Making History in Nigeria: The Fieldwork Experience

I have traveled many times to Nigeria on research trips over the past decade. I have not always faced the typical problems a foreign researcher faces when researching in a very unfamiliar place. I grew up in Nigeria and could say that I know my way around—how to negotiate the complex circumstances that the researcher faces in the field.  I also work in an area where I share a common language and culture with the people I encounter either in the field or in the archives. So, I see myself as an “insider” and I am often perceived as one. I am not concerned here with the epistemological issues or about “perspective” that may arise in studying one’s own society. Of course it can be argued that there is less inclination by the “insider” to construct opaque stereotypes of a society. Yet my understanding of the social structures of Nigerian societies has had its advantages in my negotiating the fieldwork experience.

Yet doing research in many African countries has its own perils. The archives in Nigeria, for example, are not well organized compared with the archives in the West. The cost of getting to Africa is a draw back. There is the frustration that arises from the bureaucratic structure and management of Nigerian archives. The major regional archives in Nigeria, including the ones located at Enugu, Ibadan, and Kaduna, are directly under the control of the federal bureaucracy in Abuja. This makes it difficult for the regional archives to implement programs that could improve the services they offer to researchers.

In 2006, for example, I secured a grant from The British Library under its Endangered Archives Programme for a pilot study to access the nature and condition of the collection at Enugu and Calabar Archives. The goal was to eventually secure a larger grant to digitize the collections. These collections are invaluable for the history of European contact with Nigeria and include official British colonial government papers; papers of native and local authorities; papers of semi-public bodies and institutions; colonial court records; photographs, several petitions, and letters by local people during the colonial period; private and family papers, as well as those of ecclesiastical bodies.

The pilot study was completed but the main project was never carried out. The management of the archives in Enugu and Calalabr and their bosses in Abuja could not really agree on how to proceed.  The project would have preserved these collections at no cost to the Nigerian government. Unfortunately, these documents are being lost due to the lack of preservation. Imagine the frustration of going to an archive to consult a document you know is part of the holding only to be told that they cannot be found anymore. Those who have worked in Nigerian archives know this reality. See these images from Calabar Archive which I took in 2006.

There are many unforeseen circumstances that frustrate one in the field in Nigeria. Nigeria perhaps experiences more workers’ strikes than any other country in Africa. So you cannot predict when these strikes will occur but their frequency is never in doubt. You can appreciate how it paralyzes life and other activities in Nigeria when it catches up with you as it did for me on my recent visit to Nigeria.

I left for Nigeria on Christmas day, two days after my daughter celebrated her thirteenth birthday. I wanted to be there when she became a teenager. My plan was to spend the next two weeks at the Nigerian archive in Enugu to collect additional materials for my “Africans and the Second World War,” book. I had done some research previously at the same archives and the staff knows me well. I had called my old contact at Enugu, an old acquaintance, to facilitate my visit.

I started with the enthusiasm of one who was in a hurry to maximize my time in Nigeria although you cannot get much done during the New Year until the second week of January. But the work at the archive in Enugu was never completed before I was due to return to the United State. On January 1, 2012, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan announced the removal of the petroleum subsidy pushing the price of fuel from 65 naira ($0.40/ liter) to 140 naira ($0.86). With the removal of the subsidy, prices of petroleum products were left to market forces. Overnight, the prices of goods and services rose by over 200 percent. The price of fuel rose to about $1.23 in the black market. Nigerians are used to hardship but this was a bit too hard. This crippled activities in all sectors of the Nigerian economy.

Photo: AP

On Monday, January 9, a few days after workers returned from the Christmas and New Year holidays, civil society groups and the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) began a nationwide strike. Markets were shut down. Air and road travels were shut down.  Banks, schools, government offices were closed. Of course the archives were not open for business. So ended my research trip to Nigeria; my Second World War documents still locked up in the rusty holding rooms of the Enugu archives. Many felt that Nigeria would have its own Arab Spring. But this was not to be as the government restored part of the subsidy. Yet, the situation in Nigeria is far from settled.

The general level of insecurity in the country poses another kind of problem for the researcher. As a BBC report on the subsidy strike notes, “The mass protests are not necessarily about subsidy removal, they are about the deficit of trust in government.” The people generally do not trust that the government will provide solutions to the problems they confront every day. People are scared about their safety. The increasing number of terrorist attacks by the Nigerian militant Islamic group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lid Da’awati Wal-Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram, which is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state, is a matter of concern to all interested in the global war on terror. There are growing concerns about the failure of the international community and the United States in particular, to recognize the serious danger that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria, West African regional stability and global attempts to fight terrorism. Since 2009, Boko Haram has carried out several bloody bombings in Nigeria including the attacks on Christmas Day 2011, including one against a Catholic church that killed dozens of worshipers; the bombing of UN HQ in Abuja in August 2011 and the Police Headquarter in Abuja earlier in June, as well as the coordinated attacks in Kano early this year targeting the country’s security apparatus and civilians.

The basic ideology of Boko Haram, which is a stance against westernization, especially western education, has implications for intellectual development in Nigeria. The group has threatened universities because they are seen as tools for the expansion of Western Education. Meaningful development in the educational sector cannot occur when these kinds of institutions become targets of terrorist activities. It is equally a problem for the researcher in Nigeria. One is confronted with the problem of security among legions of other concerns. But these issues have larger implications for Nigeria and its overall development. My frustration lasted two weeks, at least during my most recent trip, but there are millions of Nigerians who have to deal with this on daily basis.


 Chima Korieh is associate professor of African history whose most recent books include The Land Has Changed: History, Society, and Gender in Colonial Eastern Nigeria and the co-edited (with Apollos Nwauwa), Against All Odds: The Igbo Experience in Post-colonial Nigeria.


1 Response to “Making History in Nigeria: The Fieldwork Experience”

  1. 1 Kanayo Odeluga February 17, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    I agree with your assertions that working in Nigeria is frustrating to say the least.

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