Academic Portrait: Roland Marchal at the Forefront of Research

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As part of the campaign to free Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, Didier Péclard and Sandrine Perrot reflect on his academic contribution as a leader at the forefront of research. To support the campaign, follow @FaribaRoland on Twitter.

Roland Marchal is a sociologist with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)and he has worked as a researcher at Sciences-Po Paris’ Center for International Studies (CERI) since 1997. Much of his research has focused on analyzing civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in their relation to state formation. Roland is a tireless and energetic fieldworker, meticulous and zealous in his research. He has always pushed himself to the limits in a quest to bring out innovations and nuances throughout his research interests. Roland is one of the most internationally renowned specialists on Somalia, but also on the Horn of Africa, Chad, Central African Republic and Mali. His numerous publications have not only made history in Africanist literature but also marked turning points in the social sciences. He recently co-founded with Jean-Nicolas Bach the East Africa Observatory, a research programme coordinated by CEDEJ-Khartoum and CERI.

Roland Marchal’s in-depth knowledge of his fields and comparative perspective have enabled him to constantly challenge established theories on his research topics and trigger new thinking. He was, with the late Christine Messiant, among the first few to criticize the reductionism of economic theories about civil wars in two groundbreaking papers published in the journal Critique internationale (here and here). At a time when, in the post-Cold War era, most dominant models developed to understand civil wars focused on the “rebel greed”, resulting in a very depoliticized conception of civil wars, Roland and Christine were among the first to bring to the fore the lived experiences of civil wars in their analyses. They insisted on the importance of a sociology of armed groups at a time when others were – and still are – seeking a set list of causes of civil wars and violence. Their common research, published as Les Chemins de la guerre et de la paix. Fins de conflit en Afrique orientale et australe (Karthala, 1997), demonstrated how civil wars in Sub-saharan Africa and beyond are intimately interwoven into the fabric of the state. This thinking was also the central thesis of the seminal book he co- edited with Pierre Hassner : Guerres et sociétés. Etats et violence après la Guerre froide (Karthala, 2003). Roland Marchal further focused on the regionalization of civil wars. Using the concept of “system of conflicts” he provided a renewed perspective on the wars in  in Chad-Darfur and the Mano River basin (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea).

With the same critical eye, Roland also addressed theories of the “failed state”, especially drawing on his research in Somalia. He made the case that legitimate authority resides away from the institutions which the “international community” was focusing on building. When reductive analyses have provided the basis for all sorts of international interventions to “rebuild” the Somali state, his work shows that legitimate political authority was seldom vested in conventional institutions but often in alternative forms of authorities. This was the case with the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu in the 2000s which, before the “international community” chose to fight them in the name of the “war on terror”, had resurrected a public authority endowed with a degree of legitimacy. The Courts’ disappearance and eventual replacement by a transitional government largely controlled by Ethiopia, did much to contribute to the emergence of the al-Shabaab movement.

Roland Marchal likes blind spots in research and has often proved to be a pioneer. He started to work on Asia-Africa relations before others, or more recently relations between Russia and Africa. He enjoys exploring unexpected and innovative objects, for example in the special issue on First Ladies which he co-edited with Christine Messiant for the journal Politique africaine.

Recently, he has tackled the notions of “radicalization” and “radicalities”, bringing a fresh and unorthodox view in the public debate: Together with Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, he has questioned the heuristic and epistemological relevance of these notions and shown that the concept of “radicalization” prevents us from thinking about the phenomenon we claim to analyze. Roland Marchal’s work shows that the concept of radicalization prevents us from deeply analyzing this phenomenon and he insisted upon the political and local dimensions of engagement under the banner of religion.

Roland Marchal is known for being outspoken about the results of his research work and for never refraining from expressing his views, even if they may unsettle his counterparts, especially in the policy world. His strong stances reflect his uncompromising quest for intellectual honesty and humanistic values. Even if he seems to enjoy playing the role of the “grumpy and sometimes biting old academic”, his generosity has no limits when it comes to supporting young researchers, as many of us who benefitted from his benevolent comments on draft papers and PhD thesis chapters can testify. Acutely aware of the social and political responsibility of researchers, Roland is also an ardent defender of the prominent role that academic research should play in the public debate. He has been a critical observer of Western interventionisms in Africa, from Somalia and Mali to Chad and Sudan, that he observes sometimes with a tinge of sarcasm and irony. He has also put his expertise to the service of the United Nations, especially about Somalia, a country that he is deeply attached to, and passionate about.

Over the past 20 years, he has been looking at the role of the Somali diaspora in the Persian Gulf, and especially in Dubai (see Dubaï: Cité globale that he co-edited with Fariba Adelkhah). It was from Dubai that he came to Iran at the time of his arrest. Roland had crossed the Persian Gulf to celebrate the Eid with his friend and colleague Fariba. We miss his voice, their voices, as much as we miss their research.


Didier Péclard is a senior lecturer in political science and the director of the Master’s in African Studies at the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute, Switzerland.

Sandrine Perrot is a researcher in political science at the Center for International Studies, Sciences Po Paris.

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