13 October, 2016
FIELDWORK IN A FUZZY AND UNPREDICTABLE ENVIRONMENT: WELCOME TO THE NORTHEAST OF NIGERIA
By Edlyne Anugwom
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
University of the Western Cape
“I want to tell you a story, tell me (us) a story” – this line from one of the lyrics of the late Nigerian artiste Fela Anikulapo Kuti comes to mind as I reflect on my experience in studying the Boko Haram in the Northeast of Nigeria and its telling. I guess that fits my narration in the sense that like the Fela song in question, my foray into the Northeast apart nagging at the unsavouriness of talakawa existence ; show glimpses of living at the margins and the unpredictable frailty and lost-worldliness of conflict.
Be that as it may, I must start this brief narration of my field work experiences (I believe I may be encouraged to write a more formal paper since I believe there are lessons to be learnt from the experience) by stating that my initial feeling of ‘can –do’ gusto and bravado were really rebuffed by the realities on the ground. In the first case, I had been bolstered before the fieldwork experience by my previous experience working in the Niger Delta of Nigeria amongst youth militants fighting the Nigerian government and Trans-National Oil Companies (TNOCs) over control and access to the rich oil resources in that region.
However, in comparison with the Boko Haram, the Niger Delta militants were largely predictable and drew a fine distinction between their aggressors (TNOCs; government forces – the Joint Military Task Force (JTF); government oil agencies and later on white oil workers seen as representatives of western capital in the region) or foes and other members of the population; utilized violence in relatively purposive manner and had good rapport with the social environment and elements therein; they were also more enlightened and operated within the ambit of a clearly defined and non-shifting agenda). On the other hand, the Boko Haram fighters are totally unpredictable; ultra-violent; attacked everybody and anybody not identified as members. In addition, the Boko Haram operated with what can be called a loosely defined ideology and ever shifting immediate goals (though the quest for total Islamization of Nigeria; sharia and the immutable need for jihad to actualize the first two remained consistent); loose leadership structure (rumours and imaginations of split); and loose cell style structure (the so-called Shura council arrangement not withstanding) that often granted operational autonomy to the different cells. In such a situation, fieldwork became a high risk exercise and tasked both the stamina and courage of the research team.
There were, in addition too many other considerable incidents, mainly two very scary experiences can be detailed here. In the first case, the team almost stepped into an IED in Maiduguri while still trying to obtain the needed official permission from the military hierarchy since part of the field work was to talk to talk the military men on the ground who had engaged the Boko Haram and mediated the security of the local people. In another incident, the research team was held captive for over forty minutes by a group of young men in Gwoza. This was as a result of the suspicion of the motive of the team (war breeds a certain way caution among inhabitants of the theaters of war); at this point our guide and anchor man had gone back to his day time work place in a guest house to fix something. So while we were waiting for him in a make-shift stall by the street corner we were confronted by these mean looking and armed group of six young men who asked a barrage of questions in vernacular bordering on our identity and mission. However, before we could answer and before the group made up its mind about what to do with us, our guide came running back. It transpired that the young men were members of the Civilian JTF that had become instrumental in the military offensive against the Boko Haram since 2014. This group obviously recently came back to town since we had been introduced to two other groups operating in the immediate vicinities.
Before I get carried away with the gist, it is important to paint a little picture of the state of the areas where the fieldwork took place. The two local government areas covered (i.e. Maiduguri and Gwoza in Borno state) and especially Gwoza which we visited earlier (between April and May 2016) appeared more or less like a garrison town. In Maiduguri (which is the capital of Borno State and one of the largest commercial centres in the North of Nigeria before the Boko Haram), apart from the endless check points and massive military presence, things appeared normal on the surface. However, the picture changes as one heads downtown and towards the seedy parts of the town. These are areas inhabited by the ordinary people or the talakawas. In both towns, one could easily get the feeling (and often become overwhelmed) that the Boko Haram experience had severely eroded both the trust and solidarity of the people.
Incidentally, Gwoza occupies a critical historical watershed in the insurgence since it was the only significant geographical area that was seized and declared an Islamic republic by the Boko Haram. It is especially conducive to the Boko Haram insurgents given that the town of Gwoza (Gworza) is surrounded by the Gwoza hills which overtime provided for refuge for the insurgents and became more or less a fortress.
Given the nature of my research environment, some of the fine things Afe told us about ethics in the Cape Town workshop became almost usable. You cannot operate and would likely not survive in the above field (especially in Gwoza) if you indulge in full disclosure. It was as simple as that. You had to improvise and be creative; that we did (this would deserve another telling in another forum). Therefore, research ethics had to willy-nilly accommodate research expediency.
Interestingly, the team had ample help especially from unexpected sources and even had some informal rapport with some members of the military (who we told our true motives and applied ethics to an extent on them) without the elusive letter or permission from the higher-ups.
It is also good to report that two of my research assistants chickened out probably out of fear after the methodology training. I had to recruit two new research assistants to replace them – 1 from Maiduguri (a student of the University of Maiduguri) and 1 from the University of Abuja (penultimate year undergraduate student). Thus, I worked with a total of 4 research assistants. Three of them were speakers of the local language and also Muslims. These were helpful in at least opening doors even though to a crack sometimes.
I still have a lot to tell and share but let me face the onerous task of making meaning out of the information which the field exercise generated.
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