Samuel Akpobome Orovwuje pays tribute to Peter Ekeh, erudite scholar and author
This article commemorates the life and times of Peter Ekeh, his pedagogical and intellectual legacy of postcolonial thought and political philosophy. An Urhobo diplomat-at–large, Professor Ekeh’s academic career began with his appointment at the University of Ibadan in 1974 as a lecturer and later at State University of New York, Buffalo, USA, in 1989 as a Professor of Transnational (African-American) Studies and later to his pioneering role at the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS) as founder and where he carried out much of his investigative indigenous research on social change and continuity, and inter-group relations of the Urhobos and their neighbours.
Born in 1937 in Adarode-Okpara Inland, Ekeh is one of the most influential and versatile political scientists and social anthropologists of the 21st century until his passing last year in the United States of America. Yet few outside the School of Politics and Government of the University of Ibadan, the Faculty of Transnational (African-American) Studies of State University of New York, Buffalo, and indeed his native land (the Urhobo Nation) have heard of him, let alone have familiarity with his ideologue, research and pedagogic contributions to national and diaspora development. His commitment to the historiography of the Urhobo people knew no bounds. Professor Ekeh is easily one of the most prominent and versatile political philosophers and scholars of contemporary Urhobo history and politics.
Indeed, Professor Ekeh’s discourse is often fairly easy to distill and his body of work explains held assumptions of political and social constructs – particularly on African ancient civilisations, group subtleties, culture, and intergroup relations and indeed the roles and limits of socio-political thought in the emergent state structure itself.
Professor Ekeh’s first-hand knowledge and experience of village square and oral tradition led him to interrogate colonial political foundations and contemporary power relations in the West Niger Delta. Far from limiting his horizons to the academia where he stood tall, Professor Ekeh was critically constructive and engaging, and his public and intellectual rigour empowered his immediate academic community and the larger society. His works are rich in detail and insight. He was an unflinching advocate of cultural diplomacy as a tool for conflict resolution and bridge-building in human relations.
This tribute provides an opportunity to acknowledge and elucidate the centrality of Professor Ekeh’s insights to African political thought and global affairs. Colonialism: The Two Publics: A theoretical Statement (Ekeh, 1975) is possibly Professor Peter Ekeh’s best known intellectual and public affairs legacy. It is in itself an excursion into the colonial experience, African ideological conflicts and the matrix of the two publics (The private realm, the public realm and societal morality).
The matrix of the two publics is among the most significant intellectual postulations of the 21st century, linking the understanding of colonialism and the inherent contradictions of the emergent states and the foundational forces of underdevelopment amidst the apocalyptic atmosphere of modernity and the ethical questions that confront the Nigerian society, nay Africa. Furthermore, the essay discusses that the proficiencies of colonialism in Africa have to do with the emergence of an inimitable chronological alignment in contemporary colonial Africa: the existence of two publics instead of one public – the West. Many of Africa’s political teething troubles are due to the dialectical relationships between the two publics.
Ekeh’s socio-political thoughts are now part of mainstream discourse about the challenges of religion, colonialism and underdevelopment. He latches on the hidden agenda of the colonizing structures. The hallmark of his intellectual sagacity, in my view, is the identification of social symptoms and how they impact on development in Nigeria.
Interestingly, Professor Ekeh’s cultural and indigenous diplomacy is grounded in the historiography of identity, politics, religion, contemporary inter-group relations, culture, poetry and other artistic genres of the Urhobo nation in particular. They include eloquent and reasoned treatises on specifying traditions and practices of the Urhobo and their religious beliefs and values, particularly the foundational religious movement, called Igbe, which creed was claimed to have been pleasingly revealed to its founder, Ubiesha Etakpo of Uhwokori (Kokori Inland).
Professor Ekeh’s Studies in Urhobo Culture (Ekeh et al, 2006) and History of the Urhobo People of the Niger Delta (2008) expose his deep interest in Urhobo social anthropology and political philosophy. Therefore, nobody can afford to be entirely ignorant of his works in advancing the development of his homeland. More importantly, his immutable constructs on the cultural and political autonomy of the Urhobo Nation are well documented through Waado and the Urhobo Historical Society. His standpoint on the British-Itsekiri and the British-Urhobo treaties and the contentious Warri City land ownership remains an existential prospect in understanding the inter-group rivalry, irreconcilable socio-political formations and challenge of nation building within the Western Niger Delta.
Further, Professor Ekeh’s seminal work, Warri City and British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta (Ekeh et al, 2004) fills a vital knowledge gap. Professor Ekeh developed an innovative policy dialogue about inter-group regimes for better development results and crisis management in the Niger Delta. His collective response and key messages for policymakers is on how best research and scholarship can address a sustainable future.
Professor Ekeh was a strong advocate of the equality of the human race and of social engineering while arguing daringly against social constructs that oppress civilisation through roles, expectations and limitations assigned by society.
In the area of transnational studies, Professor Ekeh explored and reset the intersectionality of the Global North and the Global South, and the space between African and American affairs. Fundamentally, the regime of violence in postcolonial Nigeria is continuous. This is because the postcolonial state inherited the logic of exploitation and subjugation essential to colonial administration.
Lastly, Professor Ekeh’s works continue to provide insights into cultural essentialism and political anthropology. He has left a vision of openness and scholarship to his Urhobo nation, Africans and indeed the global learning ecosystem. Professor Ekeh’s ability to manoeuvre through the conceptual spaces to achieve an existential meaning for the greater good underscores his true and enduring legacy to humanity.
Orovwuje is Founder, Humanitarian Care for Displaced Persons, Lagos