It was an Inaugural Lecture, a key rite of the university system. As the first of it to be delivered under its new Vice-Chancellor, Prof Suleiman Bala Mohammed, and the first too in the year 2019, this Inaugural Lecture packed so many things into one. Above all, the subject matter is the sort that must have echoed in many centres of power within and outside Nigeria. The world takes the concept of security seriously, more so today that the word no longer has a meaning acceptable to everyone as it almost did before the end of the Cold War. The mention of security thus sends shivers down the spine of actors in the global space, almost without exception. It is, therefore, only scholars who are sure of themselves who can step out to try to frame a Middle Belt perspective of such a highly contested concept.
For 38 minutes on April 17th, 2019, Prof Adoyi Onoja of the Nasarawa State University, Keffi did hold his listeners spellbound, what with a summoning intonation and an excellent mastery of progression in PowerPoint presentation, escaping its formulaic stupidity. To his credit too were many bold assertions, several home truths about the Middle Belt in Nigerian politics, an extensive theoretical survey, interesting programmatic dimensions of his engagements but also many problematic intellectual claims and so much back and front sequence as to overstretch the flow of the story of a brave scholarly exploit. These positive and negative features are not totally unexpected since even an Inaugural Lecture is a human effort. The genius of his effort is bringing into existence a completely new research agenda in which others can enjoy a productive scholarly swim, now and in future in a fast expanding field such as security studies. Even more interesting is the programmatic dimension of his research effort in the idea of a media component of Middle Belt nationalism because “a Middle Belt media is a key to putting the perspective of the area on the competing media agenda of nationalities within Nigeria”, (P. 25).
There is a way in which Prof Adoyi Onoja’s Inaugural Lecture can be reduced to the view that the Middle Belt is an entrapped actor, with vulnerability and threats to it from its Others, particularly the North which he argues to be so because “the colonial fiat of including the area to the North sealed the hope of the area to master its destiny as its identity became embedded with that of the North”. Identifying a second fiddle implication in this, he locates that in not only the Hausa/Fulani/Kanuri survival calculus but also in the transience of parameters of inclusion and exclusion such as Hausa, Muslim, Northern, etc. And he cites the Muslim North’s rejection of the Northerness of service chiefs under the Obasanjo administration to demonstrate this.
Even with this alone aside from his formal declaration of preference for a constructivist view of securing the Middle Belt on Page 65 and the fleeting reference to the emancipatory dimension inherent in that, one could see the Professor going for a critical view of security as the region’s way out. Unfortunately, one searches for vistas of Middle Belt instrumentalisation of ideas, norms, values, culture, identity and even spatialisation into strategies of resistance and overcoming its vulnerabilities and threats without any in the entire text. What comes closest to that is a fall back on realist theories of survival while simultaneously endorsing the ordering of self-preservation praxis favoured by scholars such as Barry Buzan and Ole Weaver. Of course, there were no mentions of the criticisms that have been thrown at these giants, especially the notion that Buzan and Weaver are all about widening but not deepening of security and the attack on Ole Weaver’s securitisation theory as being ultimately conservative and guiltier of that even more than the realists he dealt with.
So, Prof Onoja’s story of academic exploration of security in relation to a Middle Belt perspective is as inviting, interesting, provocative as it is confounding and even confusing. It speaks to the potentials of Security Studies in Nigeria just as it advertises teething conceptual and theoretical problems being encountered at the moment nearly throughout the university system. With his bold stepping out, the conceptual constipation would gradually become clear and attract correctional attention. What has been highlighted here is just a tip of the ice-berg in Onoja’s exploration of framing security in terms of a Middle Belt perspective. Readers would have to seek the text of his Inaugural Lecture and make their own sense of it.
But the lecture turned out to transcend the advertised topic brought about by his attempt to locate the problem in broader theoretical canvass. In the course of doing so, he also made problematic statements such as the Euro-American ownership of existing theories of security analysis and the inference therefrom that “security is new and evolving in the academic community in Nigeria” or that “there are no scholarships and hence scholars of security and security studies in Nigeria”. In scholarship, there are very few right and wrong answers. It all depends on how one defends his or her position. It is possible that Professor Onoja can sustain his claim just as many academics in Nigeria would dismiss them as nonsensical. Prof Takena Tamuno, Okwudiba Nnoli, Bolaji Akinyemi, Isawa Elaigwu, Bayo Adekanye, Celestine Bassey and the warriors at the now defunct Centre for Peace and Conflicts Studies, (CEPACS) as well as the Programme on Ethnic and Federal Studies, (PEFs) at the University of Ibadan would certainly not accept such a claim because they have done very interesting works on security from whichever perspective of it one can think of. The theories which have predominated in Security Studies might have had Euro-American origin but that does not constitute a problem. Theories are supposed to be domesticated in teaching them. In any case, knowledge has no racial ownership. More importantly, what is theory by the way? Just because Africans are too overwhelmed by challenges of survival and are unable to establish and run credible journals to publicise theories of their encounter with survival does not mean they do not have theories. African folklores, tales and proverbs contain same or very similar elements that Euro-American scholars constructed into theories. Reading Clausewitz or any other strategic thinkers will show exactly this.
In an advance reporting of the this very Inaugural Lecture, Intervention quipped as to the possibility of it going beyond just another academic ritual into a voice capable of echoing in the power plotting chambers of Nigeria’s numerous shareholders in their domestic and global expressions. Has Prof Adoyi fulfilled that?
The answer would depend on each reader or interpreter of the hefty lecture. What anyone who was at the lecture can say is that not only the university but the Nasarawa State Government which owns it is very proud of the moment. No less than three members of the State Executive Council, including the Commissioner for Higher Education were there. This is not to talk of the Vice-Chancellor with whom the university community seems to be very happy. In fact, when Bala Ahmed 11, the Registrar, climbed the podium, he did so dancing, The hall joined him and it was an exciting moment of its own.
As far as Prof Suleiman Bala Mohammed, the VC who spoke before the lecture commenced is concerned, all professors will be able to deliver their Inaugural Lecture. He considered Prof Onoja’s Inaugural Lecture crucial at a time the Middle Belt is a major theater of security threats, from insurgency to skirmishes of ethno-religious sparks, kidnapping and various acts of criminality. His assurance is that Onoja’s lecture would be subject of policy dialogue. The point would seem that the university is getting it right so far, probably because it started with very mature and experienced Vice-Chancellors. It could also be because the State Government knows the worth of having a functional university beyond the ceremonies. It could equally be a product of locational advantage.
The challenge of framing a Middle Belt security perspective cannot be a one day job. Suffice it to say that the binary, inward looking and victimhood sense of history that have influenced that project so far will never get the region anywhere. The one-dimensional construction of history does not come to grips with the relationality and diffusion that define reality in the world today and that needs to be critically reflected upon. Studying, speaking or writing about the Middle Belt does not need to be justified. There are human beings there and their security is of utmost importance. The question is what conception of security might best provide a better framing of the region. Getting the framing right is strategic because each frame implies its own solution. Prof Adoyi Onoja has made the initial move. Let’s see others!