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Ulf Engel on responding to the changing nature of conflict through joint academic programmes

The role of academic institutions in tackling the intellectual challenge posed by Africa's peace and security dynamics


20 September 2017

In 2012, two joint academic programmes were launched by Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and Leipzig University in Germany. IPSS and the Global and European Studies Institute (GESI) created a joint MA on “Global Studies with a special emphasis on peace and security” and a related PhD programme on “Global and Area Studies”. Both programmes are fee-based and, in addition, financially supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Currently, the sixth cohorts of the international MA and PhD are enrolling students from Ethiopia, other African countries, and abroad.


The launch of the programme responded to the increasing demand for young, well-trained professionals in the field of peace and security under the specific conditions on the African continent. The number, nature and sociology of violent conflict on the African continent have changed over the past decade. First, based on data from the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a sharp increase in the number of violent conflicts can be seen around 2005, and it has since peaked further.

According to the Chairperson of the AU Commission, this first surge can be attributed to a combination of factors: electoral violence, debates over presidential term limits, coups d’etat, and other forms of unconstitutional changes of government (UCG). Another sharp escalation of violence can be observed in 2011 – a reflection of the dynamics unfolding during the Arab Spring, with popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and the war in Libya, but also with the rise of “terrorism” and “violent extremism” in the Sahelo-Saharan region.


Second, the nature of conflict has been changing. The latest detailed statutory report of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) on “its activities and the state of peace and security in Africa”, presented to the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in July 2017 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, lists the following permanent security concerns the Union is dealing with:

  • African peace support operations in Darfur (Sudan) and Somalia;
  • Oon-going conflicts such as in Abyei (Sudan), Libya, South Sudan and Western Sahara;
  • Border disputes between Eritrea and Djibouti;
  • Failure to implement peace accords in Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea Bissau;
  • Post-conflict situations in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia;
  • UCGs, inter alia in Burundi and the Central African Republic;
  • Terrorism and violent extremism, amongst others, in Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Uganda related to the activities of transregionally operating actors such as al-Mourabitoun, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, Ansar Dine, Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis (Egypt), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the so-called Islamic State Provinces (Sinai, Libya and Tunisia), al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).


In the past, “non-traditional security topics” of a transregional nature have been mentioned, such as the consequences of Ebola, El Niño and illicit financial flows. Many of these conflicts are addressed by the AU in partnership with the UN, the European Union and relevant Regional Economic Communities (RECs).


Third, the sociology of violent conflict on the African continent has also changed since the 1990s, from one that during the Cold War was dominated by ideological wars along the East-West divide, to so-called “new wars” around ethnic identities and the rise of non-state armed actors. Today, violent conflict in Africa is increasingly characterized by the following features at a minimum: violent actors have a multiplicity of roles e.g. they can be illegal traders, “rebels” or Jihadists; conflicts are dominated by transnational networks rather than clear-cut national groups e.g. Jihadists in Mali, Somalia, etc.; conflicts are increasingly happening at the margins of territories as well as in transnational and transregional spaces rather than in containerized units i.e. national or state-to-state based; “transterritorrial deployments” – meaning external actors deployed to Africa that maintain their external identity – play a bigger role (for instance, UN refugee camps, special forces of external countries such as the United States, mercenaries, international NGOs, etc.); and increasingly it seems that civilians, especially women and children, are targeted by armed groups, including systematic rape and massive displacements.


Against this background, institutions – from the AU to RECs, from national line ministries to security services, or from local civil society organizations to INGOs – are responding to Africa’s peace and security challenges in greater numbers. At the same time, the agenda for addressing these issues has been broadened: from peace-keeping to post-conflict reconstruction, from early warning and conflict resolution to mediation; but also including dealing with refugees, child soldiers, and woman in conflict.


The two programmes launched by Addis Ababa University and Leipzig University take a new intellectual approach to the study of peace and security challenges in Africa; combining the relatively new field of global studies with the already established field of conflict analysis, peace education and peace-building. In fact, these two academic perspectives complement each other. In order to understand the interwoven nature of contemporary conflict in Africa in its transnational and transregional dimensions, but also the historicity of violent conflict in each single case, it takes an approach that goes beyond the traditional ways of studying conflict.


The two universities combine knowledge stemming from decades of experience in peace and security studies i.e. empirical, critical, and transformative approaches. The way the field of global studies is systematically trying to make sense of transnational entanglements is a good example for the rising academic field of transregional studies. Dealing with today’s world makes it essential to rearrange the dialogue between what many people call the systematic disciplines and the various area studies. The joint Addis Ababa/Leipzig programmes are an exciting answer to these practical and intellectual challenges.


Ulf Engel

Institute of African Studies, University of Leipzig


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".