“Are we animals?” Nigeriens respond to Foreign Policy’s ‘Dead Man’s Market’
Following in an age-old tradition of problematic journalism on Africa, Keenan’s 4,000-word article on Zinder’s youth sensationalises violence, exaggerates terrorist fears, and overlooks local actions.
In the last six years, the Nigerien city of Zinder – located some 900km southeast of the capital Niamey – has experienced a new phenomenon of youth violence popularly referred to as the Yan palais.
In Hausa, this means members of the palais, which refers to a group of youths who have adopted a distinctive street culture that mimics American gang culture in terms of its members’ names, clothing styles, musical tastes, drug consumption, sexual behaviour, and use of street violence. The palais is an aberration of an older, peaceful street culture where young men organise into “youth clubs” – called fada – and meet to socialise, listen to music and play games.
This new palais phenomenon has drawn the attention of researchers and journalists both locally and internationally. Many analyses have resulted from this growing interest. Some of these have been helpful, while others have not. Unfortunately, Jillian Keenan’s article entitled ‘Dead Man’s Market’ and published in Foreign Policy earlier this year falls into the latter category.
In this 4,000-word piece, Keenan provides an exaggerated and oversimplified depiction of the palais phenomenon. She describes Zinder as a city devastated by “days and nights of brutality” full of street fights, murder, rape and armed robbery. Her narrative abounds with images “cut bodies”, “sliced ears”, “slit throats”, “crushed and broken bones”, fists covered in blood, and machetes “dull from years of cutting into bodies”.
But for those who know Zinder, the article is nothing more than an eloquent description of an outrageously distorted reality. The city described is unrecognisable to its own inhabitants, and most importantly, even to the journalist’s main informants.
“Are we animals?”
I translated the ‘Dead Man’s Market’ into Hausa and read it to a number of people in Zinder, including members of palais. The reactions varied from simple denials to outrage.
“It was true that there were fights between palais youths, and people did use machetes, and there were deaths, but her description is much exaggerated,” said Ohlala, a well-known palais leader. “One can count the number of deaths on his fingertips! There were certainly less than a dozen deaths in the whole 5 years [from 2010 to 2015] when violence was the most intense.”
Oumoul Kheir, a resident of Zinder in her 50s, reacted angrily too. “Are we animals? How do these people think of us? People do not slit other people’s throats just like that in here!”
Saleh, a community leader, said: “the palais phenomenon was a painful experience but, thank God, the violence has now calmed down, certainly due to our Ulama’s [Muslim scholar’s] invocations, the work of community leaders, and the authorities’ effort to improve policing”.
Finally, Idrissa Sani (aka Baho), Keenan’s principal informant and a major character in the article, responded: “I have never told Keenan that my machete was dull because of cutting into people’s bodies. I have a machete that I use for self-protection because of the nature of my work [driving a moto taxi by night can be dangerous in Zinder]. But I have never cut anyone’s body with a machete, not to mention having to buy a new one because the old ones were dull. This is not true. I feel really betrayed because of what she said. This is not what we talked about.”
In response to these reactions, Foreign Policy (who consulted with Keenan) said: “With regard to Baho’s feeling betrayed, our reporter sought to depict her main source fairly. He told her of his experiences fighting other men and using his adda; we cannot account for his telling you that the opposite is true.”
Bad Boyz, not Boko Haram boys
As Keenan points out, there is no doubt that the rise of the palais phenomenon has occasioned an unprecedented surge of urban violence in Zinder, a city that had until then been largely calm. In 2009, the year when the palais first arose, the city’s police registered only 258 acts of violence. This number increased in 2010 and 2011 when there were respectively 551 and 952 registered acts. Violence reached its peak in 2012 with a total of 2,016 acts, before it dropped to 1,243 in 2013.
This rise in violence was certainly grave for Zinder, but comparing these figures to those of other cities suggests that the levels of crime Keenan describes are most noteworthy in that they occurred against a historically peaceful backdrop. After all, the levels of violence in absolute numbers are unremarkable. Taking 2012, the worst year of violence, Zinder’s crime rate (in a population of 321,809) was 6.28 crimes per 1,000 inhabitants. The 2012 crime rate in Edison Park, the safest neighbourhood in the US city of Chicago, was 1.5 times higher at 9.24 per 1,000 inhabitants.
As well as exaggerating the violence in Zinder, however, the Foreign Policy article also makes a considerable yet unsuccessful effort to link the palais phenomenon to Islamist militancy. The subtitle of the piece – “Impoverished young men have menaced the city of Zinder with rapes and murders. Now Boko Haram wants to turn their ultra-violence into a weapon of war” – summarises the easy connection drawn between Niger’s demographic boom, poverty, and terrorism.
Because of their poor and desperate conditions, suggests Keenen, Yan palais constitute a potential reservoir of recruits for Boko Haram. And she even suggests that the group has already established contact with Zinder’s gangsters. Yet, as evidence, the article only mentions the story of two anonymous cars with no license plates entering the neighbourhood of Kara Kara. There is no mention of who was in the car, who they met with, or what they talked about. Like many others journalists and researchers before her, Keenan failed to find evidence of the much expected presence of Boko Haram.
Indeed, there is so far no clear link between Boko Haram and Yan palais. Though what is clear is that despite the spread of militant Islamist ideology over the last decade, Zinder’s youths are inspired much more by American gangs and pop celebrities than militant Islamists. The palais graffiti on Zinder’s walls makes reference to DMX, Bad Boyz, Outlaw, Black Power, and Gangsters City, while the Yan palais wear sagging trousers, dreadlocks and crest hair styles associated with American ghetto culture.
And so, as with other Nigerien cities, Zinder’s stability defies simplistic theories that associate poverty, religion, and terrorism. According to these reductive perspectives, it must be quite puzzling that a “poor and dusty” city like Zinder, with a 95% Muslim population and located at the confluence of multiple Islamist groups – Boko Haram around Lake Chad, ISIS in Libya, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Sahara – has not seen any active cells of jihadists emerge.
Instead of trying simplistically to link poor disaffected Muslim youths to terrorism, researchers should embrace the complexity of the situation and ask questions like: Why, despite significant similarities among Sahelien cities, does terrorism prevail in some places and not others? And why are certain disaffected youths in the Sahel inspired by Western gang culture to express dissent, while others take their inspiration from ISIS and Al-Qaeda?
However, this might be too complicated and un-sexy for an audience primarily concerned with whether the faraway poor constitute a threat to Western safety and prosperity.
Erasing African agency
Keenan’s description of the Yan palais phenomenon also reflects a wider and persistent problem with some Western journalists’ coverage of African realities. The frequently stereotypical and formulaic representations of African societies in the Western media all too often reflect, in a veiled form, the same colonial discourses that characterised the previous encounter between Western and African societies.
In certain imaginations, Africa constitutes a black hole where barbarian, primitive, and savage populations live according to the law of nature. And the shocking images and stories of wars, famines, and disasters make the narratives within ‘Dead Man’s Market’ seem immediately understandable to readers.
Typically, journalists come to places like Zinder on the hunt for shocking stories of human suffering. And it is telling that the only times in recent years when Zinder has drawn the attention of international journalists has been during the famine of 2005, the Charlie Hebdo riots of 2015, and now with the phenomenon of Yan palais violence.
This state of affairs leads to inaccurate depictions of Africa, but there is also crucially a latent power relation enmeshed in such narratives. Describing things not only imposes meaning on them, but also determines practices. For instance, Keenan ends her article on a note of hope regarding the decline of palais violence, but in her telling, one of the only actors that seems to have played a role in this decline is UNICEF.
This means that the efforts of Zinder’s residents – those whose lives were most affected by the violence – go largely unnoticed. The government’s efforts to improve policing, which has led to the arrest of the most violent palais leaders and contributed to pacifying the palais youth, are not mentioned. Job training programmes, the funding of youth entrepreneurial projects, and the creation of an inclusive consultation group called Fadas and Palais Movement for Youth Promotion, which offers youths an alternative and peaceful venue to settle disputes, are ignored. The role of religious leaders in organising public prayers and preaching for peace in mosques and churches and on the radio and TV are overlooked. And the participation of parental associations and women’s movements’ in calling on parents to better educate and monitor their children are discounted.
The fact all these local initiatives are disregarded while foreign initiatives are emphasised brings to mind the condescension that sometimes characterises Western journalism and disaster tourism in Africa. All too often, Africans appear as helpless victims, lacking the initiative to address their own problems, always waiting desperately for others to come to their rescue.
Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim is a resident of Zinder. He is PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Florida where he is also a research associate with the Sahel Research Group. His research focuses on the recent rise of political contestation in Zinder, of which the palais phenomenon constitutes a crucial aspect.