Popular Democracy, Youth and Activism: an interview with Tunde Zack-Williams

ROAPE’s Peter Dwyer interviews the scholar-activist Tunde Zack-Williams. In 2020, Zack-Williams became the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom’s Distinguished Africanist. For decades, his research and writing on economic and political reform across Africa has focused on alternatives to western prescriptions, which has influenced his work as an editor of ROAPE.

Comrade, can you please tell us about your early politicisation? Your childhood background in Sierra Leone and your experience growing up?

I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and as far as I can recall, there was no politician in the family, though politics was always discussed. It was mainly local politics, but also international and pan-African. As a child growing up in Sierra Leone, the conflict that caught my attention was the situation in Southern Africa. I just could not understand how and why the white minority imposed their brutal hegemony on the people of southern Africa. I had a deeply felt sympathy for the people of Zambia not just for the punishment they suffered from the apartheid regime in South Africa, but also how sanctions were damaging their economy. I did not have access to books on other African countries, at least, not until the Peace Corps volunteers arrived from the states as teachers and they would lend us their books. At a very young age I would take myself to the library to read, not just for peace and tranquillity, but to avoid unending domestic tasks. Our generation had hoped for a radical transformation of economy and society, which has no similarity to the kleptocracies that now constitute the Sierra Leone state.

What were the experiences of coming to the UK, and then trying to establish yourself as a scholar?

Coming to Liverpool was a totally new experience, not least because everything seems larger than similar items in Freetown. I came to join my mother, who was already in Liverpool, working as a nurse. She was a loving, but no nonsense mother, who expected me to work hard to enable me to look after myself with a good job. On arrival in Liverpool, I registered for A Levels in Economics, British Economic History and Government and my tutor was a labour and co-operative supporter, Robert (Bob) Wareing, a fascinating guy, a staunch socialist and an excellent teacher. He was very active in the Labour movement and later became a member of parliament for the Liverpool West Derby constituency. I thoroughly enjoyed his classes: he encouraged debates and always had time to answer our questions.

I think I can describe myself as a studious individual and I spent most of my spare time in libraries, which were easily reached in Liverpool, prior to Tory austerity. Indeed, apart from my house, I have probably spent more time in libraries than anywhere else. I went on to study and research for a PhD. On completion of my PhD, I moved to Nigeria.

You moved to Nigeria in the late 1970s to lecture. What were your experiences of this period, and your years in Nigeria? Can you tell us something about the atmosphere at the time, and also the work you were doing?

In 1979, I went to Nigeria, where I worked initially at Bayero University in Kano, and later at the University of Jos with one of the greatest sociologists (human beings for that matter) that I have ever met, and his name was Omafume Friday Onoge. We all called him ‘Prof’, not that he wanted it that way, rather because it exemplified the high regard we held him. Prof had the biggest head that I ever saw on a human being and as a Sierra Leonean I was convinced ‘his head was full of books’. He was well read and well published, and despite his great achievements, he was a modest, generous and fair-minded person. He had published extensively in various sub-disciplines in sociology: literature, theory, development, deviance etc. Prof saw me as an important member of a strong staff team he was building of young radical, research oriented, excellent teachers and researchers. He spoke to me about the future shape and direction of the department and he made it clear to me that I was at the core of his plans. I knew he respected my work and wanted me to stop thinking of returning to Britain. He wanted the University of Jos Sociology Department to be the best in the country. It was full of young dynamic scholars (men and women) from all over Nigeria and Ghana, Sierra Leone, Britain, Uganda, India, USA, and Eastern Europe.

Though I was not a senior staff member at the time, Prof gave me major portfolios: as Examination Officer, Admissions Officer and Departmental Seminar Organizer. These were important offices, if not well-managed can damage the image and reputation of the Department. As examination officer, I would invite colleagues to submit examination papers to me, ensure they were ready without errors and leakages and to get the same papers typed and ready for each examination. The main issues were the integrity of the papers in order to avoid leaks and other malpractices. These issues never arose.

Whilst I was in Kano, I had developed an interest in gender study, and by the time I got to Jos, I had written two papers on women in Africa: ‘Female Labour and Exploitation Within African Social Formation’ and ‘Female Urban Employment (1985). The first article came out of my reading of Marx and Louis Althusser and the other was an empirical study of women working in construction sites in the Jos metropolitan area.

Women in Nigeria (WIN) soon emerged as an important pressure group of women, though virtually all its members were middle class, often university-based, as well as a few university-based men who gave support to the activities of the movement. WIN became a rallying point for many middleclass women, supported by socialist inclined men. However, it was not long before WIN became a bête noire to many conservative husbands and boyfriends, who saw it as a source of radicalisation and domestic discontent as women, particularly northern Nigerian women were now asking awkward questions around gender equality. Nonetheless, much of the activities of WIN continued to be based in the universities and most of the participants were university people, including expatriate women from Europe and North America largely from Amadu Bello University, University of Jos, University of Ibadan and University of Port Harcourt. WIN was a major tour de force for gender consciousness in Nigeria during the 1980s.

When the history of radical politics in Nigeria is written, the period of the late 1970-1985 will be seen as a period of serious political engagements and challenges. For example, the value of the Naira, the country’s currency was quite strong, stronger than the pound sterling, as a result, the universities were better resourced and academic campuses were vibrant and free from oppression.

Omafume Onoge was a real intellectual giant, a friendly and trustworthy individual. He was a Harvard graduate, but unlike the ‘been to’ (blabbers) that one encountered from time to time, I had been working with Prof (Onoge) for almost three years before I knew he got his PhD from Harvard. It came as a consequence of a death threat I received from a student, who wrote an anonymous letter threatening me that I had come to Nigeria ‘to frustrate Nigerian students’, otherwise, how can I justify the mark I gave him. This individual warned that since I had come to frustrate Nigerian students, ‘it is my corpse that will return to England’. This note was slipped under my office door and I was aware that weak, lumpen students used this strategy to threaten young and foreign lecturers. Unfortunately, for the culprit, I trusted my integrity and my sense of justice and fair play. I took the letter straight to Onoge, and I told him that I had a suspect, who was lurking around my office as I came from a lecture. Onoge’s face dropped and he started perspiring and apologised to me profusely for this act of a student. Next Onoge summoned the entire class and invited me to come to the meeting. Prof turned to the assembled class and said to them: ‘I want you to know how disappointed and ashamed I feel today to hear a Nigerian student referred to Dr Zack-Williams coming from Sierra Leone as a foreigner, who has come to destroy Nigerian students’. It was at this point Prof Onoge told them: ‘You people do not realise how lucky you are to have Zack-Williams teaching you. I studied in Harvard under Talcott Parsons, but I never learnt any sociology’. He told them that all he got from Harvard was bourgeois sociology. Finally, he told the class that he was disgusted with the fact that someone from Sierra Leone could be called a foreigner in Nigeria.

There was also the case of another student, who came up to me and said he wanted to see me. At the time, I was in a hotel when he turned up, I thought this person wanted to borrow a book or to discuss some academic issue. He turned up to my hotel and in the presence of a friend of mine he made his intentions clear: He had Second Class Lower in his second year, he said, and he needed at least a Second Class Upper for the job he was interested in pursuing and he expected me to co-operate with him. It turned out that he wanted me to change his overall average that he had the previous year, after which I told him to leave and that I was going to report him to the head of department. What is clear is that rogues like these two characters were not typical of the vast majority of industrious, pleasant and courteous young Nigerian men and women that I taught.

You are well known for your work on Sierra Leone and you are regarded as an authority – cutting your way through much of the academic nonsense that has been written about Africa. You have helped analyse the state in Sierra Leone, and the historical circumstances that have contributed to conflict and underdevelopment and examined the ways in which the complex political emergencies in West Africa can be grasped within a radical political economic framework. Can you explain what you were trying to do and how you kicked back against prevailing intellectual fashions?

The truth is that Sierra Leone was a development tragedy waiting to happen. Throughout history, one can hardly speak of a consensus as to how the country was to be governed as a nation – both between the colonial power and the local governing classes. From its inception, the various groups and nationalities that came together in the new formation that became Sierra Leone after 1787 did not have the ability or opportunity to impose hegemony over the rest of society, due to slave raiding and internecine wars, as well as the weakness of each section. For example, in Ghana the Asante managed to impose hegemony over less powerful groups or the Fulani in Northern Nigeria.

The Peninsula, consisting of Freetown and its environs was chosen as the home for the Liberated Africans whose status differed from that of the indigenous people in the country, who unlike the freed slaves were not accorded British subject status, but were deemed as British protected people. Throughout the colonial period, the settlers now referred to as Creoles or Krios were governed by British laws and both government and mission schools were available to them from as early as 1845. It was not until 1906 that the first provincial school was opened to boys who were sons of Chiefs. This political dualism, came to haunt both rulers and ‘subjects’ as certain privileges (education and land) were available to one group and denied to the other.

This history had a direct impact on subsequent decolonisation, and independence. Siaka Stevens and his All Peoples Congress (APC) wasted no time in declaring a one-party under his leadership in 1978, thus laying the foundation for economic and political chaos that led to the country’s civil war. The one-party state led to curtailment of freedom of expression as opposition leaders and critics of the emerging kleptocracy were harassed, thrown in jail or forced into exile. Coincidentally, the rise of the one-party state was characterised by the collapse of the economy and frequent visits to the International Financial Institutions for aid, which simply exacerbated the situation.

Structural adjustment programmes and later neo-liberalism brought misery and chaos to the people of Sierra Leone, whilst the political elite survived through widespread corruption by mortgaging the country’s resources and by strengthening the authoritarian state. Steven’s administration tried to suppress opposition from young people who bore the brunt of the economic irresponsibility of the state, but in 1991, war broke out when a group of rebels entered from the southeast of the country near the Liberian border to challenge the APC government for state hegemony. The rebels were able to capture important posts in the country, including parts of the rich diamond mines in the Kono District, near the Liberian border, which they continued to mine. The success of the rebels on the diamond field posed a major threat to the ability of the APC to raise resources to prosecute the war. As the war was being prosecuted by the already discredited APC regime, a coup was unleashed by a section of the army.

Charles Taylor the Liberian warlord, decided to teach Sierra Leone a lesson by arming a local warlord, Foday Sankoh, whom Taylor had met in Libya when both were undergoing military training in Benghazi during the regime of Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi. Inevitably, given the close proximity between the two countries and the cultural ties between them, the fighting in Sierra Leone spilled over to Liberia, when Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG) forces struck Taylor’s position in Liberia as his troops were about to capture the Liberian capital. Consequently, Taylor swore revenge on Sierra Leone for allowing its airport to be used to strike at his units. It took the intervention of Nigerian-led ECOWAS troops and British troops, including the Ghurkhas to put an end to fighting. Taylor was subsequently charged with11 crimes including terrorism, rape, murder and the use of child soldiers by rebel groups in Sierra Leone during the civil war of 1991-2002.

Unfortunately, for the toiling masses, the DNA of the governing class is fuelled by corruption and indiscipline. These ‘natural causes’ are simply pointing to the precarity which defines life for the ordinary citizens of this unfortunate land. Progress will not come to Sierra Leone until the governing classes realise that their raison d’être is not self-serving, but to work for and with the people for the transformation of society in order to raise the standard of living of the masses. Only popular democracy based on the will of the people will bring progress and sustainable peace to this unfortunate land. The role of the young people is crucial, if progress is to be consolidated.

You were a young scholar when Walter Rodney wrote his pioneering 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. You shared much – in terms of approach and politics – with Rodney. He was also – like you – a man deeply connected to the struggles of Black people in North America and Caribbean. Can you describe how his work and life influenced you and your research- activism?

Throughout my undergraduate life, there were a number of books and writers that I found intriguing and which left indelible impressions in my mind. These authors include: Amilcar Cabral’s, Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; Black Skins White Masks, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Turay) & Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America and of course Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I also read Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers. Here Rodney was able to discuss with the Rastafarians in a relaxed manner, whilst drawing attention to the injustices of slavery, which left slaves and their dependents empty handed and in a state of destitution, whilst compensating people like Edward Colston, who had already made a fortune out of the misery of millions of Africans- now you can appreciate the reason behind the ecstatic celebrations of the young people (black and white) who liberated the people of Bristol from the presence of such an unsavoury character. This was the young Rodney post-PhD, full of energy, not afraid to engage the brothers in discussion on such issues as: Black Power, Black Consciousness, above all, about the brutality and humiliation early capitalism imposed on the African people on the continent and it’s Diaspora.

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was a path-breaking project, which called it out as he saw it. Rodney was able to reassure the reader that development was not an alien phenomenon to Africans. The format of the book, the style of writing, the language all points to the fact that it was not necessarily produced for an academic consumption, but to raise consciousness among the toiling masses and their allies.

In Nigeria, I encountered students who were eager to read the text, listen to discussions and learn about the ‘counter discourses’ that writers like Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral produced. At this time Nigerian universities were reasonably well resourced with relatively good library facilities, regular, well organised conferences and seminars, which brought together students’ and staff participation. I was surprised to learn in the universities that I taught, that prior to my arrival, they had never heard about these great black radical thinkers. By the time I left these authors and books were in the curriculum and books on these topics were available in the library and campus bookshops.

Your research and writing on economic and political reform in Africa has been important, but you have also developed alternatives to western prescriptions for decades, which has helped keep alive a tradition of thought that was marginalised in the 1980s and 1990s. How have you managed to do this, what has helped sustain you politically and intellectually? I am aware of your years on ROAPE as an editor, and member of the Editorial Working Group. Has this been important to you?

It is imperative that those of us who witnessed the destructive effect of structural adjustment and neo-liberalism must stand up to be counted. These two ‘Western constructs’ derailed African progress and far from aiding democracy, it strengthened the authoritarian state and anarchy in Africa. Leaders became disconnected from their citizens as they slashed vital budgets on health, education and food imports in order to settle crippling and mounting debts owed to donors. Democracy did not survive under these conditions, as challenges to the state lead to economic uncertainty, political upheaval and a series of military coups, which in turn impacts on economic progress. What is clear to me is this: one cannot study Africa and remain neutral to the problems African people face.

My objection to what I saw as the imposition of western paradigms or solutions to African states is based on one simple observation: these policies do not benefit the toiling masses of the continent. Far from aiding their struggles, they are designed to tie Africa and its governing class even deeper onto the neo-colonial umbilical cord of Western domination and to make the continent perpetually subservient to Western dictate. Indeed, this has been the fate of much of Africa, and Sierra Leone in particular: policies are dictated from Washington, London or Paris, policies which are in the interests of those who developed them, such as the Bretton Woods Institutions or the International Financial Institutions, and the World Bank.

In short, after years of destructive structural adjustment programmes (SAP) and neo-liberal economic policies, African leaders should have ended this economic suicide imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. One simply has to look at how these two policies: structural adjustment programme and neo-liberalism have destroyed African infant industries. For example, prior to the imposition of structural adjustment, many African countries had nascent (infant) industries which were destroyed by these programmes forcing African countries with infant industries to compete with ‘mature’ industries in the capitalist economies, a battle that they were incapable of winning.

For me it has not been easy given the fact that my work environment could not be described as Africanist, which meant that some of the concessions or benefits of working on Africa were not available to me. Indeed, I was recruited as a Lecturer in Social Policy, initially teaching social policy and I am sure this has influenced my perspective when it comes to issues of poverty and social inequalities. However, there were other colleagues in the university who were working on Africa, such as Giles Mohan (a geographer) and Bob Milward (an economist). Indeed, Mohan and I collaborated with Milward, and Ed Brown, a geographer from Loughborough University, in producing a much acclaimed critique of structural adjustment, Structural Adjustment: Theory, Practice and Impacts, published by Routledge, 2000.

I also worked with other colleagues, whilst taking the lead in producing,  Africa in Crisis: New Challenges and Possibilities with (Diane Frost and Alex Thompson); When the State Fails: Studies on Intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War with a group of Sierra Leonean academics in Sierra Leone and the USA. I also edited another text in 2008  on Sierra Leone: The Quest for Sustainable Development and Peace. In both cases, Cyril Obi was very helpful. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for all his support. He is fine comrade. One other work that I want to mention is that which I put together with Professor Ola Uduku of Manchester Metropolitan University, our book: Africa Beyond the Post Colonial: Political and Socio-Cultural Identities. For sure, I have been able to work with people committed to change in Africa.

In addition, as you have pointed out this period coincided with the decades when Thatcherism and the New Right took centre stage in British politics, a period when the nation was told that, ‘there is nothing like society, only individuals’. It was also a period when thousands of miners struck to protect their jobs, families and communities. I must pay tribute to comrades in ROAPE, a journal that I consider my intellectual home and one that has helped me and others to reflect on seemingly puzzling issues, and where I have met comrades who have helped me to further develop my ideas. Though I have been mainly involved with editorial work, nonetheless, I have also been involved in outreach work, including the invaluable writing workshops in Britain and in Africa working with young academics who are interested in publishing articles in journals on topics of their choice, which is then critiqued by moderators from the ROAPE collective. I have found this exercise quite rewarding in that it helps to improve and consolidate writing skills for many young academics in Britain and in Africa and in this way, ROAPE is making a difference.

What does an alternative vision for the continent look like today? How do we draw in radical social movements and protests closer towards this kind of vision?

Well, there was a time a few years ago when I would have sought comfort in a few countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, or Ethiopia. Right now, these countries are all troubled with conflicts. In the case of South Africa, the jury is still out on the new regime with its millionaire leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. Nigeria, despite its enormous wealth, has still not assumed its leadership role in African governance or development. To many Nigerians, President Buhari’s second coming is already a disappointment, as he has not been able to deal with pressing economic, social and security problems, including widespread corruption among the unruly elite.  Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country also occupies a highly sensitive geographical position on the continent, and its economic performance that many feels deserves attention but is now engrossed in a new war with one of its associated province.

The alternative vision for Africa in my view should be premised on a desire to put an end to gerontocracy, and a greater involvement in national and local politics of young people, in particular, women. The politics of gerontocracy is the precursor to totalitarianism; its outmoded nature renders it antithetical to progress and modernity. Not only is it impervious to alternatives, but it is hostile to new ideas, seeing them as undermining its core belief: age is superior to brain. How can any progressive state justify the constitutional position that people must be at least 40 years to stand as a candidate to lead his country; especially a state like Sierra Leone where the life expectancy was only 53 in 2017? Young people can work closely and quickly for the liberation of African women from genital mutilation and freedom from gender oppression, which has meant that society has not seen the best of the African woman.

Women would make the case for, and fight to end ‘the school shift system’, as girls would be the major beneficiaries of such policies, which currently means that half of the children in Sierra Leone, for example, go to school after the morning shift has ended and those who go to the afternoon shift are already overwhelmed with domestic chores as well as petty commodity activities, thus arriving in school already tired, and finish school when it is dark and there is little time for ‘studying’ or to complete ‘home work’. A youthful parliament will help to end silent gender oppression and girls and women could realise their full potential.

Much of your work – again for decades – has been developing young Black scholars, within, of course, your specific frameworks and perspectives. You have also been active in Lancashire and Liverpool arguing for black and ethnic minority interests. Can you talk about these combined activities?

In my view, the welfare and progress of students are important, if only because the future is theirs and progressives must utilise their position to aid students so that they can get the best out of them.  This is true of students, who come from working class back grounds, particularly those who are the first in the family to enter higher education, who find what Nigerians call ‘acada’ (university life), not just strange, but also stressful and daunting. In order to aid student’s welfare, it is important to build alliances with like-minded colleagues, in other words, people committed to transform the atmosphere under which students work.

One mechanism I utilised, with colleagues, was to set up a weekly ‘Wednesday Afternoon Workshop’ opened to all students who gained entry via the ‘access programme,’ (those coming late to university, without many study skills) to which other students could join, if they so wished. The whole point of this exercise was to demystify the academy and take the fear out of the students by finding what they found difficult to understand and to deal with it in a place that is less pressed for time than formal lectures and tutorial settings. As the programme proceeded, we noticed that students’ confidence grew, questions asked were becoming more sophisticated and these were reflected in better results. We were also  able to attract a few young Black scholars to our graduate programmes and some are now working in Africa and others are now teaching in Britain and we are still in touch. At least one is a regular reviewer for ROAPE and head of department in his university.

As you pointed out, I have also been active in Liverpool and Lancashire arguing for black and ethnic minority interests. These activities have taken several forms. Firstly, following the publication of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the Macpherson Report, I was invited by the then Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary, to become one of their Independent Advisers by the Chief Constable Sir Paul Stephenson. Prior to that appointment, I had been appointed Independent Member of Merseyside Police Authority. Indeed, by the time I left I had become the longest serving Independent Member of any Police Authority in the country. The inspiration for my involvement in this venture was the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the Macpherson Report, which gave the impression that Tony Blair’s Labour Government was serious about standing up to racists and bullies. My main interests included: the force’s policies, programmes on race, gender, young people and gay and lesbian people.

For over a decade, I also chaired The Granby Mental Health Community Group (GMHCG). This group was set up by a group of women, who were concerned with the poor state of mental health provisions in the city of Liverpool, in particular the fact that there was no centre dealing with the specificity of black mental health. The GMHCG was set up to address some of the problems of Black mental health in our community and the Mary Seacole Centre was where it was situated. The centre on Upper Parliament Street is at the heart of the black community, and to locate it in any other region would have alienated our members. Though most of our members were Black, we also had members from different ethnic groups and different faiths. My involvement with Mary Seacole House deepened my interest in black mental health, to the point where I co-authored a book on black mental health with a group of social workers for the Central Council of Social Work Education.

I was also involved with a dance theatre for young people on Merseyside, via Merseyside Dance Initiative as a committee member for over twelve years. Finally, I have been involved as Governors for three schools in Liverpool: Mosspits Infants and Juniors School, Calderstones School, and Kingsley Junior School. Both Mosspits and Calderstones draw their children from predominantly white catchment areas, whilst Kingsley School has children from predominantly Muslim immigrants including Arabs, Somali, Pakistan, and a few East Europeans. My involvement in schools and community groups is really to bridge that gap between what community needs are and what ruling authorities understand and are offering.

What are we without activism, and action? Idle pontificators, at best, so, yes, involvement and engagement has always been at the centre of my life.

Tunde Zack-Williams is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Lancashire. He won the Distinguished Africanist award of the UK African Studies Association in 2020. Zack is a long-standing member of the Review of African Political Economy, editor, mentor and comrade.



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