Here is the video to a recent talk I did at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). It was buoying to see the number of young Pakistani undergraduates in attendance and it speaks well to South Asia’s future interest in African studies.
I recently had a book chapter published by Springer in LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees from a Legal and Political Perspective. This qualitative research project on transgender refugees from Pakistan began during my time in Lahore in 2017. I later conducted in-depth interviews over the phone with transgender asylum seekers in Europe. I also published an article with The Islamic Monthly on the topic.
I am posting here because these same issues of LGBTI persecution exist in some African countries. I have posted about homosexuality in Uganda and Nigeria, the two African countries with the strictest laws against same-sex relations. Additionally, Nigeria and Pakistan share similar characteristics conducive to a legal and political comparison:
- high population density
- majority Muslim population with at least some degree of sharia law in place
- high contrast between relative wealthy urban areas (Lagos, Lahore) and impoverished rural ones (Sokoto State, Balochistan)
- histories of military take-overs and political instability, in which repression of sexual minorities can be part of the political agenda
- Artificial borders drawn by the British that undergird religious/ethnic identities today
My chapter, “Fleeing Gender: Reasons for Displacement in Pakistan’s Transgender Community,” can be previewed here. The abstract is below.
Transgender women in Pakistan, or khwaja siras, continue to suffer human rights abuses that cause many to become Internally Displaced Persons, despite legal protections in their favor. The chapter poses a two-fold question to explore this inconsistency. Firstly, it draws from illustrative case study research to identify the discrimination that informs transgender perceptions of persecution and forces them from their homes. Based predominantly on qualitative data, it presents a 5-part typology of cumulative forms of discrimination against khwaja siras in terms of family, employment, housing, education, and healthcare. Importantly, police act as key agents of persecution for them, permitting and participating in their oppression. Secondly, this sociolegal study asks how such widespread discrimination against transgender women can persist notwithstanding legal reforms—a problem of social progress failing to result from legal progress. It finds that human rights protections for the transgender population lack actual implementation due to inaccurate legal wording, low level of trust in legal institutions, and generalized social stigma against the LGBTI community. This analysis revealed not only that mainstream social conservatism mitigates enforcement of LGBTI-friendly laws, but also that such conservatism creates an environment in which their persecution qualifies khwaja siras for, but yet impedes their ability to gain, UN protection as refugees at the international level. The empirical data from this research draws heavily on four comparative life histories of khwaja siras, two who gained refugee status and two who did not, which demonstrate the patterns of persecution against the transgender community in Pakistan.
The Olympics involve as much political and social symbolism as athletics, and that attention is good for Nigeria this year. The most populous nation in Africa makes its winter games debut this week—and its four athletes are all women. They call themselves the Ice Blazers.
Three Nigerian women, Seun Odigun, Akuoma Omeoga, Ngozi Onwumere, make up the bobsled team. They are the first Africans to ever qualify for the bobsled competition. In a lesser known singles event, Simidele Adeagbo is Africa’s first female skeleton athlete, as well as the first Black female athlete in skeleton.
They are all former track and field stars with dual Nigerian-American citizenship, some with summer Olympic experience, who planted the seeds for their journey on their own. Odigun started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the coaching and travel of a bobsled team and handcrafted her training sled. Her teammates took hiatus from their careers to join her.
The women represent not just a huge leap forward for female athletics but send a strong message of diasporic power. They wear their Nigerian identity on their sleeves by speaking indigenous languages with their parents, blasting Nigerian dance music, and one has even died her hair green to match the shade of the Nigerian flag. They are global forces in every sense—by participating in European sports of affluence, by being dual passport holders, by choosing to represent a developing country, and by doing so at an Olympics held in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world.
There are 12 athletes from 8 African countries participating in the Pyeongchang Games this year. Ecuador, Eritrea, Malaysia, and Singapore are also sending athletes to the Winter Olympics for the first time.
It is unfortunate these Nigerian women are not getting the best games possible. The Olympics have had a disappointing turn out this year, and not just from low ticket sales due to concerns about North Korea. Based on my experience attending, the official website did not accept credit cards, public transportation to the event was extremely limited, and infrastructure was shockingly underdeveloped (the sliding center ran out of hot food and drinks, and there was no standing room in the tiny spectator shelters with heat). Seats for the luge were nearly empty.
These women have overcome so many obstacles and represent so much to Africa, though, that certainly some low tickets sales will soon be forgotten as they blaze the ice, and social expectations.
How can something intangible (credit) matter more than a real resource (oil)?
I just finished a book that changed, or at least makes more dynamic, the way I view African development, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Sometimes we get so ensnared in the details of social analysis that we forget to take a step back and look at the larger picture. Harari’s historical account helps us to do just that. His research deepens our understanding of the complexities of the resource course in oil-rich nations without strong democratic institutions.
He argues that one of the key turning points in human history was when we stopped viewing world resources and money as finite, and instead recognized that trust in imaginary future goods could create infinite economic expansion. These imaginary future goods were represented with a new kind of money: CREDIT.
Although we hear of the dark side of credit often—consumer credit card debt, credit on a loan to buy a home that the consumer could never pay off—credit is actually miraculous. As Harari phrases it, “credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.” In it, there is implicit hope that future resources will be more bountiful than current ones. That hope in the hypothetical is just so….human. And it has allowed the world’s per capita production to grow at a staggering rate over the last several centuries.
Although he doesn’t mention Nigeria specifically, a section of the book lucidly argues that a country’s credit rating, or the shared belief that a country will pay back its debts, matters more to its economic development than any other factor—including natural resource endowments.
Here is a grossly over simplified explanation using a feedback loop of why a nation’s healthy credit matters so much:
A) People have faith in the future economy —> B) credit is given out —> C) credit allows us to grow current businesses —> D) this growth is invested in new businesses —> E) businesses create goods that can be sold to pay back loans to creditors —> F) these pay backs fortify faith in the future economy.
And we are now back at the beginning of this cycle.
For those familiar with Nigeria’s economic history, any moment in this cycle can be, and has been, interrupted because of its unhealthy oil economy. In 2004, Nigeria required international debt relief after sovereign defaults on what it owed to the IMF. This was due to “heavy borrowing, rising interest rates, and inefficient trade” (see D). When the country suspended the national fuel subsidy in January 2012, no one wanted to expand their businesses that required gasoline, which is all of them since electricity is unreliable (see D). As I have mentioned in another post, oil can create a dangerous mono-economy in developing countries because it replaces the drive to produce anything aside from the oil itself (see E). Because so much of Nigeria’s economy is based on oil, its unstable pricing erodes the “faith in the future economy” that is the basis of credit extensions at all (see A).
Here is the excerpt of Sapiens that struck me as so pertinent to Nigeria:
A country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors. An oil-rich country cursed with a despotic government, endemic warfare and a corrupt judicial system will usually receive a low credit rating. As a result, it is likely remain relatively poor since it will not be able to raise the necessary capital to make the most of its oil bounty.
Based on the description below, would you trust Nigeria to pay back money you gave it as a loan? Or as a business owner, would you trust its economy to grow, and give you returns on a new business you started with money you got from a creditor? Not many people would.
What is a country’s credit rating anyway?
In general, a credit rating is used by sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and other investors to gauge the credit worthiness of a country—thus having a big impact on the country’s borrowing costs.
Standard & Poor’s credit rating for Nigeria stands at B with stable outlook. Moody’s credit rating for Nigeria was last set at B1 with stable outlook. Fitch’s credit rating for Nigeria was last reported at B+ with negative outlook. Overall, there are 11 ratings of stable, 9 rating of negative, and just rating of positive for Nigeria
As an aside, anyone who witnessed the 2008 American economic meltdown based on home loans can appreciate that these credit ratings are hypothetical. All of those agencies above, those “experts,” failed to change their credit ratings, would could have helped alleviate the devastating U.S. housing crisis that negatively impacted every country in the world.
So, if Nigerian policy makers are to take Harari’s purely academic arguments to heart, they’ll stop writing checks they can’t cash and pay back creditors.
The Economist published a comprehensive and clear piece on Nigeria’s struggles to understand it’s own population numbers. It is a more concise version of my previous post on what even makes Nigeria a state at all. It is something we may not think about often, but an accurate and up-to-date census is vital to a strong democracy. It helps determine which representatives get power, where social and public services need to be implemented, and, truly, it separates a well-functioning government from the Wild West.
Nobody knows how many Nigerians there are.
No census has yet arrived at an accurate figure.
NIGERIA is Africa’s most populous country, a designation it wears with pride. It had more than 182m citizens in 2015, according to the World Bank, and is poised to have the world’s third-largest population, behind India and China, by 2050. But that figure and the extrapolation are based on Nigeria’s 2006 census, which was probably exaggerated. Parliamentary seats and central government money are handed out to states based on population, giving politicians an incentive to inflate the numbers. In 2013 the head of the National Population Commission (NPC), Festus Odimegwu, said that neither the 2006 census nor any previous one had been accurate. He resigned soon after (the then-government said he was fired).
Counting Nigerians has caused controversy since the colonial era. The country was stitched together from two British colonies: a largely Christian south and a Muslim-dominated north. In the lead-up to independence in 1960, the British were accused by southerners of manufacturing a majority in the north, which they were thought to favour. In 1962 unofficial census figures showed population increases in some south-eastern areas of as high as 200% in a decade. The full data were never published and northern leaders held a recount, which duly showed they had retained their majority (their region had apparently grown by 84%, rather than the originally estimated 30%). This politicking led to coups, the attempted secession of what was then known as the Eastern Region and a civil war.
The north-south divide has remained salient; there is still an unwritten rule that the presidency should alternate between a northerner and a southerner. Allegations that the north has manipulated its way to a majority continue. The censuses of 1973 and 1991 were annulled. In 2006 arguments flared when 9.4m people were counted in the northern state of Kano, compared with just 9m in Lagos, the commercial capital. The Lagos state government conducted its own, technically illegal, census and came up with 17.5m (probably a vast overestimate). A new national census has been repeatedly delayed. It is now scheduled for 2018, but the NPC’s estimate that it will “gulp” 223bn naira ($708m) may mean the count is put off indefinitely.
Even by other methods, Nigeria’s population has proven tricky to pin down. Africapolis, a French-funded research project, used satellite mapping to estimate the population of towns and cities in 2010. It found several cities, mostly in the north, had hundreds of thousands fewer people than the 2006 census counted. But even those data are not entirely trustworthy: it later transpired that the researchers had underestimated urbanisation in the densely populated Niger delta. Until there is an accurate, impartial census it will be impossible to know just how many Nigerians there really are. That means government policy will not be fully anchored in reality and it will not be possible to send resources where they are most needed.
Last month marked the three-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls from a government school in Borno State in northern Nigeria. The Islamic fundamentalists recently released 82 of those girls who have been missing since April 2014, allegedly after the Nigerian government released five of its fighters from prison. There are 113 girls still living among the fighters who haven’t been returned to their families.
What major news outlets haven’t shown is why rebels take “bush wives” at all. The coverage has tended to portray the kidnapping as a purely political act. However, for my M.A. thesis I researched the role of both female child soldiers and bush wives in West African civil wars. (For a book review I wrote, click here.) I found that kidnapping of girls goes beyond just the political.
The civil wars of the 1990s in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast saw unprecedented use of child soldiers. While the boys were often trained as fighters, girls fulfilled various support roles. They cooked and cleaned at rebel camps. They acted as porters for goods in and out of camps. They engaged in espionage at times. Some researchers pointed out how the girls helped meet the emotional needs of fighters, many barely adults themselves.
They also had children with the fighters, which entrenched a cycle of dependence on their captors. They had little chance of fleeing the camps with a child on their back, or did not want to endanger their child’s well-being (one Chibok girl allegedly chose to stay with her husband and child in Boko Haram). After three years, we now know that many of those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have also had “bush babies” (the African term).
The humanitarian community now has the chance to apply lessons from the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs of the 1990s to the Nigerian situation. Then, kidnapped girls were often given a cursory physical evaluation upon their release or cessation of hostilities, with little follow-up care for their children and absolutely no therapeutic care for their mental health. A significant obstacle for girls of the 1990s was also reintegration back into their home communities. After having conceived children with the enemy, families and neighbors were often hesitant or unwilling to welcome girls home. The International Committee of the Red Cross, a leader in helping care for the Chibok girls, must tend to the social and psychological after-care of today’s Nigerian girls in a way that was overlooked twenty years ago in other West African countries.
However, the situation for the returning Chibok girls is more complex than “us versus them” like in previous conflicts. Most people of Borno state come from a more cohesive ethnic group, the Hausas, and share the religion of Islam. The lines between the rebels and villagers may not be as clear as in West Africa. Also, the international attention on the Chibok case may lend families in their home communities a greater sense of sympathy for the girls’ plight. This sense of sympathy will be much needed in the coming years as they rebuild their lives.
The above video is an example of the finest of volunteers produced by the U.S. Peace Corps. I served with Baktash Ahadi (Mozambique 2004-2006) and saw him embody the three goals of the organization: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served, to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. As his TED Talk demonstrates, Mozambique was a better place, and he was a better person, because he was there. So, why isn’t the program everywhere in Africa?
Although Nigeria has a domestic Peace Corps staffed by young Nigerians, the United States has had a very tenuous relationship regarding PC since the founding of the American program in 1961 under John F. Kennedy. The international outreach program was plagued by a problems in its first year in Nigeria, when anti-colonial sentiment was running high. In the first months, a young volunteer dropped a postcard to her friend describing squalid living conditions there. A fellow student picked it up and upon its release, University of Ibaban students accused the volunteers of being American spies intent on a neocolonial agenda. Such political tensions remained until the program was then closed down in Nigeria in 1976. It again operated briefly from 1992-1995. Since then, there have been no substantive talks to reinstate the volunteer program there.
There are certainly challenges that the Peace Corps faces that must give us pause. It does not tend to go to the neediest countries, hence its continued programs in Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Romania, etc., and a lack of presence in most of central Africa. Volunteers are young and inexperienced (for who else has the luxury of giving up their entire U.S. life?). I can personally attest to the disappointing medical care available to volunteers. I witnessed volunteers who faced mental health challenges living out in the bush all on their own. (However, admittedly, our 20s are often not the most stable of times anyway, and many a post-graduates in the U.S. faces their own personal stumbling blocks even at home.)
But, ultimately, I do believe the pros outweigh the cons, if only for the immeasurable and profound symbolic force that is the Peace Corps. Development and measurable impact aside, it says an immense amount about the American psyche that we can even produce thousands of young people willing to go live in poverty of their own volition. It says an immense amount about U.S. values that we spend tax money on such a program. I truly believe that Peace Corps helps improve the view of Americans in most countries that it operates in, reducing potential military expenditure based on potential tensions. In Mozambique, it makes rural villagers feel good that they are worthy of a college educated American’s talents and time. It makes them feel they matter.
I have heard the sentiment that Nigeria is too corrupt to host a U.S. Peace Corps program, and that the rate of kidnapping for ransom of foreigners is too high. There is the argument that Nigeria is too far removed from independence, that if the U.S. doesn’t implement a program in the years following independent statehood, then the country becomes intractably entrenched in its ways.
My feeling is that if the Peace Corps doesn’t go exactly where the challenges are, exactly where it is most needed, what is the purpose of the program at all?
*This also appeared in the Language Compass published by the National Language Service Corps.
I saw the filming of a “Nollywood”, or Nigeria’s highly profitable film industry, movie for the first time a week after moving to eastern Nigeria. I was passing through a neighbor’s grassy yard on my way to a party one evening, and I heard heated yelling that alarmed me. I was surprised to peer around a corner and find a camera crew flooding lights on two young actors filming a dramatic fight scene. As I watched, I was impressed with the innovative electrical set up of the camera crew, attention to detail of the makeup artists, and vibrant energy of the actors. I was in Nigeria to learn a local language and was pleased to overhear that the characters’ names were of that tongue, Igbo.
I gained a greater appreciation for Nollywood during my time in Nigeria. I think it makes the cinematic representation of Nigerian life feel accessible to the audience. Unlike Hollywood, Nollywood movies are made on small budgets, often in people’s homes using amateur actors, and without any visual or special effects. It was easy for me to have friends point out filming scenes to me as we explored Lagos. Also, because of their modest funds, scripts often focus simply on the dynamics of human relationships—marriage, parenting, siblinghood, etc. Although these relationships are highly dramatized in sometimes silly ways, they are still ones that many of us have.
I saw that Nollywood gives Nigerians a way to tell their own stories in their own way. Historically, so much of what the rest of the world has understood about them was narrated by Europeans, by outsiders. This was the basis of my academic research before I arrived. However, these films are a way for Nigerians to be their own storytellers. Then, at the same time that it narrates what West African culture is like, Nollywood also helps create it. Often, the clothes that I saw friends wearing there were fashionable because of a certain Nollywood star, and I heard idiosyncratic phrases in daily conversation that I knew had been popularized by a local movie.
Years later, I still try to watch Nollywood cinema to practice listening to Igbo. I also do so because it reminds of the moment I realized that I was no longer watching Nigerian films from the U.S. as a way to understand a foreign culture, but actually living that culture.
Here is an excellent short documentary on Nollywood:
Below is an excerpt from part of a talk I gave on women’s role in Nigerian protests against oil extraction. Oil activities are blamed for environmental destruction, police violence, corruption, and lack of economic growth.
One of my research findings on Niger Delta oil politics was what I termed “positional arbitrage.” This means that local chiefs and male elites used their positions to help incite protests against oil companies and the government at times, as they were well positioned to gain from women’s demonstrations.
The talk also covers some other details about the oil reform movement in the region.
At a recent talk I gave on oil protests in the Niger Delta, an audience member asked me about my interest in Nigeria during the question and answer session. More specifically, he asked, “So, why Nigeria?”
If you are fascinated by social science, then a country that embodies the exaggerations of all social phenomenon is nothing short of intriguing. I am fascinated by culture, conflict, power, history, race, gender, and all social dynamics, and Nigeria demonstrates the dramatic extremes of all of these. It is the most and the least, the best and the worse, of so many measurements.
It produced the most victims of the transatlantic slave trade. It is the most populous country in Africa and is the third most ethnically diverse country in the world. Lagos is one of the top ten megacities of the world, and is growing faster than any other in Africa. It produces the most oil and has the fastest growing economy of any country in Africa. Nollywood surpasses Hollywood to be the planet’s second largest movie producer. To get more obscure in the statistics, it has the fifth highest rate of traffic fatalities in the world. It is even has the world’s largest singing choir. A survey several years ago even ranked it as the happiest country on earth. How could I not want to learn more about a country that is such an amalgamation of fascinating facts?
In short, I love Nigeria because it is a puzzle I can never solve.
For the PPT of the presentation, click below. Please feel free to contact me for the audio recording.