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The Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) program hosted a panel at the 5th Biennial Conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (#ASAA2023) under the theme: “Repatriating Africa: Old Challenges & Critical Insights.” The event was co-organized by the ASAA in partnership with New Horizons University (UNH) and the Arrupe Center for Research and Training (CARF), in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from October 25-28, 2023. The panel was an opportunity for former fellows of the program to showcase their research findings, connect with peers from across the world, and receive feedback from conference participants. It was a well-attended event, with about 60 people in the audience.
The panel was organized under the “restoration” axis of the conference on the theme: “Reinvigorating the Politics of Freedom, Unity and Development in Africa: Mapping Emerging Pathways for Social Transformation and Dignity.” In the first presentation on “Eastern and Western Congolese in Cape Town: Ethno-regional Identity Politics and Refugee ‘Papers’ among Congolese Migrants,” Dr. Rosette Sifa Vuninga (2016-18 APN CWG Fellow; 2020 and 2023 Next Gen fellow) explored the home region politics with which Congolese negotiate their refugee status in South Africa. She discussed the regionalization of the DRC war/conflict in the determination of the refugee status of Congolese migrants in South Africa and how it has contributed to the reproduction of East/West identity discourse and tensions of post-Mobutu Congo among Congolese living in South Africa. Focusing on Cape Town, Dr. Vuninga contended that the question regarding which region of the DRC one hails from and how directly the conflict has affected Congolese is not just a crucial factor in the outcome of a refugee status application, but it is also fueling discrimination against Congolese from regions other than eastern Congo and is serving to distinguish between Congolese refugees and non-refugees.
Dr. Erick Sourna Loumtouang (2020 APN IRF Fellow) spoke on “Africa, From the ‘Field of Experience’ to the Field of Power: Understanding the Interplay of International Actors in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.” He noted that Western powers’ formerly exclusive spheres of influence in Africa are now being shared with new state actors with varied profiles that are neither Western nor democratic. Their eruption on African soil owes its advent in large part to the emergence of new utopias that have their roots in the contestation of the Western monopoly and the sovereigntist desires of some African states facing the challenges of development and the aftermath of international terrorism. Dr. Loumtouang’s presentation mapped identified actors and established a framework for analyzing this renewed scramble for Africa and its multiple and varied implications for security, democracy, economy, and technology vis-à-vis Africa’s agency and capacities for initiatives to derive maximal benefit from these incursions.
The third presentation by Dr. Joyce Agofure (2022 APN IRF fellow) on “Revisiting Development in Africa through Creative Writing” underlined the power inherent in creative writing as a tool to rewrite narratives of Africa and its development and redress negative stereotyping of its advancement despite its richness in diversity, resources, and opportunities. According to Dr. Agofure, creative writing can help foster growth in Africa by highlighting ideals, the value of cultural history, and collective experiences. African writers can promote cooperation by using literary forms to spread themes of progress. Drawing on literary works like Wangari’s Maathi’s Unbowed, Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness, and
Ahlam Mostaghanmi’s Memory in the Flesh, Dr. Agofure illustrated how African writers emphasize social problems as well as remedies that enhance progress, noting that Africa can be a place of advancement. This paper emphasizes that African writers can accentuate shared values and solutions for societal challenges geared toward a better future for all Africans. She concluded that it is time to embrace the power of creative writing to reposition the African space as a hub for development.
Dr. Nicodemus Minde (2013 APN IRG Fellow; 2017, 2018, and 2019 Next Gen Fellow) presented on “Performing the Union: National Rituals and Negotiating the United Republic.” He spoke about nation and state-building from the inception of the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964 through to modern-day Tanzania, juxtaposing the multiple and bifurcated identities that have been produced and performed throughout the country’s history as illustrated by affinities to political parties and more seemingly banal activities like who is chosen to represent the national football team. In light of the reignited question of the status of Zanzibar in the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar following the 2011-2014 constitution review process, Dr. Minde explored the different ways the Union has been performed through contemporary national rituals such as the opening of parliament, national celebrations, national funerals and sports, and the inclusion of Zanzibari leaders in national events.
Dr. Titilope F. Ajayi (2017 APN IRG Fellow; 2016 and 2019 Next Gen Fellow) gave the final presentation on “Gender and Political Change in Africa: Lessons for Future Pan-Africanism from Women’s Transnational Organizing,” a discussion of ongoing research on the erasures and silencing of African women’s roles in both the ideation, performance, advocacy, and movement-building around Pan-Africanism from hegemonic historical narratives. Noting that the concept of Pan-Africanism has evolved on the continent since its independence heydays, Dr. Ajayi remarked the arrogation of allied debates by states and statist organizations like the African Union (AU) to the exclusion of ordinary Africans and the gender deficiency in recent more populist notions. Drawing on her research on African women’s transnational activism, she shared that Blackness and Africanness were major motivating factors for women supporting movements, like Bring Back Our Girls, globally, suggesting that such movements could offer insights into the reconceptualization of Pan-Africanism in informal spaces that is more relatable for ordinary Africans on the continent and in its Diasporas.
Dr. Chenai Matshaka-Munyaka (2017 and 2019 Next Gen Fellow) wrapped up the panel as a discussant. She noted that the presented papers critically unravelled some of the key concerns plaguing Africa today comprising politics of identity, including views of the self and other, insider-outsiderhood, changing notions of belonging, and perceptions of the contexts in which these identities are constructed and performed. She noted that the panel also identified other themes, notably of external threats and emerging identities afflicting and impacting the post-colonial African state, politics of migration, victimhood and woundedness, and questions of nationhood and unity within the context of diverse identities. Dr. Matshaka-Munyaka observed that the panel explored the layered and intersectional meanings of what it means to be African, stating that these issues are complex and diverse, and that their occurrence at the intersections of legacies of the colonial past and changing global political dynamics poses numerous threats to Africa’s development. She pointed out that although the panellists’ presentations illustrated how narratives of instability, violence and subjugation have shaped African identities, these are not the only narratives that define the continent and its citizens. She also noted that the papers motivate a rethinking or re-imagining of the conception of development in Africa as well as its roots in Western norms and ideals. She opined that African-centered scholarship represents an opportunity to counter hegemonic narratives by, for example, using creative writing to re-tell the African story from perspectives of hope, unity, resilience, and changing the collective identity of the continent. Dr. Matshaka-Munyaka concluded that the panel underwrote not only the scholarship that unpacks Africa’s identity politics, but further contributed to rethinking Africa’s development by critically engaging with renewed threats and opportunities as they present themselves in the identities of multiple actors and ideologies.
The panel concluded with a lively panel-audience interaction, which made clear that the presentations were well received and the questions they raised around nationalism, identity, belonging, authenticity, inclusion, diversity, and citizen-led political change resonated with a wide range of delegates from different countries and cultural and political contexts. The discussions also offered an opportunity for panelists to refine concepts and further clarify their research findings and implications for scholarship and policy.
Over the four days of the conference, fellows formed new networks and collaborative relationships among the multilingual and multidisciplinary scholarly and creative community