Dr. Olufemi Vaughan on the importance of history

Interview by Victoria Avis.

Dr. Olufemi Vaughan, Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College, former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center – and recently appointed Henry Steele Commager Professor of Black Studies at Amherst College — has a passion: encouraging serious interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching on Nigeria.

Dr. Vaughan studies Nigerian history and politics. He is the author and editor of ten books and over 50 scholarly articles, including the books Nigerian Chiefs: Traditional Power in Modern Politics, 1890s – 1990s, University of Rochester Press (2000), and Religion and the Making of Nigeria, Duke University Press (2016). A chapter in his book, Nigerian Chiefs engages the factors that led to the collapse of Nigeria’s first experiment in constitutional democratic government (the First Republic) in January 1966 — and consequently the Nigeria-Biafra War from 1967-1970. He contends that studies on the Nigeria-Biafra war should combine a quest for understanding important moral questions on the humanitarian catastrophe of the war with a critical scholarly inquiry into the factors that led to the war. Such approach would embrace a careful historical, humanistic, and social science scholarship of this crucial subject in Nigerian studies, especially during decolonization and the early years of independence.

According to Dr. Vaughan, many Nigerians today have very strong opinions on the Nigeria-Biafra War, but few of these opinions are grounded in serious scholarship in colonial and postcolonial Nigerian history, politics, and society. When asked where these opinions might come from, Dr. Vaughan contends that the narratives of the Nigeria-Biafra War largely reside in narrow, highly subjective communal spaces within Nigeria’s fragmented society. Today’s discourses about the Nigeria-Biafra War tend to be highly subjective narratives that play on narrow selection and manipulation of limited facts along the multiple divides of this tragic and horrific conflict. To counteract this myopic and presentist perspective, Dr. Vaughan advocates comprehensive and critical analyses of Nigerian history from the amalgamation of Nigeria’s Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 to the end of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the early 1970s.

For Dr. Vaughan, much of the scholarship of what he referred to as the “golden age” of Nigerian studies in the 1960s and 1970s — works of pioneering scholars of Nigerian history and politics such as Dike, Ajayi, Coleman, Sklar, Whitaker, Dudley, and Post & Vickers — provide critical background readings to the structural imbalance of the Nigerian state and society that largely contributed to the crisis that triggered the Nigeria-Biafra War. These Nigerian and Western scholars — along with many other excellent scholars of this notable generation meticulously explored Nigeria’s complicated past before, during, and immediately after colonialism. However, it seems like Nigeria’s educated public today has lost interest in this type of rigorous scholarship. This lack of careful and critical scholarly inquiry, Dr. Vaughan argues, pose a serious problem to the understanding of the Nigeria-Biafra War, especially at a time when we are witnessing the resurgence of a neo-Biafra movement in Nigeria’s current volatile political climate.

Closing this knowledge gap will not be easy. Dr. Vaughan called for serious education, thoughtful, and critical studies on the issues that underlie the modern Nigerian state and society.

Discussing the Nigeria-Biafra War can be very contentious and deeply emotional across the fault lines of Nigeria’s deep ethno-regional and ethno-religious divides. Dr. Vaughan insists on an expansive, open, honest, and reflective dialogue on this tragic aspect of Nigerian history.

Dr. Vaughan is a true academic, but his engagement with Nigeria-Biafra goes beyond his academic interests. Dr. Vaughan grew up in Ibadan, Southwestern Nigeria and was a kid when the Nigeria-Biafra War broke out. Several close friends were Igbos who were either born or grew up in Ibadan; they left for the Eastern Region and the war was undoubtedly traumatic for them – fortunately they returned to Ibadan after the war. During the war, Dr. Vaughan remembers the heavy propaganda generated by the Nigerian Federal Military Government against Biafra — especially against Igbos – The slogan “to Keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done” blasting from radios and televisions is firmly embedded in his subconscious.

From the narratives passed down about the 1966 failed coup, the 1967 counter-coup, waves of brutal mob attacks on Southeasterners — especially Igbos in Northern cities — and subsequent political unrest, Dr. Vaughan emphasizes the need to challenge limited and distorted perspective of history. Because of its importance in Nigerian society today, the Nigeria-Biafra War requires very wide, long, and critical lens. Dr. Vaughan is hoping that his historical and comparative politics perspective in Nigerian studies will add to the dialogue at our conference.

Speaking with Dr. Vaughan was a pleasure. His vast knowledge of Nigerian history and his enthusiasm for encouraging scholarship and discourse on the subject will be a great addition to our conference.

Victoria Avis is an International Affairs major at George Washington University and on the staff of the Institute for African Studies.