she called me woman: Nigeria’s queer women speak

It’s been years in the making and, finally, it will be published this time next month (26th April) by Cassava Republic Press.

She Called Me Woman: Nigeria's Queer Women Speak

Here is some information about the book:

“We decided to put together this collection of narratives to correct the invisibility, the confusion, the caricaturising and the writing out of history.”

This stirring and intimate collection brings together 25 unique narratives to paint a vivid portrait of what it means to be a queer Nigerian woman. Covering an array of experiences – the joy and excitement of first love, the agony of lost love and betrayal, the sometimes-fraught relationship between sexuality and spirituality, addiction and suicide, childhood games and laughter – She Called Me Woman sheds light on how Nigerian queer women, despite their differences, attempt to build a life together in a climate of fear.

Through first-hand accounts, She Called Me Woman challenges us to rethink what it means to be a Nigerian ‘woman’, negotiating relationships, money, sexuality and freedom, identifying outside the gender binary, and the difficulties of achieving hopes and dreams under the constraints of societal expectations and legal terrorism.

She Called Me Woman is full of beautifully told stories of resistance and resilience, joy and laughter, heartbreaks and victories, collecting the realities of a community that will no longer be invisible.

Azeenarh, Rafeeat and I spent years of our lives interviewing narrators, working with them to develop their narratives, analysing themes and finalising this book and I am so happy that it will be out in the world very soon.

You can read an overview of a Twitter chat that the three of us had with Y Naija about the erasure of queer women in Nigerian society here. It talks about how the book came to be, the origin of its title and memorable experiences putting the book together as well as how queer people are treated in Nigeria, Western influence on discussions around sexuality, the historical existence of queer people in Nigeria, what it means to be out and ways the book explores the Nigerian female experience.

We also have our first review! Brittle Paper’s Cisi Eze said that She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak ‘transcends beautiful. This history-making opus will shake the tables our collective homophobia – internalised and externalised – sits on. Its daringness will embolden us to take off the heavy, dark, velvety silence that has draped talks of Other sexualities.’ You can read the whole review here.

After so many years, I can’t believe that our book will be out and shared with the world in just one month’s time. You can pre-order it here and keep updated by following  on Twitter.

briefing the Security Council: preventing conflict dynamics becoming root causes of future conflicts in the Lake Chad area

UPDATE 23/03/2018: They posted a video of the debate. My intervention starts at 22’54 and lasts for around 13 minutes. I also recommend that you watch the interventions of Amina Mohammed and Mohammed Bila before me.

Earlier on today, I briefed the Security Council on current conflict dynamics in the Lake Chad region as root causes of future conflicts. This session was organised by the Netherlands as part of their presidency of the Security Council (March 2018). What follows is the text of my briefing. I had only ten minutes so had to, unfortunately, leave a lot out (the original draft was double this length) but conflict analysis that I worked on last year (soon to be published) will give more depth. I’ll post it under research and publications as soon as I can.

This year marks 15 years since the start of the violence we identify with armed groups in the Lake Chad region. I will focus my briefing on current conflict dynamics, potential trajectories and the need to prevent root causes of future conflicts. I was born and live in Maiduguri and have been working on conflict analysis, human rights, peacebuilding and protection for 12 years. I will talk about the region as a whole but, given my background, will draw a great deal from Nigeria.

I will talk about 4 sets of dynamics.

The first dynamic revolves around environmental and climate factors. The problem is not the alleged shrinking of Lake Chad but increased variability. Lake Chad has been fluctuating throughout history. Communities adapt to changes although coping mechanisms have been tested. The issue is rather governance of and access to natural resources, the impact of insecurity and increased climatic variability. Farmers complain of impacts of changing lake levels and increasing rainfall variability, inability to plan properly, lower or no crop yields and insects that do not die. Pastoralists have to change grazing routes. Fisher folk talk of changing amounts of fish in water bodies. We are seeing:

  1. Decreased resilience due to climate and conflict: One Nigerian farmer told me how he would farm in rainy season, use irrigation from a stream and by the lake in a year, saying that if rains, the stream or the lake did not come, that was okay as “all three disasters would not befall you in the same year.” He said now, “Due to the crisis, every avenue to develop yourself economically has been destroyed. You do not have the money and even if you do and one fails, which is likely because of rainfall, security restrictions and Boko Haram, you cannot do others. Virtually all economic activities have collapsed.”
  2. Tensions between and within occupational groups: Conflict between and within farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk and hunters has been exacerbated by decrease in arable land, planting of crops on grazing routes and areas, changing pastoralists’ movements, changing rainfall patterns affecting crop yields and cattle health, military restrictions, security concerns and insufficiency of land and water given increased population density due to displacement. Moreover, the conflict has led to increased ethnic and social tensions – in all 4 countries.
  3. Firewood collection by civilians and cutting of trees by the military increasing deforestation, as well as agricultural burning across the region has an impact on protection and security now but also impact on soil degradation, desertification, agricultural livelihoods, and availability of wood for smoking fish in future.

There has been no clear empirical link made between these changes and recruitment into AOGs but these impacts on livelihoods, increasing inequality and financial incentives to join are happening in the same space so they may well be a link.

The second dynamic is the gendered nature of violence. Men and older boys are often the first to flee insecure areas, are deliberately targeted, killed and forcibly recruited by armed groups, viewed with suspicion, arrested and detained by security agencies and involved in fighting, leaving women – of all ages – as well as girls, younger boys and older men struggling to cope. High levels of violence against women and girls include: abductions from schools; use to detonate explosives, the so-called suicide bombers; higher levels of early and forced marriage, either to fighters or to reduce pressure on resources; sexual exploitation, abuse and violence, including by those whose job is to protect not exploit; and survival sex. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected: unable to escape violence and struggling to cope when displaced. Unknown numbers have also acquired disabilities due to violence. Their experiences have left many struggling to cope with trauma. What does this mean in the long term when so many men are missing leaving women to cope? When so many have experienced violence and trauma? When all children and young people have taken part in and/ or experienced violence?

Thirdly, tensions between IDPs, refugees, returnees and host communities. The people of the region have been extraordinarily generous, sheltering and assisting those displaced. With time, this dynamic has given rise to tensions. For example, I was in Baga Sola in Chad two weeks ago. There, Nigerian fishermen feel discriminated against when it came to access to information and services as they cannot speak local languages. These tensions are exacerbated by humanitarian assistance, seen as only benefitting IDPs despite violence affecting everyone.

Fourthly, governance and security provision. The region has long suffered from weak or absent governance and state services. This has been heightened by the conflict. There is dissatisfaction with community leaders too, sometimes viewed as corrupt and politicised before, and now often seen as diverting aid for themselves and their families. We know corruption and inequality are root causes of the conflict. People say these have worsened. Security provision is also problematic. Military action or inaction has caused civilian harm through: failure to protect communities from violence; failure to prevent collateral damage during operations; and directly targeting civilians with human rights abuses. I do not underestimate the scale of the challenges facing the militaries of the region and we have seen some positive developments. For example, in Nigeria, a national policy on civilian protection is awaiting President Buhari’s signature and the military is trying to further institutionalise civilian protection and harm mitigation in training. However, civilian harm continues, increasing unhappiness and frustration with the state. There are also issues with community militias. In Nigeria, there are growing concerns about the yan gora – or Civilian Joint Taskforce – in particular. Civilians say they intimidate, settle scores, trade drugs, extort and steal, divert aid and sexually harass, exploit and abuse. People worry about increasing politicisation, electoral mobilisation, criminality and gangs and this developing into a new conflict phase.

While we hope peace will soon return, here are three ways the conflict may develop further:

  1. JAS, the group headed by Shekau, is defeated but ISWA, the group headed by al Barnawi, grows stronger and more difficult to combat as its policy of avoiding the targeting civilians means it both retains fighters and has more strategic relations with local populations.
  2. Community militias, due to incomplete and ineffective processes of disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation, form the next phase of the conflict, engaging in criminality that escalates into sustained violence against civilian populations – and perhaps the state.
  3. Intercommunal tensions coupled with reprisal attacks and decreased access to resources as people are living in more crowded spaces leads to formation of community militias that are identity based, leading to clashes and violence.

Let’s also remember we have elections coming up in Cameroon in October 2018 and Nigeria in February 2019. It is important that political contestations do not affect and are not affected by these dynamics.

So, what is the way forward?

First of all, the crisis is not over. Humanitarian needs continue. Funding and support for humanitarian action is essential. We also must pay attention to current conflict dynamics and trajectories. The Lake Chad Basin region needs to be on the Council’s agenda. The Council needs more systematic reports that are conflict, climate and gender sensitive from the Secretariat, including on root causes and conflict drivers, as well as more regular situational awareness briefings to ensure the Council is attuned to changing conflict dynamics in a volatile region.

Secondly, we need proper analysis on which to base policy and programming decisions. There may be humanitarian needs assessments out there but proper integrated analysis that looks at conflict, climate, gender and social inclusion is lacking. Of course, we should not do nothing while waiting for analysis but we do need to ensure interventions are meaningful, do no harm and are responsive to the situation.

Which brings to me to my third and final point. The UN, donors and affected states need to ensure every CFA, naira, euro, pound and dollar spent in the region from now on is context – climate, conflict, gender, social inclusion – sensitive – and that impacts of interventions against these factors is monitored. For example, a livelihoods programme must look at future rainfall trajectories to see which crops will still be viable. If it supports the polder system in Chad, it must consider who will have access to increased areas of fertile land this will bring about, who will not and how this plays into existing tensions. Otherwise interventions will not lead to sustainable change and improvement. Even worse than a bad situation is hoping for change only for this optimism to turn to ashes.

A few weeks ago, I met a young former JAS member. She joined to transform society for the better. She told me: “I thought society would have improved while I was away but, when I came back, I saw society has gotten worse.” Looking back 15 to 20 years ago, we can see the genesis of where we are today. Circumstances have gravely deteriorated for most people. The question is: if the situation before led to this conflict and the reality now is worse than it was then, what does this mean for the future?

I urge you to take action now geared at preventing current conflict dynamics from becoming the root causes of future conflicts.

focusing on schoolgirl abductions distorts the view of life in Nigeria

For The Guardian on the abductions of the Dapchi girls. You can read about and download my gender assessment of dynamics in northeast Nigeria here.

Once again, abducted Nigerian schoolgirls are making international headlines. Last Monday, 110 girls were taken from the Government Girls Science and Technical School in the town of Dapchi in Nigeria’s north-eastern Yobe state. Fighters belonging to one of the armed opposition groups (commonly known as Boko Haram) operating in the area attacked the town and took the girls who were unable to escape.

The attack came shortly after the military withdrew troops from the town. Then came a pattern that is familiar to anyone following events in north-east Nigeria, where the abduction of girls from Chibok in April 2014 brought the region to national and global attention. First, there was silence from government officials, followed by disputes in the media about the number of girls missing. Then an announcement that girls had been rescued by the army, which was later retracted.

The abductions from Chibok were neither the first nor the last in north-east Nigeria (at least 2,000 women and girls were kidnapped between January 2014 to April 2015, and large numbers of men and boys have also been taken). But, the Chibok case captured international imagination. This focus on abductions shows the kinds of stories that media pick up but it also means we have a partial picture of what is actually going on.

Yes, this was greatly due to the hard work of women’s activists in Maiduguri and the phenomenon that was #BringBackOurGirls. It also made a compelling media story and offered the chance for those involved – from journalists to those who tweeted using the hashtag – to take action and feel good about themselves. Those of us working in north-east Nigeria at the time were at the epicentre of an international media circus. Hordes of journalists descended on Abuja, Maiduguri and Chibok, asking the same questions of the same people, often retraumatising family members of the abducted girls in the process.

That, almost four years later, we see them in one of the first scenes of Black Panther, the global cultural phenomenon of 2018 so far is telling; Nakia, an intelligence officer played by Lupita Nyong’o is seen undercover in north-east Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest with dozens of girls being transported by armed fighters. It was the obvious choice for film-makers looking for something topical about the African continent that could symbolise the nascent Wakandan saviour complex – in contrast to the reality of women’s activism in north-east Nigeria. All we know or care about when it comes to north-east Nigeria seems to be either abducted schoolgirls or female “suicide bombers”.

This level of attention has resulted in differential treatment for those abducted from Chibok compared with everyone else, with high-level negotiations conducted to free them. Every time abducted women and girls are released, the first question asked is whether Chibok girls are among them.

Of course we should care about and campaign for action to be taken when it comes to the girls of Dapchi. However, what happened around the Chibok abductions serves as a salutary warning of how media coverage can inadvertently lead to a hierarchy of humanity – some people being valued above others.

I have been working on peacebuilding and human rights in north-east Nigeria for almost five years. Last year, I spent weeks interviewing women and men for a gender assessment of the region. I found stories of women and girls choosing to join armed opposition groups. They have taken part in attacks on villages and towns, recruited members, made bombs and recruited others. Women and girls have also been part of militias set up to protect communities. They screen women and girls at checkpoints, fight alongside the men, patrol towns and villages and, in some cases, command groups of fighters, including men. Moreover, women have saved men from being killed, in many cases hiding them in their homes, dressing them in women’s clothing and smuggling them to safety.

Indeed, men “of fighting age” – roughly 14 to 50 – are often the first to be killed or detained, leaving women to take on new roles and decision-making power. Even if husbands and fathers are present, men are no longer able to provide for families, meaning women have to find ways of earning incomes, including through “survival sex”. In some cases, this changed dynamic has caused problems in households where men, fearing a loss to their power, try to prove they are the ones still in charge. In other cases, women say they have more power at home and their husbands have to adjust. After all, if he divorces her to marry another, the dynamics with the new wife will be the same.

Of course, women suffer greatly during conflict. They are displaced, disabled, killed, lose family and friends, and experience higher levels of gender-based violence. But they are not just victims. Conflict is also a time where women have greater agency – whether they want it or not. This focus on women as victims also means we lose sight of what happens to men and boys. We all know about the Chibok girls but how many of us know about the Buni Yadi boys? A few weeks before the abductions from Chibok, an estimated 59 boys were lined up in the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi, had knives drawn across their throat, were gunned down or burned alive. Seeing only women and girls as victims plays into gendered stereotypes that we must move away from. It also presents a highly distorted version of reality.