Death and Burial: The Affinity of Journalism and Ethnography

In this companion essay to his recent CSSH article, “Burying “Zik of Africa”: The Politics of Death and Cultural Crisis,” Wale Adebanwi discusses the insights revealed by returning as an anthropologist to events first explored as a journalist.

Statue of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in Owerri

How does one transform reportage into ethnography? Can journalistic (lay) ethnography become the basis of anthropological research? 

I had avoided confronting these questions directly in an earlier work,[i] though they were at the back of my mind. In addressing them directly in my CCSH essay, “Burying ‘Zik of Africa’: The Politics of Death and Cultural Crisis,” I was responding to a 15-year challenge of how to reconcile a particular reportorial (journalistic) experience I had in 1996 with what my academic training in anthropology, started a decade later, had taught me about the politics of death and burial.[ii]

My reporting on the death and burial of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first and only ceremonial president, had constituted a particular kind of fieldwork, but was it a legitimate basis for an ethnographic analysis of death and burial, even though at that time I had no training as an ethnographer?

I approached these questions through introspection/retrospection and engagement with extant work on the mutuality of journalism and ethnography. First, I realized that, though my earlier training in mass communication and political science did not alert me to the ethnographic practices inherent in the rituals of journalism, my experience as a journalist, considered in light of my subsequent anthropological training, made this evident. Second, in covering critical events as a journalist, I often tried, like an ethnographer, to immerse myself “into the life, routines, and rituals of the social setting.”[iii] Indeed, journalists in general are like ethnographers in that they work to uncover contextual meanings to better interpret events, social phenomena, institutions, and people, for their readers or viewers. However, despite affinities of their narrative schemes and observational methods, when “grafting ethnography onto journalism,” or, as I did in my CSSH essay,  journalism onto ethnography, one encounters an “awkward relationship to “sources.”[iv] While journalists are expected to treat their sources skeptically, ethnographers are trained to be more sympathetic to their informants. Yet, in reality, journalists are sometimes sympathetic to their sources, while ethnographers may doubt information or interpretations provided by their informants. When I decided a decade ago to revisit Azikiwe’s death and burial, I mobilized the strengths of both suspicion and sympathy in my retrospective data gathering as well as when drawing on newspaper reports as sources.

As a journalist, I covered Azikiwe’s death and burial between his death in May 1996 and burial the following November. I employed basic tools of ethnography, including participant-observation, over the course of six months. This was my primary source of the data that I used in my CSSH article. I had access that no other journalist had because I was close to a member of the National Burial Committee. Because he had also been a journalist, he knew not only what was newsworthy, but also how to extract information from the political agents involved in the politics of Zik’s burial. This often included background information (particularly what I call “low-quality but super-hot gossip” among the powerful) that I could not publish either because it was unconnected to the instant news that I needed to report or it was too complicated or sensitive even for the features that I published on the burial process. I could also talk to the Zik’s first son, the late Chukwuma Bamidele Azikiwe. I think he was eager to speak to me partly because of his relationship with Oluwole Awolowo, the son of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The Chief had been Premier of the Western Region of Nigeria and Zik’s great political rival, and in 1949 had founded the newspaper I worked for, the Nigerian Tribune. Oluwole Awolowo was the Tribune’s Publisher, and Zik’s son was obviously convinced that I would represent him fairly in my reports. 

Given the high-stakes politics surrounding Zik’s burial, I was familiar, through my source in the Burial Committee, with the thinking and attitude of the people at the highest levels of the Federal Military Government, as well as among the Committee’s Chairman and members. I was also able to learn directly and indirectly the positions of all those who were on the government’s side or whose interests aligned it, such as Zik’s wife, Uche Azikiwe. Through Zik’s son, Chukwuma, who had feuded with his father until his death, I was also able to find out the thinking and plans on the other side. This included the Onitsha’s traditional ruler the Obi of Onitsha, and Zik’s other children from his first wife, Flora, as well as the women who supported the Obi. Finally, as a journalist who had worked in Lagos and Ibadan, and was now based in the nation’s capital, Abuja, I had access to political leaders and politicians who were committed to profiting politically from Zik’s exit and the obsequies.

Again, I could not publish some of what I knew. One example will suffice. Zik wrote a series of confidential letters to his children, particularly to his first son, Chukwuma. I referenced one of these letters in my CSSH article. Even though I could not refer to them in my newspaper reports in 1996, something told me I would need them later, and so I had carried them around for over two decades before I drafted the article in 2019. There were two reasons why I couldn’t publish them in1996, though they did help convince my editors of the credibility of my sources and the strength of my access. Perhaps the most important reason was that my newspaper had been owned by Zik’s late rival, Awolowo, and was also regarded as the voice of the Yoruba political establishment. My editor worried that publication of the letters, in a moment when the nation was “celebrating Zik,” an Igbo, would give the impression that the Awolowo political camp and the Yoruba establishment wanted to tarnish the great man’s image by presenting evidence of a war between father and son.[v] Furthermore, as I described in the article, the Tribune had been the first newspaper to publish the false news of Zik’s “death” in 1989, for which error one Igbo newspaper columnist had accused the paper of being the “principal architect” in perpetrating a “monstrosity” due to Zik’s old political rivalries with the Tribune founder, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.[vi] The newspaper wanted to avoid provoking another cause célèbre regarding the age-old Igbo-Yoruba feuding. While these factors complicated things for me as a journalist, they later made the case more complex and all the more interesting for me as an anthropologist. I was also concerned that if I did publish the letters in my newspapers (and my editor would certainly have objected) and it attracted any controversy, it would be easy for the security forces to discover my source, which might put both of us in danger. But such a risk was unnecessary, since I just needed to report on the general disagreements over where Zik would be buried; I did not need to dig into the personal disputes between Zik, his surviving wife, and his eldest son. I was, however, able to delve into these in my essay. 

Hovering in the background of the politics of Zik’s burial was how to ensure that it was grander than the most elaborate public burial in Nigeria’s history, that of Awolowo in 1987. Though hardly anyone mentioned this publicly, as a reporter I heard hushed discussions about it, all against the backdrop of the unending rivalry between Nigeria’s two Southern majority groups, the Igbo and the Yoruba.  There had been a controversy over whether Awolowo would get a “state burial” since he was never a head of state, and the government settled for a “national state burial,” but there was no such controversy over Zik’s burial given that he had been Nigeria’s ceremonial president. There is no doubt that the deaths of and elaborate burial ceremonies for both men were the most reported in Nigeria’s media history. It is also significant that, directly or indirectly, when each died the other was invoked by the press. Some newspapers even wondered if there was “an esoteric arrangement” between both great men—about their deaths and commitment to mother earth—because Awolowo, whose body was initially permanently embalmed, was eventually buried nine years later on the day that Azikiwe died!

One fertile area of the politics of Zik’s death that my essay did not fully address is his posthumous political life. For example, my article touched briefly on the controversy over the beheading of Zik’s statue and its restoration, but an entire essay could be written about just that. (After the article went to press, one of the two Zik statues in his hometown of Onitsha were set afire by the #EndSARS protesters.[vii]).  Another aspect is the struggle by politicians to associate themselves with Zik’s name and legacy. I alluded to this through the example of the construction and completion of his mausoleum, which was formally commissioned by President Muhammadu Buhari.

President Muhammadu Buhari at the opening of the Zik Mausoleum in Onitsha. Photo courtesy of P.M. News.

Beyond such symbolic politics we find the more concrete struggle over Zik’s political ideas, particularly in relation to the failing enterprise that is the Nigerian state. Whenever there is a debate about the state’s survival, or when there are perceived threats to its integrity, as expressed in the media, Azikiwe’s legacy and political ideas are raised, often in contention with those of his late contemporaries such as Obafemi Awolowo and the Premier of the Nigeria’s Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello. The protesters who torched Zik’s statue at the Denis Memorial Grammar School Roundabout, Onitsha reportedly shouted: “You [Azikiwe] put us in this mess by championing one Nigeria.”[viii] Long after their demise, these three titans of Nigeria live on in a struggle over the country’s unity and future. 

[i] The Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[ii] This is apart from a related question that I also had to resolve as I traversed the disciplines of political science and anthropology. When I was in graduate school in Nigeria, African(ist) political science recognized that the deaths of certain political leaders (through assassination and/or coup d’etat or health/age-related reasons) caused major ruptures in African states and African politics.[ii] However, death was not regarded as a useful analytical lens for studying the allocation and transfer of power,– the principal concern of political science and political studies. This even though elite politics, cultural politics, and ethno-regional relations (including their connections with kinship, communal life, gender relations, and property rights) can be understood through the politics of death and burial, especially of the significant dead. Anthropology has awakened the discipline of politics to this.

[iii] Janet M. Cramer and Michael McDevitt, “Ethnographic Journalism.” In Sharon Hartin Iorio, ed., Qualitative Research in Journalism: Taking It to the Streets (New York: Routledge, 2011[2004]), 127.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Awolowo experienced a similarly troubled relationship with his only surviving son, Oluwole.

[vi] Lewis Obi, “Naked, but Shameless (1).” African Concord, 27 Nov. 1987.

[vii] Tony Okafor, “Protesters Burn Zik’s Statue in Anambra, Say He Caused Their Problems,” Punch, 24 Oct. 2020, (last accessed 7 Apr. 2021).

[viii] Ibid.