African Development Forum on insecurity
Together Liberia © Ken Harper

What is insecurity? Who defines insecurity? How do we talk about it? How should we talk about it?

Asking these four questions provided the template for the 2019 SOAS African Development Forum. Insecurity is probably one of the words I have heard, and read, most often in my life. I have heard the word so much that I have never really stopped to ask what it truly means.

Too often insecurity has been used to undergird harmful tropes about the African continent. Too often the discussions on insecurity have either fallen in the realm of untenable sensationalisation or disingenuous cover-up. And, too often, the discussants on insecurity in Africa have not been African. The conversation on insecurity in Africa is one to which we must come respectfully. It is one to which we must come with open minds, shirking preconceived notions, and ready to embrace new meanings and interpretations of insecurity.

Binyavanga Wainaina is one of my favourite writers. He has a singular sense for words and for word-making. How to Write About Africa and How to Write About Africa II capture the salient problems in writing about Africa and perhaps indirectly the problems with discussing insecurity in Africa. Average Africans are often rendered irrelevant in the grand conversations about human insecurity; reduced to cold statistics – 50 dead, 500 injured, ‘x’ million people living below the poverty line – without much texture. Eliza Anyangwe speaks about how too often questions on international development (extrapolatable to insecurity) are so solution-oriented that we reduce everything, even people, to mere problems, ‘itemised and put into log frames’. Binyavanga speaks of the essential homogenisation of Africans – a deprivation of life, colour, character and nuance belonging to over a billion people.

Africa might, on one end of the spectrum, be the heart of darkness, or on the other end, be an infantilised, over-romanticised sanctum of only well-intentioned folk who bad things unfortunately just happen to, but none of these render a whole continent of nations accurately or even satisfactorily. We have seen magazine covers and news headlines shrieking “Hotbed of Terror”, and the jetting in of those on their way to “save Africa”. We have seen our lives, as Africans, dramatised and othered in conversations that purport to be benevolent, but too often, they may be about us but not for us.

Having grown up on the continent (in Kenya), raised by parents proud of their heritage, I know that there is a deep sense of agency among many Africans. Africans are not helpless. Africans want to be at the centre of their own story. These are sentiments shared by the African Development Forum team, a team made up of individuals from different parts of Africa, and outside Africa too. These are the sentiments that are at the foundation of the ADF’s forthcoming conference, themed Insecurity.

Looking at the nexus between insecurity and Africa, we decided that it was important to have four main conversations at our forum. Our Disrupting Africa panel focuses primarily on culture, media and citizen engagement as pertains to human development. I feel strongly about the discussion on this panel as there has been undeniable disruption of the status quo in Africa through social media, especially through its use for more urgent advocacy on gender equality, sexual tolerance and government accountability. Our next panel is the Preserving Africa panel, here we will be exploring the more tangible insecurity issues such as: food security, agricultural technology and healthcare. The Growing Africa panel will shift the conversation more intently to economic trends as we look into whether growing GDP has meant increased standards of living for the average African. The panellists will further consider income inequality, the growing Chinese presence on the continent and repercussions. Lastly, the Defending Africa panel will consider what might be called “conventional security” – the armed forces of our countries, the focus of the UN Security Council on Africa, and the conflicts in our countries.

I am confident that the forum will satisfactorily explore the nature of insecurity. We will be posting articles that we hope will be enriching in the lead-up to the conference. The articles will be both on insecurity and other topical issues. Do subscribe to our mailing list to stay updated, and do not hesitate to share your thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing you at the conference. You can buy a ticket here.

Stephanie is studying MA African Studies and is Blog Editor for the SOAS African Development Forum.

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