Special Research Training Lecture: Researching in Africa

On October 18th, a special lecture by Prof. A. Carl Le Van was held at the Graduate School of International Relations. Professor Carl Le Van is a political scientist and a visiting professor from American University in Washington, D.C. He is a leading researcher on African politics and has written three books on Nigeria including the Oxford Handbook on Nigerian Politics published this year.

The lecture was based on a set of photographs related to Professor Le Van’s research and delivered in an interactive way so that participants could ask questions anytime. He covered three main topics: 1) choice of the research topic, 2) research ethics, and 3) how researcher’s personal connections and experiences could become professional and intellectual, and the other way around.

First, he talked about his work appointment at an NGO in Nigeria and his study at the University of Ibadan and how those experiences impacted his research interest in the future. Besides major experiences, he noted an influence of smaller and seemingly accidental events like attending a conference with Attahiru Jega, the head of Independent National Electoral Committee (INEC), a highly respected scholar and independent thinker, not involved in the corruption who enabled 2011 elections to become the freest and fairest elections up to that point in the country. Professor Le Van explained that foreign aid industry around election was massive and it was easy to get wrapped up in the excitement. However, unlike many other scholars, he didn’t focus on electoral process but chose instead to study displacement issues and housing and property right in Nigeria. The government removed informal settlements regularly, and each removal rendered thousands of people homeless or without businesses. He considered it his duty as a scholar and a human to see with empathy and solidarity and bring visibility to this issue.

To illustrate this point, Prof. Le Van showed a picture at an informal restaurant called “buka” in Nigeria explaining that most people see just poverty there but after doing his research, he also started seeing uncertainty, meaning that people did not want to invest in their property knowing that it might be destroyed next week. Another illustration was a series of photos of ethnic and religious associations providing safety net for newcomers from rural areas when they move to the cities because “the state failed them completely”. One of the questions from the audience was to clarify the meaning of this statement, to which he explained that this was said in a narrow sense meaning that the state provided no legal employment, access to health care etc., not in a Weberian sense meaning the lack of coherence and good governance. Professor Le Van also commented that colonial authorities facilitated ethnic and religious associations because they replaced the state to some extent. To make sure that they are independent from the state, the associations emphasize their political neutrality and keep out of politics. Another question from the audience was whether any of those ethnic associations were involved in ethnic conflicts. Professor Le Van explained that although they live in small ethnic ghettoes and hate the current Muslim president, they are also perfectly integrated and have very good relationships with their new Muslim neighbors in the city.

Yet another question from the audience related to Jega’s experience before becoming the head of electoral committee: whether he had any relevant practical experience or only academic background. After answering, Prof. Le Van moved on to another series of photographs taken in the slums of Abuja explaining that 200, 000 people lived in one area alone and he felt his mission as a researcher inspired by a sense of social justice. He also gave advice to those doing field work to “have friends in high places and low places” and not to get flattered in the hierarchy. He showed photographs of his interviewees showing mainly men and explained that they always wanted him to talk to the person on top as he is the one to control the narrative. However, his task as a researcher was to get to those left behind without angering the first participants and to recreate the entire story.  

Professor Le Van demonstrated how his perspective was influenced by co-authors he got to work with. For instance, one of his projects was carried out jointly with an anthropologist of religion, and thanks to him, he became aware of witchcraft being practiced alongside with the oil boom and dramatic changes in Nigerian economy. This experience also helped him realize the importance of the words, e.g. a minority group was commonly called Gwari meaning “stupid people” and they reclaimed their original name Gbagyi by writing it on their housing legally protected from demolition. Another series of photos showed the process of demolition in detail. An audience member wished to know why they couldn’t build legally, to which Professor Le Van explained that the city grew too fast on oil revenues and secondly, it was difficult to get a legal certificate to build from the authorities.

Next experience shared by Professor Le Van was working in the archives at National Centre for Arts and Culture in Gambia. According to the UNESCO, 90% of the world languages are not on the internet, while the archives in Gambia contained recordings and manuscripts of those disappearing languages. The beaches in Gambia were known to have male sex workers which seems an interesting topic for the feminists.

Professor Le Van answered to two more questions from the participants: first, which impact foreign aid had on elections in the developing countries, and second, whether NGOs and development agencies still selected attractive and media-relevant projects for funding. He explained that during the Cold War, the Western aid was not provided to parties sympathetic to communists. However, with time, the election observation has become more objective, not taking sides and allowing local indigenous knowledge to lead. Secondly, he replied that some foundations (e.g. Gates Foundation) still had the same approach: finding where we are most likely to be successful and replicate the same model in other places. However, the US Aid went to places where it was most difficult to succeed. Another problem was that recipients tended to talk about their successes more than failures and lessons learned, and that current US administration was no longer using their “empirically based policy”.

The second part of Prof. Le Van’s lecture related to the research ethics and safety in the country with some of deadliest terrorist organizations like Boko Haram. He displayed the photos of the IDPs who fled from Boko Haram’s violence and were hosted by a neighboring community for several years. The host community started to feel resentment only at the point when foreign aid agencies got interested in the IDPs and helped them and not the poor locals. Professor Le Van mentioned that some Boko Haram members were well educated and resisted Western education not as knowledge but as a source of moral illness and corruption in their country. He introduced a book by a young scholar Hillary Matfess Women in War and Boko Haram arguing that some women joined Boko Haram because they learned to read and write, and they couldn’t get access to education from the government. Professor Le Van encouraged students to go beyond conventional wisdom and question the existing assumptions, i.e. that Almajris, boys from poor families would join Boko Haram when they grow up.

The final series of photographs illustrated his current research project on pastoralists and their conflict with farmers. As pastoralists are predominantly Muslims and most farmers are Christians, the tension is often portrayed as religious conflict. However, Prof. Le Van thinks that a deep ecological crisis is overlooked, the problem is over-simplified, and reminds us of Foucauldian tradition as terminology becomes important. The media commonly refers to pastoralists as “herders” or “Fulani militants” and silences the fact that the rural population massively moves to cities, can no longer take care of the farms but still want to eat meat, and they get meat from those pastoralists. The final question from the audience related to the resource trap of certain countries, and Professor Le Van reiterated a strong correlation observed between resources and democracy: namely, that by not having oil and having agriculture and services, countries are better able to survive challenges and develop democratic regimes.

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