I was a member of the first cohort of APN grantees in 2013. At the time, I was interested in the work of mediators involved in negotiating the release of individuals held for ransom in the Sahel. In the early 2000s, kidnappings for ransom targeted humanitarian workers, Western tourists, state officials, and many other individuals. Kidnapping was a lucrative source of funding for Al-Qaeda and other militant and criminal organizations across the Sahel.

I was also interested in high-level mediation in the Ivorian conflict (2002-2011). In the face of the many interconnected factors, both historical and methodological, and the complexity of the conflict in the Sahel, my research dealt at the time with a very small aspect of it, namely mediation as a mechanism of conflict resolution. Thanks to my involvement in APN-facilitated activities, I developed a more perceptive understanding of the mechanics of intervention and the internal/external dynamics, which allowed me to better situate my work in the broader landscape of peacebuilding. This prompted me to shift my attention to the geopolitics of security and the way it informs state and society relations in the Sahelian region.1Amy Niang, “Ransoming, Compensatory Violence, and Humanitarianism in the Sahel,” Alternatives, Global, Local, Political, 39 (4), 2014: 231-251; Amy Niang, “The Explosion of Seasons in the Sahel-Saharan Space: Proto-revolutions, Disintegrations and Socio-political Reconfigurations” Afrique Contemporaine, Vol. 245, Issue 1, 2013. 245: 53-69; Amy Niang, “Stateness and Borderness in Mediation: Productions and Contestations of Space in the Sahel” Adaption und Kreativität in Afrika, the German Research Foundation Working Paper Nr. 26, 2018; Amy Niang, “Mediations and Interventions in Cote d’Ivoire,” in Abu Bakkr Bah (ed.), International Intervention and State-Building: The Conundrums of Security and Peacebuilding, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2015, pp.154-93; Amy Niang, “The Political Economy of Ransoming in the Sahel” In Jennifer Lofkrantz and Ojo Olatunji (eds.) Perspectives on Historical and Contemporary Ransoming Practices. Trento: Africa Word Press, 2016 (in press); Amy Niang, “Blaise Compaoré in the Resolution of the Ivoirian Conflict: from Belligerent to Mediator-in-Chief,” APN Working Paper Series 2016; Amy Niang, Les identités sahéliennes en temps de crise. Histoires, enjeux et perspectives. Berlin: LiT Verlag, 2019 (with B. Lecoq); Amy Niang, “Understanding complex new wars in Africa: The Example of the Sahel” In Ismael Rashid and Amy Niang (eds.). Researching Peacebuilding in Africa. Reflections on Theory, Fieldwork and Context. London: Routledge, 2020, pp. 131-149. The Sahel is a complex ecological and political region whose long-term instability originates partly in the competing security objectives pursued by different actors, including Sahelian states, Sahelian populations, external actors, and insurgent groups. Security is therefore an important site of contestation whose examination can help better contextualize the growing militarization of civilian life, popular defiance against democratically elected governments, intercommunal violence, and worsening economic conditions.

I also realized that to use mediation theories in their own terms was to miss some of the crucial linkages between humanitarianism and forms of post-conflict trusteeship, including the less-obvious linkages between interventionism and the global governance order.

My interaction with the APN as a network of scholarship over the years thus enabled me to think critically about disparate aspects of my research in a broader and systematic manner. This reflects the key contributions of the network itself: building a community of African scholars that value mentoring, mutual support, and collaborative research and responding creatively and effectively to shifts in the field of peacebuilding in Africa.

In this short reflective piece, I focus on the value of thinking intentionally about scholarship within an intellectual community that is grappling with the characteristics and the requirements of an “emerging” field of research—African peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding is a field that analyzes the forces and dynamics engendered by social strife, namely the conditions that lead to conflict, the triggering factors, structural and historical antecedents, socio-economic pressures, and strategic political choices.

Given the sheer breadth of the field, the assumed extent of the known seems to be shrinking while the scope of the knowable stretches generatively as conflict across the world takes on increasingly complex forms. Therefore, the need to understand structural forces and the institutional imaginaries that underwrite the instrumentalization of ethnic, communal, national, racial, religious, and ideological differences has become ever more important. It is here that the contribution of the APN in supporting research that makes the interrelationships underpinning the various dimensions of conflict, its lives, and its genealogies more apparent, and in nurturing analytical and writing skills, field expertise, and evidence-based policy knowledge has been crucial.

As a reviewer and mentor who has had the privilege of seeing many projects for APN fellowships at different stages of conception and execution, I have gained insights into a myriad of themes, questions, and methodologies, including the familiar and unfamiliar ways that fellows grapple with the dynamics of research objects and subjects. As a growing number of African scholars come from the very communities they study, there is notable reflexivity on experience and knowledge,2Ismail Rashid and Amy Niang, “Introduction”, in, Ismail Rashid and Amy Niang (eds.), Researching Peacebuilding in Africa. Reflections on Theory, Fieldwork and Context. London: Routledge, p. 7. the limits of cultural knowledge that mandate total, unquestioned loyalty, and the dynamics of authority and authorial voice in the field of conflict, peace and security studies.

This is not a suggestion that insiders are uniquely equipped to decipher the invisible dimensions of conflict any more than it is a suggestion that their perception of security and insecurity tends to be grounded in a community’s experience. Their potential to disrupt enduring normative models—the kind that confines communities caught in conflict to objects of security and not subjects of security and turn “informants” into mere props in preordained scripts that produce “knowledge outcomes”—may reside in making apparent the unexceptional, universal nature of the motivations of actors in conflict. Furthermore, an insider’s knowledge can be an asset in negotiating etiquette, taboos, secrecy, and sacrality. On the other hand, it takes an outsider to make apparent the fact that no community is an isolated unit of bounded intelligibility.

Beyond the mechanics of data collection and the specificity of terrains of conflict, African peacebuilding is a field of study that confronts the question of the relationship between the scholar, the university, and society at large rather explicitly, which extends to the motivations and the responsibilities of the scholar, whether they are an insider or an outsider. For insiders, affective investment is a double-edged sword that can muddy the potential for great insights into subjective projections. Furthermore, conflict is a topic that exerts the mind; for better or worse, the terms of its possible resolution tend to guide the work of scholars from communities in conflict.

In the 1990s, an instrumentalist ambition underwrote concerted investment into the study of conflict, its genealogies, its causes, and manifestations. Peacebuilding research was to inform policy action and guide reform in post-conflict contexts. While this goal has not entirely disappeared, it is no longer driving the bulk of research in Africa thanks to opportunities for independent research such as the APN.

Equally, among African scholars, there is a growing awareness of how the persistence of the case study mode occludes greater intellectual fluidity and experimentation across disciplines. One such recurrent topic is linked to farmer-herder relations. From the Turkana Valley of Kenya to the Jos Plateau in Central Nigeria, from the Lake Chad region to the Niger River Valley, conflicts involving access to and use of natural resources such as land, water, and pastures tend to take similar forms. Across the continent, it is barely surprising that such conflicts develop and find expression along “ethnic,” “religious,” or “racial” lines. As these conflicts take on very similar patterns, one realizes the need to take a historically and conceptually grounded approach to their study. By and large, the management and the instrumentalization of difference in colonial and postcolonial states runs as a common root cause. However, the binary mold of data-driven case study and theory-driven analysis is steadily getting challenged.

Without institutionalizing a new field of study, it is fair to say that the APN has nonetheless been gradually shifting the center of gravity of peacebuilding research in Africa. After merely 10 years of existence, this is no small feat. By creating the conditions for the organic growth of a network of scholars and practitioners engaged in sustained intellectual exchange, it has prompted interrogation and critique of the very conditions of knowledge-making in a specific field.

One way in which intentional scholarly community building has been fostered within the APN is through collaborative projects such as the book I co-edited with Professor Ismail Rashid, who has been a great friend and mentor to me. Researching Peacebuilding in Africa3Ismael Rashid and Amy Niang (eds.), Researching Peacebuilding in Africa. Reflections on Theory, Fieldwork and Context. London: Routledge. is an example of sustained intergenerational and interdisciplinary dialogue across security studies, mediation and conflict resolution, humanitarian intervention, gender, and peacebuilding.

The APN is a community that overall fosters a positive attitude toward knowledge generated by Africans. Though this does not signal a significant departure from some of the practices that have contributed to keeping African scholarship relatively invisible (such as citation practices), a growing familiarity with names associated with specific fields of expertise over time contributes to the creation of certain intellectual promiscuity of minds.

At a time that calls for emancipatory and decolonized knowledge proliferate across various disciplines, peacebuilding research is also faced with a demand for accountability with regards to its established practices, from the assumptions that inform its key questions to the field’s complicity with interventionist policy. It is to be expected that the African Peacebuilding Network will continue to play an important role in the reform endeavor in the coming decades.

References   [ + ]