The Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded 60 years ago, precisely in 1959. Since then it has undergone various changes and carried out huge scientific research on Africa.
Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, the deputy director, discusses some aspects of its most current achievements, challenges and the future. Here are excerpts from the interview conducted by Kester Kenn Klomegah:
Institute for African Studies marks its 60th year. Can we look at its performance, at least, during the past five years? What are the landmarked activities during the past half a decade?
The 60th anniversary is a good reason for looking both back at the results to date and ahead. If I could speak further about the achievements of the most recent years, I would mention first and formost, we try our best to organize fieldwork in Africa, although we are limited in our possibilities rather rigidly.
The landmark activities during the last five years in the academic sphere are as follows: the 13th and 14th conferences of Africanists (2014, 2017) – this is the Institute’s “brand conference”. Every time, it brings together about 500 participants from all over the world, including many African countries. The next, 15th, conference will take place in May 2020; 48 panels with about 10 presentations in each are included into its preliminary program.
In the last five years, several important conferences were organized together with foreign partners – from Slovenia, Portugal and, what is especially important, from Tanzania. The conference took place in Dar es Salaam in March 2019 and brought together scholars from 13 states. The next conference in Tanzania is scheduled for November 2020.
Several dozen books have been published in the last five years, among probably the most important of which are: Federalism in Africa: Problems and Prospects (in Russian and English), edited by Igho O. Natufe and Khristina M. Turyinskaya (2015), Tropical Africa: Evolution of Political Leadership (in Russian) by Tatiana S. Denisova (2016), Islam, Global Governance and the New World Order (in Russian) by Leonid L. Fituni and Irina O. Abramova (2018).
Assess the importance of its research, in form of consultancy, for government institutions and private both in Russia and Africa?
This importance is definitely growing, especially in the most recent years. State institutions and business companies seek the Institute’s consultancy services more and more often nowadays. In particular, the Institute played an important role in the preparation of the Russia-Africa summit in October 2019.
As we are a research institution, my firm belief is that just academic research should be our primary task. The situation has been changing during the last few years. Today the importance of Africa for Russia in different respects, including political and economic, is recognized by the state, and the Russian Foreign Ministry and other state institutions dealing with the Russian-African relations in various spheres, not just purely political, ask us for our expert advice on different points quite often.
What are the current challenges and hindrances to research Africa these years? Do you have any suggestions here on how to improvement the situation?
The situation now is much better for African studies than for a long time before. In particular, today there are much more opportunities for doing fieldwork in Africa. Russian Africanists and their work are becoming better known in the global Africanist community. Quite a lot of junior researchers join the academy nowadays. In my assessment, African studies in Russia are on the right road.
The challenges our African Studies are facing now are the same as the whole Russian Academy are facing, and they are mainly related to the bureaucratic pressure on research institutions.
How about academic cooperation with similar institutions inside Africa? Do you exchange researchers and share reports with African colleagues?
At the moment, the Institute has Agreements on Cooperation or Memorandums of Understanding with 18 universities and research institutes from 12 African states and currently there are negotiations with two more institutions from one more country.
As noted above, many African scholars come to our conferences, and we had and will have jointly organized conferences with particularly Tanzanian partners. Our partners help organize the Institute researchers’ fieldwork in their countries the outcome of which, besides other points, are joint publications (for example, with our colleagues from Tanzania and Zambia).
It is important to say that African colleagues regularly publish their articles in “The Journal of the Institute for African Studies”. We also have book exchange programs with some of our African partners. However, we do not have well-established exchange of researchers with our African partners, especially because of financial difficulties from both sides.
Besides, I must say that not all African partners, even those with whom we have official Memorandums of Understanding or Agreements on Cooperation, are really active in supporting ties with us, some of them do not initiate any joint projects and remain passive when we propose something. Nevertheless, we do have good and diversified ties with many African partners.
And the future vision for the IAS? How would you like the IAS transform, or say, diversify its activities especially now the Kremlin prioritizes Africa?
As I see it, the Institute’s forseeable future will be based on two main developments. On the one hand, it will more and more become a “think tank” for the state and business, and most probably, this development will dominate.
On the other hand, I hope the Institute will remain as a research institution where fundamental studies into different aspects of African and African diaspora’s past and present are done. The Institute for African Studies has the potential and capacity for combining both trends at a high level and far into the future.
As it becomes clearer from the discussion, I see the prospects for the Institute’s further development, in attracting more young researchers with their energy and new visions and approaches, in extending fieldwork in Africa, and in broadening international cooperation with Africanists worldwide.
South Sudan: Progress on peace agreement ‘limps along’
Although the transitional government in South Sudan continues to function, with state governors now appointed, among other developments, progress on the 2018 peace agreement “limps along”, the top UN official in the country told a virtual meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday.
David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), updated ambassadors on the country’s ongoing political and security situations, which are unfolding amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an upturn in inter-communal violence in Jonglei and other states.
“COVID-19 has slowed implementation of the peace agreement, including meeting key benchmarks, but the pandemic is not entirely to blame”, he said, speaking from the capital, Juba.
“We are seeing a reversion to ‘business as usual’ where progress on the peace agreement itself limps along.”
The peace agreement was the latest deal in efforts to end political infighting and violent conflict in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation.
The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into chaos roughly two-and-a-half years later following an impasse between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar.
Progress ‘painfully slow’
Today, South Sudan now has five vice presidents who head clusters of ministries where activities are progressing well, according to Mr. Shearer.
“Elsewhere, however, progress has been painfully slow”, he reported. “Cabinet meetings occur irregularly, and the South Sudanese want to see the President and vice presidents meeting and working collectively.”
Meanwhile, there has been “almost no movement” on security sector reform, while the Transitional National Legislative Assembly has yet to be reconstituted, which is delaying progress on the Constitution.
Mr. Shearer said these continuing delays risk pushing elections out well beyond the timeline prescribed under the agreement, which will only add to the people’s growing disillusionment.
Inter-communal tensions remain high
The UN mission chief also briefed on the violence among Nuer, Murle and Dinka communities in Jonglei State over the past six months, which has left 600 people dead and homes torched, with women and children kidnapped. The situation has since calmed though tensions remain high. Mr. Shearer said a recent meeting among senior leaders, organized by UNMISS, was encouraging.
However, the mission was thwarted in attempts to deploy peacekeepers following attacks launched by the National Salvation Front armed group in areas of Central Equatoria state, which were met by heavy government fire.
“For the past three weeks, the usual mechanisms through which UNMISS coordinates its movement have seriously deteriorated. COVID-19 can be partly blamed but the influence of hardliners in the security forces is the principal obstacle,” he said.
Later in the meeting, South Sudanese activist and feminist, Nyachangkuoth Rambang Tai, shared her concerns about the ongoing inter-communal violence and the need for greater women’s participation in governance and peacebuilding.
She called on the international community to urgently support local civil society organizations, particularly those led by women.
“Another way to help address the cycle of violence is to ensure transitional justice is made a priority. We cannot except citizens who lost their loved ones, or whose loved ones have been killed, to forgive and move on without healing and accountability. This is unrealistic and will only encourage conflict,” said Ms. Tai, the Gender and Social Justice Manager with Assistance Missions for Africa.
Violence impacts humanitarians
Mr. Shearer outlined how South Sudan is faring in the wake of recent floods affecting some 500,000 citizens.
On Wednesday, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that it is reaching vulnerable families with urgently needed assistance.
Aid workers have been striving to help communities impacted by the flood waters, as well as the violence, and now the pandemic. Sometimes they pay a heavy price, as Mr. Shearer pointed out.
“This year, seven aid workers have tragically lost their lives and another 144 have been evacuated because of sub-national violence”, he said.
“This meant an upturn in violence stemming from splintering between and within groups. The difference this year is that external political actors are fuelling these local conflicts with military advice and with heavy weapons.”
Millions in need
COVID-19 has only added to the ongoing suffering in South Sudan. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator reported that during the annual hunger season a few months back, some 6.5 million people, or more than half the population, faced severe food insecurity.
“Overall this year, 7.5 million people now need humanitarian assistance –and that’s close to levels in 2017 when we warned of famine”, Mark Lowcock told the Council. He added that some 1.3 million under-fives are forecasted to be malnourished: the highest figure in four years.
The UN relief chief urged ambassadors to fund a $1.9 billion response plan to meet the ever-growing needs.
Changes at POC sites
With the transitional government in place and a ceasefire holding, the UN Mission in South Sudan is looking at how to better support peace efforts and protect civilians.
More than 180,000 people are still living in Protection of Civilian (POC) sites at five UNMISS bases across the country, and Mr. Shearer said the conditions which led to their establishment no longer exist.
As a result, UNMISS has gradually withdrawn its troops and police from “static duties” at the Bor and Wau POC sites, following consultations with the Government and others, including displaced persons.
“The spike in subnational violence is occurring in remote areas, not near our POC sites. Therefore, we have to deploy our forces to provide protection where there is greatest need,” he said, emphasizing the need for the UN force to be robust, nimble and proactive.
Mr. Shearer explained that following the gradual withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, the POC sites will be under the control of the Government.
He stressed that no one will be pushed out or asked to leave when this transition occurs, while humanitarian services will continue.
Why Young African Scholars Must Engage the Law and Politics of Africa through New Perspectives
The Year of Africa was a powerful phase, a transitional moment that saw Africa in liberated black and white images. In one, a woman wearing sunglasses and sitting astride a motorcycle scooter communicated freedom and a promise of a bold future.In another, a smiling, young woman in a polka dot dress wore Independence in a sash, followed by a happy crowd. In yet another, a grinning man borne on the shoulders of two other men in a throbbing crowd, carried a placard that read: COMPLETE INDEPENDENCE 1961. It was the year that saw seventeen African states begin a journey of black statehood. Those images were metaphors of liberty in a continent that had been kept away from deciding the course of its own destiny. 1960 was a beginning and the end of the African struggle.
It was the beginning of the African struggle because Africans in the independent states were transitioning from struggling against colonialism to contending against the political realities of their post-independent states. And it was the end, because those Africans didn’t have to contend against colonialism any more. In the true picture of things, it was a transition from the political control of people who sought the wealth of the continent to a struggle with murderous regimes, and the sad realization of the true damage that colonialism had wreaked in the political arrangement of the people.In Nigeria, it was the beginning of the weaponization of ethnicity and of resentful distrust in state politics.
Africa in the 1960s was a dramatic spectacle of violence, new beginnings and the creation of histories that has informed the present. Independence movements aspired towards liberated African states. The consciousness of colonial restraints inspired actions that marked the trajectory of the continent’s destiny. The political history of Africa’s becoming is a timeline of seesaw moments. Dictators have risen and have fallen in the hubris of forgetfulness thatthe powers that saw to their rise could see to their fall. The legal systems, processes, institutions and the politics of Africa were forged in the turbulence of African history.
Today it is easy to say that Africa has made progress in its strides towards social and political evolution, but the past is a mirror of solutions to present problems. This is why it has become imperative for newer approaches to emerge in the study of law and politics in the context of Africa. Founded in 2020 by me, the Carnelian Journal of Law and Politics is Africa’s response to the need for new insights on law and politics in the African context. This new journal gives young African researchers the opportunity to contribute top quality perspectives to the discourse on the law and politics of Africa. This is important as newer voices are needed to give an inter-generational balance to the debate on African law and politics. And this is why the journal has emerged to bridge the scholarly gap.
A Tale of Two Sudans
For the first time in decades, Sudan is on a path to peace and democracy, turning the fall of a dictatorial regime into a reckoning with entrenched societal fissures and the overhaul of the institutions that reinforced them. On the other hand, South Sudan and its unity government, once a darling of western governments and NGOs as a model for religious freedom and democratic potential, continues to struggle to build peace and stability in the absence of any consolidated, legitimate institutions of authority.
It may be time to re-examine what we think we know about the war that split them apart.
Sudan: A Case for Cautious Optimism
Since the 2019 protests and coup that ended the repressive 30-year reign of dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s transitional government is slowly working to undo decades of damage and emerge from isolation.
In recent weeks, Sudan has signed successive peace deals with rebel forces addressing grievances that have long inhibited a permanent resolution to the conflict. The agreements separate religion from the state and establish a commission for religious freedom mandated to protect the country’s Christian minority. They also grant autonomy to the contested regions of Blue Nile and South Kordofan and set Darfur on a path to reunification under its own governor. An August 31 agreement on Darfur also covers power sharing, security, transitional justice, land ownership and the return of internally displaced persons and refugees.
In addition to completing the peace processes mandated in Sudan’s interim constitution, Sudan has also taken steps to reset relations internationally. Though the transitional government has limited power in this area, indications are encouraging for the potential normalisation of Sudan’s relationship with Israel – which would, in turn, support Sudan’s case for removal from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Positive as the outlook appears to be, Sudan has a long, difficult road to recovery ahead. The transitional government has 26 months left to lay the groundwork for a civilian, democratically elected government to take over. In addition to the colossal challenge of rebuilding institutions nearly from scratch, the pandemic and the global commodity market collapse have generated urgent economic woes.
Moreover, anyone with experience on the ground in Sudan will warn against misplaced confidence at this early stage. Connection with the international community – and international markets – has long served as an incentive to end the conflict, but even the most promising of peace agreements has failed to produce sufficient stability for sustained development.
South Sudan: A Grim Reality
If Sudan calls for cautious optimism, South Sudan demands a reckoning with the failure of the international response.
When South Sudan seceded in 2011, observers were optimistic. Those in the international community – both in the omnipresent NGO sector as well as foreign governments (principally the United States) believed that the oppressed Christian South would finally be free from its Islamic subjugators in the North, and the resolution of this religious divide would finally bring peace to the region. Instead, two years after independence, a brutal civil war broke out between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former First Vice President Riek Machar, displacing significant numbers of people and leaving large swathes of the country reliant on humanitarian aid. Best estimates of numbers killed are upwards of 400,000, which at times has rivaled the war in Syria that received far greater attention.’
So, what happened? How did the Cinderella story of South Sudan’s independence become a nightmare?
The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the rebels turned political party who governed the country at independence, were ill-prepared to fulfil the functions of a state, despite the heavy investment and optimism afforded them by their international supporters leading up to 2011. Well before South Sudan split from the north, NGOs and aid groups had provided the overwhelming majority of state services, often with incorrect or incomplete knowledge of where resources were going. Some organisations even unwittingly provided direct financial to support to militias or funded ‘dialogues’ that served primarily as brand rehabilitation for war lords looking to take advantage of a sprawling and largely unregulated aid industry.
Arguably the international humanitarian response formed the economic, social and political foundations for the South Sudanese state that emerged in 2011. The sad irony is that these foundations have been purged by years of corruption and mismanagement since.
This dynamic followed South Sudan beyond independence, creating a cycle of escalating violence enabled by a steady flow in billions of dollars of humanitarian aid. The assumption that the Southern forces represented a unified Christian bloc fighting for religious freedom and human rights was convenient for warlords seeking resources and legitimacy and appealing to the international NGO and donor community – especially to faith-based aid efforts – but it has proved to be devastating for the millions affected by the ongoing conflict.
Ultimately, because the 2005 peace process took the Southern rebel forces’ branding at face value – with the support of the aid industry – it failed to confront the fragmentation and factionalism that had destroyed South Sudan and anticipate that these fissures would continue and undermine state-building efforts today. Though a tragedy for the South Sudanese, lessons from the failure of peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan may prove valuable to its northern neighbour – and Sudan’s transitional government appears to be learning already.
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