General Headlines Interviews Spotlight

Meet Prof Christopher Isike, the Nigerian academic who made history in South Africa

In October 2016, the major Nigerian newspapers reported the remarkable achievement of a South Africa-based Nigerian scholar who was elected as the first black person to attain the position of Vice-president of the most significant association for political scientists in South Africa – the South African Political Studies Association (SAAPS).

The distinguished scholar is Professor Christopher Isike, a Professor of African politics and development, who is the Head of Department Politics and International Studies, University of Zululand, South Africa, and the President of The Nigerian Union in South Africa (Epangheni chapter).

Apart from SAAPS, Prof Isike is an Executive Council member of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) and a member of the Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS), Global conflict mediation and resolution network and Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).

An Africanist scholar by research standpoint, Prof Isike’s teaching and research interest revolve around the quality of women’s political representation in Africa, women and peace-building in Africa, human security, human factor development in Africa and African politics and development dynamics.

Prof Isike also consults for the UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government on gender equality and women empowerment issues in the South African province. He was in Nigeria in 2015 for a one-year sabbatical as Senior Research Advisor at the Shell Petroleum Development Company in Nigeria where he served as a programme monitoring and evaluation specialist in the External Relations Department of the company.

The Nigerian Academia was privileged to have an interview with him on issues concerning his academic achievements, contribution to the Nigerian community, and migration to South Africa after a stint at the University of Benin.


TNA: Congratulations on making history as the first black academic to assume the second most important office in the SAAPS; how do you feel with this achievement?

Prof Isike: Many thanks for your kind words. I am humbled by it especially because, at the time of my nomination and election, I was not aware of the record around it. However, I am happy for the opportunity to serve, and I hope to make the best of it for the general good of the political science discipline in South Africa.

TNA: Clearly, you would not have recorded this achievement without migrating to South Africa in the first place. So, at what point of your academic career did you decide to migrate to South Africa, and what were the factors that inform your decision?

Prof Isike: You are correct. I would not be doing this interview today if I had not migrated to South Africa. Well, my academic career started right after my Bachelor’s graduation at the University of Benin in Nigeria where I was the best graduating student in the 1999 class. After national service in 2001, I was employed as a Graduate Assistant in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration in January 2002. In 2003, I obtained my Master’s Degree in International Relations from the same department, and the next logical step was to get my PhD, and that was what brought me to South Africa. In 2004 I was admitted by the Carleton University in Canada, Central Michigan University in the US and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa for doctoral studies and I opted to go to South Africa. Two factors influenced that decision. In 2003, I had attended the 19th World Congress of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) in South Africa (it was the first, and only time Africa ever hosted it), and I fell in love with South Africa like the striking of the love thunderbolt in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Second, I asked myself where better to study African politics than in Africa itself and so it was “South Africa here I come” in February 2005 and I have not regretted my decision so far.

TNA: How has your experience been as a Nigerian academic in South Africa?

Prof Isike: Like I said, so far so good! I have not directly suffered any illegal discrimination as a Nigerian academic both at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I studied and taught for three years and currently at the University of Zululand where I have been for the last eight years now. I have been fully supported by the university system in South Africa in all ramifications as permissible by law.

TNA: As an established Nigerian academic in South Africa, what are your contributions to the development of the Nigerian academic community in South Africa?

Prof Isike: Well, I don’t know what you mean by the Nigerian academic community in South Africa. Is there one? However because Nigerians are a very enterprising people, you will find us all over the world including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. In South Africa, for example, because of our voracious hunger for good education and the academic enterprise, there is no university in this country where you won’t find Nigerian professors, lecturers and students. Wherever I have encountered them as students or colleagues, I have mentored them in both personal and official capacities. It would be immodest of me to reel out names and specific contributions especially as this is not a contest in self-adulation. However, I can tell you I have paid my dues in this regard especially having served severally as President of the Nigerian Union in every town I have lived in South Africa since 2005.

TNA: In what ways do you contribute to the larger academic community in Nigeria?

Prof Isike: I am particularly concerned about my Alma Mata; the great University of Benin. So starting from there, I have encouraged my former students and younger colleagues at UNIBEN to pursue masters and doctoral studies in different parts of the world. Actually, some went on to study at Ivy League universities in the US and United Kingdom. The latest of them is Dr Charles Egwerre who had his PhD last year from the University of Exeter and has returned to UNIBEN as Lecturer I contributing not only to his fatherland but Africa as a whole.

I also collaborate in journal and book projects with academics based in Nigeria and the latest is with Dr Sharon Omotoso of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan and Prof Musa Abutudu of Political Science Department, University of Benin. I have also helped colleagues there to get international exposure and experience in areas of academic citizenship such as external examination of masters and doctoral theses and journal article reviews.

So in a nutshell, I contribute to the larger academic community in Nigeria by providing mentorship support to younger colleagues, research collaboration and providing opportunities to them to engage in quality academic citizenship.

TNA: Could you give some thoughts on how the Nigeria-South Africa relations, especially in higher education, can better be strengthened?

Prof Isike: In my view, Nigeria-South Africa relations generally occurs at two levels; government-to-government and people-to-people. There has been too much focus by government, media and scholars on the former over the latter. Meanwhile, real possibilities for better relations are at the people-to-people level. For example, I can tell you (and this has been well researched) that Nigerians are facilitating the Rebranding Nigerian Image project of government at varying levels of interactions with South Africans better than official structures (embassy, consulate) are doing. The Nigerian movie industry, our music, clothing and food are vital soft power resources that Nigerians are using to change the perceptions of South Africans about Nigerians and Nigeria in significant ways. You will appreciate the significance of this development when you consider that regional/continental integration will continue to be an illusion if ordinary peoples of the continent do not buy into it. At the higher education level, Nigerians are increasingly coming to South Africa in very large numbers for undergraduate and postgraduate studies such that we constitute over 60% of education tourism revenue from Africa to South Africa. Comparatively, a very insignificant number of South Africans go to Nigeria (private universities) to study.

However, the real issue here is that most Nigerians coming to South Africa to study get a raw deal with certificate evaluation as most are downgraded based on a misunderstanding of university differentiation in Nigeria. For example, those from state universities and even a few federal universities automatically get downgraded to study for honours instead of masters and our O-Level certificates are viewed as lower than South Africa matriculation certificates even though in terms of content they should be the same. Relatedly, no one has bothered to explain that anyone who passed the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examinations in Nigeria should qualify to enter a South African university as JAMB is pitched at A-Level just like the South African matriculation. These are things that the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC), Ministry of Education and JAMB can collaborate to articulate for inclusion in bilateral relations talks and agreements between Nigeria and South Africa. This would not only level the playing field for Nigerians, but will also increase education tourism income for South Africa and this can be useful especially as universities prepare to enter a new phase of free higher education occasioned by the Fees-Must-Fall movement.

TNA: On a final note, what advice do you have for the young and aspiring scholars who intend to make a name in their fields?

Prof Isike: My personal mantra is slow and steady can win the race. A child must first learn to crawl, stand, and walk before running. Any child who starts running before crawling, standing or walking will inevitably crash, unless of course, they are little monsters. So if you understand this logic, you will understand my message to young and budding scholars. The point is, it is good to be ambitious but not inordinately so. They should have a broad understanding of the need to follow natural or logical progression paths. This does not mean everyone must follow that part rigidly as sometimes these are contextual, however, knowing the way and opening yourself to it helps to curtail a natural tendency to cut corners and that can become a serious clog which can come back to bite you at some point.

In a nutshell, three main challenges a budding academic may likely face are one, not knowing yourself and what you want; two, dealing with the money issue (how to be wealthy); and three, grappling with the temptation for unethical research behaviour.

To deal with the first, I enjoin young scholars first to cultivate an interest in the academy, have a progression plan and follow through diligently while paying their dues to their seniors because like every human activity, the academic world is also network-based. After doing your part (studying hard and graduating), you will still rely on information to get opportunities. A good word here and there on your behalf can make life a little easier sometimes, so it’s important not to become hubristic no matter your sense of achievement because all results are relative. Someone has done better before, and someone else will do better after you. So be humble but yet assertive.

For the second, don’t see wealth only as money in the bank. Rather see wealth as people around you who can vouch for you, come to your rescue and be there for you in troubled times. So invest in people by developing genuine and positive relationships, help without expecting returns and always adorn the good volition towards all individuals. If you want to be a millionaire overnight with material wealth to show for it, then maybe you are in the wrong trade. Once you deal with yourself ab initio and settle with seeing wealth as a human investment, then you will realise how rich you are and will become as a teacher!

Lastly, once a budding academic understands the child crawling, standing and walking before running philosophy, it then becomes a bit easier to overcome the temptation to cut corners in research. This includes shoddy work, plagiarism, double-dipping, and degree-buying (executive blocking)

Overall, scholarship is very demanding, and you should be prepared to sacrifice much of your social life and as you rise, much of your personal preferences also because many people would start seeing you as a role model. As a public figure and Philosopher King, you must always be conscious of showing leadership to society not allowing society show you leadership. This is a delicate line that requires constant self-reflection to manage.

Many thanks.

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