Florian Köhler Receives Amaury Talbot Prize

March 11, 2022

MPI researcher Florian Köhler has been awarded the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology of the Royal Anthropological Institute for his book Space, Place and Identity: Wodaabe of Niger in the 21st Century. We spoke with him about his book, which looks at the changing livelihoods of nomadic herders in Niger.

Florian, tell us about your book – what is it about?
The book studies a Fulbe group in Niger, examining how spatial patterns and mobility – and with them collective identities and relations with other social groups – change when nomads adopt a more settled lifestyle. In Niger, as in many other places, the mobility of nomadic or semi-nomadic herders is often interpreted as a strategy of evading the reach of the state. This paradigm is even perpetuated in some of the academic literature on mobile groups.

What does this mean for our understanding of nomadic groups?
Nomads are often portrayed as the most absolute form of groups that resist and undermine the dominance of the state. I call this simplistic portrayal into question in my study; at the same time, I also consider what happens when such groups become less mobile – that is, when they become sedentary.

Was your research able to offer insights into these changes?
Yes, but it isn’t a straightforward matter. In my study region, I found that processes of sedentarization didn’t necessarily lead to quantitatively less mobility. And that is an interesting paradox: while there’s a lot of discussion in Niger and in the Sahel more generally about sedentarization and the loss of mobility among herders, in parallel with these new forms of mobility are developing. Over the last 20 or so years, since I have been studying the region and developments there, society on the whole has become much more mobile. In addition, the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle often does not extend to the entire social group; rather, there are complementary economic models within extended families

What does this look like more concretely?
Some family members migrate to the cities, whether as seasonal laborers or on a permanent basis, and they send part of their earnings home to support relatives who continue to live as herders. These complementary economic models are both highly flexible and highly mobile.

What changes as a result of this new form of mobility?
New spatial patterns of social interaction develop; these can be captured with the term “translocality.” In fact, my book is a contribution to the research on migration, mobility, and translocality. But it also expands the research into the Wodaabe and the Fulbe more generally by documenting contemporary changes in their socioeconomic and spatial strategies.

What made you decide to study the mobility of nomadic groups?
I lived and worked in Niger for five years before the actual research for my dissertation; one of my activities during this time was involvement in a project for integrating mobile herders in state institutions and decision-making structures. From there, it was a natural step to ask: Why is such a project even necessary in the first place? What are the obstacles to this integration? What external factors (on the side of the state and other social groups) play a role, but also, what internal factors are at play? What interest do the mobile herders have in integration – or, on the contrary, in distancing themselves from the state and maintaining a certain autonomy? And how have these considerations changed in recent years and decades?

What did you find most intriguing about this?
First, the question of whether mobile populations are integrated with the state or seen as existing apart from it – what are the interests of the herders? Today, for example, access to development initiatives and the resources provided by them is an important motivation for integration. But more important than these material aspects is the question of political representation. And seen from the other side, it should be in the interest of the state to integrate pastoral groups in a way that continues to enable their mobility.

How does the mobility of herders benefit the state?
Mobile herding is of great economic importance for the state of Niger; however, this value is often not recognized – not least due to prejudices. Nomadic and mobile forms of land use are often dismissed as being backward and behind the times. But studies have shown that in the Sahel, this form of herding is more productive and better adapted to the ecological conditions than stationary models such as ranching. Consequently, development projects for herding groups that take sedentarism as the norm often miss the mark. A better understanding of the context would result in development initiatives that are better adapted to the needs and conditions, and thereby also support more sustainable and efficient use of resources.

So, would you say that nomads can be considered victims of modernization that has prevented them from being able to live their lives as in the past?
The area that can be used for nomadic herding is being steadily reduced. Nevertheless, it was important to me in the study to not portray the nomads simply as passive victims. As I show in my investigation of the economic changes and the accompanying diversification, it is not that simple. This isn’t to trivialize their experiences – they have surely been victims often enough – but this doesn’t automatically imply passivity or lack of agency.

How do they respond to the situation?
If there is any quality that truly characterizes nomads, it is their flexibility and adaptability. In my book I show how this flexibility continues to help them to deal with new challenges and adversities, often in a very creative manner. At the same time, I also show that today, in the context of pressure on limited resources and the struggle for access to these resources, their adaptability is often strained to its limits.

Can you give an example of these new challenges?
Interactions with state or state-like actors have recently tended to become violent in character: armed groups emerge as new actors in remote areas that are often under limited state control and conduct themselves as rulers – often in precisely those regions in which nomads had historically been able to remain relatively autonomous vis-à-vis the state. How mobile groups cope with these new violent actors is a topic I am looking at in a follow-up research project.

What is the most important finding from your research in Niger?
It’s hard to reduce it to just one result. Rather, my research has provided insights at various levels. While the classic studies of the twentieth century portrayed the Wodaabe as very mobile and highly specialized nomadic herders, my assessment suggests that, at present, labour migration has joined pastoralism and agropastoralism as an equally important economic sector. In my book I endeavour to show how these different activities are tied together to form a larger system.

How can nomadism coexist with an urban lifestyle?
The city and the bush are complementary spaces for living, and they are linked by a complex network of translocal social relations and by constant exchange and flows of individuals between the two spheres. Economic diversification affects not just sources of income, but social configurations as well. Alongside traditional mobile family groups, local communities are becoming increasingly important, but these relations are still very fluid. At the same time, even in urban areas kin, ethnicity, and cultural identity continue to play a fundamental role in the formation of new social communities.

You mentioned multiple insights. What are some of the other findings of your research?
Yes, another insight, for example, concerns the connection between sedentarization processes and development programmes on the one hand, and the changing legal frameworks on the other. Thus, an important motivation for the establishment of settlement centres or proto-villages was access to resources from projects that often made the existence of a fixed residence a precondition for eligibility. Parallel with this, several years ago a new law was enacted regarding livestock farming, the Code Pastoral, which guaranteed the right to pasture land – likewise under the condition of a permanent residence at a fixed location. So the required fixed sites were created pro forma.

What does this look like in practice?
Generally, the site chosen is the location of a pastoral well in the possession of a clan. However, this does not mean that the entire group permanently settles there. Rather, they are concerned with fulfilling the minimum criteria that enable them to access the desired resources. I refer to this as selective integration. Such examples clearly show how state measures and regulations often fail to take into account the actual needs of the herders.

Is the transformation you describe in your book still ongoing?
Yes, the developments in the region are highly dynamic. Conditions continue to develop rapidly and many of the patterns and strategies I describe in the book have since changed significantly. Because of all this, I can’t consider my findings final in any way; rather, they are an analysis of a constantly and sometimes extremely rapidly changing status quo.

You mentioned that you are currently working on a new project looking at the growing influence of armed groups in the region. Can you say more about it?
Since conducting field research for my book, the security situation and thus the conditions for conducting research in the region have become dramatically worse. Militant jihadist groups have established themselves in both the Sahara region and in northern Nigeria. Since 2015 there have been attacks in my research area in eastern Niger by Boko Haram and by ISWAP, the local branch of the IS.

How has this increase in violence affected your research?
Violence makes it very difficult to conduct research, of course. At the same time, it is also a topic of vital importance. The violence has had some dramatic consequences for the people among whom I worked. I had to make a choice: either find a new place to do my research, or respond to it by making the new conditions a topic of study.

What influence has the violence of Boko Haram had on the lives of the nomads?
Since Boko Haram and ISWAP have set up operations in the Lake Chad region of eastern Niger, the mobile herders in this region face a dilemma: they can avoid the occupied areas – which, however, would mean losing access to important pasture lands – or they can venture into the territory anyway and in many cases be forced to enter into risky agreements with the militants. The IS, as the name “Islamic State” suggests, considers itself to be acting in the capacity of a state, and ISWAP conducts itself accordingly. For example, they collect “taxes” from the herders and others such as fishers and horticulturalists who enter the territory they control. We would probably be inclined to call this extortion of protection money instead, but it is important to keep in mind that for many rural people in the region, the presence of the state is also accompanied by violence and often seems indiscriminate, particularly in the context of state actions against Boko Haram. In the eyes of the state, herders and other rural residents who allow themselves to engage in any form of interaction with non-state militants are quickly labelled “terrorists” themselves and are treated accordingly. And yet these people are not concerned, as a rule, with ideology, but rather simply with the survival of their herds. Where the state cannot guarantee safety and economic survival, dangerous alliances with questionable non-state actors often seem to be the lesser necessary evil.

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