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ife in Lagos, the most populous city in Sub-Saharan Africa, is often represented by media discourses of paradox, notably as a city where the prosperous urban development coexists with individual hardships and resilience. As one of the most extensively studied cities in Africa, Lagos has been drawing scholars’ attention to various aspects of its history and societies. However, since 1986 when Sandra Barnes published a pioneering ethnography of urban life in Lagos—Patrons and Power: Creating a Political Community in Metropolitan Lagos—there has been lack of ethnographic monograph that focuses on the dynamic and paradoxical lived experiences in Lagos. Agbiboa’s book They Eat Our Sweat productively fills the gap by making a vivid ethnographic portrait of informal transport in Lagos. Unlike Barnes’ ethnography conducted within an urban community, Agbiboa conducts “mobile ethnography” with informal transport workers and therefore provides us with a vantage point to understand the experiences of corruption and informality in everyday urban life. Corruption and informality, as buzzwords in the studies of African urbanism, are tackled wittily in this critical ethnography of urban transport livelihood. As its title reveals, this book does not simply pertain to corruption or transport but illustrates the “politics and poetics of survival in everyday, urban Nigeria” (p.18).
The book argues, “average Nigerians (in particular, road transport workers) are not passive in the face of corruption, but rather appropriate it in a variety of ways to minimize risk, maximize profit, and impose order on their workaday world” (p.17). By starting with an overview of conceptual framing of corruption and relevant phenomena in Nigeria, Agbiboa stresses that corruption can be interpreted through the popular semiology. Based on the informal urban transport sector in Lagos, he unpacks the mundane experiences of corruption through three aspects—the slogans painted on the danfo minibus vehicle covers, the lives of tax collectors (agberos) for the transport unions, and the struggles of motorbike taxi (okada) drivers under the enforcement of the 2012 traffic law. Going beyond celebratory narratives of Africa’s informal economy as transformational model, the evidence presented in this ethnography reveals a predatory union-state alliance that criminalizes the hard work (or the vivid saying of “eats the sweat”) of drivers, making their driving work a “living hell,” as one danfo slogan puts it. This grounded, bottom-up study examines corruption in the context of everyday encounters and interactions between state (e.g., law enforcement agents) and non-state (e.g., transport unionists and tax collectors) actors in Nigeria’s road transport sector.
After reading Agbiboa’s ethnographic monograph with great interest, I would like to address three major merits that I personally appreciate (unfortunately many more could not be elaborated in this short review). First of all, this ethnography examines corruption through the linguistic anthropology lens, thereby complementing the existing literature that focuses on the political work of corruption. By examining various idioms of corruption across African contexts, Agbiboa illustrates the meaningfulness of “eating” in the discursive representations of corruption. From East Africa to Francophone West Africa, from Liberia to Democratic Republic of Congo, discursive linkages between corruption and eating are prevalent, as he synthesizes. In addition to Russia, Mexico, India, and the United States that Agbiboa mentions (p.86-87), I would add that such discursive linkage is also observed in contemporary China, in the vernacular phrases of “relying on the enterprises and eating the enterprises” (靠企吃企) and “eating, taking (appreciating), checking (blocking), asking (requesting)” (吃拿卡要). In Nigeria, the idiom “You chop, me self I chop, palaver finish” signposts that Nigerian politics revolves around battling for and sharing the shrinking “national cake,” a form of belly politics in which the national resources are expected to be divided among political officeholders, party leaders, or partisans (p.88). More vividly, Agbiboa proposes a concept of stomach infrastructure in his interpretation of electoral politics— “political candidates invested substantial time and resources in distributing essential stomach infrastructural items (e.g., bags of rice, kerosene, milk, and chicken wings) to their potential supporters” (p. 90). In the subsequent case studies of informal transport workers’ lives, Agbiboa continues analyzing how “corruption has eaten deep into the fabric of their workday” (p.104).
Second, the experiential nuances illuminated by Agbiboa in the case studies of danfo slogans, agberos, and okada drivers are impressive, especially when it comes to the informality of urban transport in Lagos. The everyday mobilities of most African urban inhabitants hinge on ubiquitous informal transport networks of minibuses, motorbikes, tricycles, and shared taxis. Their services are commonly called “informal” partly because they fill the huge gaps left by government-sanctioned public transport services while providing the urban poor with livelihoods. Agbiboa demystifies the informality by elaborating on three interrelated local experiences while echoing informal transport politics in other African cities. Much like the Matatu culture of Kenya’s minibuses, danfo buses in Lagos are interpreted by Agbiboa as mobile subjects whose operators translate the daily challenges into the art of urban survival. The collected 312 danfo slogans therefore serve as a veritable window into the experiences of “ordered chaos” (p. 112). Encountering agberos at bus stations in Lagos is another mundane experience. Drawing on extensive interactions with these stereotyped urban youth, Agbiboa sheds light on the “routine instantiation of violent extortion within networks of patronage” between agberos and the transport unions (p.168). In other words, the brutality of agberos’ street struggles results from the brutality of the complicit politics of mutuality between the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and the Lagos State Government. Ironically, the complicity turns into a legal dispute between the unions of okada drivers and the Lagos State Government over the “wanton violation of their right to the city, particularly their restriction from plying major routes in Lagos” (p. 170).
Third, the experiential depth of studying informal transport politics in Lagos productively hinges on mobile ethnography— “encompassing walking and traveling with people as a form of sustained engagement with their worldview and lifeworld” (p.33). In this sense, mobility becomes a field site, on which Agbiboa, the ethnographer, first participates in patterns of movement, and then interviews people, individually or in focus groups. More profoundly, his role of acting as a conductor in his childhood friend’s danfo bus provides him with a vantage point to witness “the coercive exchanges and unreceipted fees that drivers had to make per trip to police officers and touts (agberos) at checkpoints and bus stops, and the violence administered to those who refused to comply” (p.35). Furthermore, his first-hand experience of conducting mobile ethnography is also involved with important second-hand sources, notably the danfo slogans and court documents on okada bans. Instead of analyzing the cultural expressions and legal records by himself, Agbiboa had extensive unstructured interviews with danfo and okada drivers, owners, and ordinary passengers, supported by cumulative observations drawn from his long residence in Lagos and experience as a regular danfo/okada user. Therefore, there is no doubt that he can insightfully capture the everyday nuances in these ways.
With appreciation of this rich and thoughtful ethnography, the book’s ideas can be expanded, and its argumentation furthered, by addressing subsequent questions from a geographical perspective. Although the first two chapters provide a critical and holistic review of the literature on corruption, and the subsequent four chapters vividly unfold the politics of informal transport in Lagos, I am left wanting a clearer theoretical connection between them. Many kinds of evidence illustrated in the informal transport sector are not directly drawn upon everyday corruption, making readers question if corruption is effective as an overarching framework. Agbiboa has already pointed out that this monograph is more about everyday survival than corruption. However, everyday life is a broad, ambitious term, as numerous scholars (not limited to de Certeau, Lefebvre, Simone, etc.) whom Agbiboa cites have attempted to theorize everyday life in a general sense. What is revealed from the case studies of danfo, agbero and okada specifically signposts the mobility experiences in everyday life. In this sense, a theoretical question could be further clarified: why does informal transport serve as vantage point to understand everyday life?
My second question emerges around the focus on Lagos and the place-ness – the bundle of socio-spatial relations that transform space into a meaningful place (Massey, 2005) – in this ethnographic study of informal transport politics (Massey, 2005). Throughout Agbiboa’s in-depth ethnography, we learn that life in Lagos is constituted by multiple layers of power dynamics among the state, unions, and transport workers. However, the place-ness of Lagos is represented only through fragmented quotes of scholarly work. I am curious about how bundles of power relations contribute to the place-ness of Lagos as a city in Nigeria, in Africa or in the world, as many other cases of corruption are addressed in the book. The book’s title defines the scope of this study as “urban Nigeria”, but the author focuses on life in Lagos with occasional accounts of his experience in other places such as Yola (chapter 3). While Lagos falls into the realm of urban Nigeria, I am left wondering how the place-ness specifically manifests itself through Lagos, with reference to other Nigerian cities. Since this is a critical ethnography of everyday life, the place-ness of Lagos can be fleshed out by stretching the socio-spatial narratives of Agbiboa’s informants beyond the focused area of informal transport.
Relatedly, my third provocation centers on the spatial unevenness of everyday survival in the transport governance structure: how does the spatiality of union governance intersect with the Lagos State Government’s institutional arrangements, thereby affecting the everyday survival of transport workers? Agbiboa has done an excellent job of illuminating “the mutuality between the NURTW and the Lagos State Government” (p. 168). The NURTW (National Union of Road Transport Workers), however, is composed of various local unions which govern not only transport workers including drivers, conductors and agberos but also spaces of motor parks and danfo routes. In other words, the power of transport unions spatially manifests through social relations that bundle these actors together; for instance, in my field experience the unions hold different power status along the Ikotun-Oshodi route where Agbiboa conducted fieldwork. Due to its territorial centrality and scale of transport flows, Oshodi unions are often perceived as more powerful than the unions governing the areas such as Ikotun or Egbeda. Illuminating how these spatial differences inform survival strategies employed by those drivers and agberos could add nuance to Agbiboa’s ethnography.
These critiques do not diminish the many significant accomplishments Agbiboa has made in this pioneering ethnography. They Eat Our Sweat, as it stands now, has already provided us with a fresh and insightful view of everyday encounters with corruption and its grounded institutions. Agbiboa’s in-depth study of informal transport politics elevates the innovative ethnographic approach to Lagos in African urban studies. Looking ahead, this study is equally valuable to understanding the ever-changing urban dynamics of life in Lagos, with ongoing development of other modes of mobility infrastructure and urbanism (the Bus Rapid Transit system, the light rail system, and many kinds of burgeoning platform companies). In sum, They Eat Our Sweat paves an intellectual path to understandings of an urban future of African megacities.
Massey D (2005) For space. London: Sage.
Dr. Allen Xiao is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. He is an ethnographer, urbanist, and Africanist with a Ph.D. in Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His specialization lies in African urbanism, identity and subjectivity, mobility and transportation, ethnicity and immigration, and Africa-Asia encounters.