Since she moved to the United States in 2010, Abimbola Adelakun has lived a kind of double life. In the U.S., she is a respected junior academic, first a graduate student and now an assistant professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Last year she published her first academic book, Performing Power in Nigeria: Identity, Politics, and Pentecostalism (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
In her native Nigeria, Adelakun is “a bit famous.” She is the author of a weekly political column for Punch, one of the most widely read newspapers in the country. Her column is read both at the highest levels of government and among the broad educated middle- and upper-classes. Her style is blunt and honest — “harsh,” she says — and committed to equal-opportunity criticism of whatever party or group is in power.
I spoke to Adelakun about her life as a political columnist, politics in the extraordinarily diverse and complex context of Nigeria, and what it’s like to live a bi-national existence.
Can you locate your background for me in terms of Nigerian society?
I am from Ibadan, in the southwest of the country, and was raised Christian, which is one of the two primary religious groups in the country (the other is Islam). I am ethnically Yoruba, which is one of the three dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria. Given the mix of religion and ethnicity, I would be classified as one of the people with dominant power within the political nexus of the country. In reality, those identities do not amount to much for most people. It’s such a complex and diverse country anyway, with three dominant ethnic groups and hundreds of others.
How did you first start writing a political column for Punch?
I started working with Punch as a cub reporter shortly after I graduated from the university. I saw a sign on a notice board somewhere that they were looking to recruit people, and I decided to try just for the sake of it. I went for the interview and was hired. I wasn’t expecting it. I did not even have a slight interest in working as a journalist.
I had published a novel, Under the Brown Rusted Roofs, around the time I started the job. I gave a copy to the company chairman. He liked it so much that he asked me to start writing a column. I’d only been in the job six months, and I was just 26 years old. I had no opinion on anything in the world that I wanted to write about, but he insisted. I told him that I had plans to go to graduate school abroad and that I wasn’t going to have the time. He said, “The very worst thing that can happen is you fail, and even if you do, you can keep working as a reporter. At least give it a try.” He really believed in me.
That was 14 years ago. The only times I’ve missed a column since then was when I left Nigeria for graduate school in the USA and when I had my second child and had to take a week off to recover from a C-section.
Contextualize Punch for me. Is there an American analogue?
I’m not sure there is an American counterpart. Punch combines two factors. One is the tabloid aspect, which appeals to a broad readership. The other is its critical focus on serious political and economic issues. The paper has also developed a reputation for integrity. During the very difficult days of Nigerian military rule, the proprietors of the paper maintained a principled stand against the military government. They were harassed and shut down several times. They have continued to take principled stands that make them unpopular with even the civilian government, especially the present one, which functions like a military regime. All those things count in the way people assess Punch’s integrity.
How do you fit in as a writer?
I try to stand apart from the sentiments of religion and region to demand opportunities for all regardless of which identity category they fall into. I tend to be harsh and unapologetic in my approach. When you are dealing with Nigerian politics, you can’t afford to be modest in your opinions. You have to speak some uncomfortable truths to people’s faces. Someone in Nigeria met me for the first time, and said, “You are caustic!” I simply replied, “Yes, I am.” I am not going to justify myself when politeness can come across as prevarication or a lack of conviction. Courtesy doesn’t always work when you are dealing with a political power that wants you to go away.
I am also ethically consistent. I criticize from the point of principles rather being swayed by ethnic sentiments. I criticize the politics of people from my ethnic group the same way I criticize people from the other ethnic groups. I’ve tried to maintain that consistency over the years. It’s not always easy.
I tend to think of politics on a left-right axis, but my sense is that it doesn’t break down in the same way in Nigeria. Is that right?
That’s right. The political parties aren’t organized by left and right, at least as far as American politics define those ideologies. Political positioning is a curious mix of ethnicity, religion, geography, and how those factors align in elections. The northern region of the country is dominated by Muslims while the south has a Christian majority. There are also practitioners of African Traditional Religions. Ethnicities overlap the various religious groups. There are people who subscribe to what you might call liberal and conservative ideologies within the major political parties, but that is hardly the basis of their election into public offices. Patronage is the ideology that underlies so much of it. You get what you can for your own constituents.
Relationships. I work with religious groups who get uneasy when I write articles they consider critical of their leadership’s politics. Sometimes I get calls from my dad telling me my opinions make it hard for him among his friends. People call him and tell him, “Why don’t you talk to your daughter? Does she not know this and that?” I say, “Feel free to tell them you’ve disowned me.” I don’t want to be the person who panders to anyone because we share an identity. You might not like what I’m saying because the politics favors you, but you can’t say I am inconsistent. It also helps to be living here in the U.S., to have some distance.
Are you famous in Nigeria?
A bit. After I left Nigeria, I didn’t go home for years while I was in graduate school, and so I had no idea how popular the column had become. One of my advisors at UT, Dr. Omi Jones, went on a trip to Nigeria. She told me that when people learned that she was from UT, they asked her, “Do you know Abimbola Adelakun? She is our columnist.” They were excited that she knew me. I was surprised. Among people who read newspapers, yes, I am well-known. My name gets around. Maybe not my face since I do not appear on television or even use social media that much. The photo that runs with the column is also a bit old, and I have deliberately not asked the newspaper to change it to a more recent photo. I like the freedom of being in spaces and relating to people without someone bringing up politics. Wherever two or more Nigerians gather, it is almost a given we will talk about the politics of our country. That can be exhausting.
What political perspective do you represent in the context of Nigerian politics?
I am for an ideology that promotes development, social justice, and a sense of nationhood. In 1947, prior to the country’s independence, one of our nationalists said Nigeria was a “mere geographical expression.” He meant that we had no sense of nation. We were just a cluster of nations locked within the same spatiality that had not yet found an identity. Even now, more than seven decades later, the different ethnicities are still navigating the fault lines of colonialism and the difficult political histories to form a nation. All that effort hinders development.
I try to find a space to stand to mediate between the competing interests. As a columnist I can’t just tell people to transcend their fears and let go of certain sentiments without also trying to understand where those fears come from and what needs to be done to overcome them. In a country with a weak sense of national identity, a weak central government, and entrenched corruption and patronage, it is not irrational to fear that when your group is out of power, you may suffer. That fear of domination is understandable. At the same time, it is paralyzing. If politics is merely reducible to favoring one group, then it also can’t focus on the challenges of economic and political development that will make life better for everyone.
Living outside Nigeria helps me to achieve a kind of neutrality. People presume my politics because of my ethnicity, but living in the U.S., and being a minority here, helped me enormously to empathize with other groups in Nigeria. I want equality and justice for everyone.
I’m now going to title this interview, “Huge in Nigeria.”
Huge in Nigeria, quiet in Austin! I like it that way though. The tranquility of life in Austin affords me a space away from the hyperactivity that characterizes my life in Nigeria. Nigeria always feels like being in the middle of an event. There is always so much to do at once, so much ground to cover. At home in Austin, I manage to get enough stillness that I can just stare at the sunset through my window. There is something about the sight of the golden ball of sunshine that I find restorative.
What you’re describing sounds to me like a Western orientation toward politics and the nation state, where you privilege universal principles of justice and equality and elevate the commonality of the national identity against the claims of the tribes, groups, religions. Is that a fair description of where you are? Is there a large constituency in Nigeria for that position?
It might sound Western in orientation, but the principles are quite universal. It’s also practical. In a country as diverse as Nigeria, cynical manipulation of religion and ethnic politics paralyzes good initiatives. The project of nationhood requires overcoming the divisions that immobilize our politics. We need to challenge degraded institutions, to refuse to defend the indefensible simply because we identify with the people who are doing it.
I think a lot of Nigerians will agree with that idea, even if they don’t agree on how exactly they might get it done and who should give up what. It’s an enormous challenge because even if you want to step away from tribalism, you cannot always trust that others will reciprocate. Everybody wants a better country, but there is always that fear of being dominated by others who will not yield their ground even if you yield yours.
You’ve been doing this now for 14 years. How are you feeling on the optimism /pessimism scale?
There are good days and bad days. Good days are when I look at Nigerians, especially the younger generations, challenging the worn political order. It excites me to see people putting in effort to achieve a better country. I see that and I know there is a lot to be hopeful for. Like Abraham in the Bible, who “hoped against hope” itself, I am optimistic by nature. You must have faith, even in the face of difficult situations. That kind of radical optimism permeates religion in Nigeria, and I have imbibed it.
There are also days that I despair. I look at the issues in articles I published 10 years ago, and I could just change the date and republish them. Same old same old. You go into the Punch archives to research, and come across old issues of the paper where the people who preceded you 30 years ago talked about pretty much the same thing you are doing now. People are still complaining about the lack of power supply, the poor infrastructure, corruption.
Sometimes it feels like we are making progress, and sometimes it feels as if we are not moving forward at all. But you must keep going. To give up trying at all is to be twice defeated. If you push forward, there is a risk of being defeated. But you might also be successful at the venture and so you might as well give it your best. It’s a long walk to freedom, but you must at least keep walking.
How often do you go to Nigeria?
I try to go every summer, though that has been interrupted by the pandemic. I finally was able to go again this year to see my family and friends. It was such a joy reconnecting physically after interacting virtually for two years. My academic research is on Pentecostalism and Nigerian culture, so it’s important to visit for that reason too. Technology makes it easier to stay connected, but I must also visit the churches I work with or those networks will be lost. When I’m not there physically, I carry on conversations in various online groups.
That’s fascinating. Why?
There is a long historical connection between Christians in the U.S. and Nigeria, and just like in the U.S., Trump was seen in Nigeria as a champion of Christianity. There is a sense that ascendance to political power and dominance is a spiritual victory. There is also the context of Nigerian domestic politics, and the role that Obama played, or was seen as playing, in the 2015 presidential elections. There are some conspiracy theories that “Muslim” Obama favored the Muslim candidate, and when that election ended with the Muslim candidate defeating the incumbent Christian, it led to some Christian support for Trump. It is a mix of factors based on perception.
Tell me more about Pentecostalism in Nigeria. I think of it as more of a low-income phenomenon in the U.S. Is that true in Nigeria as well?
When the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria took off in the 1970s, you could call it the religion of the oppressed. It was an outsider movement relative to the political and religious establishment. It was not elitist, but the core of the movement started on university campuses, so it was led by a youthful and educated class who graduated, many with professional degrees and Ph.D.s, and then moved into pastoring. Their education and youthful zeal advanced the movement socially and politically. In the past 40 years, they have created a formidable religious and political movement such that Pentecostalism has become the religion of both the influential class and of those who aspire to climb the social ladder. Belonging to the group can come with some social advantages. I don’t think Nigerians still consider Pentecostalism as the religion of the underclass. They are seen as powerful people. It’s becoming a route to social mobility also because of its connection with American evangelicals. That’s an association that grew further after the election of Trump. In fact, some of Trump’s biggest supporters, among Black people, are from Nigeria.
Here you’re a professor at a university, but you’re not famous, and you’re also a Black woman in a country where Black people are in the minority. In Nigeria, not only are you of the ethnic/religious background more associated with privilege, but you also have a high-status position as a political columnist. Is it strange to move back and forth between the States and Nigeria, in terms of the differentials in status?
The jarring part is the visibility — who sees you, how you are seen, and what is coming to you because you are seen. I adjust to both contexts by flipping a switch in my mind. In both places I am Black but in one of the contexts, I can take my Blackness for granted. In Nigeria, when I’m walking on the streets, I am aware of myself and my surroundings for very different reasons than in the U.S. In the U.S., it always seems you wear your race around your sleeve, even in a relatively cosmopolitan and friendly place like Austin. Anything can come up at any time, and you are constantly revving up your defenses.
What is something that is more visible to you about American politics that we might not see from inside of it? And vice versa, with Nigerian politics.
American politics can be as tribalistic and self-harming as what’s practiced in Nigeria. Sometimes you wish people would just abjure certain sentiments and do what seems obviously best for the country, but that doesn’t always happen in a democracy. That is why politics is a deft art of sorting through a range of rationalities. We used to have this idea in Nigeria that politics in places like the U.S. are not tribalistic and that politicians always do what is best for their country. There is a phrase we used to use to idealize Western politics: “in saner climes.” However, social media has brought the nitty gritty of U.S. politics right up to our faces, and it’s hard to see the U.S. as “saner climes” anymore. There’s a good thing about that, though. Hardly anyone in Nigeria imagines any longer that every Nigerian must attain a higher level of political sophistication that abjures all tribal sentiment for the country to advance. Americans hold on to their tribalism, but they still have a great country because of the quality of their institutions. America has great institutions that withstand the vicissitudes of Americans themselves, and that is a more realistic goal for developing nations.
People are the same everywhere, but institutions differ. Good institutions can make a huge difference even if people are tribal and easily emotionally manipulable, which we are and always will be.
Right. It’s the strong institutions that make the difference. You can’t reform a nation by simply asking people to change their ways. Every government in Nigeria has had one grand project of ethical reformation or another, but none have been effective. “If only Nigerians were less corrupt or less tribal or less religious or less this or that we would achieve greatness,” they say. But the trouble with the country will not be simply resolved through our manners or our behavior. I do not know of any country in the world where transformation occurred because everyone woke up one morning and just decided to do the right thing. Building institutions preceded social changes. It behooves our leaders to first forge a state that runs on strong, viable institutions for people.