Life as an APN Alumnus: An Interview with Dr. Amy Niang
The African Peacebuilding Network (APN) recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Amy Niang, an APN Alumnus (IRG 2013) and senior lecturer in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Dr. Niang was in Washington, D.C., for a conference on “Militancy and Conflict in the Sahel and Maghreb,” hosted at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in collaboration with the APN. We conducted this interview following her panel at the conference on April 12, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.
APN Team: Thank you so much for traveling from South Africa to be here with us today. Could you please tell us about your research and APN-supported project?
Dr. Amy Niang: Thank you. My APN-supported research focused on personalized mediation in the context of the Ivorian conflict, particularly looking at the different mediators involved in trying to broker the peace process and the different strategies they employed at different stages. I focused my study on Blaise Compaoré and partly on Thabo Mbeki as he had been a peace envoy to Cote d’Ivoire before Compaoré. It’s a bit of an oxymoron to think of “personalized mediators” because mediators are always individuals, even though they may have mandate from a particular institution. Generally, the head of state who is close to the case or the country is dispatched. For Côte d'Ivoire, Blaise Compaoré was seen as the perfect person to send there, as he had a stake in the conflict; some would say he was a sponsor of the rebellion, therefore a key actor. A peace process could therefore not be carried out without his input.
To make a long story short, I tried to articulate an argument around the importance of the kind of input that individual mediators can be expected to have, that they might have some kind of sovereignty regardless of the nature of the mandate that is entrusted to them. This is the basis of the working paper I wrote for the APN, and that of a couple of other papers I have written. The good thing about the APN grant is that it worked like a starter grant that got me interested in a number of topics related to mediation and conflict in the Sahel. The kind of work I’m doing now around armed groups in the center and north of Mali also comes out from this research. That is to say, my APN-supported research did not stop at the working paper or a chapter published here or there, but it provided me the impetus to expand on my research on the Sahel.
Shifting gears a bit, can I ask you about your experience as an APN grantee? What did you find to be most meaningful about the process and what impact did it have on your research?
I like the fact that the APN is trying to make African scholarship more visible. There’s a lot of very good research being done on the continent, but the political economy of knowledge production is such that if you can’t get past the gatekeepers of big publishing houses, presses, or journals, you’re never going to get your work read by colleagues. Unfortunately for African scholars, a combination of things is preventing our research from being as visible as that of our colleagues from the North. To be successful, you need to be part of important debates taking place in your discipline. There often is a lack of familiarity with some of the methodologies and the ways in which findings are packaged in different disciplines. The language used to present one’s research is very important, the way therefore that research is framed to make it speak to different audiences. This requires being conversant with particular methodologies and disciplinary practices that aren’t necessarily taught in African universities.
All of this requires that a program like the APN allows African scholars to not only be able to conduct research but also to learn different strategies and ways of disseminating their research. For me, that was very important—the possibility to make African research more visible in the global space of intellectual exchange.
Second, what’s also been important for me is that this was not just a grant that you receive and then, “thank you, go do your research.” No, it doesn’t stop there. It’s a sustained process where you are encouraged to be part of a network of scholars. You get to know colleagues with whom you can collaborate from all over the continent. We also have this mentorship program that is tremendously important. Being based in an African university, I know how important mentorship is and what a difference it can make in the lives of young scholars. As an alumnus, I have a strong desire to nurture and to grow young scholars into more confident, more knowledgeable scholars, even in just knowing how to navigate the world of academia.
I also like the fact that APN offers an opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and policy. African governments and institutions need scholars to better inform their policy, scholars that are able to tap into very different contexts and disciplinary perspectives to inform policy. For me, all of these things were quite important and make the APN quite different from other funding bodies.
On that point, do you have any advice for future APN applicants or other rising African scholars interested in the field of peacebuilding research?
One thing that is very important to me—no matter the circumstances or lack of preparedness—is that African scholars have to do very good research. This is one area where you can’t compromise. As we’ve seen here today, people are really keen to hear what Africans scholars working in the field have to say about the contexts they have been researching as well as their insights. Many people conduct research on Africa, but it’s not always the case that African voices are heard. It is important, then, from the perspective of an African scholar that we speak in a way that is informed by serious scholarship.
It’s also very important to get plugged into networks and conferences in relevant disciplines, but this can be very expensive to do. You can’t just go to the African Studies Association Conference in the United States easily, given the costs of travel and registration and expensive hotels. Occasionally, it is possible to secure grants for such meetings, as many African universities often lack funds to support these types of cost.
Also, I would suggest to scholars to look for mentors. Obviously not everyone has access to people who can mentor and not all senior colleagues are willing to play that role. Sometimes you just need to be brave and email somebody and say, “I need help, can we please chat?”
That is all great advice. Finally, what are some projects that you are working on currently or that you are interested in working on in the future?
At the moment, I’m working on two or three things. One is a book on sovereignty and statehood in pre and postcolonial Africa. I have completed the writing process. The second is a project on identity and ethnicity in the Sahel, which has come out of the APN grant as a larger project. As part of this project, I co-organized a workshop last year in Bamako around ethnicity and crisis in the context of the Sahel. Colleagues from different parts of the world attended, and I am working with my co-organizers on editing the proceedings of that meeting to create an edited volume. My larger, long-standing interest is in the international relations of Africa, so that is something I’ve been working on for a while and hopefully something will come out of it in the form of a book in the next couple of years.
Thank you so much, and we look forward to reading more of your work.
Dr. Amy Niang is a political scientist with an interest in three broad areas, namely the history of state formation and related ideas of sovereignty, statehood, community, and order; the notion of the “international” in theory and practice; and Africa in/and International Relations. Her current project examines the history of the “international” as a concept and a normative field, and how “Africa” as an idea and place has featured into it. She joined the Department of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa as a lecturer in 2011 after completing an MA in Political Economy at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, and a PhD in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Dr. Niang’s dissertation examined state and social processes in the Voltaic region of West Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries. She is a 2013 recipient of the Social Science Research Council’s APN’s Individual Research Grant.