At the “Harvard of Africa” in Uganda, power remains in imperial structures and bodies, while excellence is still defined on Western terms.

The Makerere University administration building, Kampala, Uganda. Credit: Ian Beatty.

August 1, 2016

by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

Republished from African Arguments

In 1922, within a few decades of British colonial control of the protectorate called Uganda, a technical school was founded. According to folklore, the hill on which the school was built was famed for its many noises. Kelele is the Kiswahili word for noise, the plural: Makelele. The folk tale concludes that the hill and the technical school took on the name, but with the ls replaced with rs. The Makerere Technical College, as it was known at the time, taught carpentry, building and mechanics.

In 1949, the school became affiliated to the University of London. Alongside the likes of Ibadan, Legon and Gordon – as well as Dar es Salaam and Nairobi later on – it became one of the so-called ‘Asquith colleges’ offering courses with degrees awarded by its Britain-based mother. As Carol Sicherman notes in Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922–2000, this arrangement was “presented as a means of guaranteeing world-class quality, [but it] ensured continued British influence once the colonies ceased to exist as such”.

On 9 October, 1962, Uganda attained independence. Eight months later, Makerere’s relationship with the University of London came to an end, at least formally. Conversations about the ‘Africanisation’ (or decolonisation, one could say) of everything in the newly-independent countries was the order of the day. And the establishment of the University of East Africa – comprising of Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as constituent colleges – marked a new chapter in the life of each. Introducing a bill to establish this University, a politician reasoned: “To become African in a meaningful way, a university has to transform itself from ‘a pale reflection of alien universities’ into ‘a living concrete symbol of all that is African’.”

Uganda’s independence also had a big personal impact on many citizens, among them a young man who had just completed his O Levels at Old Kampala Secondary School. Born in 1946 in Mumbai and raised in Kampala, Mahmood Mamdani was the recipient of one of 24 scholarships the US government awarded as a gift to the newly-independent nation.

In the US, Mamdani read for a BA in Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh and attained an MA from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University before enrolling at Harvard for his PhD.

Back home, the University of East Africa did not live to celebrate its eighth birthday. It disintegrated in July 1970 as its constituent colleges became independent universities. At this time, Makerere was at the height of its international fame and was known as the Harvard of Africa, though Sicherman suggests the Oxford of Africa would have been more accurate: “aside from the students, nearly everything at Makerere [remained] a British import – even the specimens for dissection in Biology classes”, she writes.

Indeed, the attempts in Africanising the university were cosmetic. The academic robes worn by Presidents Milton Obote, Kenneth Kaunda, Jomo Kenyatta, and Julius Nyerere at the inauguration of the new Makerere were of British styles with African motifs. The academic structures and criteria for examination remained British. The teachers were largely graduates of Cambridge and Oxford, and the buildings and other structures clearly mimicked British templates.

In 1972, Mamdani returned from the US and got a job as a teaching assistant at Makerere. But it was short-lived as Idi Amin embarked on his economic war that saw Indians expelled. Mamdani ended up at the University of Dar es Salaam, and in this period completed his PhD from Harvard, which was published in 1976 as Politics and Class Formation in Uganda.

After the Amin’s overthrow in 1979, Mamdani returned to Makerere. But he was forced out the country again in 1984 under the second Obote government. He had to wait until Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986 to return, once more, to Uganda and the university.

In 1993, Mamdani departed to spend three years at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where he was asked to design a new foundation course on Africa that was to be taken by all students in the social sciences.

He went to work, called on a friend at the University of Western Cape, and soon submitted a course draft entitled Problematising Africa. According to Stacy Hardy, Mamdani wanted to transform the university and “demanded that UCT ground its claim to excellence on being an African, rather than ‘world class’, institution. Excellence, claimed Mamdani, needs to be determined through an engagement with the university itself as a historical, political and material apparatus.”

His superiors though were not impressed. They asked that he revise the course, and after some acrimonious correspondence, Mamdani was suspended. He went on to be president of the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA) before finding his way back to the US.

Mamdani gets his opportunity to reform Makerere

The next chapter of Mamdani’s engagement with Makerere effectively recommenced in 2006 when, on 21 August, The Monitor carried a headline reporting that the academic had declared Makerere no more. The story was based on a paper Mamdani had presented at the university titled: ‘Liberal Reform and Higher Education: The Dilemmas of Market-Based Reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005.’

A few months later, a salary dispute led to strike action by lecturers. Weeks later, students joined in and staged demonstrations, demanding that the dispute be resolved so they could return to the classrooms. But on 11 November, the university was declared closed indefinitely. It stayed closed until 7 January, 2007.

It was during the period of closure that Mamdani’s book Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University was published, detailing his critique of the university’s privatisation. His argument was that new courses had been established solely to attract money; unqualified staff were hired in order to cope with the numbers; and all this led to the emergence of an informal private university besides a formal public university.

Mamdani has said that the fate of Makerere affects him personally – commenting that “as a product of Makerere…I should also play my part in this reform process” – and in 2010, he got his opportunity to play this role when was appointed director of the Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR).

Speaking to Pambazuka that same year, Mamdani emphasised the need not only for an excellent Makerere, but a relevant one too.

“I cannot take the design of a Swedish architect to build a house in Uganda. My design must reflect local conditions, use local resources in response to local problems. Anything from the outside must be complementary to this. That is what we call sustainable development. Sustainable development requires research that leads to long-lasting solutions. Research means knowing the society you live in and knowing yourself. “

Mamdani also had strong words for the culture he found at MISR. He had a specific vision of what academic research should be and dismissed policy research as consultancy. In a 2011 MISR working paper, he clarified: “A university is not a think tank. Think tanks are policy-oriented centres, centres where the point of research is to make recommendations”.

On 12 August, 2012, Mamdani wrote a piece for The Independent that further expounded his plans for Makerere as he complained: “Makerere is proud of its colonial legacy. Makerere thinks of itself as the Harvard of Africa. If Makerere was ever the Harvard of Africa, then it was a colonised Harvard. What is the difference between a university that is colonised and one that is independent?” The answer, he said, is that a university becomes independent only if it is research-based, in combination with teaching.

MISR’s mission was therefore redefined from conducting policy research to teaching a PhD programme, consisting of a two-year MPhil and three years of research. The PhD fellows would also teach undergraduates, thus reducing the workload on existing university staff. In Mamdani, the rhetoric went, Makerere had found its saviour.

But not everyone was convinced. For instance, Moses Khisa argued that Makerere’s problems went beyond producing its own research and were largely a result of the Museveni regime’s desire to suppress intellectual freedom. It serves the regime if academics are unable to conduct independent research and critique its policies, the logic went.

The PhD programme could also be critiqued from a decolonial perspective. Mamdani shied away from decolonising the structure and form of the university, and MISR’s PhD followed disciplinary modes developed in Western universities. Generally, Makerere remains a mimic of British and US universities aspiring towards their definition of excellence. As Sicherman puts it, “Makerere continues to impose criteria for promotion that were formulated in the West, even though the circumstances of academics in Uganda are so different as to make their relevance highly questionable.”

Meanwhile, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues that decolonisation cannot happen while the European form remains intact: “We so far do not have African universities. We have universities in Africa. They continue to poison African minds with research methodologies and inculcate knowledges of equilibrium. These are knowledges that do not question methodologies as well as the present asymmetrical world order. In decoloniality, research methods and research methodologies are never accepted as neutral but are unmasked as technologies of subjectivation if not surveillance tools that prevent the emergence of another-thinking, another-logic and another-world view.”

This decolonial vision underpins the Marcus Garvey Pan Afrikan University (MPAU) in Mbale. Started by the late Prof. Dani Nabudere, the university bases its knowledge production on an existent indigenous knowledge base. It has developed an epistemology named Afrikology, which provides a framework for absorbing and disseminating indigenous Afrikan knowledge. Veteran journalist and commentator Charles Onyango Obbo calls MPAU the university where peasants are the lecturers. Students are sent into communities to learn from local people and they present their theses to these same groups, in indigenous Afrikan languages.

Juxtaposing MPAU’s decolonial mission and MISR’s shows a myriad of differences between what decolonisation of higher education means and to whom.

The imperial structures that remain

Earlier this year, MISR was presented with the opportunity to address some of these tensions. Of the research fellows appointed since Mamdani has been director, Dr Stella Nyanzi had been the longest-serving. But despite the PhD programme having become the institute’s major pre-occupation, Nyanzi refused to teach it, claiming it was not part of her job description.

This conflict with Mamdani escalated after he decided to re-allocate office space at MISR, with the intransigent Nyanzi set to lose her office in the process. Whatever the details of the conflict, on 18 April, Nyanzi, feeling pushed to the wall by what she called “an oppressive tyrant”, stripped naked and shocked the university, the country, and the intellectual community into commentary, debate and action. Students found their voices and discussed issues central to the decolonisation or reform of Makerere.

A few days after the incident, 40 scholars at international universities signed a petition to the vice chancellor offering unconditional support to their friend and colleague. In response, dissenting Makerere students hit back at what they saw as a saviour complex and set up their own petition, which commented:

“The international scholars’ petition sprinted past the thick line between solidarity into interference, where they speak from a position of privilege about lives and affairs that are geographically and politically distant from their own. Just like tourist holidays and training workshops are not sufficient to equip their partakers with substantial knowledge of the problematic, the petitioners should concede that their interests, attachments and visits do not provide them with the necessary knowledge to speak for MISR. We, its members, are not the de-subjectified masses of the ‘Save Darfur’ discourse. We are not your project. We are people with lives that matter and the complexity of our plight should not be reduced to a ‘governance issue’ as claimed by one of the petitioners.”

Indeed, decolonisation cannot be a result of “salvation” experiments. It cannot rely on the benevolence of heroes. It is a process that must include everyone: students, academic and non-academic staff, the state, the civil society and other players. Decolonisation is primarily a struggle for power, and this cannot happen if power remains in imperial structures and bodies.

Makerere clearly needs to decolonise given the intellectual dependence on imperial centres. But what the process should look like is a matter for discussion. What excellence means at MISR and whether the knowledge production process is relevant to the Ugandan context are questions that must be asked and debated freely. Is MISR under Mamdani seeking for Anglo-American excellence at the expense of relevance to the Ugandan situation? Is it possible for research to be considered excellent by Western standards and still be relevant? Is it necessary to seek validation from Western centres of academic power? Should Makerere instead emulate the model at the Marcus Garvey Pan African University (MPAU)?

Considering the heavily American support for the one-man vision at Makerere, the Mamdani experiment looks to be not only elitist but also substantially imperial. The reliance on Western donor funding is not an issue on its own, but when this funding is used as a tool to control the affairs of the university, then the relationship replicates colonialism. Among others, the international scholars’ petition was signed by some donors to MISR and played a role in the renewal of Mamdani’s contract as director. This is a neo-colonial relationship in which universities and donors based in West control their outposts based in the post-colonies.

Research grants from private US donors are important, but they alone can’t be the measure of excellence. It is awkward to judge the relevance of research by decisions taken in Michigan and elsewhere.

Young scholars who aim at winning research grants may unwittingly end up measuring their worth more by how US private donors define excellence than by how relevant their research is to their contexts. This does not look like the future the Fallist movements in South Africa envisage. MISR is not moving the centre, and no decolonisation is happening. Mamdani himself is quoted by Newsweek as warning, following Nyanzi’s protest, “The best students will look for alternative(s). Donors will look for other places to put their money”. These are concerns that reflect neoliberal market thinking.

It is very easy to admire the MPAU model not only for its relevance to the Ugandan post-colonial context but also for its emancipatory possibilities. The MPAU model is important because it centralises indigenous knowledge systems and modes of production and dissemination. No one can accuse the institution of being irrelevant to the environment in which it exists, considering that it, among other innovations, conducts and disseminates research in indigenous languages. It also enables us to question what excellence means in an African context. Who determines excellence? At MPAU, to borrow Obbo’s way of describing it, the peasants define it. But one should not simply impose the MPAU model on Makerere, which must follow its own path.

The Nyanzi affair this April presented Makerere with an opportunity to interrogate what this vision of decolonisation could be. But unfortunately, the appointments board instead chose to take a disciplinary route by commissioning a biased commission of inquiry into the matter which recommended disciplinary action against Nyanzi.

As such, Nyanzi is now at the Stellenbosch University, while Makerere’s march to become an inferior replica of an Anglo-American university in the name of “excellence” continues, led by Mamdani.

Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire is a Ugandan lawyer and writer, currently a Fellow at the African Leadership Centre (ALC). Between 2012 and 2015, he taught Human Rights, Jurisprudence, Labour Law and International Criminal Justice at Makerere, Uganda Christian University and Uganda Martyrs University respectively.

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