‘Making bricks without straws’: The transformative agency of Liberian residuals and the making of a Liberian settlement in Oru, Southwestern Nigeria

TOSIN DURODOLA  |  29 MAY 2020  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2020

Introduction

 

Internal and trans-border displacements across the world have continued to rise. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates over 15.9 million refugees were in protracted situations at the end of 2018 [1]. This trend, conversely, does not include chronically displaced populations in exile despite losing their refugee status [2]. Liberian residuals in Oru, Southwestern Nigeria, for instance, were displaced as a result of the Liberian Civil War. They are part of the protracted displacement cases for which UNHCR failed to find a solution to end their exile.

Front view of the Liberian residuals settlement in Oru-Ijebu, Ogun State, Nigeria. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola.

 

Although many were repatriated after the ceasefire in 2003 [3], some remained in the refugee settlement due to the perilous political and economic situation in Liberia, unattractive repatriation packages, and unsuccessful resettlement application, among others. Worse still, the Nigerian government closed Oru refugee camp in 2012. This closure led to the eviction of Liberian residuals to an uncleared and uninhabitable bushy location outside the closed camp [4], where they were exposed to vagaries of the new, self-made settlement without state or international protection and humanitarian aid.

 

Even though termination of refugee status exposes residuals to vulnerability, not much of the extant literature explores their after-life outside camps. Based on the ethnographic study carried out among Liberian residuals in Oru and in-depth interviews with 29 participants, this article makes a case for a better understanding of how residual refugees negotiate space within countries of abandonment where they lack state or international protection.

Crowded section/buildings of the Liberian residuals settlement in Oru-Ijebu, Ogun State, Nigeria. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola.

 

Findings

 

Challenges Faced by Liberian Residuals

 

The initial hospitality Liberian residuals enjoyed from the host community waned after UNHCR closed Oru refugee camp. This is evident in frequent attempts by the Oru community to expel them from the settlement, through eviction from the closed camp and relocation to the bush. Water supply posed a challenge for the residual refugees as children of school age had to go to nearby rivers to fetch water for cooking and sanitation, thereby increasing health risks.

Due to poor sanitary facility, Liberian residuals often bath their children outside. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

Liberian residuals often rely on well and nearby river for cooking, drinking and sanitation in the settlement. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

Liberian residuals face similar conditions as refugees in Cameroon and the Niger Republic with unsanitary facilities, poor access to healthcare and education:

 

‘Since the UN left, it has been difficult for our children to get a higher education… There has been no assistance in terms of healthcare but we created a situation that we became our brothers’ keeper… We don’t have good latrines and we sometimes defecate in the bush…’ [8]

Due to paucity of resources, Liberian residuals construct bathrooms with bamboo sticks and woods. Yet, the environment is bushy and unhygienic.

Photo credit: Tosin Durodola.

Liberian residuals have poor access to health services due to financial constraints. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

The Transformative Agency of Liberian Residuals

In narratives by most respondents, the uninhabitable bushy location was first considered to be a ‘home’ in need of transformation: 

‘We were homeless and began to look out for another home where we can find a better living… Home means comfort, freedom and control over our own lives.’ [9]

Liberian residuals are often financially constrained in accessing quality education. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

The Liberian residuals see a home as part of lived reality and personal memories which play an active role in identity formation, socialisation, economic prowess, and cultural linkage. This perception evoked their resilience strategies, like their cultural practices, to turn vulnerability into opportunities in Oru:

 

‘When we perform at Ojude Oba in Oru, other people love our costume and dance. So they learn and perform a mixture of everything. We also learn how they do their dance, songs and costume.’ [10]

A Liberian residual explaining how the Liberia Independence Day and Flag Day are celebrated in the settlement to promote the Liberian culture and history in Oru town. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

Through the annual celebration of the Liberia Independence Day and Flag Day with other cultural groups, Liberian residuals gained recognition to attend local festivals, particularly Ojude Oba where they displayed their artistry and music in front of the King.

 

Although geographically isolated, the Liberian residuals have transformed the new settlement into a hub of diverse economic activity. By producing and supplying cassava and cassava products to the local markets, farmers amongst Liberian residuals are enabling food security, earning incomes, and impacting the economy of the Southwestern region and Nigeria. Importantly, the Liberian residuals do not only possess a small-scale Cassava processing factory; they navigate marketing constraints with the support of trans-local and diaspora networks to connect their end products to local markets and consumers in neighbouring cities such as Ago-Iwoye, Ijebu-Igbo and Ijebu-Ode, and other urban settlements in Ogun State, Southwestern Nigeria.

R-L: The researcher with a Liberian residual farmer who cultivates cassava, plantain and vegetables for commercial purpose. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

Former Liberian refugee women turning cassava into gaari at a small-scale garri processing factory for sale in neighbouring cities and other urban settlements in Southwestern Nigeria. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

Exilic experience and resilience influenced Liberian residuals to turn to Okada, a popular motorcycle in Oru, for income by providing low-cost transport for residents and farm produce to markets. Liberian residuals chairman explained that:

‘We struggled with the commercial transport service for our own bus stop, tickets, and place in the executives of the Okada association. We were aggressive to make it far in this transport business.’ [11]

Liberian residuals are maximising the transportation services, particularly Okada business to generate income, transport farm produce to markets, and commuters in Oru-Ijebu. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

During interviews, respondents explained that former Liberian refugees who are in academia, civil society and corporate business have organised into a diaspora association named Organization of Liberian Communities in Nigeria (OLICON). Liberian residuals rely on OLICON to exert soft power influence on development assistance in Nigeria:

 

‘OLICON has been a help, especially where it concerns on healthcare and scholarships for our children…We contact our regional coordinator who liaises with counterparts in Lagos State to provide basic interventions.’ [12]

 

Importantly, findings show that Liberian residuals have transformed into a politically active community recognised during elections to be counted and empowered to vote:

 

‘Electoral officials come here for voters registration… Many of us attend political meetings. Here, we vote based on a campaign promise and the candidate’s capacity.’ [13]

 

The statement above reflects that by registering to vote, Liberian residuals have assumed powerful agency to make political demands and shape the governance system of Ogun State. The foregoing also begets a political argument on whether it is safe to still refer to them as Liberians since only qualified Nigerian citizens are registered to vote.

A respondent explaining how Liberian residuals rely on Organization of Liberian Communities in Nigeria (OLICON) to exert soft power influence on dialogue and public diplomacy, civic engagement, development assistance in Nigeria. Photo credit: Tosin Durodola/Sola Bamigboye.

 

Conclusion

This study shows that cultural agency, voter registration, economic resourcefulness, and diaspora networks can transform residual refugees into a community of influence in the socio-economic and political settings of the host community. The narratives of Liberian residuals in Oru broaden discourses on the aftermath of closed camps, particularly the possibility of new realities where sociality is (re)created, social hierarchies are produced, series of adjustments and adaptations are made and politics intensified with significance.

 

Notes and references

[1] UNHCR. 2019. ‘Global trends: Forced displacement in 2018’. Geneva: UNHCR (accessed on 5 October 2019).

[2] Crisp, Jeff. ‘An End to Exile? Refugee Initiative and the Search for Durable Solutions’, in Jolly, Richard, and Askwith, Michael (eds.). 2016. The UN at 70, and the UK: Development Cooperation, Humanitarian Action, and Peace and Security: Lessons from Experience and Policy Recommendations. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies (IDS), 119–125.

[3] Crisp, Jeff. 2003. ‘No Solutions in Sight: The Problem of Protracted Refugee Situations in Africa’. UNHCR Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, Working Paper no. 75.

[4] Akinfenwa, Gbenga. 2016. ‘Oru Stranded Refugees: We Have Been Abandoned’. The Guardian, 21 February 2016.

[5] Omata, Naohiko. 2012. ‘Struggling to Find Solutions: Liberian Refugees in Ghana’. UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, Research Paper no. 234 (accessed on 25 September 2019).

[6] Loescher, Gil, and Milner, James. 2009. ‘Understanding the Challenge’. Forced Migration Review, 33 (accessed on 25 September 2019).

[7] UNHCR/World Bank. 2016. ‘Forced displacement by the Boko Haram conflict in the Lake Chad region’. Geneva and Washington (accessed on 13 August 2019).

[8] Author’s taped in-depth interview with Liberian residuals chairman in Oru-Ijebu, 2019. 

[9] Author’s taped in-depth interview with Halimatu, female, 55 years old, Liberian residual outside the closed Oru refugee camp in Oru-Ijebu, 2019.

[10] Author’s taped in-depth interview with Paye, male, 49 years old, former Liberian refugee in Oru-Ijebu, 2019.

[11] Author’s taped in-depth interview with Liberian residuals chairman in Oru-Ijebu, 2019.

[12] Author’s taped in-depth interview with Liberian residuals chairman in Oru-Ijebu, 2019.

[13] Author’s taped in-depth interviews with Rebecca, female, 67 years old, Liberian residuals outside the closed Oru refugee camp in Oru-Ijebu, 2019.

Tosin Durodola

Tosin Durodola is a Master’s student of Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, where he researches the exilic journey and post-refugee experience of Liberian residuals in Nigeria. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History and International Studies, and is also a Research Fellow of the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA-Nigeria). He has done extensive collection, analysis, and dissemination of qualitative data on forced migration, diaspora and refugee camps.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/durodola.tosin1/ 

Twitter: @MrTosinDurodola 

 2020, Routed Magazine   |   Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0   |   Privacy policy