Alexis Okeowo: Burden is on Military to Protect Nigerian Women, Girls from Boko Haram

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A Nigerian-American, Alexis Okeowo, shoulders a self-imposed duty. “I do put a burden on myself that I try to live up to, which is to meet a standard that I have in my head of how Africans should be portrayed and how they should be seen as just as complex and nuanced as any subjects in the West,” she had said once said. In a brief encounter with Bayo Akinloye at the ‘War Stories Peace Stories’ conference organised by the Pulitzer Centre and Stanley Foundation which held in New York recently, Okeowo talked about her focus on extremism in Nigeria – and other African countries – and how some individuals reacted to the circumstances they found themselves in. The daughter of immigrant Nigerian parents (father from Ogun State and mother from Delta State), Okeowo also gave insight onto her book, ‘A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa,’ asserting that Nigerian government and policymakers can learn a thing or two from her publication

Your book, ‘A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting extremism in Africa,’ was the 2018 PEN America Literary Award. Congratulations. How do you feel?
Thank you. I’m grateful for, and encouraged by, the recognition, and I’m excited to get my next book underway.

Are you another Chimamanda Adichie? How will you describe your style and what informed that?
Who knows! I only write non-fiction books, though. My style is clear, direct, and – I hope – graceful. It’s been informed by journalists like Katherine Boo and Wendell Steavenson.

In writing your book, what inherent risks did you face or take to tell the sometimes giddy tales of your characters?
At times, I had to report from active war zones or places that had experienced attacks by terrorist groups. I tried to do my work in those places as safely as I could, working with a local guide who had expertise on how to best move around, and using a security escort when necessary.

How were you able to persuade your subjects to reveal as much as they did in the book?
Time and honesty: By spending a significant amount of time with each of my subjects, and slowly gaining their acceptance and trust, it helped break down some of the barriers between us. And because I was transparent about my reporting process, and about what I intended to do with their stories, I think they could be more open.

Do you think the Nigerian government and policymakers will benefit from the book and are copies available in Nigeria?
I do think policymakers would benefit from reading the stories of their countrywomen and men whose lives have been profoundly affected by Boko Haram. Copies are indeed available in Nigeria.

It’s learnt you’re writing a new book about ‘Alabama for Holt.’ What can you tell us about that project?
What I can say for now is that it will be a close, reported look at lives in my vividly complex home state (Alabama), telling a larger story about the ways history collides with the present.

In 2012, you won the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship to write about gay rights in Africa. Tell us about your experience.
It was an enlightening, fascinating experience. I focused on three countries – Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa – and what I found in my reporting was both surprising and complex. While the situation for many LGBTI people in all three countries was often difficult, I also found that there were vibrant gay-rights activist movements, especially in Uganda, that had moved forward the public conversations about homosexuality to unprecedented points.

In Nigeria, homosexuality is criminalized. Do you think the Nigerian government and its citizens are living in denial of a reality as old as human history?
I think some of them are, yes. Several African governments, Nigeria’s included, have used homosexuality as a scapegoat for their countries’ problems, and their efforts to criminalize the private lives of LGBTI people are disingenuous and distractions from the reforms they should actually be putting in place.

You have lived in Uganda, Mexico, and Nigeria –now living in Brooklyn, New York. How will you describe life in these places and how each has affected your worldview?
Living in Kampala, Mexico City, and Lagos – all dynamic, addictive cities – and being able to travel around Uganda, Mexico, and Nigeria has expanded my understanding of the world, allowed me to see how different people think and live, and to appreciate the worth of each different way of life.

Tell us where you lived while in Nigeria and share specific experiences you find remarkable – from the sublime to the ridiculous.
I lived in Lagos, and had so many experiences there: sublime, ridiculous, wonderful, frustrating. It’s a city I love dearly. Nigeria is a place where I once found myself at a New Year’s Eve party with the richest man (Alhaji Aliko Dangote) in Africa, and also once had to take a taxi from Maiduguri to Abuja not long after the Chibok kidnapping. It was a beautiful, but nerve-wracking, journey!

While the Nigerian government is struggling to repair the battered image of Nigeria as being a ‘fantastically corrupt’ nation, Boko Haram seems to be succeeding in making it, perhaps, the most unsafe place for girls and women to live in. Do you think Nigeria is an unsafe place for girls and women?
I think Nigeria can be a difficult place for girls. Beyond the threat of Boko Haram, the country’s undeniable patriarchy often forces women to submit to the demands and desires of men – relatives, employers, partners, and others – who want to dictate their choices.

Boko Haram has used more female suicide bombers than any other terrorist group in history. Of the 434 bombers it deployed between April 2011 and June 2017, at least 244 were identified as female –and that figure is increasing. What is your explanation for that?
I don’t know why the group is disproportionately forcing women and girls to act as suicide bombers, but, if I had to guess, it might have to do with the fact that women and girls are perceived as less threatening, and could therefore get through security checkpoints more easily.

So, how can women and girls avoid becoming lethal weapons used by the terrorist group?
The burden is not on women and girls to avoid being used as weapons; it’s on the government and military to protect Nigerian women and girls from Boko Haram in the first place.

There was a report about a young girl joining ISIS to go on a suicide bombing mission just to raise money for her brother’s bride price. In a similar way, there may be indigent parents in the North-east who marry off their young girls, perhaps unwittingly, to Boko Haram in the hope of getting some bride price to get by. How do you think this fits into the narrative of Boko Haram using more and more girls and women for suicide bombing?
I am not aware of the ISIS report, but I highly doubt that parents are marrying off their daughters to Boko Haram fighters. I do think poverty is a major problem in the North-east, and any government’s effort to prevent young people in the region from joining the group has to include economic development and job and educational opportunities.

What do you think is missing in Nigerian government’s fight against the Boko Haram terrorism?
At this point, the government seems to be realizing that what it has done so far has not worked: it is now negotiating with Boko Haram, a tactic that is becoming more common for them. A combination of negotiation for abducted civilians and an overhauled military strategy – one that requires troops be immediately responsive to attacks and that requires soldiers penetrate into the remote North-east to protect vulnerable communities on a constant basis – could be a good start.

With your name, one may conclude you’re a Nigerian from the Yoruba stock. Can you shed more light about your identity?
My father is Yoruba, from Ogun State, and my mother is from Delta State.

What are the things that keep you awake at night sometimes?
I tend to worry too much about how I’m going to complete all the projects I’m working on. I’m learning to let go of some of the stress, though.

Who are your favourite artistes and writers?
Katherine Boo, Warsan Shire, Chimamanda Adichie, Kerry James Marshall, and Andrew Dosunmu.

Can you tell us about your childhood like schools attended, places lived, parents and siblings?
I grew up in Alabama with two younger brothers, and later went to Princeton University.