Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.
This week, we want to make sure rock-star journalist Alexis Okeowo is on your radar.
Alexis is based in Lagos, Nigeria. She contributes to The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, and TIME. Previously based in New York, Mexico, and Uganda, Alexis reported on a Chinese mining scandal in Zambia in 2013 with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She was a 2012 fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, reporting on gay rights in Africa. She was also a 2012 fellow of the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, writing about sectarian violence in central and northern Nigeria.
Also, fun-fact: She once took a really slow motorboat for something like four or five hours to and from a tiny island in Lake Albert to report on an oil struggle between Uganda and the Congo. It was a painful journey. “This was not long after I almost got beat by a Ugandan riot policeman who mistook me for a protestor during an opposition protest,” she says. “Those were an interesting couple of months.”
And she’s addicted to reality television. “It’s both my guilty pleasure and stress relief…’The ‘Real Housewives’ series, anything on VH1 involving basketball and hip-hop wives, the new Oprah show on Lindsay Lohan: I love it all without shame.” [Oprah, for real? But obviously we’re taking a peek…]
Our brain-picking session begins:
FPI: How would you explain your reportage and expertise to a third-grader?
I am a journalist based in Africa’s most populous country, in one of its most dynamic cities. I also travel widely around the continent [She’s currently stationed in Dakar, Senegal for the month] to write about its people, cultures, politics, economies, societies, and struggles.
I have found that I am most interested in telling the stories of how Africans cope and triumph while dealing with religious and cultural fundamentalism, state failure, conflict, and everyday life. I try to write what I would want to read, and I am tired of stories of despair from the continent. I want to read about the fascinating, flawed, and complicated people in Africa who are grappling with their countries and pushing them forward.
I also focus on the United State’s relationship with the continent and its leaders, and on China’s growing influence in Africa.
FPI: Most people know about Nigeria solely through weekly wire headlines about the Islamist group Boko Haram. What are we missing? Where do you think the press and international community get it wrong?
Boko Haram is certainly a big part of what is happening in Nigeria now, but it is only a part. Because war and terrorism still seem to be the most attention-grabbing events in Africa, a lot of what is happening in Nigeria gets left out. Its multilayered politics, its complex economic progress, its cultural battles, and its sheer force in grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship don’t get enough attention. Yes, the country is known for graft, a valid image that continues to be justified anytime we discover billions of more oil dollars missing from government coffers, but what about the millions of Nigerians who have taken it upon themselves to provide for their families and communities, in a myriad of imaginative ways, in the face of a weak government?
To be fair to the international press corps based in Nigeria, they are reporting these stories all the time. But the journalists that fly in for a few days miss the nuances and tend to exoticize a really very ordinary country dealing with a very ordinary problem – resource wealth and corruption – that is plaguing countries all over the world. If I see one more story about a wide-eyed writer coming to supposedly big, bad Lagos and telling us about its strangeness and oddities, I’ll jump into Lagos Lagoon (not really).
FPI: What’s Boko Haram’s deal?
By now, most people know one of the most recent shocking stories. On a night in late February, members of the Boko Haram Islamist group ambushed a boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, burning buildings containing students, shooting and slashing the necks of the boys while telling the girls to go home and get married, and ultimately killing 59 students, some of whom were burned to ashes. Two weeks earlier, twenty girls had allegedly been abducted from a school during an attack in neighboring Borno state. Various other schools have been attacked in the north. Boko Haram is believed to have targeted the schools because of its stance against secular values. Its name, given to the militants by the Nigerian media, translates from the Hausa language to “Western education is sinful.”
Over 1,500 people in Nigeria’s north have been slaughtered since the beginning of the year in a surge of violence.
In 2001, a young Muslim cleric named Mohammed Yusuf in the northern city Maiduguri began preaching against the government’s ills, such as corruption, lack of adequate employment and education, and the persistence of poverty. He railed against Western education, which he said has led to those ills, and said that Nigeria’s leadership needed to be replaced by a strict interpretation of Sharia law. Yusuf and like-minded clerics recruited followers who burned their college diplomas in solidarity. Most imams and Islamic scholars in Maiduguri openly disagreed with his teachings.
Members only engaged with each other and some wore bands on their arms to signify different ranks. They donned turbans and rode motorbikes through sandy city streets carrying weapons on their shoulders. Yusuf continued to preach unhindered, marking more Boko Haram praying spaces and gaining followers through the northeast.
In April of 2009, several Boko Haram members were involved in a lethal motor accident. When the group gathered at the city cemetery to bury the dead men, troops opened fired on the burial grounds and killed seventeen of them. Yusuf later read an open letter at a rally in Maiduguri that declared war against the government in revenge for the killings. But Yusuf was left alone by troops until July, when his group bombed and set fire to government buildings, including a police station. Four days of battle ensued, and more than 800 people were killed, including civilians, and thousands were forced to leave their homes. Yusuf had been captured by the police, though – and shortly thereafter, executed while in custody.
After Yusuf’s death, military and police initiated a security crackdown, and residents accused them of mass extrajudicial killings. Boko Haram had an uprising the next year. With Shekau as their new leader, the group set fire to police stations and government buildings and began a long streak of assassinating civil service workers, elected officials, and aspiring politicians. It continued to pull off increasingly complicated heists, like robbing banks and blowing up cellphone towers, and deadlier attacks, like the bombings of markets and dozens of churches in central and northern Nigeria and possibly the 2011 explosion in the United Nations headquarters in the capital city Abuja. Gunmen shot attendees at weddings and funerals.
The group’s motives are muddled. There is an extreme religious core that still advocates for Sharia law – though a relaxed form of Sharia has long existed in the northeast, in the forms of optional Islamic courts – and that is hostile to individuals and institutions seen as Western. Yet despite pushing for an Islamic society, Boko Haram is said to have killed as many, if not more, Muslims as Christians over the past decade, especially those who were critical of the militants. After several imams were assassinated in Maiduguri, clerics imposed a gag order on themselves to forbid further talk of the group. One imam told me that the government is culpable for letting Boko Haram spiral out of control. “Now the insurgents believe that if they kill the imams, they will take over as the religious leaders,” he said.
To make matters worse, intelligence reports have indicated that Boko Haram members have trained in al-Qaeda and al -Shabaab camps and received sophisticated weapons and funding from the groups.
Nigerian leaders ignored Boko Haram’s insurgency for too long, and are now trying to make up for that neglect with a heavy-handed military that is committing human rights abuses against the people it is claiming to protect. There are weekly terrorist attacks. Entire northern towns have been decimated and residents left homeless with few places to go. Decades of underdevelopment in the north has led to a poverty rate almost fifty percent higher than in the south, and to one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world.
FPI: Much has been written on how journalists and analysts get “Africa” wrong in general. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that a lot – plenty of it thoughtful – has been said on how Western journalists and analysts can write about Africa better. I am more interested in the situation of journalists like myself who are navigating the spaces where Africa and the West overlap. My family is Nigerian, and I was born and grew up in the United States. Having now lived much of my adult life in East and West Africa, I have realized there is a specific set of circumstances and obligations under which writers belonging to the African diaspora operate.
When I report on the continent, I find that there is less separating me from my subjects than between them and a white journalist. It’s not just a matter of skin color; it’s a sense of being in it “together,” the shared sense we will each understand things that have happened to the other a little better because we are both African. Interview subjects tell me our common heritage, however loose, helps them relax and be open more quickly and easily.
I found this to be the case when I was recently reporting in Mauritania, a country with particular racial tensions of its own, and in countless other places. And on my part, especially when working in Nigeria, there have been a number of times when I have thought after talking to an interview subject: “There but for the grace of God go I.” This understanding – that it could be me instead of someone else living in this slum or amid that oil spill, or being abducted by that rebel group – allows me to have empathy for the people I write about, instead of sympathy. Very few people want to be pitied. They want to be understood. That distinction makes all the difference in your reporting and writing. It elevates Africans out of caricature and stereotype into human beings, as full as anyone in the United States and Europe.
And as an African journalist, I feel a huge responsibility to make sure my countrymen and women in Nigeria, and my brethren across the continent, are humanely represented.
FPI: What’s your favorite piece that you’ve written? What did you learn through it?
It’s hard to pick a favorite. But I will say that one story I learned a lot from was a piece I did for the Financial Times Weekend magazine last summer on ex-captives of Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army rebel group. It was a delicate story to report and tell, and interviewing the couple at the center of the story over several sessions was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my work. I felt at the time the true gravity of what journalists do, which is prying into people’s lives and making them sometimes relive traumatic experiences. I was working with an amazing Ugandan translator, a former LRA captive himself, who guided me in conducting the interviews with grace and sensitivity, and showed me that it’s OK to stop an interview to simply say, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
FPI: Any book or film recommendations on Nigeria, or the continent as a whole?
I recently have been devouring Wole Soyinka’s memoir of Nigeria, “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” (I also highly recommend his plays). I also really liked Teju Cole’s non-fiction novel “Everyday is for the Thief,” for being a snapshot of a certain time in Lagos, and many of the observations still hold true. Chimamanda Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a novel about Nigeria’s civil war, is essential.
FPI: What have been some of the difficulties – if any – about being a woman in the industry? And what advice do you have for young interruptors?
Even though there are so many women journalists these days, it can still be frustrating being a woman working in a pretty sexist country like Nigeria or proving yourself to editors. My philosophy is more is always more in this context: be aggressive as hell, be persistent, don’t back down, make yourself be noticed and heard. Men do this all time; why shouldn’t we?
Show that you know your stuff and stop asking if you are allowed to profess expertise on a subject, or say something on a new topic, or go work in a place you’ve never been before, or cold email an editor you’ve never met. You are. I love reading stories by women who have done this so well, journalists like Elizabeth Rubin, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Wendell Steavenson. It’s important to have role models.