Meet Onyanta Adama-Ajonye, a researcher studying Nigerian waste pickers’ plans to secure their livelihoods

Since May 2010, Onyanta Adama-Ajonye is employed at the Nordic Africa Institute. She is one of the researchers within the urban cluster and her interest and focus is on governance structures and relations in service delivery in African cities.

“ Studies on urban Africa came into focus with the coming of the structural adjustment programmes,” says Onyanta Adama-Ajonye. When people discovered that poverty did not only exist in the rural areas, urban Africa became a problem. Once problems were discovered, scholars started to look for reasons and solutions.”

Onyanta Adama-Ajonye is especially interested in addressing the gap and tensions between the World Bank’s policies on structural adjustment programmes, good governance and privatisation and the “hands off” and less interventionist policies mainly supported by activists and scholars from the global South. The interplay between the two, according to Onyanta Adama-Ajonye, is what drives studies of urban issues in Africa today.

In previous studies, Onyanta Adama-Ajonye looked at Abuja in Nigeria. This West African country will continue to serve as the focal point of her studies. Her interest has, however, now shifted to the northern city of Kaduna.

“ The situation on the ground differs a lot from what the textbooks tell us. The policy reports being published have very little resemblance to people’s everyday experiences,” she says. “There is definitely a tension between the two.”

She began her postgraduate academic career in 2003 at the Department of Human Geography, University of Stockholm. One of the aims of her research was tracing the history of the administrative structure of Abuja in particular, as well as shedding light on the factors that have shaped the current structure.

In 2007, she completed her doctoral thesis, Governing from Above Solid Waste Management in Nigeria’s New Capital City of Abuja. The aim of this work was in part to demonstrate how specific historical and political conditions shape governance structures, with implications for service delivery.

“ The city of Abuja is unique in the sense that it is a newly established capital city. Abuja was largely a federal government project. It has an administrative structure that is unique even for capital cities. The President is constitutionally empowered to govern the city. In practice, this is done by a Minister appointed by the President. It is the only city in Nigeria that has a municipal council. All other cities have local governments. The municipal council has no jurisdiction over services, including solid waste management, which is considered everywhere else around the globe as a traditional function of municipal governments. With the day-to-day management dominated by higher tiers, people have very few emotional ties with the state. They are not in a position to vote for the providers of services,” says Onyanta Adama-Ajonye.

In her doctoral thesis she argues that, although privatised, solid waste services have not improved. The efficiency and effectiveness often attributed to privatisation have not materialised. Because Abuja is a “state-run project,” with financial backing from the relatively rich federal government, there are no incentives for private companies to provide good services or maximize their profits.

In August this year, Onyanta Adama-Ajonye will undertake a two-month field study to Kaduna where she hopes to find a rather different situation compared to Abuja. “I will be looking at the different strategies used by waste pickers to secure their livelihoods, with a special focus on the political dimensions,” she says. “The waste pickers establish networks with traditional rulers, local politicians and the city government in order to make a living.”

Kaduna has a local government with limited means to intervene and deal with any shortcomings in the private sector, so it is important that the local private companies make a profit.

It is also a manufacturing centre in Nigeria generating many recyclable materials. Politicians have little interest in environmental protection, and capitalising on renewable waste collection is not on the agenda. However, the informal sector, largely made up of waste collectors and pickers, has moved in to fill the gap. “This is a clear example of an ‘unintended’ privatisation of solid waste services,” says Onyanta Adama-Ajonye.

Onyanta Adama-Ajonye expects a great deal from her stay at NAI. “I hope to learn from and interact with researchers in all the research clusters to expand my knowledge of issues. I have already established valuable contacts with a number of guest researchers here at NAI and I hope I will be able to continue networking and reaching out to a wider audience.”

Onyanta Adama
Urban management
West Africa
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