Sani Umar on decolonisation, Nigerian academia, and alternative epistemologies

Episode 1: On decolonization, inequality, and the development of Nigerian academia since independence
Episode 2: On epistemologies: scientism, ‘symbolic’ and ‘approximate’ thinking.
Episode 3: On religious thinking as an alternative or complement to science, and the new and exciting ideas in Nigerian public debate.

Nigerian academia has undergone tremendous transformations since the country’s independence in 1960. Universities have mushroomed, education and research have privatised, student numbers have soared… All in the wake of the wreckage – or creative destruction – left behind by Structural Adjustment.

Kano Durbar

What does ‘decolonisation of the academy’ mean in the context of contemporary Nigeria? How should we understand the transformations that Nigeria’s knowledge landscape has undergone? Has the inequality of opportunities between Nigerian academics and students and their peers elsewhere changed over time? Has Nigeria’s orientation shifted away from traditional colonial hierarchies? And are certain epistemologies, or ways of thinking and knowing, privileged at the expense of others?

In this three-part conversation, Sani Umar addresses these questions, and more. Building on his experience both in Nigerian and American academia, and his expertise in religious thinking, he outlines the stark – and fascinating – post-colonial trajectory of Nigerian academia: from its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, through the turmoil of Structural Adjustment, to the contemporary period of expansion, resource constraints, and strategic realignment towards Asia.

What are the exciting questions and debates in Nigerian universities and other knowledge institutions? What drives the questions that are asked, and the methods that are utilised? And what are the spaces where innovative ideas are created and debated, within and outside of the universities?

In addressing these questions, Sani Umar also helps us think more concretely about the epistemological alternatives that exist to ‘scientism’. Specifically, he highlights the notions of symbolic thinking, approximate thinking, and religious thinking. Should we think of these epistemologies as direct challenges to the scientific method? Where are they utilised and developed, if not in Nigerian universities? And what are the questions that these epistemologies can help us answer?