As a political and environmental anthropologist, Dr. Adunbi’s teaching portfolio includes Introduction to Environmental Politics: Race, Class, and Gender; Violent Environments: Oil, Development, and the Discourse of Power; a First Year Social Science Seminar on Social Media and the Politics and Culture of Human Rights; Social Media and the New Age of Activism; and When China Comes to Town: Environment and the Politics of Development in Africa.
His published books include Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2015) and Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2022).
The following interview covers Dr. Adunbi’s research, advocacy work, and a mention to DAAS alumni.
What brought you to your current research focus?
My research project started when I became interested in looking at issues of transitional justice in new democracies. Transitional justice emanates from the notion that there has to be away of accounting for atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes in countries transitioning to a democracy. When a country that has been under authoritarian or military rule or dictatorship for a very long time suddenly decides to transition to democratic rule, either as a result of regime collapse or mass movement against the regime, the question of how to account for atrocities committed by the authoritarian regime becomes important. And in answering this question, two things usually come up in the post-authoritarian/dictatorial era, do you put on trial all of those that committed atrocities in the previous administration? If the answer is yes, will the judicial system be able to cope with the retinue of cases? Will the leaders of the dictatorship be put in jail? If they end up in jail, what implications will that have on the new democracy? Will it bring about justice, stability, or not? For many countries that had to grapple with these questions, especially in the 1990s in Africa, a new alternative emerged and that alternative is called transitional justice. My major research preoccupation initially was to interrogate how many of these regimes in Africa were grappling with atrocities of the past while thinking about a democratic future. I was interested in looking at the practice of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in countries such as South Africa (after the collapse of apartheid), Rwanda (at the end of the 1994 genocide), Sierra Leone (after the civil war) and Nigeria (at the end of the many years of military rule in 1999). What was fascinating to me was how many of the new regimes had to grapple with the gargantuan nature of atrocities committed against their own people. Prominent among these discourses were questions of knowing the truth and reconciling bruised society. In all of these, I was interested in how activists who had fought against injustice became the mouthpiece of this new project of truth and reconciliation in ways that did not necessarily compromise accountability but also create opportunities for healing and regime stability.
So, I was interested in all of these questions and that was because at that time in history, at least, in the history of many countries around the world, particularly for countries in Africa, in South Africa, there was a transition from apartheid regime to a majority rule. And in order to account for atrocities committed by the apartheid regime, the new administration led by Nelson Mandela decided to initiate a truth and reconciliation commission as a way of healing and reconciling society.
The new administration in Nigeria, led by Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler now elected in a democracy, was to later take a cue from the Mandela model in South Africa by initiating its own version of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nigeria had been under military rule for several decades until 1999, when it made a transition to civil rule.
When I started thinking about many of these justice questions in my research, it was the period when a lot of these Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) were been instituted. And I became interested in looking at the ways in which the Nigerian version of Truth Commission, known as the Human Rights Investigation Commission, was instituted. To my fascination, my first research trip to Nigeria in the summer of 2003 became an eye-opener on the limits of TRCs to bringing about justice for vulnerable populations. While in Nigeria, I realized that more than 80% of the petition that came to the Human Rights Commission led by a retired Supreme Court Justice of Nigeria, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, came from just one region of the country. And guess which region? The Niger Delta region of the country where all of Nigeria’s oil resources are located. Many of the petitions were written challenging ecological destruction of the Niger Delta ecosystem, the murder of the Playwright and environmental activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, and 8 other Ogonis by the military because of their environmental activism and of course the activities of multinational oil corporations that results in environmental destruction and loss of livelihood. So, when I went through some of these petitions, I realized that a lot of them were about oil, oil, oil, environmental degradation, denial of livelihood, and displacement of population. That research experience completely changed my approach and interest in questions of human rights and justice. I came to the realization that you cannot talk about human rights in the context of Nigeria without also paying attention to environmental rights. So that was how I became interested in researching environmental pollution, extractive practices, and ecological destruction in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Then the second reason is also because of my background as an activist and as someone who has always advocated for social, economic, and political justice for vulnerable populations.
How are the books you’ve written about Nigeria related to your research?
The two books that I have written are part of my larger research project about the relationship between technologies of extraction, environmental degradation, and ecological destruction on the one hand and the politics of claim-making and community activism on the other. These two books are exemplars of some of my research findings after many years of working on all of these issues. The first book, Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria takes a closer look at the ways in which claims of ownership of oil generates different contestations between the Nigerian state and communities where the oil is extracted. This contestations produced an insurgency that created chaos in the world of oil for several years. The impact of the insurgency was felt in the United States because of the volatility that it created in the world oil market. As of now, Nigeria produces about 2.5 million barrels of oil every day and a substantial part of this comes to the United States on a daily basis. So, supply disruption is bound to affect the people of the U.S. Second, the book maps the ways in which claims of ancestral ownership of the oil resources reverberates around the Niger Delta and Nigeria. This claims also connects to the history of slavery. My second book, Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria examines the relationship between free trade zones, technologies of extraction and the growing interest of China in Africa with emphasis on Nigeria. But now, I’m starting two new projects. [For] the first one, I’m beginning to look at the ways in which environmental groups and community activists/members use social media to advocate for the environment. And my interest in this project is to examine the ways in which many of the social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Twitter have become sites for organizing protests against multinational corporations' activities in the extractive industries and, more importantly, how these media platforms are being used to promote awareness about climate change and its impact on the environment and people. So that’s one of the research projects I’m currently working on. And in this project, my ultimate goal is to work with students to develop a device that can be used to track, in real-time, environmental pollution, ecological disasters such as oil spills (a daily occurrence in the Niger Delta) and the impact of climate change in many of the areas that I study. Eventually, I want a device that can be used to track the destruction of the ecosystems in many vulnerable people of color communities not only in Africa but in the United States too.
So, my plan is, now that a lot of community members in the research site where I work have access to smartphones, they could use this app to track pollution, the movement of soot, and all the pollutants in the area in real-time. What I want to see is, for example, once there is a soot or there is an environmental degradation going on, members of these communities, using the device on their phone can either take a picture or record a short video and post it in real time. Then when the images are posted into the app, we will disaggregate and analyze the data in such a way that we will be able to track which area is the most polluted and which area is going to be the next victim of the pollutants and what health implications might this have on the people.
So, it’s a big project and I’m excited about it and the possibilities it holds for the future of these communities. I am sure many of my students will be excited to work with me on the project.
The second project that I’m working on is another book project. It’s called ecological conversion. My interest here is to look at the ways in which ecological disasters gets converted into politics in Nigeria. I am particularly interested in how an invasive species such as algae that scientists are beginning to see as an energy potential is being used for ecological political conversion in Nigeria. Here I am interested in how environmental politics gets converted into political algae, whereby politicians use the presence of this algae in the waterways of some of the communities that I study to engage with the youth through the process of creating a patron-client relationship for the purposes of winning elections. My interest is to understand the ways in which all of these politics play into the way algae gets converted into ecological disaster.
Are your books connected to research projects you’ve done in the past?
They are, in many ways, connected to the research projects I’ve done in the past. The thing again is that, as anthropologists, anytime we return to our research site, new ideas and new ways of thinking about things that you meet and encounter in the field do come up. For example, after I finished the first book, I returned and saw that some of the insurgents that I interviewed for the first book who are no longer taking up arms against the state have also started doing something new, which is establishing artisanal refineries for the purposes of refining crude oil. So, I became interested in that, even though my original interest was to study the ways in which Chinese consortiums were establishing free trade zones in many parts of Nigeria. But returning to my research site led me to begin to think about parallels that can be drawn between these two sites, that is, artisanal refinery sites as well as sites demarcated by the Nigerian state for the establishment of free trade zones. The outcome of this is the publication of the new book, Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria. The new book basically argues that while artisanal refineries and Chinese free trade zones share the goals of profit-making and are enthusiastically supported by those benefiting from them economically, they have yielded dramatically the same environmental outcome for communities around them that included pollution with precarious effects on the health of the populations in the regions, and displacement of population from their livelihood practices.
As I was concluding this new book, I also realized the enormous damage that soot and other dangerous particles were causing in the area that I study. And the presence of soot is one part of environmental degradation that is often neglected in the literature on oil extraction in Nigeria, which is the reason why I decided to pick it up. Rather than just focusing on oil spills and the ways in which communities engage with oil spills, whether it is cleaned up or not, how about looking at how images of soot sometimes circulate on social media platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, or Instagram, such that those images become an endearing moments of sympathy and that of advocacy. These images further attest to the long-standing ecological disaster that have been the hallmark of extractive practices not only in Nigeria but globally. So that is what led to my interest in looking at social media as a platform for the new form of advocacy in this era of climate crisis and the rise in the global establishment of free trade zones.
What are free trade zones and why are they significant?
Free Trade Zones, FTZ, have a particular history that is connected to the rise in neoliberal economic practices that gained ascendancy around the world in the last few decades. For many African countries, FTZs started as a prescription of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund with the belief that the establishment of specially designated zones where business can have tax holidays, access to cheap labor and free land can help generate a lot of buzz in the area of Foreign Direct Investments. What we are witnessing in many African countries today is the ways in which these zones are been established by African governments in partnership with Chinese consortiums across the continent. While the intent of FTZs are to create employment opportunities, access to raw materials for light manufacturing, and investment in infrastructure for the host countries, we have seen in many of these countries how such is not exactly the case. For some of the FTZs that I study, the businesses in the zone get to repatriate 100% of their profits to their home country, China, import materials needed for manufacturing from their home country and also employ many of their workers from their home country. At the end of the day, the question remains: what values are the FTZs adding to the host countries? This exactly is what I tried to answer in my book, Enclaves of Exception.
What is the impact of free trade zones on the people who live there?
The unintended consequences of these FTZs for many of the host communities have included dispossession and displacement. Many vulnerable populations are displaced from their land and livelihood practices and dispossessed of their heritage as well. Many of the sites that I study are areas where land and the rivers adjoining them are important to the lives of the population, but, with the siting of these FTZs, many of the communities have been dispossessed of their valuable land without compensation. When the people are displaced, they lose their livelihood practices, they lose their cultural practices, and in most cases, their ancestral homes are destroyed to give way to these specially designated free-trade zones. The other consequences are changes in the ecosystems and increased population in ways that is detrimental to the climate. For example, the FTZ in Lagos is host to Dangote Petrochemical and Refineries owned by the richest man in Africa, Alhaji Aliko Dangote. The siting of the refinery is a win-win situation for the owner because he is guaranteed access to free land and a tax holiday. At the same time, the consequences for the environment, especially in a city like Lagos with a population of over 20 million people, is unimaginable. The refinery has the capacity to produce about 650,000 barrels of refined oil every day. But the cost of this 650,000 barrels of refined oil every day for a city that is already heavily polluted can be devastating. Refineries, as described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can produce toxins and particles such as soot, whose effect on the health of the population include rise in asthma cases and a potential rise in lung cancer cases. The American Lung Association corroborates the findings of the EPA about soot when it suggests that the particle matter that is very small and can sometimes cause a lot of health hazards for those who encounter it; and these health hazards will include bronchitis, asthma, and lung cancer. Basically, the siting of this refinery in Lagos is like sitting on a keg of gun powder that is bound to explode.
Are there any movements to combat the negative effects? What kind of actions result in environmental justice?
To answer your first question, there are many environmental movements advocating for these vulnerable communities. Although many of the environmental movements seems to concentrate their efforts on the Niger Delta region considered to be one of the most polluted region in the world. However, what I have been doing in the last few years is to remind many of these groups to also begin to pay attention to what is going on in Lagos, especially with the FTZs. One of the tools of advocacy that these groups use is what attorneys call public interest litigation. The groups know that the judicial system weighs heavily in favor of the state, so by using public interest litigation, they are creating awareness about these environmental disasters.
The only thing the environmental groups can do is to create awareness and to continue to push for economic and social justice for many of these communities. And they’ve been doing that effectively well. The fight for environmental justice with limited resources by many of these groups are highly commendable, in some instances, protests organized in support of these vulnerable communities. I’ll cite an example. When I started doing research in the area, particularly the FTZ area in 2014, there was an incident that happened. A lot of the communities rose up and protested against the siting of the free trade zones in the area. And they sought compensation from the state. But the state met their actions with brutal force such [that] many protesters were shot at by the police and some of them lost their lives. This has been the hallmark of state response to peaceful protests not only in Lagos, but in many parts of Nigeria over the last 50 years of oil exploration in the country. So, there have been cases of peaceful protestors being brutally dispersed by security forces in Nigeria and sometimes resulting in multiple deaths of members of the communities that are protesting against the oil corporations and the Nigerian state.
You mentioned your interest in advocacy work. Do you have an interest in advocacy work now? If so, what does that look like?
Yes, I still do a lot of advocacy work in support of many vulnerable communities. In my previous work, before becoming an academic, I was a pro-democracy, human, and environmental rights activists in my home country, Nigeria. I was very active in the movement against military rule and I rose to become one of Nigeria’s pro-democracy and human rights leader. Few years after the restoration of civil rule in Nigeria, I decided to go to graduate school in order to become a scholar. I am so glad that I did because Graduate School opened my eyes to many literature on social movements, democracy, and human rights. Today, I am still involved with activism and that is why I consider myself a scholar-activist. The reason is that I feel that the best way to do my work is to advocate for those who are vulnerable, to advocate for those whose voices are never heard, and to see myself as someone that can help project those voices that are oftentimes not considered worth listening to. Issues of social and environmental justice are very dear to me, which is why, in my work, I always seek out those who are vulnerable to help support and to help give voice to. So, it's like being an advocate for those without voices. And I’m always making sure that I put myself in a position where I can be a voice for them. I see myself as a megaphone for the most vulnerable in society.
Is there a population you are currently advocating for?
At the moment, I would say my advocacy is in two ways. The first strand of my advocacy focuses on questions of social and environmental justice in Nigeria. The second strand focuses on economic, social, political, and environmental justice with a global outlook, considering that we now live in an interconnected world. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I strongly believe in this mantra and that is why I take my social justice advocacy very seriously because an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So, Nigeria and the U.S. may be thousands of miles apart, but when it comes to issues of social and environmental justice, people of color communities in the U.S. share many similarities with those in Nigeria. And there are a lot of communities in the U.S. that face vulnerability in terms of environmental injustice. From Detroit to North Carolina, California, and everywhere, even as close as Ann Arbor, the threat to our environment are the same. So, my advocacy focuses on helping give voice to the voiceless in many of these communities.
Do you have any projects going on related to activism in the States or Nigeria?
I don't have any specific projects in the United States, but I do join groups that are advocating for many of the vulnerable communities here in the U.S. In Africa and Nigeria to be specific, I serve on the board of some of the advocacy groups with a focus on environmental rights. For example, I serve on the board of Social Action International and Social Action Nigeria. I support and sponsor annual essay competitions on environmental and climate justice for high school and university students in Nigeria.
I also belong to several groups such as Green Alliance Network, Oil Watch International, Environmental Rights Action, and Friends of the Earth International. Many of these groups I participate actively in their Advocacy platforms.
Does the social media and politics class you teach have an environmental focus as well?
In each of my work, I try to bring issues of the environment to the conversation because in today’s world, there is hardly anything we do that does not revolve around the environment. Of course, issues of environmental rights [are] also important to the ways in which social media platforms function because a lot of the technologies that we use in social media are from places that are embroiled in human and environmental abuse. For example, a lot of the chips used in making some of these smart gadgets that are intricate to our social media world come from places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Mineral extractions such as coltan and cobalt that come froms the DRC are central to the functioning of most of the new technologies we use and these minerals are extracted in ways that degrade the environment, lead to loss of livelihood and dispossesses people of their humanity. You cannot talk about social media and human rights without learning about the consequences of resource extraction on human habitat and livelihood.
Why should people read your books?
My books are very accessible. In my writings, I always think about making the materials easy to access for both academics and non-academics because I want to reach a wider audience beyond those who are in the academy. My books usually focus on those stories told by many of my interlocutors. Basically, my books are like those ones you can pick up from any bookshelf in a public library to read after dinner or for leisure. The books are very engaging and once you pick them up to read, you never want to drop them until you get to the last page.
Is there anything else that you want included in the article?
Yes, my message for our alumni community is to continue to see DAAS as their home. I will encourage our alumni community to find a way of engaging with DAAS because DAAS is like a home for them. There is an adage among the Yorubas of West Africa that wherever a journey might take you, the ultimate goal is always to return home. This is my message to our alumni: DAAS is always home to you and wherever your journey of life may have taken you, remember that you have a home in Ann Arbor called DAAS and you never leave your home unattended. I will implore our alumni to continue to show interest and support for the upliftment of DAAS by showing support to our students who need all the resources they can muster in order to succeed in their academic journey.