Monthly Archives: March 2012

Daily bread v. liberty

A long-standing (but perhaps unnecessary) debate in the field of human rights is that of economic security versus political freedom. States that stress collectivism such as China and some Islamic states, argue on the global stage that without financial security, political freedom is meaningless. They see sound economic conditions as a precondition for the enjoyment of political freedom. What good is the vote if the people have no shoes in which to walk to polling stations? Conversely, advocates of the latter argue that individuals can use free speech and their own autonomy to create the conditions that lead to economic prosperity for themselves and society as a whole. This notion is highly compatible with laissez-faire free markets and cultures of self-sufficiency, e.g. Western European countries and the U.S. It is far better that some people walk barefoot to polling stations on voting day than not have a voting day at all.

Although my interview subjects in rural Nigeria have not heard of this debate, they struggle with it all the same, just framing it in different terms. I asked them a series of questions about how the oppressive military rule of the 1990s, namely that under General Sani Abacha, compares to today’s democratic administration, albeit a less-than-flourishing one. It was in the 1990s that many of the most notorious human rights abuses were committed in Nigeria, and Ogonis in particular suffered some of the worst. During this decade Nigerian dissidents were killed, tortured, disappeared by state agents, women were raped as a means of asserting political power, and there was virtually no free speech. Today, endemic corruption debilitates government and for the majority of citizens, Nigeria continues to be a really…unfair place to live. However, political freedom is vastly improved from what it was 15-20 years ago. Surely Nigeria must be a better place for Niger Deltans now than it was then, right?

From the perspective of most of my respondents, it isn’t. All but three of my interview subjects said that either there is no change at all now from how the government was under military rule, or even more surprisingly, almost half of them told me that things were better in the 1990s. There are several explanations for this. They may have wanted to make their current conditions seem as dire as possible because they hoped for money after the interview, or because they viewed me as representative of some Western power that could help them. Some research indicates that people tend to remember the “good ol’ days” while their current difficulties seem more salient. For my middle-aged research subjects, they may not have had the adult responsibilities or political consciousness to view the state in the same way then that they do currently. For example, a 20-year-old may not think about the importance of fair taxation in the way that that same 40-year-old supporting a family later on thinks about it.

Of those who told me that life was better in the 1990s, there were two types of answers. One smaller group said that society was less chaotic then and the public sphere was more orderly. The strong arm of Abacha ensured that petty thievery was minimized and that economic transactions were regulated. Women described markets where they sold goods as being more organized and predictable. They said they could plan out their family diets better because they knew how much goods would cost in coming weeks and months.

A more common answer though was simply that things were cheaper in 1990s relative to their income. That’s it. The women I talked to wanted food, medicine, clothing, and housing to be affordable. They viewed inflation and unstable prices today as infringing on their well-being more than the threat of village pogroms and extrajudicial killings of family members. They care about fair elections far less than they care about the availability of zinc roofing. They care about the number of independent media sources far less than the amount of cassava their naira can buy. Although I think their responses are a reflection of political marginalization of Nigerian women and the widespread notion that politics are a male realm, they also indicate that their current economic conditions are so precarious that they are willing to living under tyranny to be able to purchase more than a day’s worth of food at a time.

I haven’t done the background reading on this finding yet, and I am sure other research out there has found the same in the global south. It makes me wonder how vastly different human rights deliberations at the EU would be if they weren’t dominated by rich men and had a few rural African women present.

Related articles

Women roasting cassava for gari.

NIGERIA DETAINS TWO AFTER SHOTS FIRED AT U.S. EMBASSY

Originally posted on Beegeagle's Blog:

Red beret of the Nigeria Police Anti Terrorism Squad

Red beret of the Nigeria Police Anti Terrorism Squad

BLOOMBERG
By Maram Mazen and Elisha Bala-Gbogbo
March 26, 2012

Nigerian police detained two suspects after two shots were fired today in the vicinity of the U.S. embassy in the capital, Abuja.

“We refer you to the Nigerian police for further information,” Deborah MacLean,a spokeswoman for the embassy, said in an
e-mailed statement, without giving more information. A spokesman for the police in
Abuja, Moshood Jimoh, said by phone he was unaware of the incident.

Abuja and the mainly Muslim north have seen a surge in violence that has left more than 1,000 people dead since 2009. Authorities in Africa’s top oil producer blame Boko Haram, which draws
inspiration from Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, for the unrest. Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is a sin,” claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 suicide-bombing of the United Nations building in the capital…

View original 59 more words

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (I)

I had the lucky timing to arrive to Bane, Nigeria, the hometown of Saro-Wiwa, on a Thursday morning. This was fortunate because every Thursday at 6 a.m. the women of the area, and a few men as well, conduct their weekly prayers and fasting at Saro-Wiwa’s tomb. The event lasts until the afternoon, and includes singing, dancing, reading of bible passages, and even a nap when the temperatures rise.  It is a sight to behold, a completely unforgettable experience to be a part of.

Before Saro-Wiwa’s death in 1995, members of the Ogoni movement fasted with him once a week. After his execution the gathering became more popular and community women incorporated prayers to a greater degree. Today, around 25 women continue to gather once a week and it has become almost indistinguishable from a Christian church service.  The attendees take turns touching the grave, the language used is derived heavily from the bible, and women refer to Saro-Wiwa as a martyred living Christ. Their purpose in coming together is to pray for another “messiah” (their term) to bring them out of their conditions of poverty.  They also spend all day Sunday at church as well, meaning that two whole days per week are spent in worship for some of them. They bring all Ogoni flags designed by Wiwa, all wear matching t-shirts depicting Ogoni pride logos, and some also have matching wrapper tied around their waists.  Because of the high level of Ogoni identity inherent in the prayers, I was happily surprised at how open the worshipers were to an outsider like I am.  I gave a speech about my interest in Niger Deltan history, answered their questions, and they welcomed me warmly.

The two days per year when the tomb is visited most are November 10, the anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s death, and Ogoni Day on January 4, which attracted a reported quarter million people on its first celebration in 1993. The grave site is kept locked and sometimes guarded on days other than Thursdays and these two holidays, so my arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

Image

Saro-Wiwa's Tomb.

Image

Singing hymns.

Image

Ken Saro-Wiwa's grave.

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (II) [video]


 

Here is a video of the weekly prayers and fasting that take place around the grave of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Bane, Rivers State.  After the ceremony, I asked a passerby how the body came to be interred there, since Saro-Wiwa was executed hurriedly and the military regime certainly would not have turned over the body.  The man told me this, almost verbatim:

After he was executed on November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was buried in a mass grave in Port Harcourt cemetery, unmarked. The Ogoni people then used their mysterious powers to exhume the body of Wiwa specifically and take him home. His body was brought back only a few days after his execution and burial.  The day they brought his body back, there was very serious rain and nobody could come out, yet some were still able to bring his body back to Bane.  He was given this tomb near farmland so that it could be a pilgrimage site for visitation, but also to respect Ogoni beliefs about death. In the Ogoni tradition, anybody who dies under mysterious causes, like drowning in the sea or because of some accident, the family will bury the body away from home, especially by water. This is because the nature of the death was dangerous, so bringing the body to the family compound for burial, as is usual in a natural death, might affect those who are still living in that house.

The Ogoni and Andoni Conflict

Português: Monolito Shell

I typically try to triangulate my blog posts by checking with several different sources on most things I write. However, for the few posts about my fieldwork in Ogoniland I purposefully won’t be doing that. I am trying to process the data that my subjects have provided me with on its own merit.  In trying to solve the puzzle of how and why Niger Deltans choose the mobilization strategies they do, I am trying to view their communities and the state from their perspective. Intentionally, these posts may be biased, but this one is particularly so.

In Ogoniland one of my preferred political events to ask my interview subjects about is the conflict they had with the neighboring Andoni community from 1993-1994. Ogonis had been “looking for trouble” (a common Nigerian term) for a year or two before this, as Ken Saro-Wiwa had returned from abroad to try to mobilize the Ogonis to assert their rights against oil exploitation by Royal Dutch Shell in partnership with the Nigerian state. He had led marches, sit-ins, and rallies.  Churches in the area had begun to use services as a time for praying to God to assist the Ogonis in their struggle.  In contrast to other groups who sought jobs, social amenities, money or other positive rights from companies and the government, the Ogonis were unique.  They were the only group demanding autonomy in the form of their own kingdom.  If this could not be realized, then they would settle for their own state within the Nigerian federation. Saro-Wiwa was a learned man who preached to them about the power of the pen.  The Ogoni movement was avowedly anti-violence, which made it difficult for the government to find a reason to clamp down on them.

From the perspective of the Ogonis I have spoken with, the Andonis were coerced by the Federal Government (FG) to create violence that would serve as a pretense for a crackdown.  Most Ogonis are not clear whether Andonis were fed false information about their neighbors, or whether they were paid by the state to start fighting, or if they were simply armed and that was enough to make Andonis lead the initial attack.  Although the Ogonis and the Andonis had lived side-by-side for generations using the same fishing rivers, in mid-1993, probably around September, the Andonis attacked a boat of Ogoni fishermen as they came back from sea. This territorial dispute marked the beginning of the conflict.  As Ogonis tell it, Andonis raided the Ogoni villages where I conducted my interviews, with my second site, Kpean, suffering the worst.  My respondents were unclear whether it was Andonis or actually federal soldiers who committed the acts, but over the next nine months or so half of Kpean’s homes were burned and much of its property destroyed.  Soldiers began inhabiting the houses, as all the residents had fled into the bush.  They would sneak back into the village at night or times when they thought the soldiers were gone in order to grab food or personal effects, or to try to sleep. No one agrees on how many people died, as I just repeated heard, “too many” or “uncountable.” My respondents said that they felt the conflict ended because the Andonis depleted their resources and the federal government no longer feared collective action in the area.

Half of those I spoke with felt the war was started by the state in order to excuse their use of violence in stopping Saro-Wiwa’s movement.  The other half felt that is was purely territorial, because Andoniland offers prime access into Ogoniland’s oil sites. By paying Andonis with weapons and allowing them to plunder their neighbors, the state was buying geographic access to Ogoni oil. No respondents felt that the Andonis had acted on their own.

I think that conflict has forever shaped the way the people of Kpean view their government. Rightly so, they seem to avoid interaction with the state at any cost.  They avoid police, courts, lawyers, soldiers, or national politics.  Most feel comfortable with chieftaincy, but increasingly look to church as a means of problem solving. Pastors have become the sole mediators and the guardians of conflict resolution mechanisms for many clans. Although there have been no eruptions of violence between the communities since there, tensions persist, and pastors simply do not have the power to reign in such conflicts if they escalate.  When the state feels like an aggressor instead of a protector, and chiefs may be suspicious of other chiefs, it seems difficult for communities like Kpean to remain peaceful.

A building in Kpean reportedly burned by soldiers during the Andoni conflict.

The grave in a family compound of a woman killed during the Andoni conflict.

Days and Dates in the Delta

American children can identify their own birthday almost as soon as they enter school. It is just one of those things we always know. During the process of interviewing I have seen how that isn’t true in rural Nigeria, especially among older folks. My subjects often don’t know their birthdays so they date themselves in relation to others, or to major social events. The most common referential event is the Biafran War or a violent conflict with a neighboring community. One woman said that at the start of the Biafran War (1967) she already had two children, which means she was probably born in the early 1950s since she probably started having children around 15 or so. Another woman said that she had not yet grown breasts at the start of the War, so she was probably around ten then. She added that she had yet to hide herself from men at that time. Her sister-in-law said that she herself was born on the day of Ogoni independence, which after some clarification came to mean Nigerian Independence on October 1, 1960. In general, most folks guess their age based on when they started or ended puberty in relation to a political event. Additionally, children are aged according to their siblings, so one’s age matters less than relative birth order in the family. People seem to be unconcerned with how old they are, so they don’t bother to think about it; it just isn’t really applicable to their lives. When I figured out some of my interview subjects’ birthdays to within a week or so based on surrounding events, most of them shrugged their shoulders because it just didn’t really matter to them.

In terms of gathering my field data, it is difficult for respondents to answer my questions about when an event, e.g. a conflict with a neighboring village, took place. We can usually guess events of the last two decades within a few years based on which President was in office and which children in the family had finished primary school. Calendars are a rarity. Ultimately, they are farmers. What matters is the start and end of rainy season, the week that they should plant and uproot, and when their cassava is ripe for harvesting. They keep track of days of the week in order to know market days to buy and sell their produce. For Igbos for instance, there are four days in the week and all are based on market trading. Dates don’t dictate their lives in the rural Delta. I have been wondering how the new ubiquity of cell phones might change this in the coming years, but I still have faith that as long as my respondents depend on agriculture for their livelihood, the crops will continue to decide what day it is.

Nigerians in WWII

During one of my interviews recently, I spoke with a wonderfully open elderly woman whose husband had fought in WWII. She told me that he traveled by foot from his village in the Niger Delta, in present day Rivers State, to the port city of Calabar to board a boat for Europe around 1940. As the youngest of many children, going to war was the best opportunity he had of gaining employment. I have read about the million or so African troops who fought in WWII on the side of the Allies. West African soldiers, including many Nigerians, were instrumental in liberating Ethiopia (the only African country to successfully resist colonization) from fascists. I have known that the British offered inducements to subjects in their African colonies to convince them to fight in Europe against Germany, of course in worse conditions and for less pay than their white counterparts.

However, I was surprised when the widow told me that her late husband fought on the side of Hitler. I reworded the question several times and she seemed certain that he had been employed by the Germans during WWII. Perhaps she is confused, as she was just a child during the war, but if she isn’t, then that is very intriguing. I have done some follow up reading and found that Nazi violence was directly almost totally against Jews and gypsies and less against Blacks in Europe. Although Nazi doctrine indeed preached the inferiority of Blacks, they were not enough of a political or economic threat to merit the systematic killing that Jews suffered. So, perhaps the utility of African troops would have justified their employment by Nazi Germany? For a politically conscientious Nigerian soldier, a German victory may have seemed to be a way to weaken Britain, thus increasing the chances of Nigerian independence.

Regardless of which side they fought on, engagement in WWII changed the way most African soldiers viewed their nation and the balance of world power. After the war, they received little compensation or thanks for their service to their European colonizers. This disillusionment combined with their new understanding that their colonial rulers, whether British, French, Portuguese, were not all-powerful. These African men had traveled the world, sometimes fought alongside white comrades, and their political consciousness had changed. They had a deserved sense of entitlement to their own freedom. They would not return home and accept the oppression of colonial rule. The golden year of independence for British colonies, 1960, followed fifteen years after the end of the war.

Here are some of the photos that the widow shared with me.  In the group photo you will see that the seven white men seated in front have kept their hats on, which I presume is a sign of their authority since the others have their caps off.  I am interested in the African sitting in front just to the right of the white men, as he is the only black with his hat still on.  I wonder what his rank was. The date written on this back of this photo was September 6, 1945. The truce was signed on September 2, so presumably this is a photo taken just before soldiers were sent home.

Although it is very blurry, the eight African soldiers in this other photo below were the troops who fought with her husband, who is on the bottom right.

I am not a historian, so can anyone with a stronger background in this history offer any information on the possibility of Africans fighting for the Axis Powers?