Author of ‘Zombiescapes’ and ‘For the People Without the People’, Dafe Oputu, believes the importance of political representation is understated. ‘It’s literally a matter of life and death—people die in Nigeria every day because of lack of political representation.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read a lot growing up, mostly young adult fiction and especially sci-fi/fantasy. Authors like Gordon Korman, K.A. Applegate, Douglas Adams, and J.K. Rowling. The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Ridell was a favourite of mine and I even tried my hand at writing my own fantasy worlds and scribbling poor imitations of Ridell’s fantastic illustrated maps.
When I was 13, a teacher recommended The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and it remains my favourite book series even today. I still own an omnibus volume and I can really flip to any page and just start reading, it’s so enjoyable. I had a reputation in my family for being an avid reader so I would often get gifted classics by Charles Dickens or Chinua Achebe, but I found these too serious at the time and didn’t grow to appreciate them until much later when I was in university.
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond was my gateway into reading more history and social science books. Diamond gets a lot of warranted criticism for being a bit of an armchair historian and meddling in a lot of fields he doesn’t fully understand. But it’s a very well-written book and its main argument—that geography goes a long way to explaining why much of what we consider modern arose in Europe and Asia—is convincing if not taken too far.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger and why?
If I have kids I’m definitely going to give them my copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide as well as my collection of Edge Chronicles books. Good sci-fi fantasy works to expand your horizons, which is great for inspiration as well as preparing you for the diversity of views and practices that exist in the world.
And what’s a book everyone should read before leaving university?
That’s a trickier question. I think when you’re starting university it’s common to feel like you know everything. As they say, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Because of this, it’s important to read things that challenge your assumptions about the world.
Some books that did this for me were The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, which made me see crime and penal systems in an entirely new light, and Judith M. Bennett’s Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 -1600.
A historical book about the making of beer in Medieval England may seem an odd choice, but Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England really opened my eyes to the process by which women’s work is undervalued and taken over by men once it becomes valuable. It’s a process that repeated in the tech industry post-WWII, and once I saw it, I couldn’t stop seeing it in other aspects of society.
Good sci-fi fantasy works to expand your horizons, which is great for inspiration as well as preparing you for the diversity of views and practices that exist in the world.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
Something by Michel Foucault, perhaps The Politics of Truth. I find his style of writing insufferable and extremely confusing, but when I read anyone else critiquing or using his ideas it’s obvious the man was a genius. Foucault had brilliant insights into the way power doesn’t just constrain, but actively produces knowledge and what we consider possible. I would love to read a version of his work in clearer language and contemporary examples, written by a political scientist or historian.
What is a common misconception about Nigerian politics or politics in Nigeria?
Of all the misconceptions about politics in Nigeria, one of the most harmful is that our problems can be solved by having the right people in charge. Wanting to direct people’s anger and frustrations into electoral politics is understandable—obviously, people should exercise their rights to vote, and governments that routinely fail their citizens should be punished at the ballot box. But, more Nigerians should see voting as trying to choose an enemy against whom they’ll be fighting with protests, strikes, civil disobedience, and criticism.
Whoever wins in 2023, the president will be your enemy until the Nigerian political system is transformed into one that actually vests power in the Nigerian people. Our electoral system will never produce a ‘good’ president any more than British colonialism could have produced a ‘good’ governor-general.
What three books on politics or Nigerian politics should be on every Nigerian’s bookshelf?
Ayisha Osori’s Love Does Not Win Elections is an easy choice, especially for Nigeria specifically. I also think Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott is an excellent book explaining why ambitious political projects that seem reasonable from the state’s perspective can be so disastrous for ordinary people. It’s not on my bookshelf but I promise it’s on my Kindle.
Finally, there’s Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World by Joel Migdal. In it, Migdal explains why state institutions in postcolonial countries (like Nigeria) operate so differently in practice than they are meant to on paper. I especially liked his observation that the state in such countries is engaged in competition with other agencies and institutions. Thus, it faces incentives to limit the efficiency of these potential rivals or ensure their loyalty with nepotism and corruption.
More Nigerians should see voting as trying to choose an enemy against whom they’ll be fighting with protests, strikes, civil disobedience and criticism.
What’s the last book you disagreed with, and why?
I haven’t had as much time to read for fun recently so when I do, I tend to pick books whose arguments I already find convincing. That being said, I was very disappointed with How to Win Elections in Africa by Chude Jideonwo and Adebola Williams. Firstly, the book seemed to be full of platitudes at the expense of actual campaigning insights.
Despite the title, the authors don’t really say anything specific about how elections work in the countries they worked in. Ayisha Osori’s excellent Love Does Not Win Elections or even Bisi Ogunwale’s Stepping Out: A Rookie’s Guide to Nigeria’s Politics offered much more honest takes about the process of electioneering in Nigeria.
As far as actual disagreement, the parallels the Jideonwo and Williams drew between their work on Buhari’s campaign and the election of Donald Trump seemed ham-fisted and ill-fitting. More than anything else, it seemed like an excuse to pad the book with excerpts from American media discussing Trump’s election. The two elections happened in such different contexts and the strategies of both campaigns were not really comparable if they were being honest.
And what’s a recent book you read that changed your mind about something?
Inclusion and Democracy by Iris Young convinced me that there ought to be limits to democratic autonomy for cities. In Toronto, for instance, there was a fringe movement that advocated for the Greater Toronto Area to secede from Ontario and become the eleventh province.
The movement got a bit of renewed attention in 2018 when Ontario forcibly downsized Toronto’s city council. At that time, I would have agreed since the province has often been more obstacle than partner to the city’s development. Young isn’t writing about Toronto specifically but she does point out that having radically independent cities poses a danger to inclusive democracy:
Small political jurisdiction, however, in today’s world often functions to separate people administratively whose actions nevertheless profoundly affect one another.
Given how interconnected cities are with their wider regions, cutting wider regions out of cities’ political decisions could be harmful. There are many examples of race and class-based segregation that function by shrinking political jurisdictions. I still think cities ought to have more autonomy in issues of particular interest to them, but we also have to realize that decisions made there affect workers and commuters in a wider area.
Inclusion and Democracy by Iris Young convinced me that there ought to be limits to democratic autonomy for cities.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
My writing process changes a bit depending on the length of what I’m working on, but I always edit as I write. It’s very hard for me to continue writing if I’m not pleased with the quality of what I’ve written so far.
I’m most comfortable writing things that are 2,000-3,000 words long because I just re-read what I wrote every couple of paragraphs, adjust what needs to be adjusted, and do some point form ‘scaffolding’ for the next few paragraphs. When I’m writing something longer, or when my argument doesn’t feel very refined in my head, there are always multiple stages where I start to doubt what I’ve written. In those cases, I find that stopping every page is unhelpful because it just slows me down and makes the project feel more daunting. I have to force myself to power through and just keep writing.
When the feeling of ‘everything I wrote is complete garbage’ gets overwhelming I open a blank document and start writing over again, lifting sentences and arguments from the original draft. I always find the first draft had good arguments that just needed to be better articulated, paragraphs that need to be moved around for flow, and relevant examples I’d just forgotten to include.
What was your process for writing ‘For the People, Without the People‘?
The idea for this piece started out as a research project I worked on while at Yiaga Africa. The goal was to map out the representation of women, youth, and persons with disabilities and produce a benchmark report ahead of the 2019 elections.
This report could then be updated in future elections to see if our efforts to boost political involvement from these groups were working. As far as I knew, much of this information especially the data gathered from LGA councils had never been assembled like this before. It seemed a shame to produce a single report for donors and other NGOs that wouldn’t be widely shared, so I decided to write something about it.
When I started writing, I found myself asking ‘why does this matter?’ I had become used to writing for donors and other NGOs who took for granted that these things were important. Some of my favourite parts of the article came from forcing myself away from familiar buzzwords and ensuring I really made the case for representation mattering.
Representation isn’t just a nice word to be discussed in conferences. It’s literally a matter of life and death—people die in Nigeria every day because they lack political representation. As I was writing the minimum wage bill was being debated in the National Assembly, and I got to cover some of those debates as part of my job.
Watching some of the most highly paid legislators in the world debate whether Nigeria could afford to pay public service workers N30,000 a month made me write about wealth as one of the criteria separating legislators from the public, in addition to gender, age, and disability status.
As I moved on from describing the problem to highlighting solutions, the article practically wrote itself. I have been interested in local government for a long time, and LGA reform in Nigeria was an issue I think needs far more national attention. The issues with Nigerian elections had been well documented in memoirs of former candidates, and were echoed in the complaints of many of the young candidates we worked with during the 2019 pre-election season.
What three books should we be reading to understand (or as we think about) the #EndSARS protests?
Olasupo Shasore’s A Platter of Gold: ‘Making Nigeria’ (1906-1960) is a fantastic book that shows just how hard Nigerians fought to resist, frustrate, and overthrow colonization by the British. The book challenges the notion that Nigeria was handed independence on a platter of gold, and is invaluable as a source of inspiration and information.
As I said before, I really do think of the Nigerian political class as an occupying force, and you can see just how similar their tactics are to the British. When African public workers threatened to strike for wages equal to their European counterparts, Governor Arthur Richards went on the radio to warn that ‘such action is against the law and that if you take it you will be putting yourselves in danger of having to face all the consequences of such action…the law will be upheld and Government will not hesitate to take all steps required to maintain necessary services.’ It is not hard to imagine those words coming from our president today.
When the strike started, the British sent lackeys in to argue that it should be given up because enough had been achieved, arrested strike leaders on frivolous accusations, and banned unfriendly newspapers for ‘incitement’.
On the other hand, Nigerians came together much as they’ve done in the past few months. Lawyers offered services pro bono, rich and poor Nigerians donated to relief funds to replace striker’s lost wages and market women lowered prices of goods.
At a time where we’re increasingly questioning ‘our heroes past’, Shasore’s book is also a reminder that Nigeria owes its independence not to the men we see on our currency, but to market women, coal workers, student agitators, low-wage civil service workers, and start-up journalists who spent almost as much time behind bars as behind their desks.
I also have to recommend Too Good to Die: Third Term and the Myth of the Indispensable Man in Africa by Chidi Odinkalu and Ayisha Osori. It may seem an odd choice since the book mainly documents President Obasanjo’s failed effort to secure a third term in 2007. But it goes a long way to explaining how the Nigerian Police Force became the monster it is today as Obasanjo sought to rapidly expand the institution, compromise its recruitment process and politicize its leadership in service of his third term bid. The book also manages to expose the lie behind many Nigerians’ quest for a developmental strongman to fix all the country’s problems.
Anything by Max Siollun is great and I find it very hard to pick just one of his books to recommend here. I will specifically mention Soldiers of Fortune: Nigerian Politics from Buhari to Babangida and its sequel Nigeria’s Soldiers of Fortune: The Abacha and Obasanjo Years. Both books show that the tactics we’ve seen from the Nigerian government and army come from a well-worn playbook. The former is particularly relevant because it’s striking how much Buhari’s rule today has in common with his earlier turn in power. The latter shows how the same political elites of the military era skillfully retained their advantages in the turn to civilian rule.
As a bonus, I would like to recommend a short academic article I read recently by James Jasper of the City University of New York. ‘A Strategic Approach to Collective Action: Looking for Agency in Social-Movement Choices’. Jasper is trying to introduce a theory of understanding social movements that analyses decisions made by movement leaders rather than predetermined social forces.
In the process, he outlines a series of dilemmas that social movements face many of which were at play in the #EndSARS protests. For example, there were many calls for the #EndSARS movement to select formal representatives. Jasper explains the advantages (it may be more effective in getting attention) and disadvantages (it may lead movements to conceded important goals too quickly).
Representation isn’t just a nice word to be discussed in conferences. It’s literally a matter of life and death—people die in Nigeria every day because of lack of political representation.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I once heard about a study showing that when you give someone a really nice gift paired with a cheaper gift they actually perceive the whole package a being worse than receiving the nice gift by itself. I think it’s good advice in gift giving, but also for writing.
There are always so many arguments or examples you could add to a piece of writing, but it’s best to concentrate on the strongest. If you have a laundry list of evidence of varying quality, many readers are going to focus on your weaker arguments and come away with a reduced opinion of the work as a whole.
In other words, perfection is when there’s not only nothing left to add, but also nothing left to take away.
What’s more important: the topic or how you write about it?
Definitely how you write about it. You can end up doing a lot of disservice to an important topic by writing about it in a bad-faith way. In fact, even if you have the best intentions, it’s still possible to tackle important issues in a harmful or narrow way.
Think for example of the way rape in Nigeria is often written about as something that ‘defiles’ young women, something that’s especially harmful if the victim is a virgin, or something that is a crime against a family’s pride rather than the individual.
Writing about rape without mentioning societal feelings of ownership over women’s bodies and sexuality can actually end up worsening rape culture. It’s the same with so many other topics too, you have to write in a responsible way.
What’s one thing to leave behind when turning a study or academic research into a general-reader article?
When you’re adapting academic writing for a general audience you sometimes need to leave behind technical vocabulary, including words whose colloquial meaning is very different from their meaning in particular academic contexts.
Otherwise, you end up spending paragraphs defining your terms, something that’s quite normal for academic research, but I think ought to be limited in writing directed at general readers. If I can’t find a synonym for what I’m trying to say, I try to define it using examples and analogies that readers would find familiar.
Perfection is when there’s not only nothing left to add, but also nothing left to take away.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I was recently introduced to the work of Peter Ekeh, best known for ‘Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa’. He also founded the Urhobo Historical Society and wrote books about Warri and Urhoboland in general. Professor Ekeh, unfortunately, passed away on 18 November 2020.
There are not as many published histories of the Urhobo as there are for larger ethnic groups in Nigeria, so I really appreciate a chance to read about my heritage and wish I had been able to do so sooner. It also turns out that he was something of a family friend on my dad’s side. I was even talking to my dad about maybe meeting with him the next time we were in Warri.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Since it’s the topic I’m working on for my dissertation I have been reading and writing a lot about cities, particularly African ones. One of my favourite recent reads is Rosalind Fredericks’ Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. I visited Dakar late last year and loved it, so I was looking for a book that told the history of the city.
Fredericks tells the story of urban politics in Dakar from the perspective of garbage collection in the city. She shows the labour of garbage collection workers had a moral dimension that was transformed by austerity politics, intervention by NGOs, and gender expectations.
I always love reading about history. Especially now in quarantine and with everything going on in the world, I find it to be a bit of an escape from contemporary troubles. Recently, I read Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests by Peter H. Russell since it’s been a long time since I revisited Canadian history. It’s a dense, but readable book, covering the parallel histories of French Canada, English Canada, and the First Nations who predate European arrival. The whole book was fantastic, but the sections on Aboriginal Canada were particularly great.
I mentioned before that I’ve been looking for books about Urhobo history. One that I’m currently reading is The Untold Story of a Nigerian Royal Family: The Urhobo Ruling Clan of Okpe Kingdom by Prince Joseph O. Asagba. I’ve also been reading Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion by Republic writer Jeff Pearce. I picked it up on a day I was feeling particularly depressed about events in Nigeria, figuring I’d read a good news story about a country that is today considered an African success story. Ironically, the Tigray War started the day I bought it and Ethiopia is arguably in the middle of a civil war, so take from that what you will.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I’ll be presenting an essay on city diplomacy at the Lagos Studies Association’s annual conference next summer. Essentially, I’m trying to answer whether West African cities can be thought of as international actors, with interests separate from the states or countries in which they are situated. If they have such interests, how do they go about achieving them?
In other parts of the world, a city may organize lobbying efforts to host the Olympics or to attract investment from multinational companies. I want to know if West African cities do the same, and if not, whether they are missing out. This topic is likely to form part of my PhD research so I’m excited to work on it.
I am also working on an article with Stears Business on charter cities. When I wrote ‘Zombiescapes: Africa’s Megacity Addiction’ in 2019, I had a few people ask me whether Eko Atlantic might be better as an international charter city. Though I am obviously a fan of devolving more power to local governments, I remain mostly skeptical of the idea of international charter cities.
Question from Chukwudi Ukonne: What word would you delete permanently from the English lexicon and why?
I have never seen anyone with any sense use the word ‘lacuna’ in a sentence. There are people in this world who use language to obscure and confuse instead of clarify: government spokespersons justifying the unjustifiable, public figures trying to summon their inner lawyer for intimidation. ‘Lacuna’ seems to be a favourite crutch of these sorts of writers. The evil it has done is more than enough.
I also think it’s time to retire the developing-developed country dichotomy. The terms come from the discredited premise of modernization theory, that all countries were on an inevitable path towards being more industrialized, educated, democratic, and capitalist. It’s clear today that many countries are not following the path of Europe and its settler colonies in any meaningful way.
It is likewise clear that the supposedly ‘developed’ countries are not immune from tribalism, ethnic conflict, disease, and extreme inequality. There’s certainly no shortage of other terms to choose from: Global South/North, The West/The Rest, The First/Third World.
Personally, however, I think writers should just say what they mean. I try to use ‘poor’ or ‘formerly colonized/post-colonial’ depending on the context and what I’m trying to emphasize. It ensures you aren’t conflating concepts like democracy and wealth together allowing for more careful analysis.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What’s a book/work that doesn’t exist yet, but you wish someone would write?⎈
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