Recasting the Role of the Arts in African Academia: Part I

September 6, 2018


This feature is the first in an instalment of two articles highlighting Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows working at the intersection of the social sciences and the performing arts. They discuss interdisciplinarity and the ways in which the methodologies of theater can help provide insight into social phenomena.


Ajumeze Henry Obi, a researcher and graduate student at the University of Cape Town, is a 2017-2018 Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellow. Born in the Niger Deltaan area of southern Nigeria along the Atlantic coast—he received his BA in Theater Arts from the University of Calabar and his MPhil in Theater Arts from the University of Ghana. His research focuses on violent conflict in the Niger Delta, which many political scientists and historians have attributed to the “resource curse,” due to the region’s wealth in oil resources.

Coined by Richard Auty in 1993 to describe the economic consequences of mineral wealth in developing states, the term “resource curse” is used to describe the seemingly contradictory economic, political, social, and environmental harm that can result from the possession of great hydrocarbon or mineral wealth. Since the discovery of oil at Oloibiri in 1956, Nigeria has faced numerous armed insurrections in the Delta region—and academics an inundation of analyses about them.

But Obi is different. He doesn’t take a national security or economic policy approach to understand what he calls the “corporatocracy” of the Niger Delta, a rule by multinational oil corporations, fraught with corruption and intertwined with government officials who concede the decimation of Delta ecosystems and indigenous lives in exchange for the bottom line. Rather, he uses the performing arts.

“There’s something about theater and its ability to deal with questions of contradictions, of conflicts, and of resolution,” explained Henry. “Of all kinds of cultural presentation, theater, for me, seems to be the one equipped with the mechanism of generating conflict. In fact, without conflict, theater cannot take place.”

Using theater as a subject of research and as a means toward deeper social scientific understanding also allows Ajumeze to highlight the anthropocentric nature of studies focusing on the region—and depart from it.

Typically, political and social research places emphasis on, and agency in the hands of, humans: multinational oil company executives, armed insurgents in the creeks, Nigerian cabinet ministers, etc. However, Obi’s interests lie outside the realm of human beings as protagonists. “My interest is on how the human force finds recourse, or, in a relational sense, finds a lot of a support from the nonhuman,” he says. “The work, in a way, restores history.”

The plays he analyzes help to restore the lost ecological history of the Delta by focusing on environmental characters, such as creeks, water, and plants. “My emphasis is on the water,” Ajumeze said. “I talk about the hero, not in terms of man, but in terms of the seaweed. So I remove questions of character—the protagonist from being a human—to making, for example, the plants that live inside the water as the hero of plays.”

Ajumeze’s research therefore reflects a scholarly trend away from the Aristotelian, or human-centered tradition of theater. “There’s a sense, beginning in modern drama, where questions of man were interrogated to the extent that the question of ‘what is a hero’ became a centerpoint in the analysis of drama. So what my work has done is to key into modern aspect of environmental humanities that talk about plants taking charge of the waters—taking charge of characters in plays.”

The scope of Obi’s study, however, is not to study vindictive theatrical portrayals of ecological entities in the Niger Delta independent of reality. Commensurate with the goals of the the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program, both Ajumeze’s medium and his broader social research have the power to engage with the audience. In social science terms, Ajumeze’s restoration of the Delta’s environmental past has the power to affect change.

“Theater engages people,” he says. “Plays and dramas take into consideration the ability of the audience to be co-opted into the performance. We’re not just dealing with the sense of aesthetic requirement in terms of writing literature; we’re also dealing with the ability of literature to go the extra mile in the potential for action.”

Just as theater effectively presents conflict, the actionable nature of the medium also deepens an understanding of solutions to that conflict. In the violence-wrought and petroleum-rich coastal regions of Nigeria, conflict-solutions can, quite literally, be a matter of life-and-death.

“Theater has in it a template to produce conflict, and in this sense, to reflect on conflict. But,” he expressed, “it also has in it a mechanism to produce resolution. So, in dealing with theater, I’m not dealing with the conflict of the Niger Delta and the Niger Delta people, I’m also dealing with the possibilities of resolution of the conflict of the Niger Delta people. Perhaps only theater has the clout, the aesthetic template to do this.”