Spotlight on Young Researchers: Michel Thill


For his part-time AFR PhD in Political Science with Ghent University’s Conflict Research Group, Michel Thill researches a little-studied subject: everyday policing practices and interactions between police and people in Bukavu, a provincial capital in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We spoke to the Luxembourg national about insatiable curiosity being a virtue for researchers; the experiences gained during his PhD; and why his research subject is important.

Michel, you’re in the third year of your part-time PhD – what is the focus of your research?

“My PhD in Political Science examines the daily negotiation and production of public order in Bukavu, a provincial capital in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In short, I am interested in everyday policing practices and interactions between police and people.”

A police station in the quartier of Panzi, where Michel interned for a few weeks in May 2017 (Panzi, Bukavu/May 2017).

Why is your research important?

Office within the Panzi police station (Panzi, Bukavu/May 2017)

“It’s important for three reasons: First, assumptions about fragile and conflict-affected states in Africa, what they are and how they work, abound. Investigating the police as the state’s coercive arm tasked to uphold internal order can shed light on a crucial state institution and its workings, putting some of these assumptions to the test.

“Secondly, there are similarly various preconceptions of the nature of police work in Africa. In fact, however, not much research on the subject has been conducted. Researching police officers’ everyday life provides researchers with valuable insights into police-community interactions and struggles, and how citizens perceive the police—and the state—and vice versa.

“Finally, a better understanding of the police as an institution and everyday police work can help improve the impact and sustainability of future institutional reform programmes, not just in the DRC, but in similar contexts around the world.”

Sight of the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu.

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD on police-community interactions in Bukavu?

“My decision to take on the challenge of a PhD—and a challenge it is—was driven by a simple thought: To get the chance to spend extensive periods of time in the place I have come so deeply intrigued by: the DRC. I am driven by a desire to learn more about its peoples and their lives and to maybe, just maybe, at the end of my research, understand the Congo a bit better.

“The first part of this reflection—spending more time in the DRC—has certainly become a reality and I am sincerely grateful for that. The more I learn, of course, also shows me how much there still remains that I do not understand. In my mind, the essence of a good researcher is an insatiable curiosity to learn more. And so I do my best to stay curious and continue learning.”

As part of your PhD you have also had the chance to visit Bukavu in the DRC, what would you say is your favourite part of the work you conduct for your PhD research?

“By far the favourite part of my research is to spend time talking to my Congolese friends and research interlocutors, be they policewomen and –men, state officials, civil society leaders, journalists, students or researchers.

“The countless conversations I have had—on my research subject or life in the DRC in general—will never stop fascinating me. Listening to these stories is an incredibly humbling and life-enriching experience. While this may be very difficult to capture in an academic thesis, they are eye-opening moments which have quickly taken away any doubt I may have had about my decision to pursue a PhD.”

A community meeting on security between local police, administrators and civil society (Mulambula, Bukavu/Oct 2016)

Your AFR PhD studies enabled you to take part in another research project, studying police experiences in Bukavu, can you go in to more detail?

“My PhD focus made me apply for an additional—policy-orientated—research grant with the Dutch Knowledge Management Fund, itself part of the Dutch government-supported Knowledge Platform Security and Rule of Law (KPSRL).

“This research looked at the everyday work and life of police officers in Bukavu and asked how such everyday experiences could be meaningfully included in future police reform efforts. Josaphat Musamba and Robert Njangala, two Congolese research friends, and I have had the pleasure to conduct this project in association with a Bukavu-based research centre, the Groupe d’Études sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH) and a Nairobi-based research institute, the Rift Valley Institute (RVI).

“Working directly with Congolese researchers on a project, even if small, has been an exciting experience. It is thanks to the AFR scholarship and the research I have been able to conduct through it, that we were able to successfully apply for this grant, which in turn has given us an interesting opportunity to directly engage with policymakers and practitioners working on Bukavu’s security issues.”

Have you set yourself any particular goals you want to achieve as a researcher – will you keep your focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)?

Legacies of the UK-supported police reform on the office door of an urban administrator. (Kasali, Bukavu/October 2016).

“What drives me is not so much my desire to pursue an academic career or to produce ground-breaking research—I think neither are very likely. My ambitions are more grounded, in a literal sense.

“I would take immense pleasure and deep satisfaction in supporting the development of high-level, well-funded and competitive research in the DRC.

“During my fieldwork, I had the privilege to be associated to the GEC-SH, a relatively new university-linked research unit in the city of Bukavu. A mid- to long-term aim of mine is to support this unit in its aim to become a competitive bidder for research grants, to further grow its team and networks, and to establish itself on the national and regional research landscape.”

Could you see yourself coming back to your home country Luxembourg to political science research?

“To my knowledge, the field of conflict studies and a DRC-focused research and policy community barely exist in Luxembourg, if at all. Considering Luxembourg’s European and global political and economic priorities, this is understandable and yet unfortunate.

“Luxembourg and its citizens have historic (and not so glorious) ties with the Congo dating back to Henry Morton Stanley’s explorations of the Congo Basin in the 1870s.

“If this was to change—if there were plans for the national history curriculum to be rewritten, for example, or for Luxembourg’s university to establish a conflict research centre, or for projects pursuing such aims to be launched—I would certainly be intrigued by the idea of getting involved.”

More information

  • Michel Thill’s project funded by the Dutch Knowledge Management Fund has led to several blog posts and a policy briefing, which can be found in English and in French.
  • Ghent University’s Conflict Research Group website

Published 20 March 2018

Michel Thill



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