not very materialist, we think of the Xhosa goodbye to the dead, hamba kahle (go well), dear Ruth.
Selina Molteno has been a professional ballet dancer and an anti-apartheid activist. She has travelled widely and lived in Nigeria (1967–9), Trinidad (1977–9) and returned to her native country, South Africa, after the end of apartheid (2001–4). She now lives in Oxford in the UK where she founded a publishing service. With over 35 years’ experience in publishing she has piloted many books and articles from manuscript to successful publication. Her letters home during her period as a dancer based in Paris were published as Letters from an intrepid ballet dancer (2015).
Robin Cohen is an established scholar in development studies and sociology, known best for his writings on migration, diasporas and globalization. He has taught at seven universities in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North America. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Oxford. His books include Labour and politics in Nigeria (1972), Global diasporas: An introduction (1997, rev. 2008), Global sociology (co-author, 2000, rev. 2007, 2013), Migration: Human movement from prehistory to the present (2019) and Refugia: Radical solutions to mass displacement (co-author, 2020).
Featured Photograph: Photo by Shafiur Rahman of the Ruth First mural in Soweto by the British artist, Ben Slow.
 This is not the place to get into a critique of the tenets of the South African Communist Party, which struggled to square South African realities with the orthodoxies of the Soviet Union, with which it was aligned and on which it was dependent for financial support and military training. Ruth, though married to Joe Slovo, who often enforced the ideological line, managed the almost impossible feat of navigating between party loyalty and critical distance.
 Peter Worsley was important in helping her to secure a fellowship at Manchester, while Gavin Williams, who also conducted his research in Ibadan after we had left, was a good friend and colleague to Ruth at Durham.
 See Paul S. Landau (2019) ‘Gendered silences in Nelson Mandela’s and Ruth First’s struggle auto/biographies’, African Studies, 78 (2), 290306, DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2019.1569437
I very much enjoyed this piece by Selina and Robin.
Ruth also spent time between 1973 and 1978 as a lecturer in development studies at the University of Durham, where she worked with, among others, Gavin Williams and Tony Barnett (who later became a colleague of mine at the University of East Anglia – UEA).
I remember having several discussions with her – in particular on Libya, after she had written her excellent book on ‘Libya: the elusive revolution’, and more generally on development studies in Africa – following my return from fieldwork in Morocco (during 1968-70), while I was a lecturer, first at SOAS (1970-72) and then at UEA (1972 onwards) .
I want to remind/inform those who might be interested, that Durham established a Ruth First Educational Trust to enable southern African students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to undertake postgraduate study at the University of Durham. Southern Africa is defined for this purpose as comprising the following countries: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Republic of South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Trustees include Bill Bryson and Gillian Slovo. Do apply, or inform someone you know who might benefit from this to apply!
David, many thanks for your comment. We are so pleased to learn that the Ruth First Educational Trust at Durham is still going strong. Your comments on her Libyan experience recall that she was one of the few investigators to spend a serious amount of time with Gaddafi and penetrate beyond his mask of eccentricity.
A wonderful chapter. It take me back to Gill’s and my research life in Ibadan. Ruth is at the centre of this text and narrative – and it tells us what the many accounts don’t. They are almost all rather ‘strict-laced’, as if it is rude to not be entirely serious about our ‘hero of the revolution’ beyond remarking on her Italian shoes. We learn here rather more about Ruth, and her kindness, her dynamism, her political acumen, her intelligence, than from the scholarly and not so scholarly accounts of her ‘life and works’ (and about the politics of wars and coups). I went on-line to look for the text above, and then came across their live interview. I cried with laughter all the was through. Appendix 1> When the ‘Special Branch’ called me for interview, their first question, read from the sheet in front of them, was ‘what is your alias’. Appendix 2: in Durham, we should obviously have collared Ruth to teach Research Methods and left the boring Theories of Development to me.