I work on the social and labour history of West Africa. In general, I am interested in the meaning and value of work. How are different types of work, carried out by different categories of persons, interpreted and valued? How does exploitation work, and how is it defined and understood at different moments in time and in different places, by whom, and with what consequences for power relations? I have been exploring these questions along five main axes of inquiry.

1. Slavery and emancipation in African history

In most of Africa slavery was abolished in the early 20th century. Colonial legal abolition was only one of many factors contributing to the emancipation of enslaved persons, and colonial regimes introduced new forms of unfreedom. In some African regions the actual emancipation of slaves has been a recent process, shaped by global, regional, and local dynamics – and most of all by the strategies of (ex-)slaves. My research on African slavery prioritises the experience of slaves and workers. I started exploring slavery in an edited volume entitled Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories that examines recent reconfigurations of slavery in different West African societies. Here I suggested that we should distinguish between actual slavery, classificatory slavery, and metaphorical slavery as separate phenomena subject to different transformational processes. For example, the proportion of enslaved persons in society (actual slavery) may vary due to factors different from those accounting for the relative ‘stickiness’ of labels that designate certain groups as slave descendants (classificatory slavery), groups not subject to actual enslavement. If we shift the focus to metaphorical slavery, we find that slavery functions as a metaphor of exploitation at certain moments more than others. The frequent metaphorical mobilisation of the idea of slavery may have more to do with growing nationalism and imperialism than with practices of actual enslavement and slave trade (on this last point, see ‘Freedom Under Scrutiny‘).

My first book, From Slavery to Aid, reconstructs the history of Ader’s society at the southern edge of the Nigerien Sahara, and focuses on transformations of hierarchies and labour relations from 1800 to 2000. Unlike most studies of this region, it focuses on the history and strategies of slaves and workers across successive pre-colonial, colonial, and independent political regimes. I am currently working on my second book, which is a work of synthesis on the history of slaves in twentieth century Africa. In May 2016 I presented an early version of the book’s chapters at the Evans Pritchard Lectures in All Souls College (Oxford University). What happens to periodisations of African emancipation when we prioritise the historical experience of African societies, rather than the stages of European legal abolition? These reflections form the core of an article entitled ‘Periodizing the End of Slavery: Colonial Law, the League of Nations, and Slave Resistance in the Nigerien Sahel, 1920s-1930s’ that will appear soon in Les Annales

2. Sexual and conjugal slavery

Enslaved men and women experience slavery differently. Like enslaved men, enslaved women are valuable as exploitable workers and capital assets. But gender inequalities  slowed down the process of emancipation for women of slave descent given them fewer opportunities for autonomous economic mobility. Their exploitation was more acceptable to society, more difficult to resist for women with narrow livelihood options. Slave women were not valued only as exploitable workers. They were valued, too, as sources of sexual pleasure and potential mothers. Continuing demand for women’s sexual and reproductive potential fuels ongoing trafficking and sexual slavery. In wartime, this results in the systematic abduction and abuse of women by different militant groups. One strand of my research on slavery, in collaboration with researchers of the CSiW network, contextualises historically the sexual enslavement of women in contemporary African wars. I have written a blogpost for Open Democracy on the relation between gender inequalities in peacetime and sexual slavery in wartime, and together with Joel Quirk I am convening a stream on Marriage and Slavery in African Societies at the ASAUK 2018 Conference. I am also co-writing a comparative article on Sexual Slavery in African Wars with Allen Kiconco (University of Witswatersrand) and Rosaline McCarthy (Women’s Forum of Sierra Leone).

3. Mobility and migrations

I see the migrant as the hero of history. Alone or with the help of support networks, migrants take it upon themselves to overcome abroad challenges that they cannot overcome at home. A migrant is a person with a project, who believes in his/her capacity to make his/her project work. Although migration is not always a choice made freely, a migrant’s trajectory is the result of a careful assessment either by migrants themselves, if they are moving independently, or by those who force migrants to move. Researching why and how people move gives fundamental insights into social and labor history. In a series of articles I explored the migration projects of West African workers. ‘Migration and Emancipation in West Africa’s Labour History: The Missing Links‘ shows that the ability to move autonomously is one of the central elements, if not the central element, in the experience of emancipation of enslaved persons. Regained control over mobility is experienced as a turning point from slave to free status. The choice of whether/how to move and where to go lies at the heart of strategies of emancipation.

I have been working on mobility and migration beyond the field of slavery studies. In an article entitled Tubali’s Trip I criticise the notion of the informal economy. The article follows Tubali’s four-year migration during which he entered into so-called ‘informal’ relations and operated in institutions that have specific economic and political functions locally, and are profoundly influenced by so-called ‘formal’ politics and economic policies. Branding Tubali’s labor migrations ‘informal’ obfuscates the ways in which ‘formal’ policies altered his horizon of opportunity; it also de-responsabilises ‘formal’ institutions whose policies influenced Tubali’s options. I argue that the notion of ‘informality’ is not a helpful analytical concept: it tells us more about the political positioning of those who use it than about the activities of people allegedly operating in the ‘informal sector’. Researchers should open the black box of informality and inquire into what workers (including migrant workers) try to achieve and what obstacles they face. I am fascinated by the ways in which gender, race, status, and class influence people’s ability to move. How you move is who you are: socially constructed identities imply normative rules about how different categories of persons should, or should not, move. ‘From Unfree Work to Working for Free‘ emphasises the different contexts of choice of men and women of slave descent in a context where men practice long-distance migration and women are discouraged from acting as autonomous migrants. The actual emancipation of women of slave descent was slowed down by gender inequalities in men and women’s ability to move freely.  I am currently working on an overview article entitled ‘Migration: History and Historiography’ for the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia.     

4. Deconstructing developmentalism 

What explains, historically, the rise of a will to develop others? What are the consequences of representing certain societies, groups, or persons as in need of being developed? How did certain persons or institutions come to be seen as ‘developers’? My work does not ask whether Africans have been, are being, or will be ‘developed’ by others or themselves. Rather, I am interested in why and how Africans came to be seen as humans who had/have to be ‘developed’, by whom, and with what consequences. Like colonialism, developmentalism is a social and historical explanandum, as explained in the Preface of From Slavery to Aid. More recently I have been inquiring into the consequences of developmentalism for the management of labour. Together with colleagues working on different African regions we developed a set of studies for a special issue of the International Labor and Working Class History Journal that shows that in Africa the rise of development in its modern form coincided with the demise of the political legitimacy of forced labor. By mobilising the idea of development, both colonial and independent African governments were able to continue recruiting unpaid (or underpaid) labor – relabeled as ‘voluntary participation,’ ‘self-help,’ or ‘human investment’ – after the passing of the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention. The special issue’s introduction, entitled ‘What “Development” Does to Work’ calls for research on the relation between planned development ‘aid’ and work. What do we find when we start thinking of those who inhabit the world of development as employers and employees, rather than as developers and beneficiaries?  

5. Environmental history 

Geographically most of my research focuses on the Central Sahel, a region at the edge of the Sahara, and particularly on Hausa-speaking and Tamasheq-speaking societies living in the southern half of today’s Republic of Niger. Research in this region has made it clear to me that place shapes how people move, what they do, and how they relate to others. Some of my work focuses on conditions imposed on agency by the environment: this is one of the main lines of inquiry of the Introduction of From Slavery to Aid. In ‘Kinetocracy‘ I suggest a model for theorising power in nomadic societies (in particular, Saharan nomads and Tuareg societies), where retaining the ability to access scarce and vulnerable resources is necessary for survival. Here control over one’s own and other people’s mobility is the fundamental axiom of power, above the accumulation of exclusive rights of property over immobile resources. Together with Anne Haour I co-edited a volume on the history of Hausa identity in the West and Central Sahel. My chapter in this volume, ‘Being and Becoming Hausa in Ader,’ describes how different Tamasheq-speaking groups were able to Hausa-ise in the space of few generations as a strategy of social and economic mobility. More recently, I contributed a forthcoming article entitled ‘Hausa’ which is forthcoming in the Oxford Bibliographies Online (African Studies). Further collaborative and multi-disciplinary research on the social history of Hausaland will be carried out in the context of a large ERC project called LANGARCHIV. It is coordinated by Camille Lefebvre and will officially start in March 2018.   

Historical perspectivalism 

My research follows an approach that I call historical perspectivalism, which is described in the introduction of From Slavery to Aid. This approach sees history as the outcome of people’s positioned perspectives and projects, and their unintended consequences. I owe to my anthropological training a concern with context, defined broadly as encompassing ecology, politics, economy, culture, and the social institutions in which individuals are embedded and that influence their choices. Toby Green and I discuss the notion of ‘thick contextualisation’ in the Introduction to a forthcoming volume on approaches and methods for the exegesis of African historical sources in honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias.