Escaping Big Brother’s gaze in research in the Global South

Escaping Big Brother’s gaze in research in the Global South

June 12th 2019
By Joël Baraka Akilmali

Translation by Sara Weschler

Joel baraka (002)

The author, Joël Baraka Akilmali 

Is it possible to speak of independent thought and freedom of initiative in the academic research circles of Sub-Saharan Africa? A priori, the question would seem almost trivial, given how obviously ‘freedom’ and ‘academic research’ appear to go together. Nevertheless, the dominant vision that tends to make research environments a hallowed space for freedom of thought is still far from becoming a reality in the African Great Lakes Region – especially the Democratic Republic of Congo. Deconstructing this dominant image of freedom across academic research settings aims to bring to light the systematic vulnerability that African researchers face. This threat often leads African researchers to subordinate themselves to a form of intellectual tutelage skillfully enforced under the fear of the omnipresent gaze of some ‘Big Brother.’  In fact ‘Big Brother,’ inspired by George Orwell, here refers to the idea of all socio-political practices and institutions that undermine a population’s fundamental liberties and freedom of initiative. In the case of the discussion of this blog post, it refers to the situation of researchers. Here the ‘Big-Brotherity’ should be read as pertaining to African researchers facing the threat of censure in the political, academic, or geopolitical sphere.


To begin with, in terms of political barriers, these arise even in the course of choosing research topics. These barriers can partly be explained by the political, historical, and sociocultural conflicts that have characterized the African continent in general, and the Great Lakes Region in particular. Certain research topics are inherently controversial and/or fraught with risks to the researcher’s own safety. These barriers also refer to the weakening of strong countervailing democratic institutions that safeguard researcher freedoms against political incursions. Throughout the region, examples abound of researchers (or their informants) finding themselves under surveillance – or even driven into political exile – due to their research.

For some time now, the problem of political censure and surveillance has taken on unsettling proportions, beginning with problematic ramifications among the countries of the region, namely Uganda, Burundi, the DRC, and Rwanda. The case of this last country is particularly revealing, involving a skillful form of (politicized) censure.

Secondly, the barriers to independent thought and freedom in research can be academic, stemming primarily from the way that research environments are organized at the local level. In fact, the very structure of research – in Africa in general, and in the DRC in particular – is defined by an environment of patronage, when it comes to the creation of universities. As such, the ‘patrons,’ who are often confessional, private, or associational actors, have a right to oversight over the orientation of the research undertaken in their universities. Very often, confessional discourse interferes with the general orientation of university research and with the institutional orientations, affecting even the constitutional secularism of numerous countries. In social sciences, research topics related to certain debates that affect religious ethics, are generally poorly tolerated.  The researcher is thus under continuous surveillance from ‘Big Brother’s’ stern gaze, and runs the constant risk of sanction. Just to give one example, one professor from a confessional university in Bukavu in the eastern DRC recently saw his teaching load wrenched away and found himself banned from his university for publishing a book deemed in contradiction with the ‘values’ of the institution.

Finally, there are barriers related to the geopolitics of research. These include a sort of submission by African researchers toward dominant paradigms and, in particular, Western-centric influence. This significantly impacts the direction of African research, in terms of both epistemology and methodology, and above all with regard to control over the publication market. Therefore a kind of régime de véridiction appears to be operating, in which a dominant model of epistemology is carried from the Western center to the African periphery in a sort of ‘academic capitalism.’ The subordination of African thought to Western paradigms extends from teaching programs, through research projects, and up to the point of publication by supposedly well-regarded Western journals. It rarely allows for the integration of alternative academic paradigms (eg. agro-ecology, natural medicine, circular economy, solidarity and social economy, transitional justice, philosophy of complexity, etc.) that could engage strategically with the realities of the continent. Nonetheless, if the emergence of new powers such as China, India, Russia, Brazil, or South Africa have rendered North-South dichotomy obsolete in the eyes of many authors, the fact remains that these emerging powers are still far from rivaling ‘classical’ Western powers on the academic front. Hence the perpetuation of the North-South paradigm in academic research.

In light of all of the above, it goes without saying that the vulnerability of African scholars remains just as great in research. It is worth noting cases of active resistance, which are nevertheless not easily accessible to young researchers operating in a competitive setting against a backdrop of conformity. These researchers, then, must juggle as they take up James Scott’s words on resistance among subjugated groups, balancing between an “off-stage hidden transcript of defiance” and an “on-stage public transcript of compliance.” Strategic alliances with other circles of dissident thought organized elsewhere in the world also offer possible paths of resistance. These paths of resistance offer just as many avenues against censure – and toward a mode of research that is independent, decolonized, and liberated from ‘Big Brother’s’ gaze, which seemingly continues to rove over the Global South in general and the African Great Lakes Region in particular.

Joël Baraka Akilmali is a doctoral student in Political and Social Sciences at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) and a member of the UCL’s Centre d’études du développement. He is also a research and teaching assistant at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural de Bukavu (ISDR-Bukavu).


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