The Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) had the opportunity to sit down with APN Alumnus Dr. Azeez Olaniyan (Individual Research Grant recipient 2017), a senior lecturer at Ekiti State University, Nigeria. The interview was conducted on November 17, 2017, during the African Studies Association 60th Annual Meeting held in Chicago, USA, where Dr. Olaniyan was a presenter. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us about yourself, your research interests, and what you’re currently working on for your APN grant research project?

Dr. Azeez Olaniyan: I am a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Ekiti State University in Nigeria, where I have been on faculty since 2005. I completed my PhD in 2007 and I was awarded the APN Individual Research Grant in 2017.

I wrote my PhD dissertation on ethnic militancy in Nigeria. Since then my research interests have revolved around issues related to peace, conflict, violence, ethnicity, social movements, political ecology, and some elements of democracy and governance. But generally, I have focused more on conflict in Africa—Nigeria in particular. I’m interested in analyzing and understanding the causes of conflict and the various dimensions of conflict in Africa, and how we can interrogate this very disturbing phenomenon in order to develop policies that can help us manage and resolve it.

My APN research project has to do with conflict in the oil-bearing communities of Ondo state, Nigeria. In the southern part of the state, we have two ethnic communities that have oil in their region. Their relationship has been characterized by intermittent conflict and violence. The most recent conflict involving ethnic militias on both sides occurred over ten years ago. Although the war has officially ended, there are still important post-conflict developments that require further investigation. After the war, one would have expected that the ethnic militias would be demobilized and reintegrated into society, but what we observed was that the ethnic militias still exist within the communities and have not been fully disbanded. The evidence suggests that they have metamorphosed into “vigilantes” or armed “gangs,” constituting a challenge to order within society. There have been reported cases of armed robbery, kidnapping, and violent crimes believed to be perpetrated by some of these groups.

Despite their notoriety, there are still some people within the community who believe that these armed groups should continue to operate because of the persistent fear of an imminent attack from the other [rival ethnic] group. This suggests to us that the people do not trust in the country’s formal (state) security system. So how do we unpack and understand this complex dilemma? While the people know of the violent activities, including crimes perpetrated by members of these community-based gangs, they still look up to them for protection and security at the local level. It is this situation—where some rural oil-producing post-conflict communities rely on gangs made up of armed “ex-militants” for the protection of lives and property and maintenance of order, rather than state security personnel and police—that defines the research questions on which my project is based.

I seek to explain the paradox whereby ex-militias continue to enjoy legitimacy within sections of local communities as providers of “security,” while formal state security actors are largely absent, or viewed with suspicion. Fortunately, my proposal on the topic was approved for an APN award and I was given a generous grant to carry out the project. So far, I have done my literature review, field-based in-depth interviews, and data analysis, and I’m on the verge of compiling my findings and writing the report from the research.

It sounds like you had an opportunity to do great research. Other than the funding of your research, can you tell us about other exciting experiences you have had as an APN grantee?

Being an APN grantee has been a wonderful experience! I have benefited tremendously from the program’s capacity-building activities, particularly through the research methodology workshop that was organized for us in Ghana, which took us through the fundamentals and practicalities of fieldwork research. Although I have been teaching research methods for some time and have conducted fieldwork, the APN’s approach was different and went deeper, it exposed me to new ways of going about fieldwork.

The grant made it easy for me to gain access to and embed myself in the communities, and spend several weeks observing the field and conducting interviews with various actors. It made it convenient for me to do the research and I’m very pleased with the way the APN grant is administered. It goes beyond giving somebody a grant to equipping them to get the best results from fieldwork-based research. The APN has come at the right time to fill a huge vacuum in terms of conducting credible academic research in Africa.

Can you speak to some of the challenges African scholars face when conducting research in the continent?

Oh, there are several. We face infrastructural challenges made worse by the rapid growth in student enrollment in universities. We also have a problem with funding. Most of the universities in Africa don’t adequately fund research so you sometimes have to struggle to fend for yourself. In some cases, you have to use your salary to do research, which everybody knows may not be enough to do very good research. The lack of access to recent or up-to-date books and journals is another challenge. In some countries, you lack basic infrastructure, including a steady supply of electricity. So, it’s tough to be a scholar in a country like Nigeria, because while you want to compete with your colleagues all over the world who have these facilities, you face certain challenges. You have to put in a lot of effort and self-sacrifice to measure up to your colleagues all over the world. You have to work very hard to be exceptional in order to compete with scholars who have up-to-date information and facilities, including books, well-stocked libraries, high-speed internet, and adequate research funding.

Do you have any advice for people that are thinking about applying for an APN grant?

Yes, they should take the application process seriously and remain focused. Take my case for example—I applied three times and got it on my third try. I was determined to get the APN grant, so I kept applying. My advice is to prepare the proposal ahead of time. Give it a lot of time. I even shared drafts with some of my colleagues and mentors to read it and make comments and suggestions so I could fine-tune my proposal. I also did some preliminary fieldwork before I was able to write a convincing proposal. The APN also has a tradition of giving feedback on unsuccessful research proposals. Based on these, you can always make improvements.

My experience is a good example of what can happen when you don’t give up and continue to try. You need to strengthen your proposal, but proposals are not something you can write or revise overnight. It takes a lot of time and demands some rigor because you are competing with your colleagues from across the continent who are as brilliant as you are, if not more brilliant. So, you just have to be exceptional. The APN receives very many proposals every year and there is a limited number of people they can support with grants. So, your proposal must be exceptional, Also, it must be feasible—you must be able to write a proposal that the reviewers believe is doable since you will have to do fieldwork; this is not a speculative study. Once these qualities are present in your proposal, you likely stand a very good chance of receiving favorable consideration.

Azeez Olaniyan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, Nigeria. He is also the assistant director of the Institute of Peace, Security, and Governance at the same university. He completed his PhD in Political Science at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2007. He has received a number of grants and fellowships, including a 2017 APN Individual Research Grant; Research/Writing Fellowship from the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, University of Munich, Germany; the African Humanities Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (American Council for Learned Societies); Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa; and Graduate Summer Training Fellowship by the Factory of Ideas, Center for Afro-Asia Studies, Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil. He has also participated in the American Political Science Association (APSA) African Workshops program. His research interests include conflict and security studies, ethnic politics, social movements, and political ecology.