Research

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My research and publications are primarily concerned with the social and labour history of West Africa. More broadly, I am interested in the comparative study of slavery, emancipation, and abolition: how do these phenomena change across time and space and how are they understood at different moments in time, in different places, and by different people? In September 2020 I will start an ERC Advanced research project on the history African Abolitionism. This builds on about twenty years of research on five main axes of inquiry.

1. Slavery and emancipation in Africa and beyond

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 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. The edited volume entitled Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories examines recent reconfigurations of slavery in West Africa. In its introduction I suggested that we should distinguish between actual slavery, classificatory slavery, and metaphorical slavery as separate phenomena that have been changing in different ways. The existence of particular forms of slavery in society is due to processes that differ from those underpinning the resilience of labels that designate certain groups as ‘slaves’ (classificatory slavery), groups which needn’t be subjected to actual enslavement. Slavery can also function as a powerful metaphor of exploitation mobilised in political struggles disconnected from actual slavery. For example, the trope of slavery was prominent in African nationalist discourse in the 1950s, but did not refer to actual enslavement and slave trade (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 hierarchy and labour relations from 1800 to 2000. Unlike most studies of this region, it focuses on the history and strategies of workers, including enslaved men and women, 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 this 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 Africans, rather than the stages of European legal abolition? I started addressing this question in an article entitled ‘Periodizing the End of Slavery: Colonial Law, the League of Nations, and Slave Resistance in the Nigerien Sahel, 1920s-1930s’ published in Les Annales. In 2017-18 I held a Fellowship at Re: Work in Humboldt University (Berlin), where I worked on my new research project The Rise of African Abolitionism. I am the Principal Investigator for the AKN-AHRC-GCRF funded project ‘LESLAN‘. LESLAN supports the activities of Niger’s national Anti-Slavery Task Force and Timidria, Niger’s main anti-slavery NGO, in their efforts to improve the circumstances of victims of enslavement and slave-descent-based discrimination in the Republic of Niger. While engaging closely with contemporary forms and experiences of slavery in Africa, I am also working on broad comparative research on slavery as a contributor to the Histoire Mondiale de l’Esclavage project, the Bloomsbury’s Cultural History of Slavery and Human Trafficking, and the COST Action “Worlds of Related Coercions in worK” (WORCK). These various individual and collaborative research engagements allow me to explore the meaning and practical functions of slavery, zooming in and out of specific historical situations in an attempt to understand what slavery does in human society and history.

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 who had fewer opportunities of autonomous economic mobility than men. In spite of avenues of emancipation accessible to enslaved women through motherhood and ‘marriage’, their exploitation was more acceptable to society, more difficult to resist for women given their 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 today. 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 we are co-editing a special issue based on the 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 Witwatersrand) and Rosaline McCarthy (Women’s Forum of Sierra Leone).

3. Mobility and migrations

Migration is not always a choice made freely, yet a migrant’s trajectory is usually the result of a careful assessment of complex circumstances either by migrants themselves, if they are moving independently, or by those who force migrants to move. Researching why and how people move is key to understanding fundamental processes in social and labor history. My article ‘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 was experienced as a turning point in the transition from slave to free status. Choosing if and how to move lies at the heart of strategies of emancipation. Most of my work has focused on migrants who took it upon themselves to try and overcome abroad challenges that they could not overcome at home. With the exception of entirely coerced migrants, I see migrants as persons with a project, who believe in their capacity to make their project work.

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 inextricably linked to official economic policies. Branding Tubali’s labor migrations ‘informal’ obfuscates the ways in which ‘formal’ policies altered his opportunities; it de-responsabilises ‘formal’ institutions whose policies influenced Tubali’s options.  

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 practiced long-distance migration and women were discouraged from migrating autonomously. The actual emancipation of women of slave descent was slowed down by gender inequalities in men and women’s ability to move freely. In this sense, I argue that how you move is who you are. From a phenomenological perspective, to a large extent identity and hierarchy become manifest to people through the experience of their (in-)ability to move in particular ways. I recently completed an overview article on African Migrations: 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 (and see themselves) 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 have to be ‘developed’, by whom, and with what consequences. In the Preface of From Slavery to Aid I argued that, like colonialism, developmentalism is a social and historical explanandum. I coordinated 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 after the passing of the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention. They relabeled such labor as ‘voluntary participation,’ ‘self-help,’ or ‘human investment’. The special issue’s introduction, entitled ‘What “Development” Does to Work‘ calls for research on the relation between ‘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 an article entitled ‘Hausa’ which is forthcoming in the Oxford Bibliographies Online (African Studies). I am conducting further collaborative and multi-disciplinary research on the social history of Hausaland in the context of a large ERC project called LANGARCHIV coordinated by Camille Lefebvre.   

Historical perspectivalism 

I call my methodological approach historical perspectivalism, which is discussed in the introduction of From Slavery to Aid. Some of these methodological considerations are developed further in the Introduction that I co-wrote with Toby Green for a volume on approaches and methods for the exegesis of African historical sources in honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias. Historical perspectivalism sees history as the outcome of people’s positioned perspectives and projects, and their unintended consequences. Such strategies can only be understood when they are contextualised in the specific historical and social circumstances in which they took shape.