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Cyril Obi on how conflict threatens the capacity building of academic institutions

The piece focuses on the intellectual dimensions of Africa’s response to the emerging complex trajectories of conflict on the continent, by interrogating the role of academic institutions in producing the knowledge and people-power necessary for addressing the challenges posed by Africa’s peace and security dynamics.


08 November 2017

There is a growing consensus that Africa’s peace and security terrain is in a state of flux. In spite of the good news of rising economic growth rates, and the fact that violent conflict on the continent is in decline (Burbach 2016; Aall 2016), its emerging dynamics suggest complex changes in the nature, scope and impact of violent conflict. The new trajectories of conflict, partly due to the emergence of new (non-state) local and transnational actors, proliferation of small arms, and democratic deficits among other factors, also feed into multiple local pressures and the effects of globalization to fuel tensions that sometimes escalate into full-blown conflict with implications for regional and global security. Although the continent has demonstrated great innovativeness in norm formation and establishing various peace and security frameworks, the threat that mutations of conflict may outpace the capacity of these frameworks and mechanisms to respond, build and deepen peace persists. Addressing this threat poses a potent challenge at the policy, intellectual, institutional, and operational levels.


This piece focuses on the intellectual dimensions of Africa’s response to the emerging complex trajectories of conflict on the continent, by interrogating the role of academic institutions in producing the knowledge and people-power necessary for addressing the challenges posed by Africa’s peace and security dynamics. It assumes a primary role for Africa’s institutions of higher education and training in relation to strengthening the continent’s capacity to respond to the complex challenges of peace and security on the continent, which also translates into a putative strategic partnership between African scholars/trainers and practitioners/policy makers. It is a partnership that is linked to how the emerging peace and security dynamics is understood, how knowledge/responses are/can be produced/framed and, most importantly, and building up people-power through education/training in skills necessary for the policy making and implementation institutions in the field of peace and security. While it may be tempting to go the way of adopting a binary between the knowledge production and instrumentalist/problem-solving approaches to the role of academic/training institutions, this essay will explore a more nuanced perspective, pointing to the connections and synergies between both approaches, navigating between the “hard and soft approaches” (Albert 2017: 3), and the “politics of research-based evidence in African policy debates” (Broadbent 2012: 1-5).


As noted earlier, Africa has demonstrated normative and institutional innovativeness in responding to the peace and security challenges confronting the continent. These include the establishment of the following: the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), African Governance Architecture (AGA), AU Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development (AU-PCRD), Silencing the Guns 2020, and Agenda 2063. Several commentators have rightly noted the gap between the rather lofty goals of these innovative frameworks and initiatives and the reality on the ground, not to mention that between the world of academy and policy makers, an aspect of which is aptly captured by Albert (2017) in his recent study on the gap between the  “field and the classroom”. 


Several commentators have pointed to the rapid growth of “mainstream peace institutes” in Africa particularly since the 1990s (Albert 2017; Omeje 2014). It is a trend that cuts across many African countries, including: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.  The institutions and African universities have focused their efforts largely on learning, knowledge production, and equipping students/course participants with the required tools and skills to flexibly apply their skills and knowledge to the fields of conflict prevention, peace and security. Albert zeros in on the key role of academic/training institutions in providing peace education in ways that enhance the “ability to do scientific analysis of conflict and peace, to design an intervention that works, to monitor and evaluate intervention programmes, and to write peacebuilding reports and policy briefs among others” (2017:12). The observation by the director of one of Africa’s foremost institutes with an AU mandate for its “Africa Peace and Security Programme”, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at the University of Addis Ababa, Dr. Kidane Kiros, underscores the critical role of training institutes and universities in tackling African peace and security challenges. In his words, “As one of the premier institutes on peace and security, IPSS has for the last 10 years actively contributed to the peace and development of the continent. In addition, through education, research, policy dialogues and outreach, the institute has left its mark on the initiatives, implementation and assessment of regional and continental policies on peace and security” (Quoted on IPSS Press Release 2017).


While it is apposite to speak to the important roles African academic and training institutions play in knowledge production and the development of skills needed by scholars and practitioners alike, it is equally relevant to briefly identify some of the challenges that may impact the capacity of African institutions to set the continent’s peace and security intellectual agenda, and play their expected roles as centres of excellence or world-class centres of learning and practice. These include issues of capacity, resources (human and material), developing relevant and innovative content of curricula for peace education, organizational politics, and structural constraints on access to regional and global systems and centres of global discourse and power, knowledge production and the dissemination of Africa’s knowledge products. Also of note is the “tricky” question of how to navigate between the demands of “independent” and “policy-engaged” research and knowledge production, which African institutions must necessarily navigate and negotiate on a case by case basis. Beyond these formidable challenges lie broader political, social and economic issues at the national and regional levels. Of note, particularly in post-conflict or conflict-affected African countries, are the legacies of militarism and the persistence of “cultures” of violence (Omeje 2014, 2015) which represent both a hindrance as well as an opportunity for African institutions to tackle some of the root causes of violent conflict on the continent. African academic and training institutions must necessarily contribute to conflict transformation not only by envisioning the key elements of their transformatory roles in defining, debating and shaping the intellectual and policy agendas for tackling the continent’s peace and security challenges, but in mobilizing the necessary partnerships, synergies and resources that will produce the next generation of African peacebuilders.


Cyril Obi

Program Director, African Peacebuilding Netowrk

Social Science Research Council (SSRC)



Albert, Isaac. 2017. Teaching Peacebuilding in African Universities: Bridging the Gap Between the Field and the Classroom, African Peacebuilding Network, APN Working Paper No. 13.

Broadbent, Emma. 2012. “Politics of research-based evidence in African policy debates”, Evidence-Based Policy in Development (ebpn), London: ODI,

Burbach, David. 2016. “The Coming Peace: Africa’s Declining Conflicts, Sustainable Security; (accessed October 10, 2017).


About this series

IPSS is celebrating its 10th year anniversary in 2017. As part of our celebrations, we invited select individuals who have contributed to the success of IPSS and who have also made an impact in the area of peace and security in Africa to contribute an article on the anniversary's theme: "The role of academic institutions in tackling the intellectual challenge potsed by Africa's peace and security dynamics".