Professor Babatunde (“Tunde”) Zack-Williams – ASAUK’s Distinguished Africanist Prize
A defining feature of Professor Babatunde (“Tunde”) Zack-Williams’s work in African studies is that he is an organic intellectual – he is someone who has wanted to go beyond just using his intelligence and writing skills to develop and enrich knowledge and understanding of the African continent, he has also been engaged with helping transform knowledge to reduce the impact on Africans of the often deleterious consequences of “modernity” broadly defined. He is someone who has used his many years of internationally recognised outputs to advance ideas of progressive change and transformation in Africa and western ideas about the continent.
Professor Zack-Williams has had a sustained publication record for almost 40 years. His research is recognised internationally as helping to develop and deepen our understanding of different dimensions of conflict and reconstruction in West Africa. He has conducted primary research in Nigeria and Ghana but it is in his continuous research on Sierra Leone that he has become a world authority. His research has helped develop our understanding of the characterisation of the state in Sierra Leone, on the historical circumstances that have contributed to conflict and underdevelopment and the ways in which complex political emergencies can be grasped. He has written extensively about the consequences of mineral led growth that go beyond the tropes of “the curse of resources” to examine the political economy and social underpinnings of political crisis and violence linked to problems of capital accumulation, the presence and absence of strong entrepreneurial actors and the social costs of war: the impact on wellbeing, the phenomenon of child soldiers and the implications of conflict for rural livelihoods.
His published output goes beyond the analytical heft of his work on Sierra Leone. He has co-authored books on post-colonialism, Africa in crisis, the impacts of economic reform and structural adjustment and the difficulties of democratic deepening and consolidation. His academic range has also extended to include the debate about the politics of ethnicity, corruption, African youth, democratisation and political transition from authoritarian governance. His interventions have always been timely and have helped set the agenda regarding the need to interrogate western policy and practice in Africa and to do so with an accessible style that reminds readers of the importance of African voices and initiatives that are not dependent upon the West. Zack-Williams’s work on economic reform in Africa, and alternatives to western prescriptions for it, has helped set a critical tone and context for understanding what at times since the neo liberal revolution of the 1970s, was an understandably feverish debate. Zack-Williams’s research and output however, was measured and rooted in an analysis of existing social formations in Africa rather than any idealising of them by left or right wing policy advocates. While he worked at the University of Jos in the 1980s Zack-Williams developed innovative research on labour, women’s labour and local development initiatives as well as engaging with the highly influential Nigerian left that was emerging around academics at the Ahmadu Bello University where he was also highly respected.
The importance of Zack-Williams’s careful and thoughtful interventions has nowhere been more felt than in his long serving role as editorial working group member and editor of the Review of African Political Economy. For more than 30 years Zack-Williams has helped ROAPE set an intellectual agenda and been foremost in nurturing and harnessing African participation and contributions to the journal. Zack-Williams has been influential in the coverage that the journal has engaged with, assembling material and editing it to a high standard and in working with African authors ensuring that the journal hears voices from the continent. This role has included developing themes for journal special issues, commissioning authors and working with submissions and always advocating for African authorship. In the last three years Zack-Williams has been at the forefront in the journal developing its new Connections workshops. These meetings have promoted innovative engagement with African convenors and participants in helping understand contemporary dimensions of recent political and economic reforms and resistance to immiseration in the continent with meetings in Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa.
Zack-Williams’s career has in many ways been one of immense success despite, rather than because of the environment in which he has worked. In large part, in his academic career, he has been an Africanist in a non-Africanist environment. His university career was marked by energy and involvement in promoting understanding and knowledge of Africa across a range of student cohorts from Access programmes to doctoral programmes and his research, field work and publishing was conducted while also carrying heavy ‘new’ University teaching regimes where he innovated new courses on Africa and development more generally. It is to the area of advocacy and engagement with Africa and on issues of race and racial discrimination that I now want to turn for it is here that Zack-Williams as organic intellectual is further demonstrated. Long before the contemporary characterisations of racialised politics marked by resistance from Black Lives Matter, Zack-Williams was active in Lancashire and Liverpool advocating for black and ethnic minority interests. He has been a leading advocate for knowledge about Africa and an understanding of the dynamics of racial prejudice and discrimination in his community. This is evidenced by his work as Chair of school governors, across the range of education provision and his work with local government associations and police authorities regarding race relations. Zack-Williams has also worked with cultural associations involved in promoting dance and theatre production and he has also been active over many years, including in publications, on mental health support in his community and nationally.
The role that Zack-Williams has played in advancing knowledge and understanding of Africa has been recognised in Europe and the US with fellowships at Trinity College Dublin and he was a Feldman Engaged Scholar at Brandeis University in the US. In 2013 he received the Amistad Award for distinguished service on human rights from the Central University of Connecticut. Zack-Williams is exceptional in that he has had multiple UK based roles in African Studies. He was a long serving member of the ASAUK executive, he was ASAUK secretary and President, later serving as Chair of the Fage and Oliver Book Prize and he has also served since 2006 as a member of the British Academy Africa Panel.