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The Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC’s) African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) programs hosted two panels at the 2022 African Studies Association (ASA) Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on November 17-19. The panels were an opportunity for current and former fellows of the program to showcase their research findings, connect with peers from across the world, and receive feedback from conference participants.
The first panel, titled “Digital Cultures, Voice and (New) Forms of Civic Participation in Africa,” was chaired by Dr. Duncan Omanga and featured Dr. Charles Prempeh (Next Gen fellow, 2016), Dr. Toyin Ajao (Next Gen fellow, 2015 and 2017), and Dr. Mohamed Bakhit (APN fellow, 2019). The panel’s thematic focus addressed emerging forms of political participation in Africa and the ways in which the interplay between the “offline” and “online” aspects of social movements are impacting and transforming political landscapes.
Dr. Prempeh’s presentation, titled “Digital Spaces, Democracy and Local/Diaspora Voices in Ghana,” began with a historical overview of youth participation in Ghanaian politics. He then identified the Vigilantism and Related Offences Act of 2019 as a watershed moment that led to youth political participation migrating to online spaces. Dr. Prempeh then highlighted the #FixTheCountry movement as evidence of how online civic activism has “broadened the frontiers” of political spaces and demanded accountability from Ghanaian political elites. He also emphasized the need for online youth movements to learn more about and develop effective strategies for incorporating “offline” modes of activism in order to increase their reach and efficacy.
Following Dr. Prempeh was Dr. Toyin Ajao, who discussed her paper titled “Citizen’s Collective Post-#ENDSARS Organizing: Lessons and Opportunities for Future Governance in Nigeria” and spoke to the criticality of the online aspect of the #EndSARS protests given the violent repression of protesters by state security forces. Dr. Ajao also discussed how the EndSARs movement’s decentralized nature and use of digital currency (Bitcoin) enabled protestors, particularly the feminist, youth-led coalition, to evade some of the state’s repressive tactics. She argued that digital platforms provided a forum for engaging in post-violence healing, trauma recovery, and collective well-being and mental health. Dr. Ajao concluded by underscoring the creativity of youth online organization and the opportunities such organization provides for organizing social activist campaigns.
Dr. Mohamed Bakhit presented his paper titled “A Revolution from the Centre: The Role of Digital Culture in Promoting Resistance During Uprising in Sudan 2018-22,” on the 2018-19 protests in Sudan, which led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, and revealed distinct differences in political participation by different socioeconomic groups. He engaged with the idea of “center versus periphery” in order to explain variations in how wealthier citizens in central Khartoum and “peripheral” groups in poorer, outer regions of the city engaged in the pro-democratic revolution. Dr. Bakhit pointed to how social media use among wealthier Sudanese and university students in Khartoum during the protests gave them a disproportionately loud voice, while those on the “periphery” relied more on “resistance committees” and family networks to sustain protests. He noted that the use of social media by wealthier groups risks privileging elite voices and prolonging the unaddressed grievances of marginalized populations. The panel concluded with a vibrant question and answer session that fostered spirited discussions on the prospects for social media as a tool for sustained and successful movement for political change in Africa.
The second panel, titled “Youth, Urban Mobilities and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Emerging Trajectories for Peace and Development in Africa,” was chaired by Dr. Cyril Obi and featured Dr. Irene Mngutyo (Next Gen fellow, 2015), Dr. Ibrahim Bangura (APN fellow, 2016), Dr. Simbarashe Gukurume (Next Gen fellow, 2015 and APN fellow, 2021), and Dr. Robert Ojambo (Next Gen fellow, 2012 and 2014). The panel focused attention on the challenges facing youth in urban spaces and the dynamism of youth participation in informal economies, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr. Mngutyo’s presentation on “Invisible Urbanites: Displaced Youth Mobility and Imperatives for Development, Peace, and Security in Nigeria” began by discussing conceptualizations of “youth” in Nigeria as an “under-utilized resource,” simultaneously seen as a strain on resources and the future of economic growth. Her paper focused on youth in the area surrounding Makurdi in central Nigeria, particularly those who have relocated to the city due to displacement by perennial flooding. Dr. Mngutyo emphasized how the camps where displaced youth live are devoid of economic opportunities and hostility from host communities, causing them to look towards Makurdi city in search of work, usually low-paying menial labor. Dr. Mngutyo concluded with several policy recommendations touching on education as a first-line approach for displaced youth facing social alienation and economic instability.
In his paper titled “Navigating a Complex Space: Youth, Urban Mobility and Marginality in COVID-19 Affected Sierra Leone,” Dr. Ibrahim Bangura began by highlighting how Sierra Leone’s prior experience with civil war and the Ebola epidemic had made the government and citizenry wary of Covid-19, which ultimately culminated in a harsh government response. His paper focused on how state response impacted urban youth largely employed in the transport industry, particularly based on the use of commercial motorbikes. It explored how young Sierra Leoneans struggled to maintain their livelihoods under repressive governance and arbitrary mobility restrictions. His presentation also traced the pre-existing and growing rifts between the youth and the central government, a dynamic which has only heightened tensions in economically unstable pandemic and post-pandemic conditions. Dr. Bangura wrapped up his presentation with a set of preliminary conclusions surrounding the willingness of youth to engage with the state and the lack of reciprocity on the part of the state.
Following Dr. Bangura was Dr. Gukurume, who presented his paper on “Negotiating Livelihoods in Pandemic Times: Experiences of Urban Youth in the Informal Economy in Zimbabwe.” Dr. Gukurume’s presentation focused on Mbare, one of the suburban areas of Harare, and how youth operating in informal economies survived during the pandemic. He began with a thorough historical description of Mbare as a town originally created to house male laborers during the colonial period and later a center for political resistance during the 1990s. The presentation also identified the impact of the state’s restrictive policies imposed on the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in exacerbating unemployment and poverty among urban youth. After detailing how the closure of businesses deemed “non-essential” and travel restrictions harshly impacted youth in Mbare’s informal economy, Dr. Gukurume provided a rigorous theoretical grounding in structuration theory and theories of agency, navigation, and everyday peacebuilding. He concluded by observing how the government’s repression of informal economies largely centered around issues of mobility versus immobility, a dynamic that led to conflicts and contestations between the state and youth, as well as creative methods of resistance and survival.
The final panelist, Dr. Ojambo, presented his paper titled “The Fight against COVID-19: Youth and the Emerging Trajectories for Peace and Development in Urban Spaces in Uganda,” which provides a context for the harsh lockdown instituted by the Ugandan government. The presentation explained that the state’s response to the public health crisis was based on a militarized approach wherein elements of state security forces handled health emergencies and operated health facilities. Echoing the previous presenters, Dr. Ojambo pointed to the impact of the state’s response to Covid-19 in the form of rapid and widespread unemployment of urban youth. He also highlighted lengthy school closures, which forced many young women to turn to prostitution and young men into delinquency and crime. Additionally, his presentation touched on the harsh usage of the pandemic to gag political opposition and forcibly detain critics of the government which, at some points, resulted in more deaths than the virus itself. Finally, Dr. Ojambo spoke about how the extent of the government’s response to the threat of the virus was disproportionate and resulted in a foundational disruption of the social, economic, and political lives of Ugandan youth.
The panel concluded with an animated question and answer section, which gave Dr. Obi and the audience the chance to help the presenters refine their arguments, develop further questions, and learn more about the diligent research conducted by the panelists.
Several other alumni of the programs also presented at ASA, including Fisayo Ajala (Next Gen fellow, 2019 and 2020). He presented his paper titled “The Agency of Political Widowhood: The Nigerian Military Widows Association in Perspective” at the panel African Women’s Agency and Empowerment: Critical Perspectives. He examined the role of the Nigerian Military Widows Association in supporting military widows, who tend to be abandoned by their families, and ensuring they get financial compensation to sustain themselves. He highlighted hierarchies within the association and the dilemma widows face in advocating for themselves, as confronting the military is often seen as confronting their husbands.
Finally, on Friday night, program staff and alumni attended a reception for Carnegie Corporation of New York-funded fellowships. Dr. Henrietta Nyamnjoh, a member of the APN Advisory Board and a former African Humanities Program (AHP) fellow, and Dr. Obi took the opportunity to speak to the groundbreaking impact of the SSRC’s fellowships funded by the Carnegie Corporation, namely the African Peacebuilding Network and Next Generation Social Science in Africa fellowships, and thanked the CCNY and assembled audience for their continued contributions to the overall success of the program in contributing to the research and the professional development of scholars in Africa.
As a whole, the program fellows’ presentations were resounding successes and contributed to a significant share of the African voices present at the conference. The impact of their research was appreciated by the assembled scholarly community, and new networks and collaborative relationships were formed across the three days of the conference.