Maritime security issues, primarily oil pollution, rapidly depleting fish stocks and climate change are all subjects that Dr Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood is familiar with – her research explores illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Gulf of Guinea, and what impact it has on human and national security in the region. A graduate of London Met’s International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies BA (Hons) in 2012, she then moved to King’s College London where she has just completed her PhD through the University’s African Leadership Centre (ALC).
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your decision to study at London Met?
I am Nigerian, of Igbo descent and came to the UK to pursue a degree in engineering at one of the universities in the Midlands. However, I attended an open day at London Met with a friend who was considering doing a degree in IR, Peace and Conflict Studies. After hearing about the exciting potential of this degree, I decided that I wanted to study the course, as I was passionate about contributing to social change in the African continent. That was the beginning of a new vision.
I enquired about the entry process and was advised that I needed to do a foundation course before I could proceed with the degree. I enrolled for the preparatory diploma in Law in 2008, upon completion in 2009, I registered for the degree in IR, Peace and Conflict Studies starting in September 2009.
What was your experience like with the lecturers and the course at London Met?
My lecturers were amazing! They challenged me to want to do things differently. I particularly liked that they were receptive to my way of thinking – I was not afraid to approach my essays or presentations from a perspective that's different to what the recommended texts stipulated. I liked that they allowed me and my colleagues to engage in debates in complex subjects, without trying to stifle our views – this is something that has helped me to grow as a person and an academic.
Did you have any opportunities to do work placements or gain industry experience?
I had a lot of opportunities, but did not do a lot of work placements because I needed to work to supplement my living allowance. However, I did do a three-month Interfaith Facilitator Program with the Three Faith Forum (3FF) which allowed me to organise interfaith sessions, including hosting the first ever Interfaith week at London Met, with people from various religious groups in attendance.
Did you gain good support from any student services at the University?
I used the student peer support services, whereby other students would review my work to see if it was coherent and advised on how to make it better. This was a useful resource since English is not my first language, so it was always reassuring to have someone tell me that my arguments made sense to them before I made my final submission.
Did anything surprise you about this Uni?
It was a pleasant surprise. It felt like I was somewhere on the African continent, experiencing some of the issues discussed. I particularly liked that when we had the lecture on the Rwandan Genocide, for example, I could gather with my colleagues at the café and someone from Rwanda would tell us a lot more about it than the lecturer could. Or that someone from the former Yugoslavia could share their parent's experiences of living under Tito, it was just priceless.
What was your favourite place to go to in London when you were studying at London Met?
I was dashing home most days after lectures to get ready for my night shifts. I needed to do this to earn some extra income. My advice to new students would be to try and get a balance – enjoy the experience by participating in social activities, exploring the campus and London, which is a beautiful city if and when you can.
What led you to a research pathway after your degree?
Some of the things I learnt while I was at London Met motivated me to want to further my education. I was particularly surprised by the fact that although most of the case studies of peace and conflict issues were drawn from the African continent, only a handful of the recommended texts were by African scholars. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to continue with further studies because I wanted to understand why this was the case and perhaps work towards changing the narrative.
What’s your research process in collecting source data that informs this research?
I start with desk research, which also includes reviewing existing literature to see what it says about my area of interest and also identify gaps. It is the quest to fill the gaps identified that would determine whether I need to go to the field, which I did for my PhD.
There is nothing tricky about this process if you have the right supervisors, mentors and also enthused about your subject of interest. There are times when one becomes overwhelmed by the process of research, especially when things are not going as one would like. However, if it is a topic that one is interested in, I find that the joy of making a difference in the field and the support from others would usually be enough to see one through the challenges. It is even more challenging when one has a family – I have two kids – but, I have a very supportive spouse, which has made it easier for me to continue doing what I love.
A lot of your research focuses on key issues facing people today such as food security and lack of financial investment – are you hoping to use your research to help get things changed for the better?
Yes, I hope that I can make a difference with my research. I feel that what needs to change is the way governments look at the threat to human security. Specifically, for so long in IR, security threats have focused on threats to nation states with limited attention given to the idea of human security. However, threats to the maritime domain aptly highlight the interconnectedness of human and national security in that depleting fisheries, for instance, undermine food security with implications for the people and the state.
Therefore, given that pollution, climate change and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing collectively exacerbate the rate of fisheries depletion, coastal communities need support from the state to build resilience to their vulnerabilities. When these supports are not forthcoming, they do all they can to make ends meet. Their actions in seeking to subsist can potentially undermine the national security of the state, and by extension, the regional security.
What’s the next step in life for you?
I want to continue to research maritime security issues and hopefully bring about positive change. I have accepted an offer for a position with an organisation in the United States. The job allows me to continue research on maritime security issues in West and Central Africa and the links to political instability, which is why I am so excited about joining the organisation.
Do you have any tips for students considering international relations, peace and conflict studies?
My advice would be to go for it. Get involved with university activities and apply for summer schools abroad when the opportunity arises. I started believing more in myself and my abilities when in my second year, I was selected with two other students to represent London Met at the Hiroshima and Peace program in Japan – funded by the University and the Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO) and the Japanese Government. On arrival in Hiroshima, there were students from across the United States, China, United Kingdom, Iraq and others, but I was selected to represent the group when we visited the Mayor of Hiroshima. These are experiences I will never forget as they dared me to start believing more in myself.
Upon returning from Hiroshima, I wrote my dissertation on the Use of Depleting Uranium Weapons in Contemporary Military Interventions, having learnt a lot about nuclear weapons and uranium during my visit to Hiroshima. An interesting turn of events is that in 2014, two years after I graduated, I amended my dissertation with the guidance of a professor I met while in Hiroshima and published it as a research note with the Asian Journal of Peace Building, my first ever peer-reviewed publication. Some academics have cited the research note in their research.
Also, in my final year, I got a scholarship to attend a summer school in Greece. The experiences and friendships from these summer schools are something that I will cherish as they were central to shaping the confident, go-getting young lady that I have become.
My advice therefore is, while I understand the challenges of studying abroad as an international student (such as not taking up opportunities for internships because you need money to subsist) – when and if the opportunity arises, do take it. Like me, you’ll be happy you did.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your time at London Met?
It is equally important to grasp the opportunity when it arises to lead, because only when you are in a leadership position can you bring about change. While at University, I was elected the Student Academic Representative (StAR) for my faculty. As a StAR, I represented the students at the academic board and introduced the first-ever student-led teaching award in 2012, which I believe continues through the SU today. I am happy that I left a legacy at London Met. I was also appointed as a student member of the academic regulations review committee by the members of the Academic Board.
As a result, I was selected by the Vice-Chancellor to accompany him to the 2012 Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Annual Conference; it was a privilege to have left my mark.