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- Italian Colonization in Africa
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*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.
Although Nigeria has little potential (at this point) to make the U.S. travel ban, Trump’s Executive Order signed last week is bad news for everyone. There is great potential that it will last beyond the initial 90 days. I don’t believe Nigeria would ever be considered for the ban, despite the coverage of the 2012 “Underwear Bomber” and Boko Haram’s activities. The oil-based trade relationship between the countries is too important (5% of all U.S. oil comes from Nigeria). Trade in oil is also the reason that Saudi Arabia is not on the travel ban list, despite the large role of Saudi attackers in 9/11. Additionally, the travel ban gives preference to visas for Christians, which comprise a large number of Nigerian applications.
However, about a quarter million Americans claim Nigerian ancestry. Some of those may well be trying to bring family members to the U.S. There are tiers of prioritization of family-based visas, from Family First (minor children of citizens) to Family Fourth (brothers and sisters of citizens). I found a report from last year showing that Africans make up just under 4% of all family visa requests, far eclipsed by those from Central America. Here is the list by region:
To visually show you African applications compared to other regions:
Although this may seem like a low number of application, Yomi Kazeem points out that Nigeria “may be caught in diplomatic cross-hairs of Trump’s ‘America First’ visa policies. In 2015, Nigeria accounted for 32% of the nearly half a million non-immigrant American visas issued to nationals of African countries and received more visas than the four other countries that make up the top five in Africa when combined.”
He also argues that with the understanding of reciprocity, Nigeria and any other country has the capacity to treat American visa applicants in the same manner that the U.S. treats their foreign citizens. Securing my Nigerian visas was an incredibly difficult feat several years ago, and I can’t imagine what it will be like if there are any more demands on applicants.
Why the Travel Ban Makes No Sense At All:
Although The Executive Order currently only includes three African countries—Somalia, Sudan, and Libya—it is disastrous on so many levels across the globe. It endangers U.S. citizens by fostering animosity among those who are already anti-American, and alienating potential Muslim allies. (Why would pro-democracy Afghanis or Iraqis support our cause on the ground now?) It stokes the irrational fears of Americans who fail to recognize that less than 70 Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by terrorism (attackers included) since 9/11. Most clearly, it denies refugee status to those who would otherwise become important actors in the U.S. economy, and instead created furthers the burden on our ally countries in already-taxed Europe. Or worse, it forces immigrants and refugees back to the very countries that are an environment that is ripe for radicalization. It is much safer for Americans to have teenage boys from Syria trying to build a life in the U.S. than leaving them to the Aleppo streets, where their options for radicalization are infinitely greater.
Did I yet mention how the travel ban creates a “brain drain” for us as we lose thousands of talented PhDs, scientists, engineers, and technology experts from the Middle East? The U.S. is now turning away people who could find the cure for cancer, create more energy efficient buildings, and revolutionize the way we understand the world. Even if the ban is lifted after 90 days, many may not want to return to a hostile environment.
Ethical and legal implications aside, the travel ban is inherently…irrational, in both the everyday and the economic sense.Then again, no one ever claimed that a politics of fear makes sense.
The number of African immigrants arriving to the United States has roughly doubled each decade since the 1970s. There are almost 2 million African immigrants currently living in the U.S., accounting for about 4.5% of the immigrant population. Although this is not a large number, they have the fastest growth rate of any immigrant group. Almost half of all Africans are Muslim, which means a notable portion of the African immigrants arriving to the U.S. each year are too. This is significant considering Trump’s stance on Muslims in the United States.
Under a Trump administration, there would certainly be a reduction in the number of refugee and asylum statuses granted, including to Muslims seeking protection from fundamentalism in their home countries. The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, almost 40,000. Most of them were from the Middle East, however, and I have not been able to find numbers on African Muslim refugees. Trump argues that allowing Muslims into the U.S. puts the country at risk for terrorist attacks, although there is no evidence that this is true. Anecdotally, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been perpetrated by those on student visas or those with long-time ties, including citizenship.
Cutting off a safety route to Muslims who are seeking to separate themselves from the homelands that have oppressed them is exactly the opposite of what a security-minded Trump should be doing to minimize terrorism. By allowing Muslims to enter the U.S., we strengthen ties to global Islamic communities, improve our image, and separate disaffected Muslims from the places that foster malcontent towards Americans. African countries from which the U.S. would be wise to accept more immigrants include those with growing extremist tendencies, e.g. Sudan, Nigeria, and Mali. Barring such individuals’ entry into the U.S. system keeps them in fundamentalist locations, where they can then live with a much more jaded view of the West.
These are all hypothetical concerns because, although Trump will be arguably the most powerful head of state in the world, bureaucracies are still bureaucracies. He will (hopefully) still have to make such inhospitable immigration changes within the confines of a government slow to change. He will be bolstered by a Republican Congress, but it is yet to be determined how much GOP support he will enjoy. Since he is divisive among his own party at this point, he may very well get in his own way when it comes to realizing his goals of isolating Muslims from the American mainstream. Let’s hope that is actually the case, that he, and his ill-chosen words, is his own greatest obstacle. If not, if he does what he claims he wants to do, American-Muslim relations can only become more precarious.
Most Africans don’t seem to find great hope for their continent in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. I’m not convinced that Africa is of much concern to the future American President, but his win creates direct and indirect economic effects across the continent beyond just the disrupted world markets following the election results.
Africa may be much more on its own economically under Trump than it has been under previous American administrations. It is unclear what Trump will do with the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers tangible incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets. As of now, he appears only interested in fostering relationships with world economies that can benefit the U.S. immediately through trade. This may be good news to Nigerians, who enjoy the largest economy on the continent, but less promising for growing economies such as that of Ghana.
Trump’s probable business-like emphasis on what the U.S. can gain from African relationships does not bode well for human rights practices. I would presume that American financial gain would be foremost in Trump’s mind during negotiations, far more than concerns over human rights practices. This is troubling since the U.S. benefits economically from some African countries with disturbing human rights records. Equatorial Guinea is the 6th largest oil producer in Africa and 3rd largest supplier of African oil to the U.S. Yet, President Obiang has been in office since his coup in 1979, and the country has been plagued by reports of underground torture of dissidents, extrajudicial killings, repression of the press, and high level corruption. Similar human rights challenges exist in Angola, Algeria, and Sudan, which are also top ten oil producers in Africa, and with whom the U.S. has trade arrangements. I am also concerned for human rights standards in Central Africa, which are large mineral producers, if the robustness of their economies is more valuable to Trump’s administration than their human rights practices.
This potential fostering of relations with countries with dubious human rights records would come at a troubling time, when African countries are withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.
In terms of humanitarian aid, it certainly wouldn’t increase under Trump, and would most likely fall into decline. The U.S. currently gives around $12 billion per year in aid to Africa. It is less than 1% of the U.S. annual budget, which is very little and less than many European countries donate. To his credit, Trump has spoken in favor of the Bush-era PEPFAR program, which has given millions to help fight communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria across the continent. These funds have been wide spread across countries, and I helped put some of that money to good use as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique in 2005. We implemented a nationwide girls’ empowerment conference in Maputo using much needed PEPFAR funds.
For most, a reduction in aid to Africa would be unequivocally bad. There are nations that rely for almost 100% of their national budgets on international aid, producing nearly nothing, e.g. Central Africa Republic (CAR). Conditional economic aid to Africa has been heralded as helpful to democracy in some places, e.g. Uganda. U.S. aid also acts as a potent antidote to the immense investments that China is making in the continent, investments which certainly do not come with conditions. (Many blame China for allowing Sudanese genocide under Omar al-Bashir, as China has great business investments in Sudan and thus blocked UN intervention that could have stopped the Darfur killings.) Trump would certainly not take the time or effort to fight for conditions to American economic aid.
However, there are anti-aid advocates who highlight the lack of evidence that economic aid actually helps pull countries out of poverty at all. In fact, Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner in economics, represents a growing body of scholars and policymakers who believe the developed world may actually be corrupting those more impoverished nations’ governments and slowing their overall growth. They say that economic aid allows lackluster leaders to stay in power when they would otherwise be ousted for their performance; also, aid replaces revenue flow that should come from taxes, which are a fundamental building block of strong democracy. These folks argue that economic aid simply creates dependency. If you agree with this idea, then a Trump presidency may be a positive. His disinterest in the continent could create the conditions for self-sufficiency.
What is your forecast for Africa under a Trump Presidency?
Kids from Makoko Stilt Village in Lagos, Nigeria