Adagbo Onoja pays tribute to Yima Sen, communication scholar and activist

It is only in leafing through the late Yima Sen’s curriculum vitae that the reader finds the confirmation for the hunch that here was one of the most academically restless souls, one of the most ideologically ambitious and one of the most experimental when it comes to political praxis. This is the block profile this citation shall break into its different parts with equal attention.

Yima Sen was so much of belief in the power of ideas that, at death, he was still pursuing a PhD even after a PhD in Mass Communication from the University of Amsterdam. A PhD is a PhD but it could equally be argued that his was not just a PhD, considering that it was supervised by C. S Hamelink, unarguably the world leading authority on International Communication from the lens of Hegemony.

There is something instructive about the connection with Hamelink. Hamelink is the author of the book, World Communication: Empowerment and Self-empowerment in which he argues the insight that transnational media coverage of the non-Western world is guided by the metaphor “it is not yet Biafra”, (1995: 5). By that phrase, he suggests that in the Western dominated international media, news about Africa in particular is never news unless there is mass death, bloodshed and chaos signified by Biafra then or Somalia much later or Libya today. Being able to identify and work under such a giant of critical political economy of Mass Communication after angrily leaving the University of Southern California on the ground of the preponderance of quantitative techniques should send a signal about the notion of knowledge Yima Sen held dear. The puzzle is what a map of this restlessness might look like in relation to any attempt at totalising the departed.

The vastness of the areas he criss-crossed makes the mapping exercise a tedious one. Good old chronology helps us to start with his birth on February 12th, 1951. That means he died at age 69. At a time the president of Nigeria is 78 years old, that of the United States of America 74 years and the Prime Minister of Malaysia is 95 years just to cite a few, Yima Sen could be said to have died young.

Of Tiv national identity, he spoke the language, added English and Hausa and strove to speak French by studying it. How far he went in that will now remain in speculation or the privileged information of closest circle members. But there is an element of a striving for completeness in that effort to master and add French to his number of languages spoken.

In 1968, the late Dr Yima obtained his West African School Certificate, (WASC) from Bristow Secondary School, Gboko and followed it up with his University of Cambridge Higher School Certificate in Arts in 1970. This was from Gindiri Secondary School, Gindiri in present day Plateau State of Nigeria. From 1971 to 1974, he was at the Department of Mass Communications at the University of Lagos where he obtained a Bachelor of Science in the discipline. Again, there is something grandly cosmopolitan in this. The University of Lagos or the Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile-Ife were not where potential undergraduates from the Middle Belt turned to for university education. The commoner thing was going to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and later, the University of Jos.

As it turned out, University of Lagos was only to serve as a prelude to a spatial shift to the United States of America from 1977 till 1980, landing first at Columbia College in Hollywood, Los Angeles for a short engagement with Communication Studies. This culminated in a Professional Designation in Public Relations in 1978 at the University of California, (UCLA) and a Masters Degree in Public Relations in 1980 but, this time, at the University of Southern California, (USC). Then there was a break with academic pursuit and return to the world of work.

Dr. Yima had his first taste of the world of work while serving in the National Youth Service Corps Scheme in Enugu State of today between 1974/75 where he was involved in producing current affairs programmes for the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, (FRCN). That was before what must have been a regularisation of that appointment which saw him working with the Nigerian Television Authority from 1975-77 before his flight to the United States. As a graduate student in the US, he was a freelance reporter for the now rested West Africa, the then London based weekly magazine.

Upon his return from the United States in 1980, he worked first as a media specialist in the Office of the Special Adviser to the late President Shehu Shagari. The office was then held by Dr Chuba Okadigbo who had himself obtained a PhD in Political Science from the United States. Between 1982 and 1983, he served as a Special Adviser and Director of Information to the then Benue State governor, Mr. Aper Aku.

The collapse of civilian rule in Nigeria in late 1983 saw Dr. Yima turning to business. He floated three outfits in consultancy and public affairs. These were African Connexions Limited; Sen Media Limited; Bantu Development Company and Composite Connexions. While the first two were concerned with business design, investment promotion, policy formulation, project implementation and company management, the last two were supply companies. But what any careful scrutiny would show is the political nature of the company names as in the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Bantu’. These are significant collective identities in human history. In other words, even in business, it was with a certain emancipatory sensitivity to victims of historical nominalisation that Yima privileged.

It would seem correct to infer that while the first set of companies were those he ran from 1984 to 1987, the second set of companies were the ones he managed between 1990 and 1999. In between them, there was a break during which he took up appointment with two different international governmental organisations, all belonging to the United Nations family. The first business turned out to be such a brief one, ending three years afterwards, with him joining the United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP) as Information and Public Affairs Adviser from 1987 to 1990. That was in Lagos.

In 1999 as Nigeria was entering civilian rule, Dr. Yima was heading out to Nairobi, Kenya as Awareness and Information Specialist with UN-Habitat. Like the UNDP job, the title of this job says everything about it. It was all about managing the outreach of the each of two organisations vis-à-vis their missions.

But he was to return to Government Service again in 2002 and remain till 2006 as Special Assistant to the Vice-President of Nigeria in charge of Policy and Programme Monitoring. He must have combined studying for his PhD with this office since the PhD was awarded in 2005. It would be very interesting to read such a thesis informed by a rich empirical background from across many spaces of encounter.

It is not clear what year Dr Yima joined Baze University, Abuja but that is what should have come much earlier than whenever it was that he did. He had always been an academic even while criss-crossing multiple domains. Before formally joining academia, he had published widely, from books to journal essays on diverse themes stretching from communication theory; the sociology of the mass media; communication and development; international communication; the media and democracy, media and violence, particularly war and strategic communications.

What is interesting about his academic works is the way they are circumscribed by the organising concept of hegemony. The implication is that his interventions in even domains of media practices such as Public Relations and Advertising that function largely to rationalise the status quo are destabilising of such domains in an emancipatory sense.

This comes out clearly in every of his publications one engages, be it his 2008 book, Critical Communication Science: An African Perspective; his 2005 book, Challenges of African Development in a Globalising World; his 1989 essay “The Political Factor in the Third World Debt Crisis” or his “The Minority Question in Northern Nigeria” published in 2002, just to mention a few.

In his death, therefore, academia has lost another member of that generation whose education in Nigerian universities in those days and what they added from elsewhere positioned them to take on any topic and be able to add value to such topic. There is thus the tragedy in his death, tragedy made worse by the fact that even before Yima Sen has been buried, another member of that generation and a much younger one at that is also gone. That is Dr Salihu Bappa. We cannot stop people from dying but we can think about this as a problem to reflect upon.

It must, however, be in the grand scheme of things that as we mourn Dr. Yima Sen, there is also an aspect of his life that gives cause for eternal satisfaction. That aspect is the quantum of his time and energy that went to emancipatory politics or the politics of making life to be more than a matter of survival for the average member of the human community. Worth noting in this regard must be the creativity he brought to praxis and which enabled him to constantly extend the borders of radical engagement beyond the boundaries delimited by orthodoxy. Unlike many other Marxists who did this at the twilight of their life, Yima Sen started out on this trajectory of defining the radius of radicalism very early in his life. But, first, an insight into what must be the climax of his political intervention.

Lagos has always been an important city in the life of this country. Late Yima Sen’s first encounter with this complex city was as an undergraduate student between 1971 and 1974 at the University of Lagos. His second encounter was in 1980-82. The third embrace of Lagos, from 1987 onwards coincided with a grand swell of national agitation for the military to leave the political scene for the return of civilian rule in the country.

This era gave rise to the pre-democracy movement. The wind of change that sought to uproot military dictatorship from the seats of power across Africa in general and West Africa in particular found roots in the late Alao Aka-Bashorun- led initiative to convoke a Sovereign National Conference to end military rule in Nigeria. Yima Sen was a prominent member of that movement which the IBB military regime eventually frustrated.

A number of radical movements and pro-democracy organizations also emerged during this period. They include the Civil Liberty Organization, (CLO), founded by Olisa Agbakoba and Clement Nwankwo; the radical feminist organization that went by the name Women in Nigeria, (WIN); the Nigeria-ANC-Friendship and Cultural Association, (NAFCA) and the Socialist Congress of Nigeria (SCON). Others were the Campaign for Democracy (CD); the Democratic Alternative, (DA) and the United Action for Democracy, (UAD).

Comrade Yima Sen traversed all these organisations and played important leadership roles in them. He was founding General Secretary of the CD and National Vice-Chairman of the DA to cite a few. The CD played a pivotal role in the national effort to resolve the June 12, 1993 national crisis following the annulment of the Presidential election won by late MKO Abiola. Where Comrade Yima Sen is not taking formal leadership position, as one of the most advanced comrades, his leadership guide to those in formal leadership position was obvious. In the Nigeria-ANC Friendship and Cultural Association, he was a key leader along with late Alao Aka-Bashorun as National Patron. The Lagos branch of the Socialist Congress of Nigeria (SCON) was brought up at a meeting in his living room. Before WIN acquired its national headquarters near his residence in Iwaya-Akoka area of Lagos, a number of national and Lagos EXCO meetings also held in his apartment.

Yima Sen is both an exemplar as well as a debate in Marxist politics. In that, he leaves the rest of his comrades a puzzle to problematise in radical politics.

For Yima Sen, gender equity and women emancipation was an all involving exertion. He did not only remain one of the strongest advocates of women in Nigeria, all his loved ones were also involved in the emancipatory politics. In Women in Nigeria, Yima and Lona, his wife, was a pair no one could miss, what with Lona as Coordinator of the Lagos branch of WIN). The two were very prominent members of WIN in Lagos and nationally.

What is left to be said than Adieu Comrade Yima Sen?