Richard Joseph | A “Nigerian” scholarly luminary from the diaspora

By Biodun Jeyifo | The Nation

This week, Richard Joseph, the John Evans Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, turned 75. The greetings, salutations and tributes from all over Africa and the world but especially from Nigerian scholars, have been as plentiful as they have been very moving.

Joseph taught at the University of Ibadan in the mid-to-late 70’s as Lecturer in Political Science which was when I first met him as I was myself also a beginning lecturer at the University. It so happens that as an Africanist scholar with a very broad range of professional interests and engagements, Nigeria is not the only African country to and in which Joseph – or Richard as I will henceforth refer to him in this tribute – has worked.


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He was at one time a Lecturer at the University of Khartoum and has carried out research throughout Africa. Cameroun, Ghana, Ethiopia, Liberia, Senegal and Zambia, these are some other African countries which nearly as much as Nigeria, have legitimate claims to having been Richard’s “area and country studies” interest. Nonetheless, Nigeria has indisputably been the intellectual and spiritual center of his work as a scholar, policy activist and public intellectual and this is the focus of this tribute. Before coming to this subject, a few words about Richard’s career and achievements should serve to provide a context for the tribute.



When he arrived in UI to begin his scholarly career, Richard created quite a stir with both his credentials and his personality. He had been educated in some of the best institutions in the English-speaking world. For his undergraduate education, he went to Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League American institutions. From there he won a Rhodes Scholarship that took him to Oxford University in the U.K. from which he received a PhD in 1973. I doubt if  this is still the case now, but at the time, you could not boast of a more prestigious pedigree as a scholar than this profile, especially in a place like UI at the time. But there was nothing staidly “Oxonian” in Richards’ personality or attitudes. For one thing, he looked too young for his age and credentials. More importantly, he was easygoing and affable and everyone liked him.

A gifted teacher, his students admired him immensely as did his colleagues. And he aligned himself to other young and radical lecturers at the university, he and his friend, the late South African scholar, Sam Nolutshungu, also a Lecturer in Political Science and one of the brightest men I ever met. By the mid to late 1980s, when one thought of radicalism in Nigerian universities, UI was not one of the places one thought about.


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But in the mid to late 70’s, UI was in the forefront of intellectual radicalism and Richard and Sam were, in their own unique ways, in the thick of things. Unlike some of us who felt that it was pointless to have anything to do with the government, civil servants and for that matter the UI academic and administrative establishment, Richard and Sam had a deep social science and Enlightenment faith that you could and should use knowledge to affect policy and policy makers for the social good.

Without any romanticization but admittedly with some nostalgia, I recall Richard and Sam in this period. The world of academia knows Richard as a solid social scientist, a policy and governance specialist of high caliber and intellectual gravitas. But he was also a passionate lover of the arts, had a deep interest in literature and theatre and was very well read in African, Caribbean and Western literatures. As a matter of fact, he was something of an expert on the Cameroonian novelist, Mongo Beti in particular and more generally, Francophone African literature.

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The friendship that he had with me, Femi Osofisan, Kole Omotoso and, later Odia Ofeimun (who, if my memory does not fail me, was Richard’s student) was based on this shared interest in the arts. Like the late Omafume Onoge who was in the Sociology department, Richard, it seemed, had more in common with us in the Arts Faculty than with his colleagues in the Social Sciences Faculty. An incredibly polymathic academic, he could have had a great career in the Humanities.

With this sort of background, Richard was surprisingly a devoted family man seemingly so inseparable from his wife and three sons that you wondered how he found the time to do all the scholarly and professional work that would eventually earn him great distinction and success in academia. Though I cannot be absolutely sure of this, I think he was very happy in Ibadan and Nigeria, he and his family. He found Nigeria and Nigerians a place with almost limitless capacity for growth and development. He did not romanticize us and indeed as some of his best work demonstrates, he had a very “Nigerian” keenness to our faults, our shortcomings. But he was happy here, he and his family. He would have stayed if SAP and neoliberalism had not dealt a fatal blow to higher education in our country such that expatriate lecturers and professors, together with foreign students, became a rarity on Nigerian university campuses. If there is anyone reading this, being aware that I also left and might as well be writing about myself here, please remember that I was not an expatriate in Nigeria. And neither was Richard – as I hope to demonstrate later in this tribute.


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So, Richard left and we were very sad to see him and his family go. However, he has always come back and we were not surprised about this. This is because though he left Nigeria, Nigeria never left him. This is perhaps why in the universities and donor organizations in which he has worked in the United States, he has convened and devoted innumerable seminars, workshops, and collaborative research projects to Nigeria and its challenges and prospects. As we all know, things can get so bleak, so exhausting in our country that one craves an opportunity to get away from it once in a while to find a place where one can pause for breath and intellectually recharge so as not lose one’s sanity or hope. Richard, especially at Emory and Northwestern, has convened many encounters of Nigerian academics, writers and artists for this purpose where it was like being home away from home. And he has been of great assistance to many young Nigerian scholars.

In this short tribute, space does not permit me to deal with Richard’s scholarly work in great detail. As I remarked earlier in this piece, he is not a “one country” Africanist. Indeed, his earliest work focused on Cameroun, to which he devoted two books. Moreover, as the title of one of his books, State Conflict and Democracy in Africa indicates, the African continent in its entirety is his field of scholarly vision. Nonetheless, I would argue that Nigeria is the focus of some of his most acclaimed books and essays, of which the 1987 title, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria, is perhaps the epitome. To date, that book is probably the best book ever written on corruption in Nigeria.


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There is a slightly unintendedly funny dimension to the reception of the book when it came out. As no one had apparently ever heard of the word “prebendal” in the title of the book, readers, including scholars, rushed to find out the meaning of the word and when they did, “Nigeria” and “prebendal” became twin concepts with regard to corruption. The word has not lost its explanatory purchase on corruption in Nigeria, but it has been displaced by other terms like “stomach infrastructure” and the “politics of the belly”, neither of which, in my opinion, comes close to prebendal politics in explaining the structural, as distinct from the aberrational aspects of corruption in our country. This is as much as to say that when Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria came out, it was so discursively authoritative that some said that only a Nigerian scholar could have written it. I leave the reader to go and read the book to find out what prebendal politics means! [Clue: it links predator and prey, looters and the looted, the government and government workers in the manner in which the bishop and the congregational church rat are linked!]

Time to begin to bring this tribute to a close. I said earlier that Richard left Nigeria but comes back so often that it is as if he never left, as if his work and life there can never be finished. Can this not also be said of many of us living and working in the diasporas in Europe and North America? Can it not be said of me, of Niyi Osundare, Obiora Udechukwu, Toyin Falola? We left and are always coming back as if we never left. We always come back not merely out of nostalgia but because Nigeria is broken and our work there is unfinished. If this is the case, it does mean, doesn’t it, that the status of “expatriate” in Nigeria and Africa does not really apply to someone like Richard Joseph. The expatriate is an expatriate precisely because no matter how much he or she tries, he or she can never feel the deep intellectual and psychic investment in healing the brokenness of  the chosen country, in this case Nigeria.


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I want to salute and honor Ricard as one who belongs in a long tradition of Africans of the diaspora, especially of the Caribbean, who come to Africa as “expatriates” but end up with an incredible sense of attachment and belonging such that they never leave and even when they do they are always coming back. Richard’s achievements stand on their own merit but they also belong to and in turn extend and enrich a long Caribbean tradition.

The well-known figures here are Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore (Malcolm Nurse), John La Rose, Kwame Touré (Stokely Carmichael). Each of these men left their Caribbean island homeland and became hugely important figures in other parts of the Black world either in Africa itself or in the diasporas in Europe and North America. Fanon is paradigmatic in this tradition. He went to Algeria to work as a government psychiatrist in the colonial service of the French colonial imperium. But he was so opposed to the oppression of the colonized Algerians that he not only went over to the side of the Algerians, but he became an Algerian, he became the acknowledged authoritative theorist of the Algerian revolution in particular and more generally, the African anti-colonial revolution. In different ways, the same is true of most of the other figures in the list here. But there is something about Fanon that I find remarkably applicable to what I am trying to say about Richard Joseph in this closing section of my  tribute.


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I have said that Fanon initially went to Algeria as a civil servant in the colonial medical service. Like countless other such Caribbean middle-class professionals who went to serve in colonial and postcolonial Africa, his life and work in Algeria, no matter how meritorious, would have remained unknown and unheralded if he had not joined the Algerian revolution. The list is very long of middle class, meritocratic professionals who went away from their Caribbean island homelands to serve in Africa itself and in the diasporas in North America and Europe whose lives and work have never been heralded, like Fanon before he became the voice of the Algerian and African anticolonial revolution. Doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists, accountants, civil servants, university dons – they went from the Caribbean to all parts of the Black world as a vanguard formation in the transition from slavery, colonial servitude and neocolonial maldevelopment to the beginnings of an egalitarian modernity.

In Richard Joseph, we get the two bifurcated parts of Fanon combined: the superb and dedicated meritocratic professional and the visionary advocate of progress and development. It so happens that Trinidad, Richard’s natal home in the Caribbean, looms large in this tradition. With his characteristic humility, Richard will perhaps balk at this comparison with Fanon. But I will stick with the comparison. Congratulations, my friend, my brother. Long, long life. You deserve all the glowing tributes you have received on attaining – for Nigerians – the ripe, ripe age of 75!

  • Biodun Jeyifo | bejeyifo@fas.harvard.edu 

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