By Farooq A. Kperogi
Last Saturday, I attended the Ph.D. graduation of a treasured mentee of mine by the name of Abdulbasit Kassim at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His graduation ceremony would have been another mundane academic ritual to celebrate the crowning accomplishment of a doctoral study, except that Dr. Kassim’s life story and his PhD journey are anything but mundane.
As a third-year doctoral student, for example, he published a well-received book on Boko Haram with Oxford University Press, which was a finalist for the African Studies Association’s Paul Hair Prize. That’s not a usual academic feat for a doctoral student anywhere in the world. It was a testament to his contagious passion for and commitment to intellectual discovery.
Dr. Kassim’s Ph.D. journey isn’t remarkable just because he wrote a book and won prestigious awards, grants, and predoctoral fellowships in the course of his study but also because he survived life-threatening health scares and mishaps with grace and equanimity.
In the course of his study, he was burdened with unanticipated threats to his life that saw him constantly in the hospital and caused him to suspend his study for a year. I had paralyzing anxieties about him. But he survived and then thrived both because of his own overpowering will to live and the support of multiple people at Rice University and the Nigerian community he cultivated in Houston.
Again, during his fieldwork in Nigeria, his laptop and prized scans of rare ancient manuscripts were stolen, which set him back by another year. He sounded transparently broken and defeated when he called me after his return from Nigeria. But he soldiered on and conquered. His formidable emotional stamina in the face of immobilizing strokes of ill fortune has to count among his most prized personal traits.
It’s impossible to know Dr. Kassim and not take a liking to him—unless, of course, you’re a psychopath or a sociopath. He is an expansive social magnet who radiates irresistible warmth, amiability, good cheer, and civility wherever he is. He is compulsively polite and unfailingly respectful to everyone he meets, and this is reflected in the wide and diverse network of friends and acquaintances he has.
Several of the people who rallied support for him in his moment of distress showed up at his graduation. I was particularly pleased to meet a gracious and complaisant Nigerian family in Houston that adopted him as their son and who organized a post-graduation get-together in his honor in their home to which I was invited.
Dr. Kassim was born in 1989 to a Hausa father from Kumbotso, Kano State, and a Yoruba mother from Lagos. He embodies a fascinating ethnic and cultural duality that is nonetheless sutured by the common Islamic faith of his parents.
But, as you would expect, Nigeria’s identity politics sometimes puts him in the uncomfortable position of navigating and negotiating identitarian landmines. In Lagos, his maternal relatives describe him and his siblings as “omo Gambari” or “omo aboki” [Hausa children], and he has recollections of his paternal relatives in Kano referring to him and his siblings as “’ya’yan Bayarbiya” [children of the Yoruba woman] each time they visited their hometown. He speaks both Hausa and Yoruba with native proficiency, but his Hausa has recognizable Yoruba inflections because his inchoate years were spent in Lagos.
He attended secondary school in Minna and university at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria where he earned a degree in International Studies at the top of his class and connected more deeply with the culture of his paternal ancestry.
But the route to his immersion in northern Nigerian culture wasn’t without a few little prickly thorns. For example, after his secondary education at the Federal Government College, Minna, he purchased the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) form to take the university entrance exam to ABU. The form has a provision for a middle name, which he never had. But because he thought the middle name was a requirement, he put Oluwatobi (which translates as “God is great”), the name his mother gave him, but which hasn’t appeared in any of his credentials.
He applied to study law at ABU and, although he had one of the highest UTME scores in the applicant pool, his middle name raised red flags about his identity among admission officers. They wondered what Kano indigene would have a Yoruba middle name, and suspected that he was claiming to be from Kano to game the system, which frankly isn’t unusual.
Unfortunately, his father died when he was only 12. The responsibility to defend him and vouch for his paternal Kano ancestral bona fides rested with his father’s younger brother who came from Kano to Zaria to meet with ABU’s law lecturers. His uncle’s intervention helped authenticate his identity, but it was too late to salvage his admission. He was traumatized by the experience, but his spirit wasn’t broken.
His uncle enrolled him for a diploma in library science the year he lost his chance to study law. The following year, he retook the university entrance exam, earned high scores, and got accepted into ABU’s International Studies program from where he graduated as the best student in 2011. His stellar performance became the basis for him to win the competitive Commonwealth Scholarship Award to study for an MA in Politics and International Studies at Keele University in England in 2012.
Dr. Kassim’s experiences navigating the contours of his dual identity recall W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of “double consciousness.” In The Souls of Black Folk, Dubois describes “double consciousness” as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Although Dubois deployed the term to encapsulate “the strange meaning of being black” in the United States at the turn of the century, it’s a useful concept to help unpack the strange sensation of embodying often conflictual northern and southern identities in today’s Nigeria.
But it also has its good sides. For people like Dr. Kassim, being pan-Nigerian isn’t an option; it’s the only option.
I first got acquainted with him in 2015 when he sent me a cold email introducing himself and requesting that I read and give him feedback on a peer-reviewed journal article he had published in Politics, Religion and Ideology titled “Defining and Understanding the Religious Philosophy of Jihadi-Salafism and the Ideology of Boko Haram.”
It was a thoughtful, insightful, and well-researched article that emerged from the work he did as a master’s student in England, which got published in his first year of doctoral studies. It signaled to me that this would be a successful graduate student and scholar. I was right.
Email communications soon graduated to phone calls and then to physical visits. He felt comfortable enough with me that when he came to Atlanta to renew his Nigerian passport he stayed in my home. Now he is like a member of my family. He introduced me to his affable and deeply religious mother whom I look forward to meeting someday when I travel to Nigeria. My children fondly call him Uncle Abdulbasit, and my wife is so fond of him that since 2019 she kept telling me that I must attend his graduation come rain or shine.
I told him that even if he didn’t invite me for his graduation, I would have attended it because there was a standing uxorial command that I dare not disobey.
We have transcended mentor-mentee relationship and now have what feels like a familial relationship. As much as I am a mentor, confidant, and a sounding board for him, he also nudges me to complete tasks I’m dragging my feet on. I pointed this out in the acknowledgements of my 2020 book. I wrote: “I would also like to thank Abdulbasit Kassim, doctoral candidate at Rice University and a valued mentee of mine, whose persistent but gentle nudges pushed me to complete this book. Each time he called me, he never failed to ask about the progress I made in writing the manuscript of this book. His unceasing inquiries about my progress became one of the biggest prods for the completion of this book.”
Dr. Kassim is one young man who shows tremendous promise to extend the boundaries of knowledge and further greater understanding between Nigeria’s North and South. Join me to congratulate him.