The Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) had the opportunity to sit down with APN Alumnus Dr. Duncan Omanga (Individual Research Grant 2014), a lecturer and head of the Department of Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University, Kenya. The interview was conducted on December 13, 2017, during the APN’s Training Workshop on Writing and Dissemination for 2017 grantees held in Rabat, Morocco, where Dr. Omanga gave a lecture on using mainstream and online media to disseminate research. It has been edited for length and clarity.
APN: Could you begin by telling us about yourself and your research?
Dr. Duncan Omanga: I am from Kenya, and I am a 2014 APN Individual Research Grant recipient. I received an APN grant to do research on community policing and Twitter in Kenya among chiefs. Currently, I am a lecturer at Moi University in Kenya and the head of the Department of Publishing and Media Studies.
You recently received a research gift from Facebook, could you tell us about it?
To put it broadly, as a result of my APN grant, I have gone on to receive several fellowships. One was a six-month visiting research fellowship at Cambridge University, which built on the research I began doing with the APN. More recently, with the support of the APN and its Program Director Cyril Obi, I got a substantial research gift from Facebook to do research on social media, state surveillance, and criminal gangs in Kenya. Also, I have recently won a British Academy fellowship at Cambridge University to start this fall, which is a spin-off from the research project currently being funded by Facebook.
What plans do you have for your project? Do you have collaborators? What do you plan to produce through this research?
We are still having discussions with Facebook to see how the project will roll out, but my initial plan is to bring together a team of people and work with journalists, police, and rehabilitated former criminal gang members in Kenya to see how Facebook became a platform where issues of policing, community policing, and justice were negotiated.
Why this particular topic? Why is it relevant in the Kenyan context?
It is relevant in Kenya because we have had a crisis of policing which pitted on one side, the public, and on the other side, criminals—or suspected criminals. For one, suspected criminals were being executed extrajudicially, and the police were blaming the courts, saying that when they took suspects there, the prosecutors would let them go free. And you had a public that was caught in between, on the one hand asking for justice, and on the other hand, being put in an ambivalent position of looking at these events and wondering what exactly to do.
So, it is this ambiguity that I want to look at and hopefully shed light on. I’m interested in how these suspected criminal groups are using Facebook, which is very popular among the youth, in similar ways to their peers. However, it also becomes a platform where they form their identity in the criminal underworld. At the same time, it gives the state an opportunity to do surveillance work and monitor them. But more importantly, it also offers a site where the police “stage and perform” their traditional obligation to provide security in a virtual Facebook space that convenes members of the public, the police, and criminal gangs in one discursive space. The aim of this research, therefore, is to attempt to reconstruct the multiple claims to justice from these different actors, and the centrality of social media to state surveillance, community policing, and the rule of law in Eastlands, Nairobi.
Currently, we are at the APN Training Workshop on Writing and Dissemination for 2017 Individual Research Grant recipients where you have just given a lecture titled “Disseminating Research Findings through New and Social Media and Web-Based Platforms: What Works Best, Why and How?”
Could you comment briefly on the workshop in general and on the central message of your presentation?
The presentations given so far have been extremely informative with regard to the process of publishing, which is the second most important phase after scholars have collected data and research findings. They have to get it out there to policymakers and disseminate their research to the public and the academic community. We’ve had a series of lectures on how to go about publishing, where to publish once you’ve done your research, and how to reach out to those who need most to hear the results of our research.
The talk I gave was on how we can use mainstream media, social media, and other online platforms to disseminate our research. We understand that we live in a mediatized world and one of the things scholars should not do is to exclude themselves from this space. The public needs the results of our research, and we know for a fact that the academy has been accused of being an ivory tower which does not engage the public, from whom they gather this data. As such, we scholars have an obligation to the public when it comes to sharing the results of our research and should disseminate it as widely as possible so as to affect policy.
In closing, could you reflect on your experience as an APN grantee in 2014?
The unique thing about the APN is that it offers funding to scholars based on the continent, and in their own countries. This means that you don’t have to move to another country and leave your family and other obligations behind. The way in which it is tailored to fit into your own context makes it extremely efficient at supporting African researchers.
In my own experience, I was supposed to take up a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, which I could not manage due to family obligations in Kenya. It was actually the same research proposal that was later taken up by the APN, and I was able to do that research without the inconvenience of leaving the country. So, I did it in Kenya for six months, and it has led to many more opportunities for me, including many more publication opportunities. It has now led to this Facebook award. It is something that is growing each year.
Thank you for making time to speak with us.
Duncan Omanga is a lecturer and head of the Department of Publishing and Media Studies at the School of Information Sciences at Moi University, Kenya. He holds a Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Bayreuth (Germany) and has held a visiting fellowship at the Centre for Africa Studies at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom (2015-2016). He is also a columnist with East Africa’s leading daily, The Daily Nation, and the Standard. In 2018, Dr. Omanga received a research award from Facebook to conduct research on gangs, social media, and violent crime in Kenya; he has also received a British Academy Visiting Fellowship at the University of Cambridge (2018-2019). He is a 2014 recipient of the Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network Individual Research Grant.