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Makerere University

The university as exported by Europe to the rest of the world is structured in such a way that the student has least say in its affairs. One cannot seek to democratize the university by focusing on an individual or group of individuals. It becomes even more self-defeating if that focus takes the form of malice, blackmail and outright personal insults that constitute much of Dr. Ocita’s dossiers against Prof Mamdani.

I have previously responded to some of the issues that Dr. James Ocita, the former Assistant Director of Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), keeps on recycling. Dr. Ocita is a gifted writer whose impressive rhetoric conceals the monotony of his incessant lamentation. In his captivating style, he continues to throw more and more of the same proverbial dirt, hoping that some will eventually stick. His shortcoming is his inability to overcome the temptation of stretching the truth to attract sympathy and hopefully remobilize the scattered opponents of MISR Director Prof. Mahmood Mamdani. Dr. Ocita has another, even greater, problem—his analysis completely lacks the elegance of his writing skill.

The problem with targeting individuals, even if we assume that the allegations leveled against them hold water, is that it prevents one from asking the right question and making a solid analysis of the institution. Critics describe how the professor allegedly pushes students and teachers to toe the line, but fall short of contextualizing this alleged phenomenon. The behavior of reducing historical and institutional problems to the actions of individuals remains endemic in the scholarly and popular debates on Africa. Take the example of one of Uganda’s most respected historians, Samwiri Karugire.

When he embarks on tracing Uganda’s “roots of instability,” Karugire mounts a critique of a number of old theories and vows to give us a political explanation. The reader is motivated to open more pages of his book with interest. But it soon turns out that his “political factors” barely go beyond discussing, in his own words, “the personalities of those who governed Uganda from the granting of independence.” He says that “if Britain could govern Uganda in comparative peace for nearly seventy years, our subsequent indigenous rulers, knowing our problems more intimately than the British, could at the very least equal that record.”

Commending British rule for maintaining stability, Karugire pays no attention to the kind of state that the colonialists constructed and bequeathed to the “indigenous” leaders he chastises. Thus instead of analyzing the polarized and polarizing nature of the state that these African leaders inherited so that he may contextualize their divisive politics, Karugire only tells us that there is something wrong, perhaps biologically, with successive Ugandan heads of state. Like Karugire, every Ugandan president who seizes power tells us that his predecessor was the problem. Milton Obote blamed Edward Mutesa. Idi Amin faulted Obote. Obote II, in turn, demonized Amin. And now Yoweri Museveni refers to all them as “swine.” No wonder that the self-sworn-in people’s president, Kizza Besigye, and his followers in the opposition think that Museveni himself is the problem.

We often hear similar views from the partisans of the Neopatrimonial School, which has popularized such claims as the politics of patronage of African leaders. Again, the problem is not traced in the anatomy of the state, but in the manipulative ability of the head of state to create personal clients in the population and consequently drive the country in the direction of his impulse and caprice. The proponents of such views regard historicisation as a plague from which they take flight like “frightened asses fleeing from a lion,” to borrow from the Qur’an. And when they embark on political analysis, they reduce it to the actions of political leaders.

In their footsteps follows Dr. Ocita. Let us assume that his allegations, including the wildest like favoritism, are true. To contextualize his accusations and mount a democratization struggle that purportedly preoccupies him, he would need to move away from pointing the finger at individuals and problematize the institution of the university itself, which leaves students at the mercy of the professors. The university, which Europe exported to the rest of the world, is structured in such a manner that places the student at the bottom with the least say. There could be mechanisms in the university that allow the student to appeal the decision of a professor or department, but these are never intended to hold back in any significant manner the power of the professor or department over the student. The existence of such mechanisms is good only for duping the student into believing that the university is not as tyrannical as it really is.

Sometimes the student may be allowed to make a choice, as it happens in selecting courses and committee members, but only within the limits set from above. With such constrained choices, the student is an appropriate embodiment of Talal Asad’s “inmates of a concentration camp who are able…to live by their own cultural logic” but regarding whom we cannot say that they are therefore “‘making their own history.’”

Whereas universities in different parts of the world have at times conceded to some student demands, they have done so only in fear of student protests, not out of respect. The student gets his way only when he is feared like a violent madman out of control. Even then, the concessions made have never been so significant to destabilize the structure of the university in which the student is the small fry.

The point I wish to emphasize is that one cannot seek to democratize the university by focusing on an individual or group of individuals. It becomes even more self-defeating if that focus takes the form of malice, blackmail and outright personal insults that constitute much of Dr. Ocita’s dossiers. The focus should be aimed at the university, which by its inherent nature allocates power unevenly. It may be true that Prof. Mamdani has additional powers, for only a fool thinks that all professors are equal. But the most important point is that which is well-known even if rarely acknowledged: no university is a democracy. To democratize the university would involve dismantling and founding it afresh, a revolution no less significant than the initial founding of the university.

Such a revolution, if it ever shows up, will have to be preceded by a serious debate on what it really means to democratize the university. Does it mean that students should write their own curriculum? If students come and go, will every cohort enter the university with its own syllabus? Would such matters as who has passed or failed an exam be subject to a vote in the student general assembly? What would it mean to be a student or professor in a democratic university? Thinking about such questions is to realize how comical the struggle for university democracy is.

* YAHYA SSEREMBA is a PhD Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research. His research topic is: Popular bloodbath and subaltern agency: Rethinking mass participation in political violence in Uganda’s Rwenzori area.

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