Modern Desires in Urban Nigeria

From the Series: Queer Futures

Photo by Michael Held.

I am a member of the generation of scholars who were able to do dissertation projects and first book projects on topics that were, in one way or another, queer. My first project (Gaudio 2009) was an ethnography of what we might call a subculture of feminine men, known as ‘yan daudu, in the Hausa Muslim region of northern Nigeria (overlapping, sadly, with the area that is currently being terrorized by Boko Haram).

My subsequent and current project is, on its surface and many levels down, not very queer at all. It is about the capital city of Nigeria, Abuja, which was conceived in the 1970s and is often compared to Brasília as a modernist planned capital. I am interested in the symbolics of the city: what it was designed by the state to project—national unity and modernity—and the ways in which contemporary inhabitants of the city engage with those themes.

I am also a member of a generation of linguistic anthropologists who have worked in queer domains and who remember the debate that raged in our small sub-subfield about ten years ago on the utility of the concept of identity in our research. An instigating moment in that debate was when Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick (2003) exhorted scholars working on language and sexuality to go beyond sexual identity and to think about what makes sexuality sexual—in particular, desire. Reflecting on that back-and-forth about identity versus desire, it occurred to me that in the polarizing tit-for-tat, the inextricable relationship between identity and desire was overlooked, if not forgotten. Identity, after all, is itself an object of desire and even a state of desire. People desire to be seen, interpellated, and apprehended as certain kinds of people. That idea informed, in one way or another, the research that I did with ‘yan daudu. And it is also informing the research that I’m doing on Abuja.

Desire and identity are clearly not just about sex and sexuality. People desire lots of things, and cities are spaces that encode and facilitate and constrain and block all kinds of desires. Abuja is a city that was designed and built to project an image to the world of an African modern place. If you look at planning texts from the 1970s, when the city was conceived, and subsequently, there’s a strong desire on the part of planners and promoters of Abuja to counter an image of Africa as either always primitive or always doing modernity wrong. To portray Abuja as a correct modern place, its promoters take pains to circulate images of impressive buildings, highways, and the naturally striking landscape that surrounds the city. These images are made possible by state policies that routinely destroy structures and repress activities that index the poverty, poor maintenance, and other infrastructural deficits which are still a fact of life for most of Abuja’s residents.

The desire for modernity is very intensely felt, is encoded in the urban plan, and is constantly being used to produce the delightful structures that impress many—including many Nigerians who cannot really enjoy their benefits. Poor and struggling residents of Abuja are often still impressed and dazzled by these icons of modernity—the national stadium, the highways, etc. That sense of bedazzlement emerges over and over again in my conversations with people who live in Abuja, Nigerians who visit Abuja, and other people who have gone there. But there is also a constant need to police the city for the elements that contradict the hegemonic image of Abuja as glamorously modern.

I want to think about the way in which Abuja, as a national urban project, is impelled by desires; how it is shaped by and helps shape people’s desires for modernity, prosperity, national unity, and other imagined states of being. These desires are largely not erotic, except perhaps in a deeply unconscious way. Yet I am also interested in urban desires that might be more explicitly erotic, and I will share a couple ethnographic examples on that theme.

The first anecdote is from one of the first conversations that I recall ever having about Abuja, years before I ever went there. It was in the 1990s, when I was still doing my research in Kano, which is a four- to five-hour drive north of Abuja. I had never been to Abuja, but had heard about it as a modern, gleaming place, kind of like Oz, where the lights don’t go out (unlike the rest of Nigeria, where the lights go out all the time), the roads are really smooth, the water runs, and the infrastructure is well-provisioned. These are really not incidental things for anyone on earth, of course, and they’re very important to the way Abuja is imagined. I was often told in those years: “Oh, you should go to Abuja, you would love it.” Of course I, a white man from America, representing the prototypical modernity, would like Abuja, which people would often describe as being “like London” or “like New York.”

In 1997, my friend Bellow was telling me that he had been able to go to Abuja the previous year because a rich friend of his was going to a shareholders’ meeting there and had invited Bellow to go along. Thanks to his wealthy friend’s connections, when Bello arrived at the Sheraton in Abuja, he got his own room. “They handed me a piece of plastic,” he told me, “and said this is the key!” (Old as I am, I remember my own surprise when I first saw a plastic swipe key.) Bello’s room had a large raised mattress and television, a private bathroom with a bathtub, cold and hot running water, and a telephone. At his family home in Kano, Bello was lucky to have his own room, but his mattress was on the floor, the bathroom that he shared with his brothers was a small square room with a squat toilet, and the only way to bathe was out of a bucket. The house was connected to the municipal water network, but the supply was erratic, so water often had to be drawn from a well in the courtyard. In his room at the Sheraton, Bello watched the water rush from the tap before removing his clothing and immersing himself in the warm bath. From the tub he was able to reach the telephone, so he called to check in with his wealthy friend. Hanging up the phone, he reclined back and stretched out his arms. “Yau na zama Bature,” he said to himself. “Today I became a white man.”

My second example is from the Area One Ultra Modern Shopping Center. Area One was the first residential-cum-commercial neighborhood of Abuja to be developed in the 1980s. (There’s also Area Two, Three, Four, etc.) As part of the city’s master plan, each of these neighborhoods has its own central shopping area. The Area One shopping center comprises two large buildings containing enclosed shops, as well as numerous informal structures such as kiosks and lean-tos. One of my photographs of the shopping center approaches the largest building from the east and features a large billboard on the building’s eastern wall. The billboard is an advertisement for Dettol, a liquid soap. The advertisement recalls Anne McClintock’s (2002) analysis of a Pears soap advertisement from the late 1800s. In the Dettol advertisement, which I photographed in 2012, the racist imagery of a white child helping a black child to be cleansed of his blackness has been replaced by a photograph of an African mother embracing her half-clothed child, with the caption, “Be sure of a clean bath.” The contemporary advertisement seems to offer an image of Africans as equal participants in the modern cult of hygiene. Yet the social exclusions indexed by the Pears advertisement persist, particularly with respect to gender (mother and son) and class, but also, implicitly, with respect to race.

Looking at this advertisement, I am reminded of Nigerians with aspirations to the middle and upper classes, who make a point nowadays of putting on deodorant. For many people who are not secure in their middle-class status, this is not a simple exercise. Not only is deodorant expensive, but it only works well when one has enough water to bathe regularly. I know traders and craftspeople who sleep in Area One at night, illegally, because they cannot afford decent housing. The only place they could afford to live would be far outside the city proper, and their commutes would be so long that they would miss hours of productive work every day. These folks have to pay off the police and other state authorities to be able to stay in Area One at night. They also have to scramble to find water and a space to bathe in, which can be difficult. The Dettol ad also reminds me of the aspiring Nigerians who rely on public transport, but complain about having to take it because it means sharing close quarters with people who smell. I’ve heard of middle-class workers who complain about smelly colleagues, and have witnessed upper-class employers berating menial laborers for failing to cover their body odor: “I gave you deodorant. Why don’t you use it?” Repulsion, the inverse of desire, is expressed about urban spaces that are crowded and full of poorer people, and is the necessary complement to the things that people typically want in the city.

Discourses of cleanliness and odor index all sorts of assumptions about the infrastructure of the city. They index the intimate aesthetics of embodied social interaction that may not be explicitly erotic, but that are, I would argue, imbricated in the desired identifications that impel the construction of the city, migration to and from it, and its policing. These issues may not be explicitly queer (and I’m not particularly invested in whether they are or not), but as someone who in my life and in my work has had to think about the contingencies of desire and the ways it is policed, I welcome greater attention to them.


Cameron, Deborah, and Don Kulick. 2003. Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaudio, Rudolf Pell. 2009. Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

McClintock, Anne. 2002. “Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising.” In The Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, 506–18. London: Routledge.