By Adagbo Onoja*
In what sense might we input any connection between the strike action of one trade union – the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) – to the geopolitical (mis)fortune of Nigeria? Is geopolitics not about what state institutions, mainly of coercion, do in relation to control of the global space as opposed to biopolitics which concerns itself with disciplining the domestic space?
In a country where the subject matter of geopolitics, where it is mentioned at all in the curriculum, still follows the ruined Realist view of power in international politics, these are the sort of questions likely to greet a piece bearing the title this piece bears. But it can easily be demonstrated that there is, indeed, a geopolitical fallout from the on-going strike action by Nigerian academics as well as in the totality of such strike actions in the past few decades.
The connection is traceable to what happened in International Relations, (IRs) scholarship shortly before and immediately after the Cold War. It started with the attack on Anarchy, the organizing concept of IRs, by those who call it a construction rather than a natural condition in inter-nation relations that it was presented to be. ‘Anarchy is what states make of it’ as advanced by the pioneers of social constructivist theorizing of international politics spread so rapidly, mixing with poststructuralism, critical theory and critical political economy to take hold of the disciplines of IRs, Geography, Cultural Studies and, eventually, Political Science, marking the ‘critical turn’, a much broader development than the ‘linguistic turn’ which has now become problematic because of multimodality.
It was simply the ‘critical turn’ reading the riot act to Realism and Liberalism by 1996 when Prof Gerald O’Tuathail, the US based Irish geographer, came out with his Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space, his doctoral thesis turned into a book. He overturned the conception of Geopolitics as the influence of geography on international politics by arguing that geography is not nature but the imaginative mapping of the global space in pursuit of state power. In other words, place, territory, boundaries and borders are contingent rather than fixed or natural. In his own words, Geopolitics is not what Halford Mackinder says it is in his 1904 testament: The Geographical Pivot of History but “a distinctive geographical gaze upon international politics”. The import is that when we say that a place is the ‘Heart of Darkness”, it is a cultural imagination of such space with intent on power over the space. It could thus be argued that the book marked the birth of Critical Geopolitics, the transformation of its content from the study of impacts of mountains, landmass, bodies of water and similar geographical features on international politics to Geopolitics as a strategy of power through the creation of spatial images that are constitutive of the reality they invoke.
If O’Tuathail and his likes in IRs/Human Geography were not borne out by colonialism as a discursive practice, then they are by Drone Warfare as that approach to warfare is based on micro-scale imaginative geographies rather than any concern with geography per se. The principle behind Drone Warfare is topology rather than topography. Any space can be produced through a narrative. It is not about whether the narrative such as calling Africa ‘the Heart of Darkness’ is true or not. It is about what it enables the narrator calling it so to do, such as colonizing it so as to replace the darkness supposedly with light. It is in that sense that discourse is power.
In Critical Geopolitics, there are three sites where discourses are manufactured. Formal Geopolitics is what academics of Geography, IRs and similar courses are doing. They are involved in geopolitics because, being involved in discourse, they are singing their world into reality, to quote someone. There is Practical Geopolitics which is what political leaders, military commanders, diplomats and operatives of para-military institutions do. Their pronouncements such as when they assert national interest are taken as interested visualization of the world embodying specific practices peculiar to such a discourse. Lastly, there is Popular Geopolitics which is the kind of geopolitical reasoning circulated by platforms of popular culture such as the media, literature, the internet. This is how it is possible to talk about media geopolitics, for example, because the media follows the flag or, broadly speaking, promotes banal nationalism. It is banal nationalism that implicates it in geopolitical conflicts. Of the three, popular geopolitics promises the hottest intellectual space because not only does popular culture serve as the conveyor belt for formal and practical geopolitics, it is a terrain of combustible conversation, much of it about binary representation of other people, culture, countries and experiences.
All these three sites of geopolitics collapses into a knowledge/power nexus that centralizes academics in the geopolitics of any nation. In fact, they would be considered as the ultimate power resource because although media professionals, military commanders, business managers, presidents, activists, models, writers, amongst others, all frame the world but they all do so with terms or concepts or theories formulated and articulated by academics. It is their job to research and produce the claims, arguments and proposition by which practitioners of statecraft operationalise national interest. ‘Africa as the centre piece of Nigerian foreign policy’; the ‘concentric circle’ paradigm or the notion of medium power are good examples of the concepts or theories we are talking about. Every other country does so.
So, any nation that, for whatever reasons, is incapable of creating and sustaining a university system whose academics can produce both esoteric theories as well as theories of the everyday is creating a problem for its geopolitics because it is undermining its most vital power resource as far as national self-understanding is concerned. Since geopolitical reading of the global space is impossible without geopolitical discourse, the inability of the Nigerian State to have resolved the crisis that has engulfed the university system tells the world more about the fundamental character of the Nigerian State than anything else. This problem is compounded at the larger societal level in that the connection between ASUU strike actions and Nigeria in global geopolitics is never mentioned when the impacts of the strike actions are being compiled. Nobody mentions this dimension. Yet, it is more crucial than whatever else they mention in terms of impacts of the strike since Nigeria’s self-location in the world determines the quality of domestic life that is possible.
The failure or inability of the Nigerian State in the past three decades to resolve the crisis in the university beyond blaming academics is compounded by a state practice that is contextually insensitive. That is the practice of taking away some of the best academics at any one time into government service without bothering whether the system has their replacement. IBB would be the most guilty of this in terms of the large number of the first layer of academics he carted away from the university system. In his own case, it was not restricted to the social sciences but to every discipline. That is how that generation – the Ibrahim Gambaris, the Isawa Elaigwus, the Bolaji Akinyemis and so on left.
Today, three of the top ten in Nigerian Political Science alone are on government service. It doesn’t make sense to say that academics should not be invited to serve the state. Doing so even makes them better academics. But how do you take away a Prof Okey Ibeanu, a Sonny Tyoden or a Sam Egwu today without either sending someone else to train quickly to replace each of these academics or ensuring that even while in service, they still teach? The point here is that members of that generation are irreplaceable in the context of the current crisis. Thank God that the Attahiru Jegas, the Eghosa Osaghaes and the Nuhu Yaqubs have returned to join the Adigun Agbajes, Ayo Olukotuns, Paul Izahs and Osita Agbus who never left the campuses. Together with younger or rising names in Political Science such as Pam Dung Shas, Odion Akhaines, Jideoffor Adibes, Jeremiah Arowesegbes, Usman Tars, these eleven or so would constitute the core exercising intellectual oversight in the production of the kind of political scientists that Nigeria is urgently in need of. While it is true that there are those such as the Alex Gboyegas, Adiele Junaidu, Alaba Ogunsawo, Asisi Asobie, Ogban Iyan, Jibrin Ibrahim and Warriso Alli, it is unimaginable that just about eleven academics can be counted for such oversight function because they are the ones who have published, the definitive criterion for determining an academic. And yet, this is a country of 200 million Nigerians. The situation would not be substantially different if we take any other discipline such as History, Geography, Sociology, Economics, Peace and Conflict Studies, Philosophy, Linguistics, Literature. It might slightly be better in the Natural Sciences, Medicine, Architecture, Agriculture and what have you.
This reality ought to attract some more radical intervention from the government of the day beyond just handing in some money as a resolution of each ASUU strike action. Universities are part and parcel of Nigeria’s grand strategy. Just as American grand strategy would be incomplete without, say, Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy or Thomas Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map, for examples, so is Nigeria’s self-enactment in contemporary global order impossible without intellectuals serving as its foremost power resource. The knowledge/power nexus is not about professors becoming ministers or senior government officials. Rather, it is the power that comes from the special skill of problematising the world and framing it. As these frames embody in them certain practices, they are reproductive of the reality they invoke, thereby making the proponents powerful but not in terms of political offices they occupy. That is the power Mary Kaldor, for instance, exercises today across the world by framing postmodern wars as ‘New Wars’. Which military academy today or a serious Department of IRs, Political Science or Geopolitics can do without her book, New and Old Wars?
If there is only one thing Nigeria must get right, it should be an urgent rehabilitation of the universities. Nigeria can never be anything without universities with cutting edge competences. Achieving this cannot be a big deal because, up to the mid 1980s, Nigerian universities were world class. universities If some people organised to devastate the universities, it should be possible for some other people to organize to bring back the universities, with particular reference to mastery and transmission of geopolitical knowledge to future leaders.
Onoja teaches Political Science @ Veritas University, Abuja