African Scholars: Local Researchers with Global Perspective

(l. to r.) Lawrence Ocen, SSRC Fellow; Jimam T. Lar, ALC Fellow; Prof. Catherine Boone, London School of Economics; Kenneth Nwoko, APN Postdoctoral Fellow; Prof. Godwin Onuoha, Princeton; Dr. Cyril Obi, Director APN, SSRC

Grantees in this story

With ongoing and sometimes conflicting research agendas in the continent, a closer look at the state of research in Africa has become critical.  Last November, the African Studies Association (ASA) held its 58th annual meeting, The State and the Study of Africa. The meeting sought to reflect on the direct or indirect role played by university and scholarly research agendas in peace- and statebuilding processes and how research can often inform governmental policymaking.

In a continent that continues to be plagued by conflicts both new and old, the study and research of peace- and statebuilding issues by young African scholars remains salient. Bringing Africa’s voices to the international discourse lies at the heart of the Corporation’s engagement with peacebuilding in Africa. That is why three Corporation-supported organizations—the African Leadership Centre (ALC), the African Peacebuilding Network (APN), and the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)—hosted panels at the ASA annual meeting. Bringing together twelve rising scholars, the three panels presented research focusing on peacebuilding, security, and development, while addressing research gaps in African academic studies.

The first panel, Challenges and Innovations in the Study of Peacebuilding in Africa, focused on issues of peacebuilding and statebuilding, which may be encountered in studies as either similar or different notions and processes. This panel also offered new perspectives on tensions and dynamics emerging from engagement with fragile states in the context of nation- and peacebuilding.

Lawrence Ocen, an SSRC fellow based at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, was one of the presenters. Exploring notions of mass violence and criminal justice, his work investigates both the weakness of the state during political settlements and the construction of memory in post-conflict societies. For the latter component, Ocen’s research also looks at “peacebuilding theater,” which allows post-conflict communities to act out their own stories as victims and survivors or, as he put it, “lets people diagnose themselves” in an organic way unscripted by others.

The second panel, Gender and Peacebuilding in Africa, brought together four Carnegie-supported female scholars. Gender analysis, widely recognized as an important factor in understanding peacebuilding efforts, remains a secondary or peripheral approach to the discourse. Rachel Sittoni, an ALC fellow, presented the case of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. She emphasized the tight connection between gender issues and terrorism, and how understanding the former can elucidate terrorist practices.

Sittoni also asserted that in the conflict-driven society of northeastern Nigeria, violence against women is a pervasive issue predating Boko Haram. Importantly, she underlined how understanding gender-based inequalities and violence against women in time of peace as well as conflict can contribute greatly to the understanding of mainstream peacebuilding issues. Sittoni called finally for a more nuanced analysis of the intersection of terrorism and violence against women, especially in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which posits that women play an important role in resolving and preventing conflicts.

Another panelist, Peace Medie, an APN fellow based at the Legon Center for International Affairs and Diplomacy at University of Ghana, presented her research on post-conflict gender-based violence, but questioned the application of universal tools such as that of Resolution 1325. She asserted that “women are not only victims of war but also perpetrators of war.”  

The last panel featuring Carnegie Corporation scholars, Leadership, Security and Society in Africa, examined various leadership dynamics that can both cause and perpetuate societal conflict. Panelists emphasized how leadership issues, although linked to the study of development and security in Africa, remain addressed mostly at a conceptual level. Yet, leadership practices and interests that go against those of the people they represent continue to underpin violent reactions in societies. In closing, the panel called on a more active role of African universities and research generated on leadership issues.

Attracting close to 1,700 participants representing a range of disciplines and countries, the ASA annual meeting offered an important platform for scholarly debate on current trends and issues concerning the state of research in Africa. It also provided a great vantage point to reflect on the work of these twelve Corporation-supported rising scholars.

With research topics spanning some of the most conflict-driven countries in Africa, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi, Northern Nigeria, and Northern Uganda, these Carnegie-supported young scholars are already accomplished researchers brimming with ideas about future work. As diverse as their research may be, they all share the ability to dig deeply into local issues and connect their findings to the global discourse.