Inge Ligtvoet – Fieldwork Photo Story: Nigeria, 2014-2015
I conducted one year of field research in Nigeria from February 2014. It was a very intense year for Nigeria and so it became a very intense year for me in the field. Boko Haram became more violent and omnipresent in Nigerian media. And after they kidnapped almost 300 girls from Chibok in April, Nigeria became the center of the digital world and the global media due to this atrocity and the hashtag activism (#bringbackourgirls) in which even Michelle Obama took part. Boko Haram continued the horror in almost daily attacks on villages, markets and transport hubs.
While Boko Haram continued to terrorize Nigeria’s northeast, another crisis brought fear and chaos to the country: ebola. When a diplomat brought ebola into the country from Liberia in July, died and infected some hospital personnel, panic took over the country, leading to rumours about cures that did more harm than good (like bathing in or drinking of water with salt). Fortunately, the ebola crisis was short-lived and the quick eradication of the disease brought national pride to a nation heavily divided.
However, the continuous violence of Boko Haram and the upcoming presidential elections wouldn’t allow for tranquility in Nigeria. Tensions rose, political campaigns were dirty and controversial, the ‘2014 crises’ part of the tasteless campaign discourses. And just weeks before I would travel back to the Netherlands and shortly after the Paris terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram left the world in awe by attacking the village of Baga, reportedly killing 2000 villagers (although this has been disputed and it took over a week before the world paid attention to what had happened).
Nigeria: a country that nothing good came from in 2014. The image of a country in ruins, widely covered by the global media and discussed on social media platforms. A country in disarray. Maybe even a country without hope? My research addresses exactly that, but then it looks at the expectations young people still have, the opportunities they create for themselves and how they make sense of everything that is happening or not happening around them. It addresses the insecurity that CNN does not broadcast: that of lack. Lack of electricity, water, infrastructure. The noise of generators, the cost of fuel, the daily struggle for survival that has nothing to do with terrorism but with an absent state maybe.
What follows are ten photos of my fieldwork in Nigeria that represent the day-to-day insecurity and uncertainties for young people, the expectations they have despite (or in spite) of that, their dreams and their hopes, and the opportunities and new spaces of survival they create, through online and offline (social) networks. It tells the story of people living in a country that experiences hardship (duress) every single day, but it goes beyond the story we have seen in the international media so far. A portrait of 12 months of fieldwork.
So what represents the day-to-day insecurity of people in Nigeria? Of course, the continuous news flows about Boko Haram and other atrocities in the country have an impact. But what directly affects those in Enugu, where I did most of my fieldwork, is the everyday reality of absence: absence of electricity, water, rules, etc.
See for example this picture that was taken in Achara Ihechiowa (Arochukwu LGA, Abia State), the village of my main informant Ogechi, on the 31st of December 2014. Here he and his cousin are looking for water in a container on the compound. Water was not only a problem in this rural community, but in urban Enugu as well.
The biggest frustration of Nigerians, and one of the largest sources of ‘insecurity’ in the country, is the structural lack of electricity. Recently privatized, Nigerians still refer to their electricity company as the governmental NEPA (National Electric Power Authority), or jokingly: Never Electric Power Always. When ‘light’ goes on after hours, days, weeks or sometimes months of no electricity, you hear children in the neighborhood shouting ‘Up NEPA!’
Nigerians are just lawless. Those are not my words, but an often heard sigh of frustration of many of my informants. Corruption is omnipresent and there seem to be so many ways to work around the rules. On top of that, community leaders in (local) governments don’t stick to the rules, so why would the average Nigerian citizen? But corruption and lawlessness does create an atmosphere of sociopolitical insecurity that has to be dealt with on a daily basis, and in as much as it can work for you, it can work against you.
No electricity means no light, no means of charging your phone and no way of reading your study books. Many Nigerians therefore rely on fuel to run their generators, or at least those that can afford one. The smallest generators are called ‘I don pass my neighbor’ to emphasize that one has more than their neighbor. In a country that produces a large quantity of the world’s oil, fuel is too often scarce and costly, with long lines at filling stations as a result. In the picture you see a small part of a long line waiting for another important fluid: kerosene. Used for cooking in many Nigerian households that can’t afford gas, the price heavily relies on that of fuel. In Calabar a lady has decided to open a filling station outside town where they sell kerosene at the fixed price of 50 naira: half of what it costs in town. And so people come here daily and wait hours in the sun to get their kerosene at an affordable price. Duress.
Challenges are opportunities says this billboard advertisement for a brand of beer on a busy T-junction in Enugu.
Definitely, many of my informants have created opportunities out of the challenges they faced.
Ogechi, for example, comes from a poor family background. In his youth he has been sent around to family members in different parts of Nigeria to work and generate income. The skills he learnt on one of his trips, making shoes, has brought him where he is today. Now he is a successful shoe and bag designer, that creates his handmade fashion from a small container shop on campus 3 of the Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu. He uses the social media, Whatsapp and Facebook, for promotional activities and as an online shop. With the money he makes, he finances his own and his sister’s education and he supports other youths and family members with his knowledge and substance.
Another of my informants is a 33 year old politician aspiring to become active again in state politics after he retired from it in 2011. He supports ‘his’ candidate for the Enugu governmental elections in 2015 by printing and sharing stickers, refurnishing his car into a campaign car and recording a cd in favour of this candidate, that he shares wherever he goes. On this picture you see him giving one of these to someone just outside Enugu. His hope is that by campaigning with money out of his own pocket, he will be given a position in the government once his candidate has been elected next governor of the state.
Some youths get into different networks to create new opportunities. One of my informants wanted to leave Nigeria and its insecurities so desperately that he paid one million naira (about 5000 euros) to an agency that would get him out of the country and into Europe. He saw no opportunities in Nigeria anymore, because he hadn’t been able to find a job after he had studied political science. For greener pastures he decided to enter Europe through the state of Moldova. Unfortunately his ‘travel agents’ turned out to be fraudsters and his journey was cut short in Istanbul where he was arrested and put in detention during his lay-over. Shortly after, he was sent back to Nigeria, where he is now working as a personal assistant to a politician.
Important in creating new opportunities and in surviving insecurity in Nigeria is the mobile phone. With its possibilities to be locally and globally connected, this device has now adopted so much power for the youth of the country. Social media are not only a means for sharing frustrations and spreading ideas, or keeping oneself informed, it is also a practical space to promote a business or to gather a crowd. Social media, through mobile devices, create opportunities as well as they create new expectations. They are a source of duress and the way ‘out’.
Nigerian youths also encourage themselves through religious and inspirational books, sermons, cds, pamphlets, etc. In every transport hub you’ll find a stand with inspiring and religious books that are very popular and every Sunday most of them can be found in one of the many churches in town. The importance of (Christian) faith and the experience of it, is very important in the understanding of how youth navigate duress in Nigeria. It’s a continuous dis course in all fields of life that is embedded in (almost) everything people decide and do. Rather than studying it as ‘an object’, I’ve decided to reflect on it in all aspects of my research.
An important theme throughout my own research is of course connectivity. Nigerian youths are increasingly connected to each other and the world. Does this connectivity change their expectations, their opportunities and/or their actions? How should we understand increasing connectivity in Nigeria in the context of everyday hardship and uncertainty? This MTN advertisement at an important roundabout in New Market (Enugu), says that ‘Connected, we inspire’. Hopefully this research will eventually be able to affirm or challenge this statement.
Inge Ligtvoet is a PhD student at Leiden University. Click here to read more about her research project ‘Between expectations and opportunities: urban youth navigating duress in a globalized southern Nigeria’.