Published: March 1, 2012 By

Introduction: The new folk devils

[1] In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, their classic application of cultural studies, political economy, and critical race studies to the interrogation of "crime," Stuart Hall and his co-authors from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham analyzed the rise of law-and-order politics in Britain in the 1970s (Hall et al. 1978).  They showed how the confluence of events, media coverage, and official responses conjoined with the historical formation of Britain's racialized society and its nascent economic restructuring to create a moral panic around mugging.  Hall et al. demonstrated how the "mugger" was constructed in expressly anti-black terms as a new external menace to British society; he described the mugger as a "new folk devil" animating the society's racialized frenzy for police protection and a punitive state apparatus.  Policing the Crisis remains a benchmark for critical studies of "crime," criminalization, and punishment for a number of reasons:  among these is Hall's rigorous case for shifting the focus from the "deviant act" of mugging to the official and public responses it inspired, created it, and came to "own" it—suggesting that "it is this whole complex—action and reaction—as well as what produced it and what its consequences were, which requires to be explained" (Hall et al. 1978: 18-19).  In different terms, then, the standard put forth by Hall and his colleagues redefines the very field of study called criminology as a relationship, or set of relations, in which the object of study is bound up in the terms of study and in the relations of production (culturally as well as economically) in which the object appears in a given historical moment.  This analytic framework allowed Policing the Crisis to presciently anticipate the law and order themes of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in the 1980s, as well as Ronald Reagan's tenure in the U.S.

[2] Although Policing the Crisis itself remains obscured in contemporary critical studies of criminalization and the social construction of harm, the analytical framework proposed by Hall et al. has largely come to define the emergent interdisciplinary field in the past few decades.  When Mike Davis, who is frequently credited with coining the phrase "a prison-industrial complex" in a 1995 article inThe Nation magazine, sought to explain the radical transformation of the California rural landscape from agriculture to incarceration ("Hell Factories in the Field"), he exercised Hall's basic framework.  As one of the leading scholar-activists on this issue, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, explains, "What I find useful in terms of thinking of the Prison Industrial Complex, is that like the Military Industrial Complex, there are all sorts of people and places that are tied in, or want to be tied in, to that complex" (Paglen n.d.).  By centering analysis on the set of relations that converge on the political economic, spatial, and cultural site of the prison, "prison industrial complex" is now recognized by many scholars and activists as a more accurate term than "criminal justice system," precisely because it does what Hall and his co-authors proposed in 1978, to move away from a focus on deviant or dangerous acts, and criminal justice policy as an instrumental response to such behaviors, and instead to focus on the complex set of relations "tied in," in Gilmore's words, to "crime."

[3] The trend in critical scholarship on criminality/criminalization/criminal justice has thus been largely concerned with these relations, including the identification of the particular experiences and positionalities of women within this complex.  Women themselves (including gay, bisexual, and transgendered) have been leading intellectuals and advocates for prison abolition, demonstrating (once again) the imperative of an intersectional analysis of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and homophobia, capitalism, and empire (cf. Bukhari 2010; Davis 1971, 2003; Gilmore 2007; James 2000, 2007; Shakur 1987).   For instance, such work identified early on that criminalization is an intrinsically racialized process; that women of color constitute the fastest growing prison population; that the explosion of imprisonment expands both public and private forms of punishment for women; and that state violence is a dire matter of interpersonal intimacy (cf. Davis 1998; Incite! 2006; King 2010; Maurer and Chesney-Lind 2003; Mogul et al. 2011; Smith 2005). 

[4] There has also been an important, although still relatively under-developed, body of work that situates these processes globally.  This scholarship takes a global approach to the study of the prison industrial complex in two ways:  it looks at how the prison industrial complex as it has developed in the U.S. has its repetitive and proliferating impacts and parallels around the world; and it examines the historical production of global processes (e.g., neoliberal globalization, immigration, re-colonization) as commensurate with the emergence of a global prison industrial complex.  Julia Sudbury's 2005 edited volume Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex has led the way in applying a transnational feminist framework to the study of criminalization and imprisonment.  Sudbury argues that the dramatic increase in the women's prison population in Britain (as well as in other Western European countries) is attributable to a combination of four factors:  the racialized feminization of poverty under neoliberal globalization, the racialized "tough on crime" agenda of successive Conservative and New Labor governments, the transnational war on drugs, and the transatlantic spread and consolidation of the prison-industrial complex in Europe (Sudbury 2005: 168.)

[5] In this essay, I pursue the pathways blazed by the feminists of color cited above (and others) to chart the conditions of possibility for the criminalization of Nigerian women who migrate to Western Europe.  I argue that the emergence of post-colonial Nigeria, through Western neoliberal development economics, has produced a scene of banal structural violence that couples dispossession with criminalization:  the developmental process imposed in Nigeria by neoliberal economic planners dispossesses Nigerians of the means of their prior livelihoods and survival practices.  This process of political economic "development" is eroticized and grounded in gendered violence in such a way that for Nigerian women the changes imposed under neoliberal globalization amount to a set-up for criminalization.  To highlight this situation, and to layer a critique of the law into my analysis of criminalization, I argue that Nigerian women experience neoliberal development as "gender entrapment."  In criminal law, "entrapment" occurs when a law enforcement agent induces a person to commit an offense that the person would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.  Beth Richie translated the legal category "entrapment" into the theoretical concept "gender entrapment" in order to analyze how poor black women in the U.S. come to be incarcerated at the intersections of race, gender, and violence, punished for a web of social conditions over which they have no control.  These women are "compelled to crime," and subsequently, imprisoned by the same conditions that inform their subjection to violence within their personal relationships (Richie 1996).  Richie's analysis demonstrates how women come to participate in illegal activities (e.g., check fraud, distributing or using illicit drugs, stealing, and commercial sex) either as a direct result of the violence in their intimate lives, or because of the threat of it (Davis 1998).  The political economy of neoliberal globalization presents similar conditions of compulsion for black women in Nigeria.  If we conceptualize violence as a historically produced social experience, then Nigerian women are punished in Western prisons by the same global processes that guided the violent upheaval of their traditional way of life and compelled their migration into Western circuits of criminality.

[6] In the tradition of Policing the Crisis, I am less concerned neither with describing or documenting "deviant acts," nor with an empirical study of crime rates, incidence of arrest, or disparate treatments of these migrant women by systems of criminal justice across national contexts.  Rather, I focus on the historical relations that produce the criminalized Nigerian woman as a "new folk devil" in order to call into question the paradigm of "development" and its sexual-erotic politics of "civilization," the gender entrapment of neoliberal globalization. 

Dispossessed by neoliberal "development"

[7] Nigerian women criminalized in Western Europe are typically involved in the commercial sex industry or international drug trafficking.  In one weekend in March 2003, eighty-four "suspected prostitutes" were deported to Nigeria from Italy, joining the several thousands of other Nigerian women who have been deported from European countries such as Italy, Germany, Britain, and Belgium since the late 1990s (Kempadoo 2005: 35-36).  In recent years, the number of Nigerian women arrested in the UK on drug smuggling charges has increased exponentially (Jeavans 2005).  To understand these facts as produced through a particular political economy requires an examination of the key period of the 1980s-1990s and the colonial continuities that it reveals.  The oil-led economic boom of the 1970s was followed by a collapse in the early 1980s that left both vast profits and utter devastation in its wake, sharpened wealth and power gaps, and exposed Nigeria to International Monetary Fund-imposed monetarist policies (Falola and Ihonvbere 1985).  The IMF policies forced the nation to abort socially based development, leading to greater individualism, privatization, and reliance on the market, which in the context of Nigeria's exploitative political economy, equated to greater desperation and corruption (Achebe 1984).  Neoliberal structural adjustment policies suddenly removed social programs relied upon by the poor majority.  As conditions worsened, state repression escalated to contain the growing opposition, indicating how increased repression coincides with increased immiseration and opposition (Federici and Caffentzis 2003).  Structural adjustment as a strategy for development means increased cost of living, depressed wages, factory closures, eviscerated universities, armed robbery, and new repressive roles for police; it means the rise of a drug economy, with Nigerians increasingly imprisoned around the world for drug offenses and currency trafficking, as well as increases in prostitution, AIDS, and interpersonal violence; and it means a sharp rise in state executions as the state's response to community direct action against oil multinationals has been to tie capital crimes to the disruption of oil production (Federici 1992).

[8] At independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria was virtually self-sufficient in food production; today it is dependent upon food imports and structurally incapable of meeting its most basic needs (Oronta and Douglas 2001).  This historical devolution of the post-colonial society in Nigeria reveals both the continuities with colonial conquest and an inextricable entanglement with the history of global energy production.  When Nigeria accepted IMF intervention to assist with its economic crisis in 1980, the IMF was not merely responding to a crisis that is external to its practices.  Neoliberal developmentalism defines "underdevelopment" as a problem internal to the societies in question, such as corruption related to the state interfering with adjustments in the market mechanism by subsidizing prices, setting wages, or establishing trade tariffs on foreign capital.  According to this definition of the problem, the IMF and World Bank have ostensibly crafted stabilization plans that would lessen the disequilibrium in the international balance of payments. 

[9] In reality, however, they have sowed instability in Nigeria, creating the conditions in which they can later intervene to "fix" the problem they engineered in the first place.  For instance, Nigeria's involvement with the IMF and World Bank began seven years prior to its independence from Britain.  In 1953, the British government commissioned the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), one of the five World Bank agencies, to undertake a study of the Nigerian economy, with the purpose of appraising "the economic development prospects of Nigeria and recommend practical measures for their realization" (Anunobi 1992: 85).  Britain's plan for its colony post-independence entailed primarily investment in physical infrastructure rather than development of productive sectors, with continued dependence on the export of unprocessed raw materials to the imperialist states and the import of finished products from these states (Falola 1987).  The Nigerian economy today is largely controlled by a handful of multinational corporations that go back to the colonial era:  Standard Oil, Shell-BP, Unilever, Siemmens, Barclays Bank, Bank of America.  Western capital was thus intimately involved in planning Nigeria's transition to independence and thereby setting in motion the instability that would become the conditions of possibility for IMF and World Bank intercession in the nation's post-colonial economy.

[10] The energy industry specifically bears the imprint of the colonial project.  As a result of the British colonial state granting petroleum concessions exclusively to British and British-allied companies, Shell Oil received an oil concession in 1938 that covered the entire 367,000 square miles of Nigeria.  When Shell discovered oil near Oloibiri in the Niger River Delta, it ceded 95 percent of its total concession, leaving itself the prime 16,000 square miles of the Delta oil-producing region (Ibeanu 2002/2003).  After the fall in oil prices in the 1980s and the collapse of the Nigerian economy, the recovery plan implemented by the IMF included deregulating the oil industry and recruiting foreign private capital to the search for additional sources of petroleum rent.  As a result, the ten major oil companies operating in the country began exploiting Nigeria's huge reserves of natural gas.  The result is that Nigeria continues to be further integrated into the world economy much as it entered the sixteenth-century Atlantic market:  dependent, subordinate, and eviscerated.

[11] The oil-producing region of the Niger Delta bears the consequences of this colonial history and most clearly illustrates what it means to be subjected to the law of development.  The global energy industry impacts all Nigerians through the state's indebtedness to foreign capital, the loss of social welfare supports, and the wantonness of state violence generated by the particular manner of Nigeria's interpellation into the political economy of energy—but the direct effects of oil extraction and production is the particular burden of the Delta communities.  The oil industry destroys life:  land is taken, ecology is polluted, and people die prematurely from cancers and respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases due to pollution and malnutrition caused by the pollution.  The poverty in the Delta is well-documented:  only twenty-seven percent of the people have access to safe drinking water and about thirty percent have access to electricity; there is one doctor per 82,000 people in the Delta, rising to 132,000 people per doctor in some areas.  Meanwhile, the cost of living index is the highest in the country and unemployment runs over thirty percent; education levels are also low:  only 30-40 percent of Nigerian children in the Delta attend primary school (Ibeanu 2002/2003: 23). 

[12] With political economic "development" imposing these terms of premature death, neoliberal globalization in Nigeria is nothing less than an assault on social reproduction, the capacity of a society to reproduce itself.  This assault in the Delta is best represented by the long history of rebellion by women unifying across the numerous ethnic borders that comprise the Delta region.

We are all women here.  We are angry and grieved.  That is why we have come together.  We cannot rely on our husbands anymore for this fight, because they are not giving us the desired results.  Moreover, these days you know that it is the women that take up most of the responsibilities.  Me, I am a fisher woman.  My only occupation is fishing.  But nowadays, when I go to the riverine areas, there are no fish.  Oil pollution and gas flaring has killed all the fish.  The farmers who farm the land cannot get anything from their land anymore because of environmental degradation.  Oil spillages have destroyed their lands.  As a result of all this, we are hungry.  Our children are suffering.  This gas they are flaring is causing so many of us to die prematurely.  Three days ago, I lost my sister.  She died from suffocation.  She was just crying, "My throat, my throat," and she died within thirty minutes.  They do not give our women employment, we are jobless and have no money because our means of livelihood have been destroyed.  We are hungry, that's why we came here.  Gas flaring has destroyed our lives (Elizabeth Ebido, Itsekiri protest leader, quoted in Sprig 2002).


In the 1980s, women attacked oil industry installations and personnel throughout the Delta.  In the 1984 uprising, thousands of women, the entire womenfolk of Ogharefe near Warri, seized control of an oil installation at shift change, preventing the new shift from entering and effectively holding hundreds of workers from the old shift hostage inside the installation.  The women threw off their clothes and with this curse enforced their reparations claims for the destruction of land, water, and trees in the community.

[13] Women were also prominent within MOSOP—the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People—the umbrella group that led the struggle against Shell in Ogoniland in the 1990s.  In late April 1993, a large group of women stopped Willbros, a U.S. pipeline contractor to Shell, from bulldozing Ogoni farms.  Willbros summoned the Nigerian military, and MOSOP responded with a 10,000-strong demonstration within 48 hours and drove the contractor out of Ogoniland (Turner 1997).  The women of the Delta continue to lead the movement against the dispossession of their communal territory, of their capacity for reproduction.  On July 8, 2002, some 600 women occupied the Chevron/Texaco export terminal at Escravos in the Delta.  The takeover brought forty percent of Nigeria's oil production to a halt, costing the state $11 million and the companies $2.5 million per day (Tobocman et al. 2000).  This bold move by the women was borne out of the increasingly desperate conditions of dispossession.  As Christina Mene of the Escravos Women Coalition explained: 

We want Chevron to employ our children.  If Chevron does that we the mothers will survive, we will see food to eat.  Our farms are all gone, due to Chevron's pollution of our water.  We used to farm cassava, okro, pepper, and others.  Now all the places we've farmed are sinking, we cannot farm.  We cannot catch fishes and crayfish.  That is why we told Chevron that Escravos women and Chevron are at war (Turner and Brownhill 2004: 67).


The Escravos take-over inspired twelve additional take-overs by over 1,000 women.  One hundred women paddled a massive canoe five miles into the high seas to take over Chevron/Texaco's production platform in Ewan oilfield (Turner and Brownhill 2004: 68).  In retaliation for the Escravos take-over, oil company security guards raped dozens of women.

The gender entrapment of "development"

[14] Land expropriation and rape are equal parts of the seizure of women's bodies in Nigeria and represents the gendered relations of development under neoliberal restructuring.  There are numerous dimensions to this regime of premature death, including the ways in which structural and historical violence (colonialism, neoliberalism, energy production, etc.) becomes domesticated in the form of rape, female genital mutilation, and the international trafficking in women and children.  This violence is tied both to the increased militarization of Nigerian society, and to the complex ways in which state power distorts and makes critical existing gender and ethnic power differences.  A Nigerian witness to the Biafran War (1967-1970), Nigeria's civil war, recounts that married women who survived rape during the hostilities could not return to their husbands.

These doomed women were paraded through the community, accused of infidelity, the worst of crimes.  They went through a cleansing ritual, entailing sacrificing chickens and goats to appease the gods, to seek forgiveness and reacceptance into the community.  I was told that even if the women's pleas were accepted, they were nonetheless stigmatized for the rest of their lives, and their children and children's children were stained by it (Turshen 1998: 8).

In the contemporary era of neoliberal restructuring, where women in particular are forced into long circuits of migration in order to survive, the relationship between sexual violence, state power, and the struggle over resources is reworked in ways that reinscribe women's bodies as objects of hostility.  In September 2000, at least 3,000 young Nigerian women awaited deportation from Italian prisons for having been involved in prostitution (Angel-Ajani 2005).  As the rape victims of a war of another kind, many of these women were deported to Nigeria en masse and publicly paraded and shamed upon their return.

[15] Gendered and sexualized violence is intrinsic to neoliberal globalization, and as such, Nigerian women experience development economics as "gender entrapment."  Women in the Niger Delta are traditionally the ones who farm the land and fish the waters to provide for their families, making the ecological destruction of the energy industry an assault that configures women's vulnerability acutely and motivates Nigerian women to mobilize against this structural violence.  The nature of the counter-insurgency (rape) that responded to their resistance, in turn, is gendered violence, marking women's bodies as the terrain on which the developmental regime consolidates itself.  Sexual violence punishes women for resisting developmentalism; rape thus signals the criminalization of dispossession under neoliberal development.  This process continues what Walter Rodney identified in his classic study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as the "deterioration of the status of African women" subsequent to colonialism (Rodney 1972: 226).  Rodney noted that the "religious, constitutional, and political privileges and rights" of African women were more or less dismantled by colonialism and substituted with intense exploitation (Rodney 1972: 227).

[16] The gender entrapment of neoliberal development is a component of the more fundamental sexual politics of Western developmentalism.  The subordination of women, sexual violence, and the expropriation of the land under the rubric of "development" are entwined as a core part of the international system of domination and hegemony in the post-colonial era.  Greg Thomas summarizes Rodney's key contributions for radical-critical thought on the legacy of European conquest in Africa by pointing to how the "presuppositions of political-economic ‘development' and its sexual-erotic politics of ‘civilization'" constitute the generalized structure of white supremacy's post-colonial lexicon.  Rodney's scrutiny of development discourse reveals the sexual subtext embedded in its basic formulations in three ways.  First, he recognizes that underdevelopment and development act as "virtual moral categories" (Rodney 1972: 3).  Thomas notes that the supposed lack of morality projected onto the underdeveloped, the colonized, and the African are "projected foremost with regard to sexuality, which is to say, a supposed sexual morality or immorality" (Thomas 2010: 152).  Second, Rodney rejects the euphemism of "developing" countries, instead calling attention to the active underdevelopment of Africa by Western empire by showing how "developing" implies that an individual, a country or a racial group is "underdeveloped" "mentally, physically, morally, or in any other respect" (Rodney 1972: 14).  Third, Rodney identifies the "social and socio-sexual politics of family organization" underwriting Western capital's attempt to sublimate alternative modes of production by rendering culture in economically reductionist terms (Thomas 2010: 153).

[17] Thomas proceeds to employ Rodney to read Sigmund Freud, the "paradigmatic spokesperson for sexual-erotic ‘development' in the white bourgeois West," for his contribution to political economic developmentalism.  Thomas notes that the developmental scheme for civilization, according to Freud, entails normative sexual development of a most specific kind—and parallels the economic development presupposed by Western political economy.  In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud claims that "the development of civilization" can only occur as a result of the repression or redirection of sexual "instincts" or energy:  "Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development" (Freud 1961: 44).  Unsublimated, or unrepressed, sexuality is the ingredient of "underdevelopment" and a threat to "civilized development" (Thomas 2010: 155).  As Thomas discerns, the outcome of Freud's logic, the essential cultural argument of Western imperialism masked as economic development, is starkly counter-revolutionary:

Here, as we already know, civilization is obeying the laws of economic necessity, since a large amount of the psychical energy which it uses for its own purposes has to be withdrawn from sexuality.  In this respect civilization behaves towards sexuality as a people or a stratum of its population does which has subjected one to its exploitation.  Fear of a revolt by the suppressed elements drives it to stricter precautionary measures.  A high-water mark in such a development has been reached in our Western European civilization" (Freud 1961: 51) (emphasis added).

Freud is thus clear that while unrepressed sexuality begets neurotic individuals, whole civilizations "under the influence of cultural urges" will not experience "normative development" (Freud 1961: 91).  Hence, Western developmentalism in Africa entails the demonization of development's obstacles (matriarchal traditions, communal societies and land practices, "informal" economies) or its consequences (dispossession, displacement, poverty) as deviant and subversive sexualities (unruly black women, Nigerian prostitutes or drug couriers in Western Europe).

[18] The development discourse of the IMF and the World Bank with respect to Nigeria, and Africa more generally, affirms the insights of Rodney and of Thomas' critical reading of Freud.  In what would have been brazen language in the years of the national liberation movements, by the 1980s the heads of Euro-American capitalist states and financial institutions were openly announcing initiatives to reduce the fertility of Africa's poor.  In 1986, A. W. Clausen, then president of the World Bank, called for "fertility reduction" through a "social contract" between African governments and African parents, in which the state would provide economic and social welfare support, while the parents would limit their family size (Caffentzis 1995: 31).  Through the influence of the Bank, Nigeria adopted a comprehensive demographic plan in 1989 called the National Population Policy (NPP).  In Nigeria, with the collapse of the economy, warnings of an impending "population explosion" and the campaign for population control expanded as structural adjustment intensified.  Foreign experts financed by the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and related agencies swarmed into Nigeria conducting demographic surveys, running workshops on birth control, and building surgical theaters to demonstrate the technique of vasectomy; USAID provided millions of units of birth control pills; and, most invidiously, the World Bank loaned millions of dollars to spread family planning to the rural population (Federici 1995: 46). 

[19] In a series of annual reports, the World Bank provided the ideological justification for the central focus on the "population threat," claiming demographic growth as the primary cause behind the economic ills of the country.  The Bank almost directly quoted Thomas Malthus in warning that unchecked population growth would inevitably reduce human-capital investment per capita; Malthus had famously written at the turn of the nineteenth-century that high fertility might increase gross output, but it tended to reduce output per capita(Clausen 1986; Duden 1989).  Despite the World Bank's conviction and the enthusiasm of international capital and the Nigerian state for population control, such policies were never actually implemented due to the strident popular resistance to imposed birth control.  The symbolism of the NPP, nonetheless, gives the post-colonial Nigerian "a clear notion of themselves in proportion to the power that they had lost" (Mbembe 2001: 26).  Furthermore, as Silvia Federici points out, the IMF structural adjustment program itself became a substitute means of demographic control (Federici 1995: 52).  In other words, "population control" is accomplished not through contraceptive, but rather through gendered development itself:  control over social reproduction relies on conditions of permanent crisis and "demographic transition" through hunger, illness, ecological destruction, premature death, and migration.  The slow decline in African mortality since the end of colonialism began to reverse in 1982, with the crude death rate increasing in sub-Saharan countries since 1983.  More starkly, healthy life expectancy at birth has fallen almost an entire decade in less than a decade, down to 41 years (WHO 2006).  As of 2007, the total HIV infections in Nigeria were about 4 million, with about 1.8 million children orphaned by AIDS (Chukwunyere n.d.)

[20]   While the structurally dispossessed face criminalization assurvival under the legal regime governing Nigeria's political economic transformations, the signs of development's progress continue to rehearse Western imperialism's sex-laden politics of "civilization."  Freud's diagnosis of the obstacles to a civilization's proper development, refracted through the World Bank, international capital, and the post-colonial state, continues to animate representations of Nigeria today.  According to this discursive regime, Nigeria's troubles stem from its unrepressed "cultural urges," as Freud would have it, manifest in non-normative family structures, deviant sexuality, the biological reproduction of undisciplined erotic bodies, and the ongoing importance (despite centuries of imperial efforts to the contrary) of women as economic agents.  In other words, Western capitalist states and development institutions simultaneously impose the political economic conditions of dispossession, suffering, and premature death and explain this destruction in terms of African cultural backwardness.

[21]   This combined subjection of the political economy of "development," what I have termed here the gender entrapment of neoliberal globalization, and the sexual-erotic politics of "civilization" are evident in recent news reports describing "Nigeria's ‘respectable' slave trade" (Little 2004).  In a series of articles appearing on the BBC website, reporting on thousands of Nigerian young women "forced to work as prostitutes in Mali ‘slave camps,'" on the rescue of "about 200 ‘child slaves' from forests in the southwest," or the "hundreds of girls from Nigeria sold into sexual slavery in Europe each year [and] trafficked through England," so-called "modern-day slavery" is constructed as a mundane feature of contemporary Africa (BBC, 2010; Olukoya, 2003; Pannell, 2001).  In this narrative, African agents foist slavery upon an unwilling West and Africa is construed, again, as the locus of criminality and barbarism.  For example, the articles assert, "human trafficking is not something that happens on the criminal fringes of Nigerian society.  It is woven into the fabric of national life" (Little 2004: 2).  The articles portray the parents as willing participants in the victimization of their children.  One of the articles quotes the president of UNICEF UK, David Puttnam, who states that what "frustrates him here, in Nigeria, more than the poverty that is its root cause, is the attitude that accompanies it."  As Puttnam puts it, "develop some determination [a]nd this exploitation of children could be tackled and Nigeria could be a really successful nation" (Little 2004: 3) (emphasis added).

[22]   This narrative maintains that "modern day slavery," and the deviant sexual practices subtending "slavery" and "trafficking," is a product of African culture.   Because this thesis is basic to the very cultural milieu in which it is articulated, Western white supremacist society, articles such as the ones cited above can routinely point to the dire poverty in Nigeria as a reason why children and young women migrate or are trafficked abroad without affecting the basic premise of cultural difference as the root cause for why black female sexuality is available for exploitation or accumulation.  The articles repeatedly note "almost all [Nigerians working in commercial sex in Italy] come from Edo state in southern Nigeria…[and yet,] no research has been done into why so many come from this one state…" (De Blank 2005: 1).  It hardly requires much investigation or journalistic integrity to consider the connection between the conditions of possibility for international human trafficking and the evisceration of the Niger River Delta region, in which Edo state is situated, by the multinational energy industry.  Yet nowhere have I seen reports that suggest a relationship between these two processes.  Absent a political economic contextualization identifying the continuities between colonization and the present, the gesture to poverty as a cause of trafficking is in fact a component of the cultural racism thesis:  African cultural deficiencies produce predatory economic processes that cannot support civilized democracies.  As Freud would have it:  "If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilizations…have become ‘neurotic'?" (Freud 1961: 91).  Or, as the UNICEF UK head Puttnam put it, "Half of you feels sympathy [for the poverty and the victims of trafficking, b]ut the other half wants just to shake the people here and say look—this is a large, wealthy, powerful country.  Put the structures in place.  Develop some determination…" (Little 2004: 3).

Conclusion:  Abandoning the paradigm

[23]   The secret to the operation of the Western development paradigm is that it brooks "no recourse to the disruption of people's lives by these activities" (Martinot and Sexton 2003: 173).  Indeed, attempts by the international community to remedy the spectacular effects of neoliberal development tend to deploy and thereby reaffirm the logic of developmentalism itself.  The high-water mark of publicity for the situation in the Niger Delta came as a result of the Nigerian state's execution of the renowned writer and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa for his agitation against Shell Oil's depredations in Ogoniland.  Spectacular events such as the hanging of Saro-Wiwa—or even the conditions which he and his comrades tirelessly worked to expose, such as Shell Oil's impunity in the instant incineration of a thousand Delta villagers by an oil pipeline explosion, for instance—does not effectively critique the paradigmatic logic of developmentalism which rests on widely distributed, accepted, and racialized principles of historical imperfection ("civilization" vs. "barbarism") remedied through modernization, nature and human beings as resources for economic growth, "development" understood in economic reductionist terms, and the market as the privileged scene of the social.  That is to say, to submit to the mandate to illustrate the gender entrapment of development hides its daily operation "as contempt, as terror," its steady historical process of consuming human life and environment across the generations (Martinot and Sexton 2003: 173).  The spectacles of neoliberal development, from state executions to the contours of gender entrapment outlined above, misrepresent this routine violence not because they are anomalous (which they are not), nor because they are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the varieties of premature death (which they are).  Rather, they are a misrepresentation because the spectacle necessarily obscures the banal and always depicts the violence of modernity itself inadequately.  

[24] Along these lines, the present analysis remains preliminary, provisional, even remedial, the necessary but insufficient grounds for intervention.  A decisive inquiry into the criminalization of Nigerian women must do more than confront the "negative underside of the dazzling triumphs and achievements of [Western society's] now purely biologized order of being and of things," the overall costs of which Gerald Barney has termed "the global problematique" (Wynter 2006: 132).  Sylvia Wynter refers to it as mistaking the map for the territory:  confronting the astounding costs of the Western imperial project without "coming to grips with the real issue (the territory rather than its maps" is akin to a physician treating a patient's symptoms and not the root causes of embodied illness (Wynter 2006: 161).  Wynter succinctly suggests:  "The major proposal that I shall put forward in this chapter is that if Black Africa is to reinvent itself as a dynamic twenty-first century civilization, it might very well have to get rid of the concept of ‘development' altogether" (Wynter 1996: 299).  The presuppositions of political economic "development" and its sexual-erotic politics of "civilization," reviewed above are central to what Rodney called "the generalized structure of white thought" and are largely taken for granted in this global system of dominance (Rodney 1972: 111). 

[25] Having established a critique of the manner in which present development discourse and historical process constructs the material and symbolic conditions of possibility for the criminalization of Nigerian women, we can then work on dismantling the paradigmatic confines of "development" itself.  To properly situate the production of Nigerian women as the "new folk devils," severed as they are from an indigenous context stigmatized and concealed by the ideological formation of every discipline of Western epistemology, we need to thoroughly deconstruct how the race and sex underpinnings of empire function through the fatal coupling of criminalization and neoliberal development's dispossession.  Analyzed thusly, we would see that criminalized migration shares a seam with women's mobilization against multinational oil companies in Nigeria, which in turn is part of a long history of resistance to land expropriation led by African women, bringing into view a radically different understanding of the erotic dimensions of human community than that promulgated by Western developmentalism (Gibson 2004; Lorde 1984).


Thanks to Ann Kibbey and the anonymous reviewer for helping me improve this essay.  Special gratitude to Kim Hester-Williams for her ongoing support.

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