Urhobo Historical Society

Culled from:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Tribute:

Ulf Himmelstrand (1924-2011)

And the Development of Sociology at the University of Ibadan and in Nigeria


By Peter Ekeh

State University of New York at Buffalo


On June 8, 2011, a remarkable Swede, whose life experiences had a large chapter set in Nigeria, died peacefully in his hometown of Uppsala at a ripe age of 87. Ulf Himmelstrand will be laid to rest on July 12, 2011, in his beloved hometown. Uppsala and Sweden have much for which to honour his memory. He was a notable sociologist who was Head of the Department of Sociology at the famed Uppsala University for a number of years. Himmelstrand served as the President of the International Sociological Association and brought ISA’s World Congress to Uppsala in 1978.


The University of Ibadan and the academic profession of Sociology in Nigeria have their own important grounds for mourning and honouring this distinguished Scandinavian academic. Up until Nigeria’s year of Independence in 1960 and for a few years afterwards, the profession of Sociology in Nigeria was miniscule and was not much more than courses in colonial social anthropology taught at the University of Ibadan and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Among the bold strategies for raising the University of Ibadan to world-class standards by the great Kenneth Dike, Ibadan’s first Vice Chancellor, was his plan to decolonize social anthropology and usher standard Sociology into the University. Working with a team of Rockefeller Foundation personnel, Kenneth Dike recruited a 40-year old Swedish sociologist with a formidable name of Ulf Himmelstrand as the first Head of a full-fledged Department of Sociology at the University of Ibadan. He arrived for his new duties in September 1964.

Undoubtedly, Himmelstrand had a difficult assignment. Almost by the terms of his fresh mandate, he had to ignore much of the existing curriculum in what was previously known as the sub-Department of Sociology. He introduced many new Sociology courses most of which were taught in Nigeria for the first time. Himmelstrand had few academic staff to work with in this pioneering venture. The British lecturers in the old sub-Department of Sociology left before his arrival in September 1964. The only hold-over from the old order was a Japanese anthropologist, Masao Yamaguchi. Himmelstrand arrived at Ibadan at about the same time as two young Nigerian sociologists – Albert Imohiosen and Francis Okediji – who were fresh from graduate schools in the United States. Helpfully, there were two Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored Visiting Professors: Sanford M. Dornbusch (from Stanford University) and A. Paul Hare (Haverford College, Pennsylvania). That was the core of the Sociology team that Himmelstrand led in his first year as Head of Sociology. In the following two years others were added.

Judging by results, Ulf Himmelstrand and his small team did brilliantly well. Many more students were attracted to the Department of Sociology. The curriculum was indeed decolonized, resulting in mainstream Sociology that was far more respectful of Nigeria’s cultures. But it would be minimizing Ulf Himmelstrand’s achievements at Ibadan to confine the measurement of his work to the curriculum and his prodigious teaching. Right from his first year at Ibadan, Ulf Himmelstrand brought to the University what most excites a University administration: an international research programme and a handsome funding to match. In the “Summer” (long vacation) of 1965, the Department of Sociology hosted an international workshop on research on political culture that brought to Ibadan famed social scientists from the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia, including the leaders of the research programme: Sidney Verba (Stanford University) and Robert Sommers (University of California, Berkeley). The Nigerian section of that research was headed by Himmelstrand and was the first large-scale social science research in Nigeria. Its fieldwork covered all the Regions of the country in 1965-67. Happily, this tradition of large-scale research has survived in the Department of Sociology at Ibadan.


There is a noteworthy area of Ulf Himmelstrand’s work in Nigeria that has begot enduring results. It is his mentorship of so many young people who were in search of future careers in Sociology and the Social Sciences. It is only fair that I should narrate my own case as a starting example of how much Himmelstrand touched the lives of Nigerian academics. I graduated from the University of Ibadan’s Faculty of Social Sciences, with a specialty in Sociology, in 1964. Having led in the Faculty in the final examinations, I received special favours in the matter of further studies. My good teacher in the sub-Department of Sociology, Dr. P. C. Lloyd, was especially kind to me. He arranged admission for me to study Social Anthropology with the famous Lucy Mair at the London School of Economics. In addition, he had a good scholarship package from the British Council worked out for me. I was quite excited. However, one afternoon I was summoned to the Office of the Dean. The American Joseph Black served both as Dean of the Social Sciences and Head of the Rockefeller Foundation in Nigeria. He told me that he had just discussed my case with the Vice-Chancellor and that Kenneth Dike was not happy that I was being “lured” away to study Social Anthropology in England. (Actually, it was all my choice.) He said that the VC wanted the Department to move away from Anthropology to Sociology and would want me to reconsider my choices. Joe Black assured me that the Rockefeller Foundation would give me a full scholarship for my graduate studies in Sociology if I were to so choose after discussing with the incoming Swedish Professor of Sociology.


After initial confusion and fear that I might hurt the feelings of my good teacher, P. C. Lloyd, who had already left Ibadan for England, I did wait for Ulf Himmelstrand with some apprehension – because I had never met a Scandinavian in my life. He turned out to be a warm and kind man. He told me that the English had contributed a great deal to human learning and were top-rated in many fields, but not in Sociology. He promised to cover with me some of the areas that I should have studied and that he would help with admission into a good University in the United States. He did help me to enter Sociology at Stanford University where his friend Sidney Verba was a well known Professor. On my own I drifted to Berkeley after just one year at Stanford – and Himmelstrand supported my move. Remarkably, both Ulf and his wife showed great interest in my young wife and, subsequently, in our children. We became great friends. I visited Ulf and his wife several times at Uppsala. Ulf took great pride in my work as I became a recognized scholar. On my part, I credit him with redirecting me away from Social Anthropology to Sociology, although the initial impetus came from Kenneth Dike’s desire to make Ibadan a great University.


I am sure that my account of acquaintance with this remarkable man can be repeated, with variations of course, by numerous other Nigerians whose lives and careers were touched or even remolded by Ulf Himmelstrand. He was a passionate man who threw his support on behalf of the progress of young persons wholeheartedly. In my generation of Ibadan Sociology alumni, I can think of Stephen Imoagene, Ekundayo Akeredolu-Ale, Samson Oke, Simi Afonja, Adesuwa Emovon, Martin Igbozurike, and Layi Erinosho as Nigerians whose careers were shaped in some way by Himmelstrand. There may be many more beneficiaries of Ulf Himmelstrand’s mentorship whose personal acquaintance I have not been privileged to make. Many of these Nigerians visited with Himmelstrand in Sweden in later years as they sought to upgrade their career opportunities. In the early 1980s, while he was a Visiting Professor of Sociology at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, Himmelstrand came back to the University of Ibadan to recruit from a younger generation of Ibadan scholars for a book project. That was how fresher and able scholars like Adigun Agbaje and Eghosa Osaghae became associated with Ulf Himmelstrand in the authorship of his important book African Perspectives on Development (1994).


Ulf Himmelstrand’s circle of personal ties in Nigeria was much wider than his network of students. He became life-long friends with several of his colleagues at Ibadan. His friendship with fellow Ibadan academics like the late Professor Tunji Aboyade (in Economics Department) was deep and abiding. His ties with Albert Imohiosen continued over long periods, extending to the end of Ulf’s life. One has a sense that Himmelstrand regarded Nigerians as people whose friendship was especially valuable to him.


The Civil War terminated much that was good at the University of Ibadan. Kenneth Dike’s tenure as Vice-Chancellor was cut short by circumstances of the coming war. I am not fully sure, but I suspect that Himmelstrand’s departure from Ibadan back to Uppsala in 1967 was sooner than he originally planned – probably hastened by the onset of Civil War. However, he was very much unlike many other expatriates who turned their back on Nigeria following their departure from the country. Ulf Himmelstrand was emotionally attached to Nigeria. He became important in offering explanations for the complexities of the Nigerian crisis to Scandinavian publics, for whom Nigeria was a distant land. He maintained his ties with Nigerians by frequent correspondence, in many instances in his strong handwriting. This was a man who always carried a piece of Nigeria with him.


By some fortunate happenstance, I was in Uppsala for the European Conference on African Studies a week following Ulf Himmelstrand’s death. At the conference I met several Nigerians who knew Ulf Himmelstrand very well and were saddened by the news of his death. I met Julie Ikomi who has been friends with the Himmelstrands for decades. And I met Dr. Mohamed (from Kano) who took his PhD from Ulf Himmelstrand in the Department of Sociology of Uppsala University. I visited Mrs. Karin Himmelstrand in their home on June 16, 2011. She and her son Jonas Himmelstrand (who was eleven years old when they arrived in Nigeria in 1964 and attended International School, Ibadan) received me warmly. There was also a welcoming Nigerian ambience in the Himmelstrand home. Nigerian art works predominantly decorate this home in the heart of Scandinavia. On the wall is proudly displayed a send-off group photograph by the Nigerian Sociological Association, with Ulf and Karin at the centre and surrounded by Nigerian friends. Karin told me that Ulf would very much want the Nigerian community to be involved in his final rites. She invited any of Ulf’s former students and associates to please send notes and records of their memories of Ulf Himmelstrand to her before the funeral rites on July 12, 2011. I suggest that these should be sent through the Sociology Department at the University of Ibadan.