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 multiple 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 at once by global, regional, and local dynamics – and most of all, by the strategies of (ex-)slaves. My research on African slavery is an attempt to write a social and labor history of Africa that focuses on the experience of workers. I started exploring these questions in an edited volume entitled Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories that examines recent historical reconfigurations of slavery in different West African societies. Here I suggested that we should distinguish between actual slavery, classificatory slavery, and metaphorical slavery as three separate phenomena that are often subject to different transformational processes. These distinctions are of the essence for the analytical clarity of research. For example, by distinguishing between actual and classificatory slavery, we find that the proportion of de facto enslaved persons in a society (actual slavery) may vary due to factors different from the ones accounting for the relative ‘stickiness’ of labels that designate groups that may be stigmatised as slave descendants (classificatory slavery) but are not subject to actual enslavement. If we shift the focus to metaphorical slavery, we find that slavery functions as a powerful metaphor of exploitation and a justification for intervention in the name of abolitionism 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 and aims to outline the history of slaves in twentieth century Africa. In May 2016 I presented an early version of the book’s chapters as the Evans Pritchard Lectures at All Souls College (Oxford University). Research for this book led me to reflect on what happens to our 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 deep-rooted gender inequalities and the sexual division of labour slowed down the process of emancipation for women of slave descent because women had fewer opportunities of autonomous economic mobility. Their exploitation was more acceptable to society, and more difficult to resist for women whose vulnerability was an outcome of their narrow livelihood options. But slave women were not only valued as exploitable workers. They were valued, too, as sources of sexual pleasure and as potential mothers. A 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, carried out in collaboration with researchers of the CSiW network, historically contextualises the sexual enslavement of women in contemporary African wars. I have written a blogpost for Open Democracy on the relation between gender ideologies in peacetime and sexual slavery in wartime, and together with Joel Quirk I will be convening a stream on Marriage and Slavery in African Societies at the ASAUK 2018 Conference. I am currently co-writing a comparative article on Sexual Slavery in African Wars with Allen Kiconco (University of Witswatersrand), Rosaline McCarthy (Women’s Forum of Sierra Leone), and Zawadi Mambo (SOFEPADI, DRC).

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 provides fundamental insights into social and labor history. I published a series of articles focusing specifically on 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, defining the experience of emancipation of enslaved persons. My research suggests that the acquisition of control over one’s mobility is experienced as a turning point from slave to free status. The choice about 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 how, and into what obstacles they face. It also matters to consider 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 regulations about how different categories of persons should, or should not, move. For example, my article entitled ‘From Unfree Work to Working for Free‘ emphasises the different contexts of choice of men and women of slave descent in a context where almost all men practice long-distance migration and women are discouraged for ideological reasons to act 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 for power relations. Like colonialism, developmentalism is a social and historical explanandum. This realisation convinced me that I had to stop thinking about the Sahel from the point of view of aid discourses, and instead I ought to inquire into why and how developmentalism had developed in the longue durée of Sahelian history, and with what consequences. I expand on this in the Preface of From Slavery to Aid. More recently I have been inquiring into the consequences of developmentalism for the management of labour and the experience of workers on a broader African scale. In collaboration with colleagues working on different African regions we developed a set of studies for a forthcoming special issue of the International Labor and Working Class History Journal (publication is expected in October 2017). The special issue 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 a chapter entitled ‘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 indeed other people’s – mobility is the fundamental axiom of power, often 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 research in Ader demonstrates the flexibility and adaptability of Hausaness. 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 I 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.