War, University and Life: African Studies and Politics in 1960s Nigeria

In the third blogpost from a joint memoir that is being written by Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen about their period in Nigeria, September 1967–September 1969, they describe their work in the Department of Political Science and the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan together with some remarkable academics, researchers and students.

By Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen

With his Commonwealth scholarship in hand, Robin was, he thought, all set up as a graduate student loosely affiliated to the department of political science at the University of Ibadan. However, as things turned out, he was required to fulfil a more central role in the department. Political science had started modestly in 1960 as a sub-department of government under the direction of James O’Connell, an Irish priest who doubled-up as a sailor (his ship had been torpedoed in the Second World War) and was later the founding Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford.[1] He was replaced by Joseph E. Black, who worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, one of a number of US institutions involved in trying to ease out the Brits in favour of doing things the American way. The game plan was rapidly to accelerate the number of Nigerians, preferably US-trained, as members of the faculty.

Enhancing the number of Nigerians on the staff chimed well with the aims of the university. O’Connell was packed off to Kano, as was a US lecturer who did not quite fit (he had close links to the US State Department). The headship was temporarily held by Joseph Black who, in 1964, left in favour of an accomplished young Nigerian scholar, E. U. Essien-Udom. Essien had completed his doctorate at Chicago and had held junior positions at Harvard and Brown. In addition to the existing academic staff, ‘Essien’ (as we knew him) was joined by Lawrence (‘Larry’) Ekpebu (trained at Harvard), while the return of another star, a young doctoral student who had completed his PhD at Berkeley, was eagerly anticipated. All was going in the planned direction, when a series of misfortunes struck.

After the outbreak of the civil war, Kenneth Dike, a distinguished historian of Igbo origin and the university’s first Nigerian vice-chancellor, refused to return from a trip abroad, fearing for his safety. Very early one morning, a low rumble of cars was heard all over the campus. Dike’s anxiety had spread to other staff and, without notice, a huge convoy filled with Igbo academics and their families set off to the Eastern Region. A few remained. One Igbo member of staff in the political science department, Ukpabi Asika, declared his support for the Federal government and became governor of the zone that had been carved out of Biafra after the fall of Enugu in October 1967. Echoing the appellation of the British traitor who worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, Radio Biafra sarcastically, and unjustly, called Asika ‘Lord Haw Haw’. Later, after Port Harcourt had fallen to the Federal forces, another colleague, Larry Ekpebu, was appointed administrator of ‘Rivers’ (his home area, soon to be the Rivers State). These absences were difficult to manage. But the biggest blow to political science fell in January or February 1968, when a chilling memo was sent around the department. The young man newly armed with his PhD from Berkeley (sadly we cannot now recall his name) had died in a car crash on the Lagos–Ibadan road just weeks after his return to Nigeria.

We were invited to the funeral at the church and burial ground on the campus. Finding what we could in the way of respectable clothing (Robin had abandoned his only suit in England), we stood quietly at the back as the oh-so-normal service commenced. Suddenly, without warning, the deceased young man’s wife cried out in anguish and jumped into the grave on top of the coffin, violently beating off all attempts to pull her out for ten to fifteen minutes. We were astonished at this turn of events and Selina began to sob. Later, she was reassured by someone at the funeral that this was normal; a bereaved wife was expected to demonstrate convincingly that she was totally gutted. When Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz arrived in Oz, she uttered the memorable line, ‘I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ We felt much the same. We were not in north-west London anymore. Perhaps our fellow mourner was simply trying to console Selina but, if not, we needed to ramp up our learning curve. Adjusting to Nigerian ways was going to be more challenging than we had imagined.

Essien and Ruby Essien-Udom

At the request of two of the lecturers, Robin had been giving the odd tutorial in the department, but when we were unexpectedly summonsed to a meal at Essien’s home one evening, we realized something was afoot. As the evening wore to a close, Essien and his wife Ruby exchanged glances and Essien sprang his trap. Robin was enjoined to accept a lectureship in the department. It was clear that Essien was desperate and that appointing an inexperienced, South African-born doctoral candidate to a job at Nigeria’s flagship university was not something he had anticipated or wanted. The students were demanding to be taught and he had simply run out of available academics. The conversation over dinner that evening had been cordial, but it was clear that both of us were being given the once over by Essien and Ruby. No, that puts it too mildly! More plainly, we were being minutely scrutinized to see whether we displayed one iota of racism or one smidgen of colonial entitlement.

We had passed the test, but this was an examination more difficult for our examiners than it was for us, the somewhat bemused and reluctant candidates. We need to provide some background to explain this. When he had studied in the USA (at Oberlin and Chicago), Essien had become very close to Elijah Mohammed, the leader of the Black Muslim movement, his wife, and other leaders and members of the Nation of Islam. The result was a remarkable and insightful book, Black Nationalism, based on participant observation over a two-year period in Chicago.[2]

While in the US Essien had also married Ruby Moloney, who was our hostess on that memorable evening in Ibadan. She was a tall, confident, intelligent African American active in the movements for black civil rights and political empowerment. When Malcolm X visited Nigeria, she had arranged his visit. Essien himself had also become close to Amy Garvey (the widow of the famous black leader, Marcus Garvey). He later edited the Garvey papers and, with Amy Garvey, published a collection titled More Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. In recognition of his engagement with the major leaders of the African American struggle in the US, Essien was dubbed ‘the Black Power professor’ by the students at Ibadan. He relished the sobriquet.

You will get the picture. We were objects of suspicion, but also of curiosity. It took a long while before Essien and Ruby dropped their guard. Throughout our period in Ibadan they treated us courteously, but rarely warmly and effusively, while we were careful to remain attentive to the hierarchy that separated us. Essien even asked Robin to act as head of department for a short while when no-one suitable was around, a sign of his increased trust. Years later, when we had returned to the UK and Robin held a lectureship at the Centre for West African Studies at Birmingham, he successfully nominated Essien for the Cadbury Visiting Fellowship, a prestigious attachment supported by the Cadbury trusts. At last, the four of us connected without inhibition and enjoyed sociable meals, movies and visits to the experimental and avantgarde Arts Lab.[3]

Ruby had persuaded her mother, known as Mama Ruby, to join them in the house in an upmarket estate in Selly Park that came with the fellowship. We recall arriving back, a bit worse for wear and thrown by their failure to take a key to the house. Not to worry, Mama Ruby would let us in. We bellowed ‘Mama Ruby’ till we were hoarse and threw stones at the upstairs windows. Eventually, she stumbled out and admitted us, but not before lights were switched on in the surrounding houses and the neighbours clucked their disapproval. One letter from Ruby, when she and Essien had moved to Calabar, survives (below):

7 May 1974

Dear Robin,

Your splendid looking new book has just reached us. Congratulations and many thanks.

I don’t know whether Essien was able to drop you a line since our departure. Well, we had our grand tour of the West Indies and our fill of New York terror and then returned home to a new life.

Essien finds his job absorbing, mine is challenging (I am the Assistant Personnel Officer at the Calabar Campus of the University of Nigeria), but it’s not as interesting as editing.

How are Selina and the children? I suppose at this time of year you’re beginning to think about the long vac. How did the new house work out?

Calabar is a long way from Ibadan in many ways. I suppose it is something like a ‘primitive Eden’ to quote Essien, but sometimes I would prefer Babylon. Nevertheless, it’s not really so much worse than other Nigerian towns. It has a kind of rural charm still, which is under heavy attack by the bulldozers, and there are already signs of traffic jams to come. I suppose as Time Magazine would say, we are rushing headlong into the nineteenth century. That’s fair enough by me, and if New York is any indicator, I hope I can jump off before we reach mid-twentieth century. Though I must say, the big city in Britain is much better because of the discipline of the society.

We would love to hear from you or Selina when there is time.

Fond regards,


Robin’s teaching

Teaching was a challenge. Robin had completed three years of political theory as an undergraduate, so the first course he was assigned did not test his knowledge unduly. It followed a conventional curriculum on the history of political thought, starting with Plato and Aristotle, touching on Seneca, attending to the social contract theorists like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, wrestling with Hegel and Marx, and concluding with the totalitarian thought of the twentieth century. Not so far mentioned, as he deserves special comment, is Machiavelli. In the trade, this type of course had acquired a nickname: ‘From Plato to NATO’. Robin describes his students in this course as listless and often staring into space, despite his best efforts. Not so when he discussed Machiavelli, whose ideas were an instant hit. Cruelty and murder, force and deception, deviousness, selfishness and egotism – the class could not get enough of it. It took a while to work out why, then a possible explanation emerged. Sixteenth-century Italian city-states (like Venice, Florence, Amalfi, Milan and the Papal states) resembled Yoruba city-states (like Oyo, Ibadan, Ife and the Ijebu states). While British colonial administrators had been hopeless at figuring out the complexity of Yoruba precolonial urban micro-polities, the author of The Prince spoke directly to the alliances, plots and counterplots between city-states and the fiendishly complicated patterns of succession within them. At last, so Robin intuited, the students saw someone in the Western canon of political science speaking to the western Nigerian experience.

Other parts of his teaching needed more desperate measures. At one point, Robin was navigating across three courses, one of which, comparative politics, required him to lecture on the UK, the US (both OK), France and India (about which he knew next to nothing). He raced from lecture hall to the library, refusing to issue a reading list until the day of the lecture so he could beat the more assiduous students to the scarce copies of the relevant books. It was a trial by fire, but at least gave him the skill to think on his feet and give some kind of coherence to a hastily prepared talk.

The flow of lecture preparation, classes and essay marking was remorseless, and Robin was thrown by the remarks of some of the students to whom he had given poor marks. Despite patient explanations of where they had gone wrong, an errant half-dozen or so students hit back, accusing him of incompetence and failure to explain himself adequately. They could not be at fault; it must be him. This display of braggadocio was done with a bewildering display of vehemence, good humour and whooping laughter – another experience to chalk up to cultural difference (English undergraduates of the time meekly accepted whatever marks they were assigned).

Billy Dudley

Fortunately, Robin had a strong supporter in the form of Billy Dudley, a senior member of the politics department, who explained all the tricks of the trade, including how the students were testing him to see whether his grades were open to ‘negotiation’. Billy and his wife Valerie were great friends to both of us. We had no telephone at home and (note to younger readers) mobile phones did not exist at the time, but Valerie and Billy allowed us to use theirs when family emergencies or joyful news needed urgent communication. Billy loved a cold beer at the staff club after class and we could always crack a bottle (no glasses used) whenever we needed guidance and friendship, or a marvellously coherent explanation of the bewildering twists and turns of Nigerian politics.

Billy’s appointment pre-dated the ‘Americanization’ of the department. He was a graduate of University College, Leicester, which awarded University of London degrees at the time and he knew Robin’s supervisor, Ken Post, and another one of Robin’s mentors, Dennis Austin, the chronicler of Ghanaian politics and director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London.[4] Billy’s doctorate was published as Parties and Politics in Northern Nigeria, while he later wrote an insightful book using game theory to explain Nigerian politics preceding and during the war as well as an introductory textbook. He also drafted the post-war Nigerian Constitution and edited a magazine, Nigerian Opinion, where Robin published some of his earliest articles. He was fiercely intelligent, immensely energetic and had a slightly off-beat, wild streak in his temperament. We surmised, with no evidence, that his Scottish father (he had a Nigerian mother) had fostered this.

Billy Dudley’s most popular book (though not his best).

This unrestrained part of Billy’s personality got them both into trouble on one occasion when Billy persuaded Robin to accompany him to look at the ongoing war first-hand. Billy served on some Mid-Western development board and this provided the occasion to set out to Benin City, quite close to the front. As Billy drove further east, they chatted to the troops. The plan was to overnight in Benin City, but impulsively Billy decided they needed to return to Ibadan not long before nightfall. In Nigeria, the word nightfall was all too appropriate – at the end of day the sun swiftly disappeared into the earth’s bosom like a flaming lead balloon. The road was poor and there was no moon. At first, all was well. Billy had secured a pass from the military governor of the Region and it worked like magic when the soldiers on the numerous roadblocks recognised the governor’s name.

As they got closer to Ibadan, the expressions on the soldiers’ faces at the roadblocks looked more dubious and finally Robin and Billy were stopped and ordered to get out of the car. The soldiers were nervous and started shouting. They demanded Robin’s passport as ID and carefully scrutinized it. Where was Billy’s passport? He indignantly replied he did not need one as he was Nigerian. At which point it all went wrong. They laughed at his claim, as (having a Scottish father) he was lighter in skin colour than most Nigerians. Billy, an ardent Nigerian nationalist, was furious. Suddenly, there was a growl at the back, soon taken up by others. ‘Tzenis, ‘Tzenis’, it sounded like. Did they mean ‘Tennis’? This was bizarre, but Robin and Billy thought they had better play along and mimicked being at Wimbledon. No, they meant, it was soon clear, ‘Chinese’. There had been reports of the Chinese government siding with the Biafrans and in an instant Billy had been classified as a Chinese spy, with Robin as his accomplice. Several machine guns were trained on them and it was only after Billy greeted the soldiers in Warri pidgin and Yoruba that they slowly backed off. No Chinese person could be that fluent. It had been a close-run thing and Robin and Billy arrived in Ibadan well after midnight in a subdued mood.

Christopher Beer and Christina Le Moignan

Amazingly, Robin was not the only British graduate student to decide to come to Nigeria. On our voyage to Nigeria, we were accompanied by Christopher Beer, who decided to study the peasantry in and around Ibadan (in parallel with Robin’s study of the working class). His excellent thesis was long delayed in publication by Ibadan University Press and, as a result, he was somewhat disadvantaged in his plan to become an academic. We were also joined by Christina Le Moignan who, like Robin, had used a scholarship to come from Britain to Nigeria. We admired her resilience and bravery. Christina stayed in a woman’s hall of residence and seems to have had a stomach coated with iron. Whereas most expatriates struggled with the unfamiliar food, Christina tucked into the hall food heartily. On one occasion, when some drunken soldiers entered the campus with the clear intent of demanding sex with the women students, Christina linked arms with others to deny the soldiers entry and faced them down. As we left Ibadan, Christina inherited Robin’s ‘Plato to NATO’ course and one letter from her and one from Chris have survived:

From Christina Le Moignan
25 September 1969

Dear Robin

Many thanks for the History of Political Thought things, and your letter. It’ll be most useful, especially about the modern stuff, about which I am more or less a total blank. I saw Billy in the vac. and think I shall in fact probably be doing it rather more along his lines – partly because it seems sensible to use this year as a sort of try-out period for the course system which we will finally develop, but also because I must include the Greeks, since they’re the only people I know anything about!

I am writing now on the off chance that you may be able to give me some information we need rather urgently. Is there anyone you taught last year that you think could/should be suggested for a Rockefeller scholarship? I realize the second year is rather early to tell, but we have no candidates from last year’s final year, and it seems a pity not to put in for one if there’s anyone outstanding. Of course, as always, things have been impossibly late. Local interviews are supposed to occur by the end of September and the information from the VC’s office only came on September 20th. I didn’t hear of it until yesterday. So, if there’s anyone that strikes you as worth a shot, could you let me have his name as soon as possible? I’d be most grateful.

Essien is going away tomorrow for a week, leaving me holding all the beginning of session babies, including registration! But I can hardly feel bitter, since he is going to Calabar to bury his mother! We have no confidence that our two other members of staff are going to arrive before the beginning of term, though Essien mutters something about their both being expected this weekend. Does it all make you feel nostalgic?!

I do hope that Birmingham goes well for you all. Essien seemed to think you had made good progress on the thesis. I expect to be back next Easter, on National Assistance, if no other way.

Love to Selina. How was the trip home?


  From C. E. Beer

University of Ibadan
7 August 1971

Dear Robin and Selina,

Thanks very much for your card at Christmas, which made me feel very guilty as I still owe you a letter from the beginning of last year! Glad to know that you are still at Birmingham – how is Miranda and the new one, Jason.

Everything is much the same here. Billy [Dudley] has returned as associate professor and for the time being doesn’t seem too unhappy though he’s as moody as ever. Christina [Le Moignan] left just before Xmas having achieved, what seems to me at the moment, the impossible, her Ph.D. The oral went without any hitch which wasn’t surprising as her thesis was such a thorough piece of work. Everybody seems to have left here now who I was at all friendly with at the beginning or at least will be leaving at the end of this session.

My own work has I suppose been progressing but at a snail’s pace. I’ve written up 6 chapters out of 9 but have quite a lot of rewriting to do on the second draft. At the moment I have real problems about finances, as for some reason they didn’t want to extend my scholarship for a fourth year! Billy mobilised all the big guns he could (which are quite considerable) and I’m living in hope arriving before the bailiffs.

Cholera has also arrived in Ibadan this week and today (of all days) the junior staff on the University are on a ‘go-slow’ i.e. strike over the non-implementation of a pay award they were supposed to get in 1969 (Ani Report?) Result = no water, no food for students, no electricity on the campus the day after Boyd in his Scottish wisdom forbade anyone to eat off campus, (or drink) because of said cholera, and advised all to stay at home, not travel, and not go into town. There is a meeting tonight to decide whether the University should be closed (we opened on Monday!)

I don’t know how your work is going Robin – I have some newspapers that I will send on to you (or perhaps just the cuttings) re trade union action over wages last month and their negotiations with the Federal Military Government. It seemed rather interesting to me, as for once the union centres seemed to be working in collaboration with each other – they were successful also in getting an increase across the board for lower paid workers. I haven’t yet sorted them out but will try to this week.

Best of luck and all good wishes for the New Year, I’ll try not to be so long in writing again.


P.S. Brother Adejumo is always wishing to be remembered to you – he is still keeping my car on the road though it’s getting more difficult daily. He’s now moved into his own place at Ore-Meji. [5]

Letters from students

We also discovered a few letters from Robin’s students, and we reproduce them below.

To Robin from Adeniyi Adejuwon
Nnamdi Azikiwe Hall
University of Ibadan
5 October 1969

My dear lecturer,

Kindly forgive me for keeping a bit long before writing to you. I have had to make my fees for this session. Now I am a bit settled having completed all the registration formalities.

How are you? How is your wife? Hope you are by now well-adjusted to that new circumstance? Your work is going on well I feel?

My mates and myself miss you very much. In fact, I had been nursing the hope that I would find my guardian in you during this my first year. Indeed, I miss you very much.

Despite your absence, I still believe there is a lot of help you can render not for me alone but for us. However, I like to find out from you what I can do to further my education. I intend to study either in England or America after my first degree. I do not know what fields are open to me and how to scheme it all. I am also ignorant about the way one finds a school. All I know as told to me by you is that a good pass is a must. I shall by all means and the grace of God make this my goal.

I am very well disposed to ‘launch the attack’ on the faculty in June. I hear regularly from my wife. I shall try to send a copy of our wedding picture to you.

Hope your research project is smooth? You are able to have the necessary data at your disposal I trust? I like to know whether you intend writing a book as I very much suspect. You are specialising in trade unionism or political economics I suspect? Kindly keep me abreast of these.

My friends Messrs Idode, Abatan, Dirrotoye and a host of others are well. They send to you and your wife a heap of greetings.

Bye for now.

Yours, Adeniyi.

From T. U. Okupa
P.O. Box 2728
13 October 1969

Dear Mr Cohen,

I have been waiting for this time before writing you. Certainly, you must have settled down to the new situation in Birmingham since returning from Nigeria. I hope your wife and daughter are fine?

On my part, although I was not too happy about my last exams result, I have put it as a thing of the past behind me and am looking forward to the future with renewed enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, I still look forward to making an academic career, but in the meantime, I am working as an assistant secretary in the Federal Ministry of Trade here in Lagos.

Since I am not too sure that you will receive this letter, I intend it to be a pathfinder letter. By the time I receive your reply, then I would be sure that I have re-established contact with you and then I shall be writing more frequently. Just now permit me to quit here.

Yours sincerely, T.U. Okupa

From Adeoye Akinsanya
1414 E 59th Street #743
Chicago 37, Illinois
16 January 1970

Dear Mr Cohen,

I am sorry I have been unable to write you since you left Nigeria and in fact, I wish I knew when you left so that I could see you off. Since you and I left Nigeria, many breakthroughs have occurred, especially the war. This is a digression.

I was offered admission to the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin while my applications to UCLA, Columbia, Yale and NW were late. I am now however at Chicago. I like the University of Chicago. It has a good department, and this is where Professor Essien-Udom did his doctorate. I hope I will be able to do my doctorate before going back home.

I have to thank you for all your help and stimulating my interest in political science. You played a leading role in shaping my career and I am very grateful for this. Words are not enough to express my gratitude. I wish I could thank you personally. I am very grateful.

I came here four weeks late. I was able to take two courses (Political Modernization in Tropical Africa and International Relations in the Middle East); the maximum is three. We had examinations at the end of the fall quarter – having B+ and A+ respectively. I am taking courses on the American Presidency and International Politics plus a seminar for the winter quarter. I will have courses on Political Theory/Administration during the spring quarter and, of course, I am attending summer school. The course requirement (for a doctorate) is 27 with three courses a quarter. At the end of the first year we are expected to present an MA paper (15,000 words) and take the Ph.D. prelim exams – four exam papers spread over two weeks taken simultaneously or two papers, both different in approach and subject, and fourth year, present a doctorate paper. Of course, there is a language requirement. I am writing my MA paper on Nationalisation in the Middle East and developing this for the Ph.D. thesis. Of course, I am not happy that the department/university has no African Studies Center. I wrote home – the Foreign Admission Officer – that I might need some funds for transportation were I to take some courses outside the University of Chicago. A request was made for the typing of my thesis. All requests were rejected. I doubt if the people ever wanted me back at Ibadan after my course. For example, they pay me £79 per month = $212.20 and if I share an apartment – which I do now, I pay $75 per month and spend $120 on my meals with the rising costs. If I get sick, I have to buy the drug while I pay $31 for medical insurance should I be hospitalised. Of course, I have to buy books, clothing materials and have some money for incidentals. Where is this coming? You pay tax on everything you buy. My intention now is to find a way of extending my fellowship after the second year to enable me to finish the doctorate. If not, I will try and secure a University of Chicago award. I am telling you in confidence.

Could you please let me buy Gillian White, Nationalisation of Foreign Property (London: Stevens & Sons, 1961) and let me know how much it costs. I could not locate it here.

My love to your wife, Adeoye

From Yomi Durotoye,
Zik Hall,
University of Ibadan.
19 January 1970

My dear Mr Cohen,

I promised to contact you at the end of the last session. Honestly, I did not forget, but I guess I was a bit too lazy.

How is your work going? Have you completed your thesis? Please let me know how far you have gone.

We are not doing badly here in the department. One Dr Adegbite from the University of Lagos takes us Advanced International Law. He is not doing badly at all. Dr Idang takes the Comparative Administration while the professor takes the Government and Politics of Nigeria since 1945.

My revision is not very encouraging. I discover every day that my pile of work is not in any way reducing and in fact it seems as if it grows every day.

I have applied for graduate admission and fellowships in UCLA, Dalhousie University Canada, Toronto University Canada, and McGill University Canada. I wish I could be admitted and awarded fellowships in any of these.

How is your wife and daughter? Greetings to them.

Write if you can but don’t really mind if you can’t reply on time.

Yours sincerely, Yomi

Institute of African Studies

Shortly after we arrived, Selina heard on the grapevine that there may be a position for an editor at the Institute of African Studies at the university and indeed there was. The job entailed trying to decipher the contents of a very scratchy and practically inaudible tape recording of the proceedings of a conference that had taken place some months, or perhaps even years, earlier between a group of Nigerian and Brazilian scholars on how traditional Yoruba religious practices imported from West Africa to the sugar and coffee plantations of Brazil had survived in their respective homes on either side of the Atlantic.

It was slow, laborious work, which would have been helped considerably if there had at least been some other form of access to the conference proceedings, such as printed papers, but alas that tape recording was the only source. This was long before the onset of the Internet, computers, word processing, or even electric typewriters. In any case, women were the only people who seemed capable of recording anything at all in those days, and certainly the only ones lowly enough to learn shorthand, take dictation and type letters for the boss to glance over and then disdainfully sign. Some genius had clearly thought that tape-recording the proceedings of a conference lasting several days was a brilliant idea, which no doubt it would have been had someone taken the trouble to ensure that it was audible. Anyway, so be it. She was content to spend her mornings listening to crackly sounds and deciphering whatever she could from them. The highlight of the job, however, was the coffee mornings. These took place regularly at 11.00 a.m. when everybody who happened to be working in the Institute of African Studies, a rather attractive, airy building near the library on the Ibadan campus, downed tools for the regular morning ritual. The company there was invariably pleasant and the conversations always interesting.

The Institute of African Studies, the pioneer of such institutes on the African continent, had been established by an Act of the Senate of the University of Ibadan in July 1962, so it was still quite new –  a mere five years old – when we arrived. In effect, it was a postgraduate interdisciplinary research centre, offering courses, according to its current website, ‘in the core disciplines of African studies, spanning anthropology, African history, African law, African music, African visual arts, cultural and media studies.’

Drapers Hall (opened in 1969). High relief woodcarving by Dick E. Idehen displayed at the Institute of African Studies.

Selina remembers four people in particular from those days, though of course many more friendly faces would regularly appear in and then disappear from the morning coffee ritual.

The first of these was her boss, Professor Robert Gelston Armstrong (1917–1987). He was the director of the institute, an American anthropologist with an extraordinarily large range of both European and African languages at his disposal and clearly a scholar of considerable distinction in his field. Yet, despite all that, what she recalls most about him was his great modesty and diffidence. She never heard him raise his voice or express any frustration and he also never revealed anything about his personal life. He was never to be seen out and about in the town or on the campus and there was never any whiff of a family or of any friendship networks. In fact, he seemed to exist within a totally self-contained bubble and never gave even an inkling of needing anyone else in his life. However, one should not infer from this that he was necessarily socially isolated, but rather that we inhabited very different social circles. In fact, once Selina had exhausted any prospect of producing a credible publication from the conference proceedings, he appointed her as his personal secretary, a post she retained for the remainder of our stay in Nigeria and throughout this period, he was always amiable and exceedingly pleasant.

A second person at the institute who made an impression on Selina at that time was Robin Horton (1932–2019). He was a British anthropologist and philosopher, also of considerable distinction, and his main interest was in the Kalabari people of what is now known as the Rivers State in Nigeria. He was a warm and delightful man whose life had been devastated a few years before we came by a tragedy from which the whole campus community was still reeling. Robin Horton had married a Nigerian woman called Hanna Douglas who died in childbirth in Ibadan’s well-equipped, modern, state-of-the art, university hospital along with their twin daughters at the hands, or so the campus gossip had it, of the hospital staff who withheld from her the treatment that she and her babies required because they disapproved of her marriage to Robin Horton. This seemed odd to us because there were quite a few couples of different racial backgrounds around in our day and nobody seemed to object to or discriminate against them. In fact, Nigeria – in sharp contrast to many other former colonies – is refreshingly colour-blind, so the nurses’ objection was all the more inexplicable.

Anyway, at this time Robin Horton was working in Ibadan and bringing up Hanna’s much younger sister Sokari, who had been born in 1958 (Hanna was born in 1938) and for whom her older sister had been caring. He carried on that role and became Sokari’s guardian, so when we were on the campus, she was a little girl of about ten and Robin was undoubtedly very fond of her. This little girl has now grown up into the eminent London-based sculptor of international fame, Sokari Douglas Camp, who was awarded a CBE for her work in 2005.

Michael Crowder’s popular history of colonial West Africa.

The third memorable regular morning coffee drinker at the institute was Michael Crowder (1934–1988), an eminent British historian of Africa who, like Robin Horton, had first been introduced to Nigeria through the military service that young British men of their generation had to undergo after completing their schooling. At the time he was actually based at the University of Ile Ife, which was about an hour and a half’s drive from Ibadan, but he was nonetheless a regular visitor to the Ibadan campus and an amusing and delightful conversationalist.

Another of Selina’s colleagues at the Institute of African Studies was an administrator, Sam Iwezi. His presence on the campus was unusual at the time, for he was one of the few Igbos (though we all called them Ibos then) still remaining on the campus since the mass exodus from the campus in the early hours of one morning to which we have alluded. We got to know him quite well, partly because he was closer to our generation in terms of age, but also because his wife and Selina were both expecting their first babies at around the same time, so used to attend the same ante-natal clinics at the University College Hospital in Ibadan. A year after we had left Nigeria, he was ‘eased out’ of his job at the Institute of African Studies for reasons over which we will cast a veil. He wrote to us in detail giving his side of the story, but rather than reproduce his lengthy self-justifications, we include this letter making rather bitter but interesting observations on what happened to the Igbo community at the end of the war.

From Sam Iwezi
P.O. Box 2838
13 August 1970

Dear Robin and Selina,

I am trying to forget all that [the dispute at the Institute] now and start afresh. I only hope it will fade into the past quickly. After six months of unemployment, I assumed duties in the Public Relations Department of the Christian Council on 1st August.

The war is ended, and we are watching with very keen interest the rehabilitation, resettlement and reconstruction – they call it the 3 Rs here – work of the government. Though they may be hampered by lack of funds but its recent decisions make for hate and regret and tells the Ibo people straight in the face that they are a defeated people who have no choice but to accept whatever is offered them. For instance, the government has ruled that a token sum of £20 will be paid to all those who paid in their Biafran money to the Central Bank after the end of the war. True, true, some of the people acquired ‘war’ wealth (as in Nigeria) but the majority of them were rich before the war. As you know, the Ibos were very successful businessmen. Some of them sold out all their businesses and landed property to flee to the East. I know three landlords in Ibadan who, after selling their houses, etc. returned to the East with about £18,000 each. For this set of people what will £20 mean? To them the government ruling is nothing short of murder! Again, they are required to pay school fees! From what? The £20? The civil servants in East Central have not had it any better – that is those of them given back their jobs – they are compelled, by an edict, to pay 25 per cent of their salaries for reconstruction work. Most of the schools are missionary owned and the proprietors have not had a clearance to reopen so their teachers have not been paid any salaries. How can a person like this be asked to pay tax and in arrears? Same story goes for the traders – no capital to resurrect their trade. The wholesome result is that the Ibo state is a den of armed daring robbers! You dare not venture on the road after 7.00 p.m. or you get stripped naked! Out of their own state, they are not wanted. In the Rivers State, they are not allowed even to get into the state, not to talk of reclaiming their property in Port Harcourt particularly (which they developed anyway). In Lagos itself some house owners won’t let their houses to Ibos! There are ugly remarks everywhere that could make one commit suicide. The resultant effect is that the Ibos believe that Biafra will rise again but then it won’t be as it was before. They believe that ‘our man’ will return to honour our money, penny for penny. I do not blame them. The government is ineffective, corrupt, unrealistic and insincere.

If there is anything I can do for you now that I am in Lagos, please let me know.

Thank you again. I appreciate your kindness very much.

With all good wishes, Yours sincerely,


N.B. How’s Robin’s thesis going?


Readers might be interested in the fates and fortunes of some of the people mentioned in this blogpost:

Moving from his chair at Ibadan, Essien Essien-Udom moved first to Kalabar, then became the founding vice-chancellor of the University of Maiduguri (1975) and chairperson of the National Universities Commission between 1986 and 1992. After his retirement, Essien, Ruby and their son, Nkeruwem, based themselves in Washington DC. Essien died in 2002.

Billy Dudley became head of the department of political science in 1972 at Ibadan, was much revered by staff and students, achieving an almost iconic status. He died tragically young at 49, and Valerie and their children returned to the UK.

On her return to the UK, Christina Le Moignan had a stellar career in the Methodist church. She was ordained in 1976 and ministered in Huntingdon, Southampton, and Portchester. She was then a tutor at Queen’s College, Birmingham (1989–94) and president of the Methodist Conference (2001–2). She is author of Following the Lamb: A Reading of Revelation for the New Millennium (2000).

Christopher Beer published his thesis with Ibadan University Press as The Politics of Peasant Groups in Western Nigeria (1976) and subsequently had a long career in international student administration. We were lucky enough to bump into him in Cape Town in 2003, as friendly and cheerful as ever.

Adeoye Akinsanya returned from Chicago and had a distinguished career in political science at the universities of Ibadan, Lagos and Ilorin, with many publications to his name.

Robert Armstrong spent the rest of his life in Nigeria. Upon his retirement from the institute in 1983 he settled in Otukpo in Benue State in Nigeria where, in acknowledgement of his contribution to Nigerian scholarship, he was accorded the title of the Odejo of Idomaland. When he died at the age of 70 in Otukpo in May 1987, he was given a full Idoma funeral that lasted for two days.

In 1969, Robin Horton moved from the institute to the new Ile-Ife campus at the University of Ife. From there he went to the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State in 1978 and then, in 1997, he moved closer to his ultimate home in Buguma. He remarried twice and had children and grandchildren and was at last able to enjoy the family life that had so cruelly been wrenched from him by the tragic ending of his first marriage. He died in Buguma in December 2019 at the age of 87.

Michael Crowder’s notable career as an author, popular historian of Africa and editor of the pioneering arts periodical, Nigerian Magazine, was cut tragically short in the summer of 1988 when, at the age of 54, he stepped off a pavement in London, where he was at the time editing the Journal of African History, and was hit and killed by a passing car.

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: A photo montage of E.U. Essien-Udom, Robin Horton and Adeoye Akinsanya.


[1]. O’Connell was a man not averse to treading on a few toes, usually because he took principled stands on ethical issues. He had left the department to work in Kano before Robin arrived. At the end of the civil war he got on the wrong side of some Nigerian politicians who gave him 24 hours to leave the country. Back in the UK, he founded an innovative and reputable department of peace studies at Bradford, which Mrs Thatcher and her government despised and denounced as ‘appeasement studies’.

[2]. E. U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: The Rise of the Black Muslims in the USA, London: Penguin Books, 1966. [First published by Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962.]

[3]. Described by the Guardian as ‘one of the emblematic institutions of the 1960s’. For more information see here.

[4]. See Robin’s obituary of Post ‘A tribute to Ken Post, 1935–2017’ Review of African Political Economy 44 (154) 2017, 1–3. Austin died in 2019, aged 97.

[5]. To explain, ‘Brother Adejumo’ ran a garage and kept our battered cars going with skill and not a little cunning.



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