Ake, Claude Eleme 1939–1996
Claude Eleme Ake 1939–1996
Nigerian political economist, professor
Nigerian Claude Ake (pronounced Ah-kay), a top authority on the political economy of Africa, dedicated himself to fighting for a better life for Africans. He championed social justice, economic development, and democracy, and challenged African intellectuals to come up with their own solutions to Africa’s problems, rather than relying on external sources.
Ake was a fearless critic of the Nigerian government, decrying both political corruption and the country’s overdependence on the oil industry. Nigeria, located on the west coast of Africa, was the continent’s most populous nation and potentially its richest. After it gained independence from Britain in 1960, however, the country was plagued by political instability and economic problems. For most of that time, Nigeria was under a repressive military regime, its economy damaged by high-level corruption. David E. Apter, chairman of the Council on African Studies at Yale University, where Ake was once a visiting professor, told the New York Times that Ake “was not only, in my view, the top African political scientist, but an extraordinarily courageous person. The Nigerian government was often at odds with him, and nevertheless they recognized his stature.”
Ake taught at universities in Nigeria, the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Kenya, and Tanzania. He held posts on the African Journal of Political Economy and the Social Sciences Council of Nigeria. He published a number of influential books, including Revolutionary Pressures in Africa in 1976.
In several of his books, Ake argued that development would only succeed when decisions were made by the people, rather than corrupt leaders. “Development strategies in Africa, with minor exceptions,” he told Basil Davidson of the Los Angeles Times, “have tended to be strategies by which the few use the many for their own purposes… there is not and has never been popular participation in political and economic decision-making.”
Claude Eleme Ake was born in Omoku, in Rivers State, southern Nigeria, on February 18, 1939. He was the son of Geoffrey Ake, a politician, and Christiana Ake, a trader. Ake attended Kings College, Lagos, and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He then moved to Great Britain, completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of London in 1962. Ake pursued his graduate studies in the United States, earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1963 and a doctorate there in 1966.
After completing his Ph.D., Ake was offered a position as an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, where he taught for three years. In 1967, Ake published his first book, the influential treatise A Theory of Political Integration. In 1969, Ake left the United States to take a job as an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. During his time at Carleton, Ake won a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and spent some time at the University of Nairobi in Kenya as a visiting professor.
At a Glance…
Born Claude Eleme Ake, Omoku, Rivers State, Nigeria, February 18, 1939; died Nov. 7, 1996; son of Geoffrey Ake, and Christiana Ake; married Anita Ake, two sons. Education: Attended Kings College, Lagos and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria; B.A., University of London, 1962; M.A., Columbia University, 1963; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1966.
Career: Assistant professor of political science, Columbia University, 1966-69; associate prof, Carfeton Univ., Canada, 1969-72; prof, of political economy, dean of faculty of social sciences, Univ. of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, mid-1970s-1989; founder and director, Center for Advanced Social Science, Port Harcourt, 1991-96; author: A Theory of Political Integration, 1967; Revolutionary Pressures in Africa, 1978; Social Science as Imperialism: A Theory of Political Development 1979; A Political Economy of Africa, 1981; The Political Economy of Crisis and Underdevelopment in Africa: Selected Works of Claude Ake, 1989; The New World Order: A View from the South, 1992; Democratization of Disempowerment in Africa, 1994; The Marginalization of Africa: Notes on a Productive Confusion, 1996; Democracy and Development in Africa, 1996. Edited Contemporary Nigeria: A Political Economy 1984.
Memberships: Social Science Council of Nigeria (vice president, beginning in 1982; Nigerian Political Science Association (president, 1980-82); National Universities Commission; International Development Research Center, Canada; United Nations Economic Development Program; The African Development Bank; the World Bank.
Awards: Martin Luther King Award; Nigerian National Merit Award; Rockefeller Scholar, 1962-66; National Science Research Council of Canada Award for the Study of the Indigenization of African Economies, 1975; Woodrow Wilson Scholar, 1985-86; Choice Book of the United States, for Political Economy of Africa, 1987.
From 1972 to 1974, Ake was a visiting professor at the University of Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania.
In the mid-1970s, Ake returned to Nigeria to take a position at the newly-founded University of Port Har-court in his home state of Rivers State. He served as professor of political economy and, later, as dean of faculty of social sciences. In 1978, Ake published Revolutionary Pressures in Africa, described by its publisher, Zed Press, as “one of the most controversial books to have come from an African author in the 1970s.” In the book, Ake looked at the history of Africa from a Marxist perspective, arguing that the continent was ripe for a revolution against capitalism. “Neo-colonial dependence is rooted in the class structure of Africa,” Ake wrote in the book’s introduction, “it cannot be ended unless a socialist revolution occurs.”
Ake explored similar themes in Social Science as Imperialism: A Theory of Political Development, published in 1979, and A Political Economy of Africa, published in 1981. In 1982, Ake was a visiting fellow at Oxford University in Britain. That year, he published The New World Order: A View from the South. From 1985 to 1986, Ake was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
In 1989, as Nigeria prepared to return to civilian rule, Ake took time off from his position at the University of Port Harcourt to help form one of the country’s new political parties. Once the parties were organized, however, the military government decided to abolish them and form its own. As a result, Ake told Walusako Mwalilino of the West Africa Review: “I felt that I could not, in all conscience, participate in those parties at that time. And in the meantime, because I had taken part in politics, however temporarily, I was not allowed anymore to teach in the university and I had to resign.”
Unable to find a teaching position in Nigeria, Ake moved to the United States, accepting a post at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. In doing so, Ake unwillingly became part of a problem that has plagued post-colonial Nigeria: the “brain drain” of highly-qualified professionals who live in other countries for political or economic reasons.
Soon afterward, however, Ake was able to return to Nigeria, and in 1991 he founded the Center for Advanced Social Science (CASS), a think tank intended to foster development from within. Eric Page wrote in the New York Times that during the 1990s the center also functioned as “an honest broker concerning oil revenues and environmental issues between local officials and representatives of several minority groups in the oil-producing area in southeastern Nigeria.”
For Ake, deciding to return to Nigeria was a moral imperative. “Perhaps better than anything else, this move exemplifies Claude’s… total and selfless commitment to the advancement of social science in Africa,” Professor Guy Martin of Clark Atlanta University was quoted as saying in West African Review. Martin continued, “Declining many lucrative offers from prestigious academic institutions in the United States and elsewhere—or even occasional offers of lobbying on behalf of discredited African governments—Claude considered it his sacred duty to work in Africa.” In 1992, the Nigerian government conferred on Ake an Order of Merit Award for his contribution to social science.
In addition to his academic work, Ake served as a consultant for many international organizations, including the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Economic Commission, the African Development Bank, and Canada’s International Development Research Center. Ake also worked closely with Ken Saro-Wiwa, an internationally-known environmental and social activist. In the early 1990s, Saro-Wiwa persuaded Ake to join a commission, sponsored by oil company Royal Dutch/Shell, to study the ecology of the oil-producing Niger Delta. Ake agreed, although he was critical of Shell’s negative impact on Nigeria’s economy and environment.
In 1995, Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government, a move that drew worldwide condemnation. Ake resigned from the commission in protest, accusing Shell of being complicit in Saro-Wiwa’s murder. “In Nigeria, companies like Shell are struggling between greed and fear,” he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. Refusing to be intimidated, Ake continued to fight to reveal human rights and environmental abuses in Nigeria.
The following year, Ake accepted a position as a visiting professor at Yale University. Also in 1996, he published Democracy and Development in Africa, in which he argued that economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa was impeded mainly by domestic politics. The only solution, in his view, was “people-centered” development, led by ordinary Africans, not external organizations or the African elite.
During his time at Yale, Ake continued to be active with the think tank he had founded in Nigeria. In November of 1996, he returned to Port Harcourt for a CASS workshop on conflict resolution in Africa. He was flying back to the United States via Lagos when the plane lost contact with the control tower and crashed into a swamp northeast of the city. Ake, 57, was killed, along with all others on board. He was survived by his wife, Anita, and two young sons, all of Port Harcourt.
In the days after Ake’s death, many fellow academics spoke of his contributions both as a thinker and an activist. “He was one of the pre-eminent scholars of African politics and a scholar-activist concerned with the development of Africa,” George Bond, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University told the New York Times. “His concern was primarily with the average African and how to improve the nature of his conditions.”
“Claude was arguably one of the most brilliant, original and prolific of the new generation of African political scientists who emerged to prominence in the seventies,” Professor Guy Martin of Clark Atlanta University was quoted as saying in West African Review. “Africa has undoubtedly lost one of its intellectual luminaries and a world-class scholar.” Ake’s final projects were focused on the roots of violence in Africa, political violence in Nigeria, and concepts of ethnicity. His last book, Democracy and Development in Africa, was published posthumously by the Brookings Institution in 1997. Several scholarships and awards have since been established in Ake’s name, including the Claude Ake Memorial Awards Program, funded by the Ford Foundation, and the Claude Ake Award for Excellence in Political Science.
African Affairs, April 1997
Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1997.
New York Times, Nov. 19, 1996.
Review of African Political Economy, December 1996.
West Africa Review, vol 2.1, 2000.
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