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Tribute to Lionel Cliffe


By Raymond Bush

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 47-50]

Lionel Cliffe in the Rocky Mountains

Tribute to Lionel Cliffe 1936-2013

by Ray Bush

Lionel Cliffe has passed away. His important legacy survives him and will be long lasting in Leeds and much of Africa. He influenced and helped shape debates in Africa over more than four decades in areas of conflict, political transformation, liberation movements and rural transformation. He helped transform the small Leeds African Studies Unit into a centre for research and teaching on Africa in the UK and beyond. His energy and analytical heft, humour and drive was central to establishing radical scholarship on Africa in Leeds. He came to Leeds with an already well- established record of conducting and convening research and research administration in Africa. Prior to joining the Leeds Department of Politics Lionel had led and organised field work in Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. His drive to develop research on Africa by African scholars led to path breaking studies on underdevelopment, socialism and rural development in Tanzania.  It also embroiled him in student politics that led to a period of incarceration in Zambia.

Lionel was a natural choice to be appointed in the Department of Politics in Leeds in the late 1970s. Then a department of radical scholarship with an international reputation, Lionel promoted postgraduate research on Africa and Development Studies. He helped set up the Leeds Centre for Development Studies convening not just rhetorical interdisciplinary studies but the delivery of teaching and learning on the Global South from across academic disciplines including the natural sciences. Lionel was an inspirational teacher. He challenged students to think critically. He wanted them to always engage with the plight and struggles of people in Africa and elsewhere and he challenged them to combine the importance of theoretical rigour and the grasp of empirical case study knowledge.

In the academy Lionel resisted competitiveness and the permanent revolution of administrative change. He resisted the growth of the internal market for student numbers rather than the desire to deliver critical scholarship to the largest number and most deserving students especially from overseas. He was at his most critical in the University of academics who chose to be department managers anticipating the latest fad or administrative change. He resisted the dumbing down of the delivery of the most important dimensions of University education. These dimensions included the need to question and interrogate everything, for European students to have empathy with those in Africa; to have the analytical skills to dissect capitalism and its impact on developing countries and to find alternative policy initiatives that improved the lives of those in Africa. This was no simple reformist agenda. In the 1980s at the fag end of apartheid Lionel drove a research programme on the regional implications of South African sub-imperialism. He wanted to uncover what might be salvaged positively in a post-apartheid world for improved economic development in southern Africa. He explored the need to expose the social and political-economic consequences of regional labour migration and the implications for social reproduction in rural communities. He managed an election study in Zimbabwe and later in Namibia and a particular focus on why and how liberation movements were so challenged in the years after liberation to retain their radical edge. In explaining this Lionel looked not only to African elites struggling with the difficulties of meeting high expectations of the newly enfranchised but he also critiqued imperialist intervention that inhibited the reallocation of resources so necessary for the promotion of justice and equity in the continent.

Central to Lionel’s scholarship and activism was the analysis of agrarian questions regarding how land reform in Zimbabwe and South Africa could deliver redistribution and sustainability for landless and near landless farmers.  Lionel’s analysis of why political power did not deliver promises of national liberation underpinned his work beyond southern Africa to include, in Kenya issues of political violence and land inequality, and state formation and reconstruction in Eritrea. Lionel was at the forefront, with the late Basil Davidson, of advocating independence for Eritrea and he was also scathing of why post-liberation reconstruction failed to deliver the promises of democratic transformation and improved social and economic justice.

Lionel’s formal retirement from Leeds did not diminish his field work and commentary on politics and society in Africa. He continued his research not in the new and entrenched conservatism of POLIS, the institutional shell that replaced the department of politics but in the School of Geography and at Bradford University with the Department of Peace Studies. He worked on issues of conflict and reconstruction and a large comparative study of land reform in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe[1]. He travelled widely and continuously, leading one colleague to recently note he was probably the most travelled of UK based Africanists. Lionel was certainly at home in Africa; willing and keen to learn from Africans themselves about their  conditions of existence and what types of policy initiatives might improve especially access to land, markets and political empowerment. Lionel continued to attend African studies meetings and seminars, advocated for LUCAS, chaired public lectures and persisted with the most perceptive and insightful comments at seminars and workshops. It was always a mistake to imagine that Lionel’s appearance of dozing in meetings meant you would be let off the hook from his incisive question that always accompanied his attendance. Lionel had the great ability to encourage the need to look at problems from different angles. He offered radical perspectives that were only very rarely ideologically driven but which sought to investigate how power and privilege was either delivered in African contexts with great force and violence or from behind a veil of pretentious liberal democracy. His enthusiasm in seminars and at workshops helped to create a supportive non-competitive environment for learning and sent clear messages to the young and the old that ideas should be grounded in experience as well as theory.  He was able, because of his immense experience, to entertain all listeners with stories from the field, from areas of military combat, starvation and political crisis, with informed analysis of how emergencies emerged and how they were usually being dealt with that would just return different countries to the status quo.  His intellectual leadership continued to be invaluable to students of Africa as he never shied from offering advice and comments on their work to research students and well-established colleagues.

Lionel showed the importance of being unswervingly critical of academia when bureaucracy threatened to shape teaching and learning rather than intellectual agendas for action and reform. He was also unswervingly critical of academics and policy makers who assumed their positions automatically granted them insight. Lionel’s experience had taught him from decades of exploring liberation movements, talking with peasants and workers in Africa that the organic intellectuals with perception committed and engaged for transformation were more often than not found in situations of struggle rather than in academic research centres. Lionel knew the importance of theoretically informed and empirically grounded research on and in Africa. And his immense skill of working with African research students encouraging and facilitating analytical writing about the continent and particular struggles on it has helped ensure the renewal of radical scholarship in many different parts of Africa.

Lionel’s critical analysis of work in and on Africa extended beyond the academy and his reputation extended to many parts of the continent. He did not distinguish between his work in the academy and the need to engage in broader local UK communities highlighting African crises. He did this in the early 1980s with the Sheffield Southern Africa Solidarity campaign raising awareness and money for anti- apartheid and later he was generous with his time assembling material defending those from Africa who sought UK asylum. He was unflappable under pressure and in meeting his many different commitments.  This could at times be enormously frustrating for those working with him, but he was never short tempered or brusque. He remained generous with time and was fun in the bar and the on the dance floor, not the least at LUCAS workshops and conferences.

Lionel may nevertheless have been better known in Africa than in UK Higher Education circles. It was common on visits to Africa to be routinely asked ‘isn’t Lionel Cliffe at Leeds?’ His criticism and persisting questioning of all that we do was a welcome antidote to the trends towards academic mediocrity defined by research and teaching audits, and research directors concerned with outputs rather than analytical rigour and political engagement. But his criticism was not only for the academy it was also for radical scholarship that might be seduced into the commercial worlds of publishing. He had helped start what has become the most influential and widely read radical journal on Africa, the Review of African Political Economy. Even after his effective retirement from the day to day management of that journal he continued to contribute to its pages and its intellectual agenda. He was critical of ROAPE’s  ‘professionalisation’ although he also recognised that its commercialisation  helped to ensure the journal could do more in and on radical scholarship and activism than it had done ever before in its 40 year history. His input into that journal, Leeds African studies and as a contributor to the need for grounded analysis of capitalist crisis and its impact on Africa will be missed. But we have learnt a lot from him that will continue to contribute to our understanding of Africa and the need for development alternatives.

For other perspectives please see the obituary of Lionel written by colleague Peter Lawrence. This appeared in The Guardian on 26th November 2013 which contains personal memories and also includes memories of Lionel’s work in Tanzania. See:

If you would like to donate in Lionel’s memory, Lionel is being honoured with a research scholarship organised by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE). Payments can be made into Co-operative Bank, sort code 089075, account no. 50181461.  Please use the Fund reference: LCMRS

[1] The Winter 2013/14 Bulletin carries a review by Fay Chung, written prior to his death, of the book Lionel co-edited for publication in 2012, Outcomes of Post-2000 Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe)

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