This dissertation is an ethnographic investigation of experimental forms of political practice among Nigerian university students. With limited avenues for participation in Nigeria’s turbulent democracy, students imagine the campus and its urban environs as “political training grounds” which offer opportunities for political leadership—and aspirations to this effect—that are only newly available in the post-military era after the civilian transition in 1999. I analyze the ways in which this notion of higher education as a political training ground was experienced during a critical turning point in Nigerian politics when both constitutional democracy and student unionism activities were experiencing revitalization after many years’ absence. I argue that the emergence of the “politician” as a professional identity among university students is specific to the post-military era, when politics became a legitimate and particularly lucrative “profession,” after students had for generations acted as agitators against the state through student activism. The reinterpretation of the purposes of higher education indexes the ways in which “precariousness” has come to define the experiences of young Nigerians: students view schooling as a time for gaining non-academic experience because earning educational credentials no longer guarantees economic mobility or full social participation.
Based on over three years of ethnographic fieldwork, over one hundred interviews, and focus group discussions between 2006-2012 in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third largest city and a key site for educational development, political administration, and urban mobility, the dissertation is organized into five thematic chapters that capture the most significant elements of campus political activity, as well as the different domains in which students attempt to acquire political experience and influence. I describe the historical relationship between the University of Ibadan and the city of Ibadan, arguing that the evolving relationship between the university and the city points to important transformations in how students understand their roles on campus and as citizens of Nigeria (Chapter One). I analyze important differences in student political cultures across different kinds of educational institutions by broadening my focus to three Ibadan campuses: a private university, a federal university, and a state polytechnic, which signal the ways institutional factors influence the professionalization activities students participate in to develop political identities (Chapter Two). Shifting to the relationships between campus and national politics, I analyze the most critical event of Nigerian politics—elections—with a focus on student and national elections in 2011 (Chapter Three). These events reveal the significant role of apprenticeship within the political system students are trying to gain access to, and the ways students move beyond the campuses to participate in wider political networks, many of which are defined by illicit economic relationships with political “godfathers,” who are important power brokers and elders in national politics. I highlight the emerging role of new media technologies in the political activities of young people, which offer spaces free from the authority of elders that dominate other political domains. In particular, I focus on the strategic use of the Facebook social media platform in the formation of political community and a public sphere, which offers students alternative ways of engaging in political discourse and ensuring the transparency of elected student leaders (Chapter Four). The dissertation also analyzes the role of campus and urban protests in student political expression with a discussion of the social movements, Occupy Nigeria and Occupy University of Ibadan in 2012, moments in which student politics transcended the campus to mobilize around broader urban and national questions and which also made deliberate connections to global social movements under the rubric of “occupation” (Chapter Five).
In contrast to the focus of much of the existing literature on African universities as sites merely for reproducing privilege, or failed institutions that no longer guarantee social mobility, this work shows that higher educational institutions in Nigeria are more than institutional enclaves: they are key nodes within urban landscapes and the national political arena, in which students develop ideas about, and modes of practicing, future citizenship and political engagements. This move pushes scholars of politics and youth in Africa, and elsewhere, to consider the critical role of universities in the politicization of youth and nascent processes of democratization and other forms of political transformation in countries like Nigeria, whose post-colonial identity has been defined by the existence of military rule.