Sociologist and researcher, Leena Koni Hoffmann, thinks informal rules and institutions are the ‘glue that hold society together’: ‘Organized civil society is an important aspect of life in Africa but they are most impactful when they are legitimate in the eyes of the people they advocate for and serve.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read the staple books that circulated amongst school children in Anglophone Africa whose education was heavily influenced by British colonization. I remember ingesting a lot of Enid Blyton, but I didn’t fall in love with reading until I was in secondary school where I discovered Pacesetter novels. They were the best thing about Nigeria in the 80s! I vividly remember Too Cold for Comfort by Jide Oguntoye, The Undesirable Element by Mohammed Sule, Evbu My Love by Helen Ovbiagele and the epically titled Bloodbath at Lobster Close by Dickson Ighavini.
My mother, who worked in hospital administration, read a lot of Mills and Boon novels but kept them under lock and key. My dad was an accountant, and only read a trinity of numbers, newspapers and the Bible.
I went to an all-girls’ unity school and my best friend’s dad travelled to the US a lot and brought back whatever books were popular with American audiences and in the airport bookshops at the time. I remember reading a shedload of Danielle Steele and Wilbur Smith books. I was a voracious reader and my appetite peaked in my senior secondary years. I slept, ate, and was wholly devoted to reading and besting my best friend at who could finish a book—no matter how thick it was—in a day! However, my book choices were limited to popular American texts.
I regret that I only discovered other African literary authors like Chinua Achebe, Efua Sutherland and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in my post-secondary years.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
These books are very different on the surface, but I feel like my inner worlds and life trajectory connects them for me and to me.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
These days I disagree with a lot of things I read but I weigh the value of voicing my disagreement. I haven’t worked out a good balance for this, but I know I should because disagreeable things happen when people don’t clearly label them as such.
I recently read about and listened to the online discussion hosted by EFCC on jailing property owners for renting houses to fraudsters and shook my head at how incredibly stupid the idea was and how terrifying a policy it would be.
…disagreeable things happen when people don’t clearly label them as such.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read an academic article by Simeon Nichter on how Brazil put a dent in their vote-buying problem. I had been quite pessimistic about solutions to these kinds of electoral offences, but it was the coming together of brilliant strategy, circumstances and actors that allowed Brazilians to design a legal framework and collective action movement that made it possible to oust over 1,000 politicians from 2000 to 2011! Making that size of a dent in electoral impunity is impressive!
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I write several drafts simultaneously—it’s such a messy process. I find that I can only make sense of what I want to say by laying out all the threads of the argument in my mind while reading to saturation. I tend to eventually get to a place of clarity or knowing my own mind, which allows me begin weaving together what I think my contribution ought to be.
You’re an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and lead their Africa Programme’s Social Norms and Accountable Governance Project, researching informal institutions, corruption and governance in Nigeria. What is one fundamental thing that African governments need to implement to curb corruption?
I haven’t critically written about this yet, but I think a lot of anti-corruption in Africa isn’t about Africans. There is hardly a sense of dignifying African people in how we do anti-corruption. I think dignity and respect for human life and rights is and should be at the heart of curbing corruption.
We should investigate corruption, ask questions and demand accountability because we do not want the devastating costs to healthcare, education and democracy to happen to people who deserve a fulfilled life. If African governments regarded the dignity and human rights of their people, they would do anti-corruption differently and better.
A lot of anti-corruption in Africa isn’t about Africans. There is hardly a sense of dignifying African people in how we do anti-corruption.
Which three books would you recommend to anyone trying to understand Africa today?
I don’t know if such a book exists because Africa is such an immensely complex and changing continent! If I was to recommend a non-fiction book to understand the part of Africa I am most interested in—which is West Africa—I’d highly recommend Rahmane Idrissa’s The Politics of Islam in the Sahel: Between Persuasion and Violence. It succinctly explains socio-political transformations in the region.
For a temporal and emotive understanding of northern Nigeria, I’d recommend Elnathan John’s fictional book, Born on a Tuesday. For understanding of diverse lives and ways of expression as well as shifting conventional perceptions of Africa and its women, I’d recommend Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s The Sex Lives of African Women.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about the impact of corruption on Africa’s development?
The loss of a dignified life.
What role do you see informal institutions such as civil society organisations playing in holding government administrations accountable in Africa?
Informal rules and institutions are the glue that hold society together or keep them apart. Organized civil society is an important aspect of life in Africa but they are most impactful when they are legitimate in the eyes of the people they advocate for and serve. Not their funders, not even government but the people that governments should serve. It is when civil society gain popular trust from ordinary citizens that they are most frightening to governments and representative of social demands for accountability.
If African governments regarded the dignity and human rights of their people, they would do anti-corruption differently and better.
What is the most meaningful piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
Just do you.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Who are the African women leaders you’re most excited about today (and why)?
I admire and find myself most excited about many African women in their late 20s and 30s. I am excited about those who have discovered their sense of self, independence and ownership of their bodies and minds.
Organized civil society is an important aspect of life in Africa but they are most impactful when they are legitimate in the eyes of the people they advocate for and serve.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
My reading and writing are so varied, and I don’t have a favourite topic because all the things I am reading and writing about these days are all genuinely interesting to me.
I could flip this question and tell you what would be a favourite topic for me to write or read—it would be dignity and anti-corruption because that is becoming a personal interest for me.
What are you currently working on?
A very long-overdue book proposal.
Question from Sangu Delle: If you could allocate $1 billion to any one person, thing, cause, or entity, what would it be and why?
A fund to support and represent Nigerians who have been in prison awaiting charge and/or trial. In a country with a depressing justice deficit—among many other tragedies, I think there are few things worse than being a victim of Nigeria’s prison system.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What keeps you up at night?⎈
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