In the Battle of Hearts and Minds

Oghenevwarho Gabriel Ojakovo’s PhD dissertation explored the role of sacred music in both escalating and de-escalating conflict in northern Nigeria

Carmen Rojas - 13 November 2023

When Oghenevwarho Gabriel Ojakovo receives his PhD in ethnomusicology at Fall Convocation later this month, it will be the culmination of a journey that saw him leave his home country of Nigeria in order to work with a top scholar in his area of specialization.

“I was looking for scholars in the area of Islamic sacred music and my supervisor, Professor Michael Frishkopf, was a very strong person in that field,” he says, noting that he was also impressed by the Department of Music’s West African Music Ensemble, which Frishkopf founded in 1999. “It showed me that the U of A is very diversified.”

Ojakovo, who holds a BA in music media from Delta State University and an MA in the Performing Arts in ethnomusicology from the University of Ilorin, has always had an interest in Islamic music. But it was while working as a faculty member at Kwara State University in northern Nigeria that his scholarship began to focus on the role sacred songs have played in radical Islamic movements such as Boko Haram.

“For Boko Haram, song is for propaganda,” Ojakovo explains. “They try to indoctrinate the younger people to believe that jihad is justified within Islam and they should join the jihad.”

For his PhD dissertation, “In the Battle of Hearts and Minds: Music in the Construction and Deconstruction of Boko Haram's Ideologies in Northern Nigeria,”  Ojakovo took the unique focus of also considering the role music plays in de-escalating conflict in the region.

“Music is dynamic; music is created in response to situations,” he says. “I also tried to look at how these musicians in the north whose musical culture has been distorted by Boko Haram become involved to counter or to deconstruct the ideas that Boko Haram tries to push forth.”

Ojakovo adds that the use of music to counter Boko Haram’s ideology has even extended to the military, with the Nigerian army utilizing songs as a tactic to de-radicalize former members of the group who have been captured.

Along with Frishkopf, Ojakovo credits Professor Joseph Hill from the Department of Anthropology and Professor Onookome Okome from the Department of English & Film Studies as strong influences on his research.

Ojakovo is also appreciative of the awards that were available at the U of A, including the Killam Graduate Scholarship, which he considers instrumental to his studies.

Looking to the future, Ojakovo says his next step was made possible in part by Frishkopf, Okome, and fellow graduate students Uchechukwu Umezurike and Abubakar Abdulkadir, who have encouraged him to continue publishing his work. In January, he will begin a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of music and director of The Centre for the Study of African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Ojakovo will leave Edmonton with fond memories of the community and the experiences he had here, especially his time with the West African Music Ensemble.

“My experience at the U of A was really worthwhile,” he says. “Everyone was a source of inspiration.”