In Memoriam Stephen Ellis

Stephen_EllisOn the 29th of July Stephen Ellis, an NVAS member and highly esteemed scholar, sadly passed away. Ineke van Kessel, who is also an NVAS member, shared her personal memories. 

“I first met Stephen Ellis in 1990 in Johannesburg. I had just embarked on my research for my Ph D on the United Democratic Front and the turbulent decade of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s; he was about to become the director of the African Studies Centre in Leiden, and thus my boss. To my pleasant surprise, we immediately plunged in a lively discussion of my preliminary research findings and shared some gossip. My interlocutor was obviously very knowledgeable and well-connected, but utterly unpretentious. After my fairly brutal initiation into the claustrophobic world of academia, which I had entered in 1988 after a career in journalism, I had come to expect a huge social distance between an accomplished academic, about to become director of a research institute, and a junior researcher. Stephen Ellis however did not seem enthralled by hierarchies of power, position and patronage; he was genuinely interested in the contents of my research. With huge relief, I concluded that, after all, it must be possible: exchanging views and information on the basis of a shared passionate interest in Africa, regardless of rigid academic hierarchies.

Over the past 25 years I have learnt quite a lot from Stephen Ellis. A glance at his list of publications would convince anyone of his prodigious productivity and his wide-ranging interests, from his dissertation on the history of Madagascar and his iconoclastic account of the exile years of the African National Congress to his most recent work on a history of organised crime in Nigeria, which he completed shortly before his death. His publications are based on thorough investigation, but also a pleasure to read. Ellis had the gift of the helicopter view: he crafted his stories of Africa’s predicaments with fascinating details, warts and all, while situating his interpretations in a broader global perspective.

His impressive publications record will no doubt be included in more official biographies. Here, I would like to share some personal memories of Stephen as an invaluable colleague and an inspiring mentor. He generously shared information, views and contacts. One of the most prominent Africanists of our times, Stephen also left his mark as a talent scout, mentoring numerous young talented researchers in Africa and beyond. He brought to the African Studies Centre a whole new range of visitors, seminar speakers and visiting fellows, opening up a rather sedate research centre to the exciting world of groundbreaking research. As editor of Africa Confidential (1986-1990), he had cultivated an extensive network of sources who fed him with information that authoritarian rulers would rather keep in the closet. Yet, the thin blue newsletter was considered vital reading for Africa’s power holders and power brokers. Later, he helped to open up the bastion of academic journals for more contributions from Africa and notably from young researchers. As editor of African Affairs (1998-2006) he was keen to provide a platform for promising young African scholars as well as established pundits.

Stephen was an all-round scholar, knowledgeable, generous and helpful, but not always easy to work with. He was frank and straightforward, and sometimes brutally honest. A sample of his acerbic but entertaining criticism is his book review in the 2013 NVAS newsletter, where he butchered the book under review as “one of the worst books I have ever read”. Some have called him a cynic, a label which Stephen resented. Just because he did not share the belief of many of his contemporaries in academia and journalism in the egalitarian utopias promised by Africa’s liberation movements, did that make him a cynic? Was it not much more cynical to gloss over rampant corruption and ruthless abuses of human rights, in the name of solidarity with the cause? In Stephen Ellis’ idea of research, there was no place for holy cows, sentimental musings or ideological doctrine. His critical stance did not mean that he lacked compassion, as is evident from his work for Amnesty International and his quiet initiatives to assist less fortunate colleagues.

In keeping with Stephen’s spirit of frankness, it is only fair to recall that his directorship of the African Studies Centre (1991-1994) was not the most fortunate episode of his career. While enormously inspiring as a fellow researcher, he had neither time nor talent for tedious administrative duties. After an unhappy exit as director, it was gratifying to see how he thrived again as a researcher, sought after by academia, publishers, mass media and policymakers alike.

We mourn the loss of a prominent scholar and an inspiring colleague. But it is more in keeping with Stephen’s spirit to celebrate his legacy and to continue asking irreverent questions, pursue unlikely leads and publish the outcomes, even if these outcomes are not always palatable in certain circles. As countless others who have enjoyed the legendary hospitality and the fascinating conversations with Stephen Ellis and his partner Gerrie ter Haar, I will cherish the memory of an impressive scholar, a generous colleague and a great friend of Africa.”