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The challenges facing African countries are enormous: climate change, sustainable energy production, protecting biodiversity, the continent’s unique demographics. There are also political and military conflicts that lead to internal displacement or flight. “Many societies face complex challenges that are often accompanied by violent conflicts. The ability to assess this potential and to put institutions in a position to contain or even prevent the escalation of conflicts in the long term is therefore of great importance,” says Professor Ulf Engel, a political scientist from Leipzig who conducts research in this area and provides expert advice not only to the African Union.

Professor Ulf Engel is in great demand. His train leaves for the airport in half an hour. He is travelling to Belgrade for a conference. He will also be back in Africa in a few weeks’ time. Among other things, he will be advising the African Union on conflict prevention. “A key objective of the African Union (AU) and the continent’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) is to build early warning capacities that, in conjunction with other instruments, will help identify the potential for violent social conflict as early as possible. The aim is also to develop strategies for strengthening resilience.” Engel has dedicated himself to this field of research. He has worked at Leipzig University since 1998 and is Professor of Politics in Africa at the Institute of African Studies and also a visiting professor at Addis Ababa University and Stellenbosch University in Cape Town. Engel has published the Yearbook on the African Union since 2021.

Africa is often referred to as the ‘neighbouring continent’, especially in European politics. According to the political scientist, there are many good reasons to engage with this continent in terms of crisis prevention: “The consequences of climate change, the increasing competition for scarce resources such as water or pasture and arable land, the doubling of Africa’s population to an estimated 2 billion people by the year 2050, the future of public health – all these will pose even greater challenges to the continent’s societies in the future. And this does not even take into account the negative effects of global politics and the rarely altruistic interests of non-African stakeholders.

Since April 2022, Engel and his colleagues have been conducting research as part of the BMBF-funded network “African non-military conflict intervention practices (ANCIP)” together with the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) in Duisburg and the Leibniz Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). The aim of the ten-member working group is to reconstruct practices of non-military intervention in greater detail and to create a database that will allow these practices to be visualised.

Enabling African societies to endure or resolve conflicts without resorting to violence will remain one of the most important tasks for the future, including for African studies.

Professor Ulf Engel

This work builds on teaching at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) in Addis Ababa. Since 2012, the Global and European Studies Institute at Leipzig University has been offering a master’s programme – “Global Studies with an emphasis on peace and security in Africa” – as well as a doctoral programme in cooperation with the IPSS. Both degree programmes are funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The IPSS also runs a peace and security training programme for AU and REC leaders, in which Engel has been teaching a module on early warning and conflict prevention since 2010. “The network of alumni from all three programmes helps me enormously to stay on the ball. Numerous graduates from Addis Ababa and Leipzig are now working in political foundations close to political parties, in institutions such as the AU, or are themselves successfully researching the topic of peace and security in Africa,” says Engel.

Even beyond research and teaching, the political scientist makes his scientific expertise available to the AU and other stakeholders who want to strengthen the field of peace and security in Africa. “In 1995/96 I had the opportunity to develop conflict prevention strategies and training for the European Union. Then came smaller requests from the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) for me to help at project level to integrate the issue of conflict prevention into food security programmes, for example in Malawi,” says Engel. The African Union (AU) had created a five-pillar architecture for peace and security. One of these is the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) for violent conflicts. “When I was invited to help design the system, it was the start of a long collaboration,” he recalls.

African Studies at Leipzig University has a long tradition dating back to the late 19th century. In the 1990s, following the re-founding of what is now the Institute of African Studies, Leipzig was the only place in Germany with a professorship in African economics and politics. “And even though there are now six courses of study with an African focus throughout Germany, the production of knowledge on politics and economics in Africa essentially takes place in three thinktanks in Berlin, Bonn and Hamburg,” says Engel.

Political scientist Professor Ulf Engel is certain of one thing: “Enabling African societies to endure or resolve conflicts without resorting to violence will remain one of the most important tasks for the future, including for African studies.”