On 30th June 2020 I ran an online methodological seminar on "Contested visions of development: doing desk-based ethnography on international donors" as part of the Ifra-Fellows training programme organised by the French Institute for Research in Africa (Ifra-Nigeria). Ifra-Nigeria is based in the Institute of African studies at the University of Ibadan. Notes and references for the talk are available on the Ifra website:
This piece was written for the Oxford African Studies Centre's 2019-20 Newsletter (p.12)
The 2019-2020 academic year has been a year of not-doing.
Oxford has always been a paradox for productivity: it promises both perfect solitude and a wealth of distractions. For example, every year the African Studies Centre, in conjunction with AfOx, invites Africa-based scholars to the University for two months, so that they can escape everything they have to do back home and hunker down to write. Yet, nowhere do the daily interruptions for lunch, or coffee, or dinner proceed so lazily. Coming from LSE where every conversation is cut short by someone looking at their watch and rushing off, these deviations from constant motion are a guilty pleasure. The African Studies Centre’s Thursday seminar is a first-rate example: lunch with the speaker in the clattering din of the Hilda Box can turn into coffee, by which time people are arriving for the seminar, with drinks after, which continue to the Royal Oak and then it’s dark and time to go home to bed.
In October 2019, as students arrived in Oxford from across the world to enjoy this mix of secluded industriousness and slow-motion conviviality, national politics was threatening to break lose from its established rhythms. In order to move forward with his domestic and international agenda, the Prime Minister Boris John announced that Parliament would be paused. We learnt a new word for not-doing: prorogation. As I was in the middle of reviewing Gavin William’s re-released State and Society in Nigeria on the turbulent politics of the 1970s, the spectre of a strong man suspending politics to better allow politicians to serve the national interest was familiar. Brexit continued to not happen, as it had been not happening for three years already.
In the middle of Michaelmas, Johnson called a General Election. We – British and Commonwealth citizens - had an opportunity to vote out the Conservative government and reverse the changes that had made Universities and British society as a whole a hostile environment for our visitors from Africa and people of colour. Writing was put on hold and for a couple of weeks you were more likely to bump into the leading lights of Oxford African Politics on the rainy streets of what we optimistically termed ‘swing seats’ in Wycombe, Reading or Swindon than in the corridors of the library.
Late November and early December saw eight days of strike action, where we painstakingly did nothing together. In an the increasingly competitive world of higher education, securing the conditions for life and work to be sustained required us to stop. As Cathy Elliot recently wrote in Renewal:
“As students and academics, we are accustomed to feeling good about ourselves because we are working. Being busy is our virtue, our achievements are our identities. But striking brings it all juddering to a halt. Suddenly our solidarity and our political commitment reminds us that we have to stop all this dashing around. We are required, instead, to stand around on picket lines, to engage in the patient work of making signs and banners, to talk to each other without the discipline of … the tightly-timed meeting agenda.”
We’d barely started up again after Christmas, when another strike was called, the second in two months. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this strike marked the start of the process by which our plans for the rest of the year were unpicked. At first, it was a carefully controlled cessation of activities: seminars and lectures cancelled in solidarity. I found myself with a collection of unused train tickets to Leicester, Cambridge and Leiden, and wondered if I could include on my CV thing that I meant to do but didn’t.
Everyone will have their own story of what happened next. For some it will have been a gradual slowing to stop, for others a mad scramble through airports and visa queues to get to a place where they could safely do nothing, and go nowhere. Securing the basic conditions of life has taken on a new centrality: buying food, caring for loved ones.
Amidst the disruptions described, I have nonetheless been lucky enough to get stuff done. During the few months we were together, I went to stimulating talks by Carli Coetzee, Simukai Chigudu, Nanjala Nyabola and Miles Tendi, and listened to students question documentary makers, elections observers and state governors. I went to the “20 years of Democracy in Nigeria” conference, which crammed two decades’ worth of effervescent discussion into one day. My work on interfaith peacebuilding in Nigeria has been accepted for publication, another article on political thought in Kenya revised and resubmitted, and draft two of ‘What Nigeria can teach us about good governance’ is starting to look like a real book. This carving out of a space to keep doing, in the face of disruption, has been a privilege and a joy. Yet, it is a joy that has to be put to work to sustain the privilege: work is the route to the financial security necessary to secure the ever more precarious conditions of life.
In the 2019 African Studies Centre newsletter
Muhammad Sanusi II, CON, Emir of Kano wrote about his connection to the African Studies Centre and his plans to re-establish a library in the Emir’s palace:
“Centuries from now, when hopefully this library will have millions of volumes, the Kirk-Greene collection will remain at its core.”
Anthony Kirk-Greene arrived in Oxford in the 1960s and worked on Nigeria for over 60 years. Amidst the pandemic, such time horizons are difficult for many of us to imagine. In comparison, the time we will spend as members of the Centre is a mere speck. This year’s masters students have served barely two thirds of their allotted nine months in Oxford. Among my post-docs peers, employed across a patchwork of colleges, grants, consultancies and departments, a contract longer than a year is a luxury. We are temporary.
Libraries and universities are monuments to the transmission of knowledge over a scale that outstrips any one human life. In a moment when the idea of ‘the foreseeable future’ has melted away, we have to hope that the things we have done and the things we have carefully not done in the past months stand the test of time. In different ways this year it has shown how sometimes we have to drop everything to secure the conditions needed for us to live and to do our work. This was a lesson to me but no doubt obvious all along to my African colleagues; I hope it can be the basis of a renewed solidarity.
Twenty-four years ago this week, environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian state. His death brought international attention to the rapacious behavior of oil companies like Shell — and their complicity in the most violent forms of repression.
I recently spoke to Roy Doron and Toyin Falola, the authors of a 2016 biography of Saro-Wiwa, about the activist’s early life, his political and cultural work, and what his legacy can teach us about the unfolding prospects for environmental politics in Africa’s most populous country.
Read the interview in full on the Jacobin website
"Air travel is the activity that most clearly embodies the links between inequality, racism and ecological breakdown."
Read my short provocation on the uneven opportunities and impacts of air travel for academic purposes in the Journal of African Cultural Studies "Ethical? Collaboration?" collection. The collection includes stimulating pieces on the tensions and dilemmas of South-North collaboration from some amazing African scholars like Duncan Omanage and Pamela C. Mainye, Chisomo Kalinga and Grace A. Musila.
Warning: the piece contains some spicy language...
All politics involves distribution. Indeed, many would claim that politics is at its heart about controlling distribution: who gets what, when and how. Political debate over ‘empowerment schemes’ in Nigeria however shows how our ideas of what counts as legitimate forms of distribution are overly simplistic.
Read more on the Democracy in Africa blog where I summarise my upcoming article in Journal of Modern African Studies.
Prof W.S. Richards, a mentor and friend, died in 2016 aged 96. Known affectionately by many as just 'Prof', he was a remarkable man who spent the last 30 years of his life in Maiduguri, North East Nigeria. His obituary appears in an edited form in The Queen's College Record, December 2017, and is reproduced in full below.
William Styan Richards 1920-2016
The doctors told William Richards’ mother that he wouldn’t live to adulthood: but, as he liked to recall, “She was a very obstinate Yorkshire woman”. Indeed, he made it to 96. Most of his life was spent researching pest-control measures that directly improved the livelihoods of North and West African farmers. Bugs that earnt his attention included: trombicular mites; the sesame seed bug; the Sudan plague grasshopper in the great plains between the Valley of the White Nile and the Ethiopian Massif; the shoot fly; and the defoliating coccid of neem. I know nothing about such beasties beyond the sometimes improbably and always hilarious stories that ‘Prof’ told about his life spent pursuing them. ...
A blog post I wrote in September 2017 with Max Gallien:
Last week, development studies journal Third World Quarterly (TWQ) published an article that, by many common metrics used in academia today, will be the most successful in its 38-year history. The paper has, in a few days, already achieved a higher Altmetric Attention Score than any other TWQ paper. By the rules of modern academia, this is a triumph. The problem is, the paper is not.
Read more on the LSE Impact Blog
Nigeria has more phones than people. They both connect and signify difference. Recently, politicians have posted their phone numbers online in populist demonstrations of 24-hour easy-access accountability. But in the context of social inequality and government secrecy, such moves also arouse suspicion: who has access to the Governor’s ‘real’ number?
This photograph is of a mobile phone repair shop in the old centre of Ibadan, taken in 2015.
The photo was part of the LSE Research Festival 2016.
My photo essay for the Africa@LSE Blog looks at how the Governor of Oyo State's agenda for modernising Ibadan, the state capital, impacted on street traders. The photos show the tools and materials used by traders and artisans. Displays, studios and workshops are put up and taken down every day, making up hundreds of micro-workspaces along the roadside. However, aspirations to transform the city, whether held by elites or ordinary voters, leave little room for this practice. Read in full on Africa@LSE.