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Challenges of fieldwork in Northern Nigeria


Plangsat ’s presentation was voted “most innovative methods” at the RiDNet conference at the University of Leeds last November. Here she presents some of the challenges faced during fieldwork in Northern Nigeria for the CGD blog.

My Personal Encounter Conducting Fieldwork in Northern Nigeria: The Encounters, Challenges and How to overcome them

Plangsat B. Dayil (PhD): Department of Political Science, University of Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria. Email:

Nigeria since independence has produced a catalogue of religious, ethnic and communal conflicts that Plangsatresulted in an estimated loss of over 3 million lives and unquantifiable psychological and material damages” (Salawu, 2010:345). The return of Nigeria to civilian rule in 1999 onwards, has contributed to the emergence of ethnic and religious competition in the struggle for political and economic power and representation. In Northern Nigeria and particularly North Central zone of Nigeria, conflicts erupted and often took the form of ethnic or religious garb and in most cases a combination of both.

My research analyses the everyday difficulties and forms of exclusion women face as a result of the recent ethnic and religious conflicts in North Central part of Nigeria. My study analyses the impact of conflict on different aspects of the lives of Nigerian women by looking at four areas; inter-marriage, markets, politics and the public sector. Due to ongoing conflict, ethnic and religious boundaries have become hardened. The growing importance of group boundaries means that women’s life choices, such as marriage, are increasingly subject to public comment and criticism. Due to these attitudes and societal norms, women are more likely to be excluded from taking part in research unless the researcher is willing to adjust the recruitment procedure, appointment timings and interview venues. I encountered numerous challenges and made several adjustments in the field to ensure that I get the best of my respondents.


There were numerous challenges faced during the data gathering process in addition to some of the challenges related to ethics. As a result of the conflicts in North central Nigeria, settlement patterns have changed and they continue to shift along religious, and in some instances ethnic lines. You find, for instance, large areas of the city dominated by Christians, making it quite difficult for someone of the opposite faith to move or drive in these areas due to fear of attacks. The separation of the city added a burden of confidence and trust on me, because it was important for the people I visited in these areas to trust and have confidence in me, particularly when visiting members of ethnic and religious groups different from mine. I was able to overcome such difficulties at least partially by using contact persons for each of these settlements who were familiar to the people I was visiting.

Similarly among those who helped me to contact members of different groups were the Jos North Peace Ambassadors, who are Christian and Muslim youths trained by the Institute of Governance and Social Research (IGSR) in collaboration with the Plateau State Government and the Security Sectors in Jos. Peace Ambassadors also assisted in securing and arranging some of my interview appointments. However, I had to conduct almost all my interviews myself, both because of the emotional content of many interviews and because I noticed with some of the respondents that they needed a little push during interviews before the whole story was told. The confidence required for this was not something I could ask or expect of research assistants. Therefore I was unable to delegate many interviews.

Another challenge was the fact that at the time of my fieldwork the conflicts had already created certain patterns of behaviour in relation to individuals who were not from a respondent’s group. This means that it was sometimes difficult for me to gain the trust of respondents who did not see me as a member of their in-group. Due to my own background it was somewhat easier to win the trust of Christians and Muslims who were members of indigenous groups. However, I was able to utilise some of the women civil society groups whom I worked with to overcome this challenge. These women were able to relate freely, and granted interview because of the long established trust which was also important. Another strategy for gaining trust was that during most of the interviews I conducted in the exclusively Muslim areas, I had to dress in such a way that is acceptable to the community and by so doing avoid drawing unnecessary attention to myself. Dressing otherwise would have looked disrespectful and insensitive to the community where I was conducting the research, and might have exposed me to abuse because of the sensitivity of the research and because the communities were still hurting and nurturing the wounds of the conflict.

Coming from North central Nigeria myself, I thought conducting research in this area would be easy. One reason for this confidence was my involvement in the activities of NGOs like the Institute for Governance and Social Research (IGSR) at the onset of the conflict, many respondents knew me by sight; however, those I knew best were not necessarily those who were most at ease with me in this new context (Clark, 2010: 15). As noted above, my prior access to prospective respondents did not make my academic field work easier. I found interviewing and recording personal experiences for the purposes of this research a herculean task. One of the reasons for this was that the record and consent forms introduced for research purposes changed the ideas of my respondents about the nature of our interactions. Although in the past we had interacted easily and informally through NGOs, my research sometimes created its own anxieties among prospective respondents. Whilst this was not surprising given the sensitive situation in many parts of North Central Nigeria, this made things harder for me in a range of ways discussed in more detail below. Bearing in mind the complicated nature of interviews and of what people considered to be the truth, my collection of the data and my understanding of it both relied strongly on my own knowledge of local forms of behaviour and social interaction.

Because consent forms immediately take the respondents into the realm of officialdom, the need to obtain signatures limited the level of informality and freedom of speech I enjoyed with them. In addition to that most of the interviews were accompanied by note-taking and voice recording which immediately put the respondent in a position of reservation where he or she focused on accuracy and correctness of speech. In such cases, I switch to listening and note taking to enable my respondents feel relaxed. Despite the difficulties associated with the consent forms, my respondents were very happy to know that they could have a copy of the form and that they could also contact me or my supervisor at any point to withdraw from the research. It was extremely important to many of my respondents to be sure that their information was not going to be used against them at any point in time.

I also avoided or consciously moderated very sensitive questions or emotion triggers that would bring back bad memories and hurtful feelings. I did that through paying attention to the respondent’s facial expressions and body language as questions were asked, and empathising with them when the need arose. As a researcher, I am also human and have feelings. There were sober moments when I had to stop recording and empathise with the respondents before going on. This goes a long way in assisting respondents to quickly relax again and move on with the interview.

While interviewing was often difficult I noticed that it also frequently had a positive impact on the respondents. Many people became more relaxed and were willing to go on with the interview after a moment of shared solemnity. These sort of experiences occurred mostly with inter-marriage group, whose interviews were conducted in their homes, and many of them were moved to tears as they recollected some of their experiences. The conflict had come to define the way they related to society and the way society saw them. The need for breaks and pauses made the interview periods longer and more demanding personally as I empathised and in some instances even cried with them. I need to mention that in the inter-faith marriage group, 50 percent of the interviews were conducted in the presence of the spouses. When these spouses were present I often noticed uneasiness at the onset of the interview, which relaxed as we proceed.

A further problem I encountered was especially with prominent women and female politicians. Getting politicians to keep appointments was a challenge as many interviews and meetings were re-scheduled repeatedly. For example, I tried to meet one of the top female politicians in Nasarawa State for an agreed appointment but on reaching there she asked me to meet her in her village compound. Driving to her village, I gave her a call to ask for the exact location of the place, but she told me that she had been called out for a meeting, and was sorry but we could not hold the interview. After several such experiences I gave up on this respondent. Arranging a meeting with a Nigerian politician, whether male or female, requires patience and persistence and some interviews had to be cancelled or were too short to be useful. Often I had to make several calls and visits to the women politicians and party leaders before interviews were granted.  As illustrated above, some women remained inaccessible to me. In other cases I had to attend political party rallies as a strategy to gain access to these politicians, which involved driving long distances to the venues of the rallies. Despite many disappointments, I did not give up on this area of research and ensured that I got across to as many female politicians as possible.

Another issue was that most of the field research in and around North central Nigeria was carried out during the rainy season and most of the roads were quite muddy due to the poor drainage system. This made movement difficult for pedestrians to move around as well as making driving dangerous. As a result rain disrupted some of my fieldwork, especially when we had to cancel interview appointments due to the impassability of roads.

Despite the inconvenience for myself, it was also very important to go the extra mile to meet respondents in places that were most suitable for them in order not to expose them to danger. Meeting respondents in places of their choosing was often not convenient for me, but it enabled many women to be comfortable and relaxed and thus to be more open during the interview.  It also made them see how serious I was about getting my data right.  In as much as I was ensuring my respondents were comfortable with the interview I did not take my own safety for granted. Realizing that as a woman I was also more vulnerable to aggression, especially in no-go-areas, I drew extensively on advice from local networks of supporters and mentors, and I often used the youth peace ambassadors to accompany me on interviews to ensure my own safety as earlier mentioned.

Finally, I had to realise that the realities of the field sometimes challenge the assumptions of the academy. Thus, while I had assumed that all individuals involved in research could give consent for themselves, obtaining the consent of spouses of female respondents, particularly those in inter-marriages, was very important for respondents. Like judicial minors, many of the women I interviewed were being monitored by their husbands or families – sometimes in order to ensure their compliance, but more frequently in consideration of their safety. Given the vulnerability of some women, the use of the consent form was helpful because it gave confidence to the respondents (and their observant spouses) that the information they provided was not going to be used against them, and that the wellbeing of the respondents was considered by the institutions involved in the research. Equally importantly, I was able to take advantage of the presence of the spouses of the inter-faith marriage group during the interview with their wives to verify certain facts, which I considered a way of triangulating. But despite the fact that I could gain some advantage from this process, it is a stark reminder of the reality of social control and dependence experienced by many women in North central Nigeria. What this means is that, research methodology have to be gendered.


Dayil, P. B. (2015) Ethno-Religious Conflicts and Gender in Nigeria’s Middle Belt. PhD Thesis. Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham.

Salawu, B. (2010) Ethno-Religious Conflicts in Nigeria: Causal Analysis and Proposals for New Management Strategies. European Journal of Social Sciences. Vol. 13, no. 3. p. 345-353.