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Enclaves of Exception: A Conversation with Omolade Adunbi

September 14, 2023

Enclaves of Exception: A Conversation with Omolade Adunbi

Miriam Driessen, Omolade Adunbi

What are the social costs of extraction? And how does extraction reconfigure traditional power structures and cultural practices? In Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2022), Omolade Adunbi compares the extraction of economic value through free-trade zones (FTZs) with the extraction of oil by artisanal refineries to offer insight into the drastic—and at times dire—consequences of Nigeria’s insertion in the global economy. Taking the reader from two Chinese-run FTZs—Ogun-Guangdong FTZ and Lekki FTZ—to the communities which live nearby and into the forests and creeks of the Niger Delta, the book reveals how the production of value coincides with dispossession and the subsequent recapture of value.

Local communities contest extractive processes by laying claim to ancestral lands and asserting ownership over the resources with which their ancestors endowed them. Omolade Adunbi traces the historical lineages of extractive practices and technologies to reveal striking continuities throughout Nigeria’s history, from the British colonial period to the present. Today, local youths and former insurgents in the Niger Delta respond to state-led extractive methods by what Adunbi calls ‘crude recapture’. They tap oil from pipelines operated by the state and its corporate allies and use innovative techniques to refine it for sale. The artisanal refineries curiously mimic state practices in their operations and governance in ways that are like the FTZs.

Enclaves of Exception is also a chilling account of the failed promise of oil and other forms of extraction in Nigeria. Rather than serving as the lifeblood of the state and the communities from which it is extracted, oil has become a destructive force that severely harms the communities from which it is taken, resulting in environmental destruction and what the author calls ‘social death’. Engaging and at times harrowing, the book bears witness to the cost and consequences of extraction in global Nigeria.

Miriam Driessen: What are enclaves of exception? And what drew your interest to them?

Omolade Adunbi: Enclaves of exception, as I describe in the book, are spaces specially designated for the sole purpose of extracting economic value. The artisanal refineries—and in the book, I use the word ‘artisanal’ advisedly—that can be found in the creeks of the Niger Delta, as well as the Chinese-consortium–operated FTZs in Lagos and Ogun states of Nigeria, represent an iteration of such enclaves where objects of economic value are extracted daily. These objects of economic value include oil, land, and water, as well as the labour of those who operate in there.

Billboard with an advertisement for the Lekki Free-Trade Zone. Source: Omolade Adunbi.

MD: You discuss FTZs and artisanal refineries as two instances of enclaves of exception. Why did you decide to make such a comparison? And what does it reveal?

OA: When I completed the research for my book Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2015), my intention was to focus squarely on my new project on China, infrastructure, and oil extraction. At that time, I was particularly interested in how China and its entrepreneurs were looking into making huge investments in Nigeria’s oil industry in addition to partnering with the Nigerian State in building critical physical infrastructure. By then, I had designed a new class that focused on China’s engagement with Africa and, of course, I realised that the literature on China in Africa was booming. There were a lot of discussions about the Angolan mode—also known as ‘Resources for Infrastructure’—and I wanted to know whether something like that was at play in Nigeria.

While doing the research, I took a detour to the oil-rich Niger Delta to visit people I had interviewed for my 2015 book. There and then, I noticed a boom in artisanal refineries in many of the creeks of the region. On reflection, I saw a lot of similarities between the FTZs and the ways in which these refineries are choreographed. At this point, I realised how both practices, the FTZs and the artisanal refineries, were taking advantage of the neoliberal economic moment in which Nigeria found itself—a point overlooked in the existing literature that I deemed worth making.

MD: Many of Nigeria’s FTZs were spearheaded by the Chinese, who have subsequently been heavily involved in their regulation. How does the intervention of Chinese actors and regulatory practices manifest in the everyday governance of an FTZ? And have these dynamics been challenged? If so, by whom?

OA: The idea of the FTZ itself is not completely new to Nigeria or indeed to many countries in the Global South. As you may recall, the establishment of specialised zones was one of the major prescriptions of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to countries facing serious economic challenges. In the first iteration, Nigeria embraced the practice during the military era of the 1980s and 1990s by setting up Export Processing Zones (EPZs). As I describe in the book, these EPZs mainly focused on exporting oil to the international market.

The whole idea of EPZs then—and of course FTZs now—is to create a specialised zone where investors have access to cheap labour, tax holidays, and free land, and can create their own regulatory system. The rationale behind this is that the states that set up these zones can attract foreign direct investment and create employment opportunities for their citizens. In its new iteration, the concept of FTZs is now propagated by China through its state-owned enterprises. What has been added now is the notion that the establishment of FTZs can also help build the infrastructure that the state needs. As I argue in the book, however, local needs are not necessarily met. The zones have paved the way for loss of livelihoods and dispossession of the communities that host these FTZs. This is the reason many of the communities have been pushing back against the establishment of these enclaves, and the state has been using its might to suppress dissent.

Artisanal refinery in the Niger Delta. Source: Omolade Adunbi.
Billboard of one of the companies in the Ogun-Guangdong Free-Trade Zone. Source: Omolade Adunbi

MD: You parse the historical lineages of extractive practices and technologies. In what ways do Chinese practices resemble older forms of extraction? And how do they build on them?

OA: Extraction of economic value in Nigeria by foreign powers and entities dates back several centuries. As I have described in my work, slavery was one such form of extraction and exploitation of the human resources of Africa. This form of exploitation and extraction also came with colonialism, and what we have seen is that while slavery ended a long time ago, a new form of extraction has come to replace it, beginning with colonialism and continuing in the postcolonial state. In a way, the story remains the same in the postcolonial state. This historical continuity is true not only for Nigeria but also for many other African countries. The discovery of oil in Nigeria reshaped the form of extraction and exploitation of resources and people in such a way that the country witnessed an astronomical rise in foreign interest that did not significantly translate to economic prosperity for the nation and its people. Oil brought in new extractive technologies that basically transferred the wealth of the people into the hands of a few, mostly foreigners and their local cronies. This is what I refer to as a process of ‘capture’ and ‘recapture’ based on the notion that three competing actors—the state, corporations, and the youth groups that operate artisanal refineries—are in competition for the resources of the country. Thus, oil resources captured by the state and its corporate allies are being recaptured by the youths who consider the resource the private property of the people of the Niger Delta.

Chinese actors are engaged in this process of capture and recapture, which is not just about oil but also about other forms of economic value and leads to the dispossession and disenfranchisement of those who own the resources. The FTZ is a form of economic capture that creates enclaves that transfer the wealth of the people into a few hands. Here we see a situation where land is taken away from people and given to Chinese entrepreneurs for little or nothing without adequate compensation. In the book I show that the ‘Eastern promise’—the notion that development practices that emanate from places such as China can be better than those coming from the West—is all a ruse. Both have the same goal: profit maximisation at the expense of the majority of the people. That is exactly the form of technological innovation that comes with FTZs.

MD: You challenge common conceptions of innovation as the mantra of neoliberalism carried over from the structural adjustment era. What innovative practices did you find in the communities of the Niger Delta? And what can these teach us about the meaning of innovation?

OA: One of the most fascinating things about the youths in the Niger Delta is their innovativeness. The way they deploy extractive technologies in participating in midstream extraction is absolutely mind-blowing. Local youths modified the technologies of liquor brewing into refining oil. They built their own technology from scratch based on an old technology that existed in the Niger Delta—the technology of ogogoro brewing. As I describe in the book, there is hardly a family in the Delta that does not participate in the brewing of this local liquor that became popular during the colonial era.

What is interesting about the story of ogogoro brewing is that it was used to circumvent the predatory powers of the colonial state. For example, during the Great Depression, the colonial authorities in Nigeria raised taxes on liquor, especially whiskey and other imported alcoholic beverages, so much that these commodities were out of reach of many Nigerians. Under these circumstances, the local liquor, ogogoro, became the liquor of choice, to the point that the colonial government had to impose a ban to shore up its tax revenue from the sale of ‘official’ liquor. However, the ban and its attendant threat of arrest and prosecution did not deter people from brewing and selling ogogoro, which became common at events such as funerals, weddings, and other gatherings. In the same way, the technologies of oil extraction today are being used as a form of recapture to circumvent the postcolonial state that ‘captures’ what the local youths consider the property of the communities. The process of recapture therefore involves participation in a neoliberal system that allows for entrepreneurship and innovation. This is the reason many of these young people consider themselves entrepreneurs. Many of the youths whom I interviewed believed they were participating in a neoliberal economic system that helped them take back what had been taken away by foreign interests—that is, multinational oil corporations and their state allies. The sophistication with which they build and deploy the technologies challenges the long-held assumption about oil extraction that suggests that only those with huge capital and technical knowhow can participate.

Refined gasoline for sale by a retailer. Source: Omolade Adunbi.

MD: The power of ethnography, you point out in your introduction, is its ability to debunk and demystify common assumptions. Did your observations and conversations during fieldwork also disprove some of your own assumptions? If so, which ones? And what new ways of looking do you hope the reader will take away from reading your book?

OA: One of the powers of ethnography, and fieldwork specifically, is its ability to help shape new understandings of complex concepts. For example, one of the assumptions I went to the field with is the notion that only nation-states can designate and regulate special economic zones. This is because, in most of the literature on such zones, the focus is always on those FTZs that are regulated by the state. However, my experience in the field—in particular, witnessing the ways in which many of my interlocutors in the artisanal refineries referred to themselves as entrepreneurs and innovators who were participating in a neoliberal economic system—disproved my assumption. The stark similarities between the FTZs and the refineries further proved to me that we ought to expand the meaning of special economic zones to include those zones that are not regulated by the state.

The kind of ethnography I write also helps to disprove the notion that Niger Delta youths who engage in oil extraction and refining are bandits and oil thieves. As I show in the book, reducing them to ‘bandits and thieves’ takes away the innovation and adroitness with which they build the technologies of extraction from scratch. More importantly, what I would like readers to take away from the book are the devastating effects of extractive practices on people and their livelihoods. This is what I call the ‘social death’ of the environment when people and their surroundings are constantly subjected to pollution at the hands of both multinational oil corporations and the artisanal refineries in the creeks, as well as corporate bodies in Lekki and Igbesa FTZs in Ogun and Lagos states. From capture to recapture, people experience death daily in the creeks of the Delta and the coast of Lagos.

Miriam Driessen is an anthropologist by training. Her work explores Chinese-led development from below, looking at issues such as migration, labour, gender and sexuality, language, and, more recently, law. She has published in various journals including American Anthropologist, The China Quarterly, and African Affairs and is the author of Tales of Hope, Tastes of Bitterness: Chinese Road Builders in Ethiopia(Hong Kong University Press, 2019).
Omolade Adunbi is a political and environmental anthropologist, Professor of Anthropology and Afroamerican and African Studies, Professor of Law (courtesy), and the Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research explores issues related to governance, infrastructures of extraction, environmental politics and rights, power, violence, culture, transnational institutions, multinational corporations, and the postcolonial state. He is the author of 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 Peoples Map of Global China
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


Volume 2, Issue 1, 2023