Life as an APN Alumnus: An Interview with Kizito Sabala

Life as an APN Alumnus: An Interview with Kizito Sabala

The APN Team had the opportunity to sit down with Kizito Sabala, an Alumnus of the APN Collaborative Working Group Research Grant (2014-2016), at our recent conference on Peacebuilding in Africa: Sustaining Inclusive Civil Society Engagement. The conference took place in collaboration with the African Leadership Center and Wilton Park at Wiston House, West Sussex, England, in March 2017. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

APN Team: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. You have an impressive resume of working with regional organizations and international organizations and can be described as a scholar-practitioner. Do you have any advice for early-career academics hoping to influence policy with their research findings?

Kizito Sabala: The way I see it now, most people are no longer interested in those big issues. Rather than advising adults who have agency and the capability to make decisions and learn from errors, I feel they ultimately have to take responsibility for the decisions they make. The first thing is to challenge ourselves to elevate thinking beyond just the gut level, as this is very essential for the sustenance of humanity as a race.

Beyond that, multilateral institutions at different levels are essential, even more so now than before, because of the tensions that the world is going through. In that regard, they need human assets; they need minds that can help frame the work that they do in different areas. I think we get daunted by all the big names associated with multilaterals, because we think they have everything in terms of the intellectual and human assets they need to do their work. And the reality is, they don’t.

If it were not for committed researchers, all the progress in, say, the human rights of women and the integration of women into multilateral agency work, over the past quarter century would not have come to be. We owe such progress to those who thought it through and thought about how to translate such innovative thinking into the mechanisms of those institutions.

I do think a quantum leap has been made in several areas just in the African continent. For instance, the transformation from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU), the establishment of a regional mechanism for the protection of human rights on the continent, the regional courts and tribunals, and the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) have all been phenomenal institutional landmarks in the last twenty-five years. I’d like to think that the scope for the younger generation of intellectual actors, activists, thinkers, and researchers has been expanded, for them to build on these achievements.

Do you think there are areas of research that need to be focused on more?

I think the future of the continent, my continent, is going to be decided by its young people. The nexus between demography and peace and security is a huge concern for the sustenance of the African continent. Why do I say so? A lot of people think Africa is unoccupied, we just have barely one billion people and lots of open, unoccupied land, but a lot of the land is also desert or arid. Now you’ve got this rapidly growing population of young people with implications for regional peace and security, particularly for the sustainability of the political systems of the continent, and I don’t think a lot of thinking has gone into managing this phenomenon.

The implications for governance, for infrastructure, for peace and security provisioning, and for the future of the continent are formidable challenges. I do think that governance will have major implications for the future stability of the continent. There are also some old issues that are just not going to go away soon: uti possidetis, colonial boundaries, new states, Puntland and Somaliland, and secessionist movements in different places. It is not about new areas of research as much as it is about things that have salience for the future of certainly my own part of the world.

In terms of engaging youth in the search for solutions, are you seeing actual evidence that this is happening at any level? Are you seeing any youth groups actually being engaged by governments?

No, not at the level and in the manner that I would have wished for. The trend appears to be more towards patronizing young people. You see, some people come up to you and they tell you, “young man your time will come.” I don’t think I’m that young anymore quite honestly. I may not be fifty yet, but I am well over forty and so, I cannot be that young. But some people go around and patronize you in that manner, so I wonder what they do to twenty-something-year-olds. I left academia at the age of twenty-two because I didn’t think I had a future in a system in which people always thought of you as a child with no capacity of your own. I’d like to think that even a fifteen or twenty-two-year-old has some capacities, and you’ve got to listen to them. You’ve got to actually allow them to make mistakes; that’s the only way they are going to learn. Sometimes, you may disagree with them, but as long as it doesn’t hurt them and it doesn’t hurt any other person, let them learn from their mistakes. Now, we are not inclined to invite younger people into the spaces where major decisions are made. Even then, the few young people who ever get into these spaces are exoticized.

The young people are being excluded?

Absolutely. The only way you are going to change things, in my view, is to let young people be part of the decisionmaking. At the moment, this is not happening. Even more than that, their current participation is not preparing them for the reality that they will take over some day. The leadership replacement imperative is also not happening, and you can see that across the continent. Four presidents are over eighty, fourteen presidents are between seventy and eighty; the average age of an African president is about sixty-eight, in a continent where the median age is nineteen to twenty years. Now that tells you all that you’ve got know.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.


Kizito Sabala holds a PhD in Diplomacy and International Studies, an MA in Diplomacy and International Studies, an MA in Peace and Security Studies, and a BA in Economics and Sociology. He has over eighteen years of experience working both as a consultant and researcher on issues of peace and security in Africa, specifically in the Great Lakes region and Horn of Africa. He is reserved as the Head of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Liaison Office in Juba, South Sudan and previously served as the Head and Political Officer of IGAD's Nairobi Office. His primary research interests include the concept of human security, peace processes in the greater Horn of Africa, pastoralist livelihood, and regionalism. Dr. Sabala teaches at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies (IDIS), University of Nairobi. He is also a trainer on conflict and gender-sensitive approaches to development, humanitarian assistance, and peacebuilding including international mediation and negotiation. Dr. Sabala was a member of an APN Collaborative Working Group (CWG) (2014-2016) Research Grant (2014-2016), focused on “Issues and Challenges in the Domestication and Implementation of the Decisions of the AU Peace and Security Council by Member States and Regional Mechanisms.” He also recently co-authored an APN Policy Briefing Note on “Revisiting the Dismissal of the UNMISS Force Commander in South Sudan.”

Jocelyn Perry
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