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In this paper, the author argues that Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s essay, “The African University”, though timely, has significant flaws along several fronts including being a simplistic version of history, having major errors of fact and omissions, making unwarranted generalisation, and using unreal and extreme dichotomies among other flaws. 

In 1970, Tanzania had one public university with less than three thousand students. Now it has some fifty public and private universities and university colleges with a total student population of around two hundred thousand. Much of this growth has occurred in the past twenty years. A similar story prevails across East Africa and Africa.

The expansion in numbers has, though, been accompanied by a sharp decline in the quality of education, research and intellectual output. The deleterious trend has affected not just the new institutions but also the old ones where the curricula and standards of instruction had been comparable to those at major universities in the Western world.

Apart from a few exceptions, universities in Africa now enrol students who have passed through a poorly run education system and a below-par scheme of examination. They are then herded through degree programmes with watered down curricula by academic staff who regard teaching as the last priority. Most courses lack good textbooks or equivalent instructional material. To pass the exams, the students just memorise the electronic PowerPoint slides from the instructor.

Undergraduate and graduate student research projects are shoddy in the extreme in terms of design, implementation and reporting. Plagiarisation, inventing data and obtaining external assistance to write reports prevail widely, yet are tolerated practices. At the end of the day, a graduate with an upper class Bachelor’s degree or even a Master’s degree is unable to write a coherent, grammatical paragraph in English, handle elementary items like percentages and ratios, or give a sensible answer to a routine question from his or her area of specialisation.

The problems also affect professional degree programmes like medicine, dentistry, engineering and agronomy. Both the theoretical and practical aspects of the training are deficient. If you ask a recently qualified civil engineer to compute the strength and direction of forces in a basic bridge like structure, a problem a good Form VI student can tackle, the answers you get will astonish you. A person with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature or History has read only a couple of books beyond what was the norm in Form VI students in the past.

The universities, especially the private ones, depend on student fees to keep afloat. It is a competitive atmosphere in which the administrators seek to enrol as many students as possible. High standards generate high failure rates and create negative publicity. It is not in their interest to urge the staff to adhere to such standards. Expansion of class size without a concurrent increase in the number of teaching staff compounds the problems.

Having paid the fees, the students feel they are entitled to the degree certificate. Instructors who teach elementary material and set easy exams are preferred to those who make them think and sweat.

The academic staff deal with the huge class sizes by turning teaching into a routine task, setting easy-to-grade, simple multiple-choice exams, and passing almost everyone. They are keenly aware that if you maintain good standards, it is you who will be taken to task for unfairly penalising the students and invite opprobrium from the administration and your colleagues. You are expected to conform, not stand out.    

The academicians focus on lucrative consultancy projects, especially those with external funding, engaging in commercial activity on the side, and seeking opportunities for travel, particularly abroad. Even when they get extra pay for the task, they give lacklustre guidance to the students whose research they are supposed to supervise. Most do not keep up with the developments in their fields, or read relevant books or journal papers. Unless it is has external collaborators, their research projects usually are sub-standard. A lecturer with a doctoral degree from a European or American university may, at the outset, publish a couple of state-of-the-art papers in reputable journals. But the subsequent publications resemble what you see from local post-graduate students and get published in the one of the many of poorly reviewed throwaway journals in existence today. One cannot but conclude that the initial papers were mostly the work of his or her supervisor, who was also a co-author.

Academic promotions are a matter of routine based on a mechanical scheme of awarding points that side-lines consideration of quality. Hastily done consultancy reports earn you points. Being a professor in Africa today does not imply that you have made any significant, novel contribution to any field.

Areas of study currently in demand include business and management studies, accountancy, public relations, personnel management, journalism, mass communication, law, education and computer applications. Traditional fields like basic sciences, history and sociology attract far fewer candidates. 

Yet, that is not how it was in the past. At least up to the end of 1980s, most African universities had adequate standards of instruction, student and staff research and publications, and applied rigorous criteria for promotions. A host of internal and external factors have contributed to the decline of the education systems in Africa. The primary factor has been the inability of the African governments to reduce economic dependency and institute sound, broad-based programmes of economic and social development.

Continued economic dependency has generated high levels of external debt, entrenched poverty and produced chaos across the educational sector. By the time the masters of international finance came calling, there was no choice but to yield to their orders. So began the mad-rush to reduce state expenditures and privatise. In the early 1990s, health centres were closed, teachers were laid off and the educational sector starved of funds as foreign and local investors, bureaucrats and politicians grabbed valuable national assets at giveaway prices. As universities saw a further reduction in funding, experienced professors sought jobs outside the country, and others started growing pineapples, running bars and mini-bus operations to make ends meet.

The scope of the disaster generated by this reckless drive that was cheered on by the Western government and political pundits became evident within a decade. It could not go on. Hence another round of “reforms” was instituted, again under the aegis of the Western nations and their agencies. The entry of China gave Africa a breathing space at the outset but ultimately began to reinforce the trends that have brought about the conditions we see today in the education and other sectors. Under the influence of the same international actors and wealth seeking politicians, what was obtained is what is seen today. No wonder the children of the elite shun local universities and seek education and employment oversees.

The picture I have painted of higher education in Africa today is not an exaggeration. It is the reality that no one wants to talk about. The local and foreign experts and organisations focus on problems at the level of primary and secondary education. They do not realise that the rote starts at the top, whereby ill-qualified academics churn out uneducated graduates in a factory like fashion, graduates who are expected to be good teachers, managers, doctors or engineers. Regional and national regulatory bodies, when they start paying attention, do not address the fundamental problems like the quality of research and teaching. The often-heard solutions to the malady of under-qualified graduates are imparting “entrepreneurial skills” and more attention to computer based skills.

The mostly self-serving experts and academics from outside do not desire to offend their hosts. Though they see the serious nature of the malaise, at best they address a minor problem here and there. Concerned local scholars do not want to alienate their colleagues, draw the ire of the state and administration, or jeopardize their future. So they too address tangential matters.   

Under this culture of silence, mediocrity at the top of the education system breeds mediocrity throughout the system. Education loses meaning. It is not what you know or can do, but the certificate you hold and the connections you have that will land you a good job.   

Mamdani’s contribution

The silence, however, is not total. Some concerned scholars, educators and citizens are voicing their dismay at the trends in the higher education sector. Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s essay, The African University, (LRB, Vol. 40, No. 14, 19 July 2018) is a recent, timely contribution to the on-going debate. As this essay has received ample positive publicity, there is a need to assess its analysis and recommendations. And that is the aim of this commentary.

The title of the essay is a bit misleading. Mamdani actually focuses on just two East African universities that, in the 1960s, were two campuses of the University of East Africa, Makerere and Dar es Salaam. A decade on, they became autonomous national universities. Mamdani classifies Makerere as “the paradigm of the European colonial university” that retained its “conservative, universalist tradition” with pride while Dar-es-Salaam “had an ambitious, nationalist sense of purpose” and “became the flag-bearer of anti-colonial nationalism and the home of the new, African public intellectual.” Developing these themes further, he contrasts these institutions in terms of the features noted in the table below. 

Features of Two East African Universities


Dar es Salaam

Universal scholarship

Intellectual commitment

Promotion of excellence

Promotion of relevance

Discipline-based approach

Interdisciplinary approach

Apolitical academia

Socialist politics

Traditional curricula

Curriculum review

Conservative orientation

Nationalistic orientation

Academic freedom

Societal engagement


Expatriate leftist domination

He illustrates his categorisations by contrasting two leading academics of that era, Ali Mazrui at Makerere, and Walter Rodney at Dar es Salaam. According to him, Mazrui was a “towering public intellectual” with “a strong belief in the classical model” and deeply suspicious of “socialism” and related political ideas. For Rodney, on the other hand, the university was “a space of activism in which knowledge was constituted in the here and now”, colonialism was “a raw exercise of power relations”, and African renewal lay within “a socialist framework …”. According to Mamdani, Rodney and other leftist academics at Dar es Salaam, for whom “ideology was everything”, were complicit in the decline of the scholarly standards in the academia.

After dealing with other issues, and noting the current poor state of the universities in Africa, he gives a recipe for improvement that stands on three legs: usage of local languages in scholarship and instruction, reduction of fees, and “to theorise our own reality, and to strike the right balance between the local and the global as we do so.” The employment of Mazrui-identified notion of the African “mode of reasoning” is implied as a crucial element of the last task.

In this commentary, I argue that Mamdani’s essay has significant flaws along several fronts. It derives from a simplistic version of history, has major errors of fact and omissions, makes unwarranted generalisation, uses unreal, extreme dichotomies, and reflects an inconsistent, biased mode of reasoning. I begin my case with an issue that forms a key part of Mamdani’s presentation, namely, that of interdisciplinary studies.

Interdisciplinary scholarship

Mamdani began his academic career in 1972 at the University of Dar es Salaam. His main responsibility was to lead a new interdisciplinary course called East African Society and Environment (EASE), a required course for undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The undergraduates in the other faculties attended a separate interdisciplinary course, Development Studies (DS) that had been launched earlier under the stewardship of Lionel Cliffe. Previously, a few lecturers like Sol Picciotto in the Faculty of Law had infused their courses with an interdisciplinary spirit.

Each course, while catering to students with different backgrounds, had a common aim, namely to give them an overall perspective on the history and functioning of human society and provide a context for their specialised courses, the focus being on African societies. Each course was designed to counter the narrow vision generated by the over-specialised nature of modern education, and make them more attuned to the local and global realities. Whether you were a social science, natural science, law or medicine major, the courses were designed to complement and not be a substitute for your main discipline based programme of instruction.

Mamdani’s assertion that a “radical camp, mostly non-Tanzanian … above all … wanted to abolish discipline-based departments” has no basis. In the lead up to the establishment of DS and EASE, no leftist document that called for the set-up of an interdisciplinary course took such an extreme position. What they stressed was the need to make the discipline based courses more relevant to the African situation.

A time-honoured tactic to discredit you opponent is to ascribe an absurd stand to him and floor him with an easy swipe. Such a ploy is often adopted by American conservatives and right wing academics to attack the left. The tactic gained much traction during the Cold War years. Mazrui, right wingers at the Dar es Salaam, including those in the University Council, invoked that style of reasoning to attack the radicals. And today, Mamdani has bought into that type of reasoning.  

These two interdisciplinary courses did not materialise overnight. They were products of years of struggle by left wing members of the academic staff, expatriate as well as local, a few leftists in the ruling party, and, most crucially, radical students working under the umbrella of the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front (USARF).

While benefitting from the socialistic climate generated by the Arusha Declaration, this and the other initiatives by the left faced strong opposition from senior conservative academics, the university administration and the staunch right-wingers in the government. Officials of the ruling party had an ambivalent stance. While the courses were felt to be in line with Mwalimu Nyerere’s call for the university to educate committed intellectuals, they saw the orientation taken by the courses with suspicion. What turned the tide in favour of their establishment was the consistent, militant support provided by USARF.

Yet, there were calls for dismantling them even after they came into operation. In fact, the only academic staff document that sought to abolish an existing department was a document signed by eleven prominent right wing lecturers and professors, including the head of the Department of Political Science, Anthony Rweyemamu and historian John Iliffe, calling for the disestablishment of the Department of Development Studies. And these were the proponents of academic freedom and staunch supporters of Ali Mazrui at Dar es Salaam.

Unreal dichotomies

As course directors, Cliffe and Mamdani formulated innovative programmes under an integrated, political economy-based Marxist framework and recruited well-qualified academic staff from varied departments to lecture on different topics. None was a replay of the doctrines of the ruling party in Tanzania, or a Soviet era text on political economy. While they formed a key part of the search for relevance at Dar es Salaam, none of these courses compromised academic excellence and rigour.

The students taking EASE, for instance, had to read a voluminous reader containing challenging papers from varied journals and book chapters as well as other recommended papers. The effort required was comparable to that needed for the other courses, be they in sociology, or history. Essay topics and examination papers were of a similar standard and graded as rigorously.

Mamdani identifies the pursuance of universal scholarship at Makerere with academic excellence attained with the traditional curriculum.  On the other hand, the drive for societal commitment, relevance and curriculum review is implied to have compromised and diluted academic standards at Dar es Salaam. Not only for interdisciplinary studies, but also for the discipline-based programmes, such dichotomies postulated by him do not reflect the diversity of what was going on at these campuses. Even at Makerere, there was a degree of curriculum review, as was the case in all universities in Africa after independence. And that was a generally a positive step, and not something to lament about.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the degree programmes in natural and social sciences, for example, were similar in content and complexity at the two campuses. Apart from courses in history, especially at Dar es Salaam, most of the other individual courses originated from similar courses offered at British universities and continued to follow the same lines. At both campuses, some departments offered high quality, demanding courses and some departments had shallow offerings. There were variations within departments as well.

Consider the Department of Education at Dar es Salaam. Nearly 40 percent of the students, who were being trained as secondary school teachers, came under its purview. They were taught courses such as Psychology of Education, Philosophy of Education, Sociology of Education and Teaching Methods. Most of these had the traditionalist orientation Mamdani identifies with Makerere. Review of their curricula was minimal. Yet they were taught in a disjoint, shallow manner, hardly reflecting any notion of excellence. Some instructors used material largely borrowed from American textbooks. The course on Philosophy of Education, taught by a priest, made you feel as if you were attending a Sunday sermon.

The situation was different in the Faculty of Law. As a result of student struggles and work of the radical lecturers, some courses saw far reaching changes in their content and orientation, with the students getting a hefty dose of interdisciplinary material. Yet, the bulk of the courses in the faculty were traditional, reflecting the unchanged capitalistic nature of the economy and society.

The academic staff were a mixture of right wingers, liberals and radicals. The standard and quality of instruction did not vary in terms of the political orientation of the instructor. In those years, the law students had to take rigorous and demanding courses across the board.

At Makerere and Dar es Salaam, important determinants of quality of instruction were how long the study programme had been in existence and the qualification and experience of the instructor. When the Dar es Salaam campus was opened, Makerere had been in operation for four decades. At the outset, many members of the academic staff at Dar es Salaam were just embarking on their academic careers. It was no surprise that in the 1960s, the courses at Makerere were of higher quality than similar courses at Dar es Salaam. What was surprising was the short time it took for Dar es Salaam to catch up. Courses in the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences became, in a span of few years, of the equal calibre at both the campuses.

A similar situation prevailed with respect to the research and writings of academic staff. For areas like history, economics, political science, law and sociology, the numerous books and papers produced at Dar es Salaam from the 1960s into the 1980s reflected outstanding, innovative scholarship that left an international imprint. These included Shivji (1971; 1987), Rodney (1972), Rweyemamu (1973), Mamdani (1974), Mapolu (1974), Leys (1975), Kjekshus (1977), Iliffe (1979), Kaniki (1980), Coulson (1982), Sheriff (1987) and Sheriff and Ferguson (1991). Most of these books are by committed left wing scholars who were advocating relevance in research, writing and course curricula.

The association between traditional orientation and excellence posited by Mamdani is not backed by evidence. His claim that for the left ideology was everything is negated by the generally meticulous and far-going nature of their research and the high standard of their writing and teaching. It is an ideologically based assertion.

World Bank and International Monetary Fund

In the 1970s, Mamdani was an erudite Marxist scholar. Today he ascribes to the cultural, political analysis in the style of mainstream American political scientists. Accordingly, his writings today only tangentially refer to economic issues and factors. Adopting an analytic method based on identity, he has dispensed with concepts like neo-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, class analysis, economic dependency, imperialism and neo-liberalism. But, on one economic aspect, he has retained a degree of continuity. Today as then, he continues to regard two international financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as villains. Though, now he views them narrowly, just repeatedly noting the deleterious effects of the structural adjustment programmes they initiated for Africa in the 1980s.

Both these institutions were centrally involved in economic affairs of most African nations from the day of independence. In Tanzania, the World Bank involvement did not abate, in terms of proving a direction for the economy, funding of projects and provision of advisors and experts, an iota even during the Ujamaa years. It was not averse to supposedly socialist schemes like nationalisation and villagisation. The sole project over which Nyerere’s government differed with the World Bank was the construction of the railway line to Zambia. The Bank wanted the focus to be on road transport.

In this article, Mamdani invokes the World Bank to drive home the final nail in the coffin for the idea of interdisciplinary studies:

“Anyone who still thinks of interdisciplinarity as the key to a new world should consider that it has been a working principle for World Bank teams on the ground in Africa since the Bank’s inception.”

Consider the following Mamdani-inspired statement:

“Anyone who still thinks of education as the key to a new world should consider that the World Bank has been a major advocate, planner and funder of education projects in many African nations from the time they attained independence.”

Surely, most people, including Mamdani, would dismiss it outright. That the World Bank has firmly associated itself with education is not a valid reason to not develop education. The problems lie with the nature of the education policy, the type of education projects, the terms of the funding and the type of projects not funded by the World Bank, and not with education in the generic sense of the term. 

The World Bank supported the national five-year economic plans in the East African nations after independence. Yet, Marxist economists backed the idea of economic planning too. Economic planning meant quite a different thing for the two.

The World Bank is a major driver of the neo-liberal globalisation that prevails today. Does that automatically imply we should oppose all modes of globalisation? When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called upon the workers of the world to unite, they were advocating globalisation. But it was a pro-people mode of globalisation. The one prevailing today serves the interests of multinational corporations and the technologically advanced nations and not ordinary people or the poor nations. It entrenches dependency and poverty among the latter, and generates stupendous inequalities. That is what we oppose, and not economic and cultural interactions between all nations and peoples on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

Correspondingly, the phrase “interdisciplinary studies” has a meaning for the World Bank that differs in significant aspects from that advocated by the left at Dar es Salaam. Would the Marxist political economy oriented interdisciplinary course Mamdani taught at Dar es Salaam have the approval of the World Bank? Surely not.

The key rationale underlying the advocacy of interdisciplinary studies by the left is summed up in a simple phrase: The truth is the whole. It is the basic realisation that objects of intellectual and scientific inquiry like the human body, an ecosystem, and human society, while usually approached in terms of their constituent parts, must be cognisant of the complexities of the relationship between the parts. For this purpose, it does not suffice to simply add the parts; a theoretical model for the whole is essential. For the left, the reductionist, single discipline-based approach is not just insufficient; as deployed by mainstream social scientists, it is also misleading. Nonetheless, the left does not seek the elimination of discipline-based studies. As stated earlier, the interdisciplinary courses at Dar es Salaam were designed to complement them.

In the hands of the World Bank, the interdisciplinary approach is more of a multi-disciplinary approach; bringing together narrowly-oriented experts from the diverse disciplines; making the whole from just summing the parts. Apart from ascribing to diffuse market principles, they lack a broad, explicitly formulated theoretical model of society like the political-economy based approach.

Even when the Bank advocates area studies, their premises, units of analysis, framework and specific questions differ in a major way from what its critics promote. The term “systems analysis” also appears in this context. But it has a different meaning in the writings of the Polish Marxist economist Oscar Lange than for the financially oriented World Bank policy gurus.

This topic calls for a deeper inquiry into the nature of scientific method for natural sciences, social sciences and other fields. But this is not the place for them. Here, it suffices to observe that the same analytic phrase can have very different implication for people with different frameworks for analysing society.   

The above quoted assertion by Mamdani is oblivious of this and other relevant issues, even though he led an interdisciplinary study programme in the past. Taking them into account makes its validity suspect.   

Ideological classes

Another set of leftist activities at Dar es Salaam upon which Mamdani casts a deficient light were the ideological classes and study groups.

A group with an official imprimatur, known as the “ideological class”, met at 10 a.m. every Sunday, with the aim of offering participants an alternative to church. An informal, but well organised range of after-class study groups also proliferated over the years.

The ideological classes were begun by USARF. As a member of USARF, I was given the responsibility to organise the first set of classes. I made out the syllabus, the schedule of class topics and the reading list for each class, and also recruited the lecturers. They were a mix of senior members of USARF, leftist academics and people from the varied African liberation organisations that were based in Dar es Salaam in those days. But fellow students were in the majority. The first class was held in late 1969, the venue being the main lecture room of the Faculty of Law.

We did not seek or have approval from the university administration, the government or the ruling party. It was purely our own initiative. We did not even seek or have permission for the usage of the Law Faculty lecture room from the Dean of the Faculty. A leftist member of the staff opened the door for us at the designated time, and that was it. When the Dean came to know about it, he kept quiet. Most likely, he was afraid that if he did intervene, these radicals may stage a noisy demonstration in front of his office. In no way or form did these classes have “an official imprimatur.”

The central reason for holding the classes was fill in the gap in our knowledge arising from the right wing slant of the majority of the courses being taught in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Faculty of Law. We wanted to learn more about the history, theory and practice of socialism and understand how the method of Marxist Political Economy could be applied to analyse African history and society in an interdisciplinary manner. When the classes began, the two main interdisciplinary courses, Development Studies and East African Society and Environment, had not got off the ground. Hence we took our own initiative for self-education even though we already had a heavy load from our regular academic studies.

For these classes or its other activities, USARF did not rely on any form of support from any external entity, be it from a socialist or capitalist nation. While interacting to some extent with media persons from some socialist nations, USARF maintained an independent stand. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, USARF was the first group to protest and hold a demonstration in front of the Soviet embassy in Dar es Salaam. When China began to consort with Mobotu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaïre, we expressed our displeasure to a visiting delegation from China in no uncertain terms. And USARF members were aghast at the theocratic cult of personality prevailing in North Korea.

Mamdani gives the impression that the classes had an anti-religious rationale. If that was the case, why target only Christianity, and not Islam? The classes were held on Sunday mornings because it was the most suitable time to hold them. That many students attended Church at that time was just a coincidence. In any case, most USARF members were not in the habit of attending prayers of any sort. The students who went to church looked at us with derision as they passed by. That is true. But not a single class topic focused on religion.

The study groups Mamdani mentions were a further self-education initiative among those who felt that they needed to learn in depth what they had got from the ideological classes. Again these groups did not have official blessings of any form.

Mamdani, while noting that Cheche, a radical student magazine, was banned by the government, fails to mention that it was published by USARF, the same group that was holding the ideological classes. The question is: How come one major activity of USARF and USARF itself was banned while its other key activity, the ideological classes, received “official imprimatur”? Because of the selective and diffuse way in which he presents his case, this anomaly remains hidden from the readers.

After the imposition of the ban on USARF and Cheche, another version of the magazine, MajiMaji, came into being and the ideological classes were continued by the campus branch of the ruling party youth league, (TANU Youth League)—TYL. At that point in time, it had the same radical stance as USARF, and was often at odds with the university administration and the ruling party. And I know that at least for the initial five years of their existence, the ideological classes did not secure any form of “official imprimatur” (see Hirji (2012) for details.)

At one point President Nyerere maintained a dialogue with the radical students. But it was more of an attempt to know what they were up and to placate them. While he did not want to be seen as a person who suppressed independent socialistic initiatives on the campus, he did not have a special affinity towards these students. When he had to make a choice, there was no doubt where his stand was. In a public question-answer session with the university community, he roundly ridiculed their ideas. In an address to a conference of Catholic bishops after imposing the ban on USARF and Cheche, he clearly told them that he had done so in order to curb the influence of communism at the campus. A devout Catholic who regularly went to church, it is hard to imagine why he or the ruling party would allow the holding of educational sessions at the national university that had openly anti-religious aims. Mamdani’s assertions about them trivialises their aims and are historically inaccurate in every respect.

Mazrui and Rodney

In Mamdani’s essay, the descriptors associated with Ali Mazrui of Makerere include: a “towering public intellectual,” a thinker who grappled with fundamental philosophical issues relating to the foundations of knowledge, a defender of academic freedom, a promoter of academic excellence in the context of classical model of the academia and a prolific writer who boldly penned “incendiary essays” that challenged the powers that be. In particular, he decried the socialist policies then being pursued by authoritarian African leaders. Overall, it is a glowing portrait from which Mazrui’s unique conceptualisation of the “African mode of reasoning” is presented as a possibly central aspect of the revival of African universities. 

Walter Rodney, for whom the descriptor “intellectual” is not employed, stood in a sharp contrast. He was primarily an activist for whom ideological commitment and struggle against imperialism overrode all else, a “super-leftist” who sought to convert the university into an ideological college beholden to the ruling socialist government. We read:

[Rodney’s] How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was a grand excursion in dependency theory, very much in line with the premises of the Arusha Declaration, while Mazrui’s discourse emphasised the growing contradiction between the promise of Arusha and the reality of social and political developments in Tanzania.

In this essay, Rodney emerges as a prosaic empiricist lacking original ideas who visualised major historical phenomena like colonialism with simplistic notions like power and violence. Further, he was among the expatriate super-left that uncritically glorified the Ujamaa policy of the ruling party in Tanzania. In comparison with Mazrui, Rodney is seen as a political conformist who pandered to borrowed nations like dependency theory and not an innovative thinker.

To assess Mamdani’s characterisations, we look at the global context. Those were the years during which the Cold War was raging everywhere. Under the leadership of the United States, leftist academics and students, among other pro-democracy activists, were targeted, expelled, imprisoned, tortured and murdered in their thousands in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Yet, they courageously continued to fight for social justice and freedom against the dictatorial regimes being supported by the West. On the other hand, rightist academics, when they spoke out, mostly received a slap on the wrist.

Rodney was no conformist, in theory or practice. He boldly challenged the authorities wherever he was. He was expelled from Jamaica, nearly thrown out of Tanzania on at least two occasions, and assassinated in his homeland.

Mazrui, it must be said, was not just a person fascinated by ideas; he too was an activist, only that he was a right-wing activist. He actively sought venues to promote his anti-socialist views and passionately promoted them. Though he crafted his own terminology, his basic views, method of analysing society and style reflected the Cold War era anti-socialist diatribe prevalent among the mainstream American political scientists. Their substance derived from the type of material contained in conservative newspaper headlines, not good research. Beneath the surface, apart from the flowery rhetoric, his views and propositions in that time were hardly original.

It is of interest to note what Mazrui could and should have done but did not do. The suppression of potential rivals and political opposition was more intense and brutal in Kenya, his home country, than in Tanzania or Uganda. It was effectively a one-party, one-man state. Yet, Mazrui’s writing did not attack those anti-democratic practices. He did not mount on a platform at the University of Nairobi or another venue to denounce them. He did not direct his ire at the shocking disparity between the opulence of the “respectable” areas of Nairobi and the stark misery on the adjacent slums; a disparity far sharper than for any city in East Africa. Had he done these things, he would have landed in real trouble.

Around December 1970, upon invitation from the Department of Political Science, Ali Mazrui gave a couple of public lectures in the main assembly hall at Dar es Salaam. For both the sessions, the hall was jam-packed with students and academic staff. That such lectures were held speaks to the level of academic freedom prevailing at this university.

Mazrui spoke in his typical titillating style, pouring artfully articulated scorn on the policy of the Tanzanian ruling party and ideas of the campus left, and roundly praising the Western societies as bastions of freedom and progress. It was the speech of a person afflicted with chronic America-philia. Entertaining the audience with verbal gymnastics, he reiterated his view that scholarship was not compatible with social commitment.

The opposition to his views was not spearheaded by the leftists on the academic staff. It was the radical students who posed tough queries and made critical comments. The next day, two of them wrote long articles criticising his speech. These were distributed among the audience at the next lecture. Munene Njagi, a Kenyan student wrote a piece with the title “Some points of disagreement with the intelligent professor, Ali Mazrui” and my piece had the title “The Mugwumpiness of Professor Mazrui.” (Hirji 1970, Njagi 1970).

We took issue with his simplistic definition of an intellectual and pointed out the inconsistencies and factual deficiencies in his speech. Njagi concluded that the “[P]rofessor is an intellectual preaching the gospel of submissiveness to imperialism.” After giving an example-based alternative view of the intellectual in a detailed fashion, I stated: “Mazrui is mistaken if he thinks he is a rebel. He is a conformist par excellence.” We are sure these comments reached him though we never got a response.   

Mazrui spared the dictators like Mobutu of Zaïre or Banda of Malawi from his incendiary pen. As an effective public persona standing against the “evils of communism,” he was the darling of the United States Agency for International Development. Even the apartheid government of South Africa accorded him an invitation.

Mazrui’s articles on Tanzania and Ghana mentioned by Mamdani lack substance and do not take the socio-economic conditions in those nations or the global context adequately into account. Their superficiality makes them incendiary only in style. The truly incendiary writings about Tanzania came from the leftists at Dar es Salaam. Radical students and staff published highly critical articles that exposed concretely the gap between the promise and practice of the Arusha Declaration. These were published in Cheche, MajiMaji and other venues, including the national media. These writings, based on solid research, carried weight and could not be dismissed as simple propaganda. That is why USARF and Cheche were banned. While Mamdani mentions the critical writings of Issa Shivji, he fails to note other writings along similar lines. And he does not classify them in line with the glowing praise he heaps on the oppositional voice of Ali Mazrui.

It is undeniable that there was much to admire about Tanzania and Nyerere in those days. People of goodwill everywhere noted the positive contrast it presented with many African nations. Its firm anti-colonial, anti-racist stand, support for the right of nations to self-determination and humane national policy attracted many Africa-oriented academics, especially the socialists, in the West as in the rest of Africa. Nyerere was seen as a gentle, simple man of firm principles. There was a reason for Tanzaphilia.

Yet, many leftists from outside, including Rodney, once they were in Tanzania for a few years, began to develop a critical attitude towards the economic, political and social trends in the country, and wrote about it. Their writings were generally based on extensive research. Mamdani has little to say about these writings of the so-called super-left. 

Mamdani’s dismissal of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, one of the most important books on African history written in the 20th century, is an unfounded ideological position. Translated into several languages, for decades it stood unrivalled in terms of usage for general African history courses in universities across African and the world. Today, as many left wing books of that era have been forgotten, Rodney’s principal work still attracts a good following from academics and others.

The leftists at Dar es Salaam, including Rodney, saw consideration of theoretical issues for analysis of human society a matter of importance. That was a principal reason why they promoted interdisciplinary studies. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a creative blend of classical Marxist theory, dependency theory and Pan-Africanist ideas for modelling African history. It synthesises material from a broad range of sources to produce a coherent explanation why African societies are the way they are. Importantly, his theoretical model and analysis also provide clues for transforming the African condition.

No original work of Mazrui from that era has a comparative standing. The notion of “mode of reasoning,” which Mamdani presents as a major contribution, was stated in a perfunctory, point-scoring, debating style, and never elaborated. To have traction, it needs years and volumes of inquiry. Yet, Mamdani clings to it idea even though Mazrui, in his later years, appears to have dispensed with it (see below).

Since the day it came out in 1972, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa has elicited unsubstantiated hostile venom from conservative and far-right historians. Now, in a subtle way, Mamdani has joined them. Interestingly, he also fails to note, as I show later, that after the 1980s, Mazrui was quite conciliatory towards the ideas of Rodney and the “super-left” the he had dismissed in his early days, and also adopted some of them.

Vitalising the African academy

The central theme in Ali Mazrui’s year 2013 acceptance speech for an award given for his contribution to African education was the need to distinguish between modernisation and Westernisation. He called on Africans to study developments in other nations, especially India and China. In that respect, he noted three items: ideology, intermediate technology and ways of organising the economy. Upon this foundation, he gave a series of steps to reform secondary and higher education in Africa (Mazrui 2013). At the secondary school level, every student should:

“Learn three languages: an African language, a European language and an Asian language.

Take a course on Global History of Science.”

At the university level, every student, irrespective of specialty, should:

“Pursue an African language or an Asian language course at an advanced level.

Study a course on Third World Civilisation.

Study a course on Great Systems of Thought.”

Mamdani first blames the leftists and later declares the changes introduced under the influence of agencies like the World Bank as key factors behind the dilution and downward slide of higher education in Africa. These included fee payment, departmental autonomy and market-oriented studies. Consequently, he proposes three steps for lifting the African academy from its current predicament:

“Greater utilisation of local languages in scholarship and instruction.

Reduction of fees.

Theorisation of the African reality in a way that balances the local and global and possibly employs the African ‘mode of reasoning.’”

In this context, Mazrui and Mamdani sound like the super-left of the earlier era. Mamdani decries curricula that do not reflect the “life experiences, or family and community histories” of the students. Both recognise, in their own ways, that economic and educational dependency on the West as a factor in the deterioration of African education. And they come across as committed scholars who, in the search for relevance, are advocating curricular reform!

Yet, there are major differences between what they suggest. Mazrui’s proposals are concrete, challenging but workable. Mamdani’s proposals are diffuse, half-way type, and potentially divisive and impractical. They elicit a number of disturbing questions: What is the local language in Kenya? Should the languages of instruction for a Luo child and a Kikuyu child be different? It is one thing to emphasise the preservation of local languages and another to make them a central aspect of education. The latter will just enhance the ethnic, regional and religious divisiveness that constitutes a major malady afflicting Africa today. Further, non-usage of local languages is often used by politicians and educationists as a convenient bogey for explaining the poor state of education in Africa today. They talk about it, yet take no concrete steps to change the situation.

The politicians and educators in Tanzania talk about the importance of Swahili, yet send their children to English medium schools. Mazrui does not propose a change in the medium of instruction but recognises the innate ability of children everywhere to master several languages. And he challenges those concerned with education in Africa to appreciate that fact and make it a reality.

Mamdani’s invocation of the “African mode of reasoning” assumes that such a mode of reasoning exist. Does it have rules of logic that are different from those universally accepted today? Are the modes of reasoning in Ghana and Algeria identical? Do the Muslims of Nigeria employ a mode of reasoning other than those used by Christian Nigerians? Venturing in such a direction is but a recipe for divisiveness and pedagogical disaster.

The modern Mazrui has dispensed with such parochial agendas and stresses the global nature of science and scientific thinking. The three required courses he proposes stem from a spirit and orientation similar to that behind the interdisciplinary courses developed by the “super-left” of Dar es Salaam. He has also become more reconciled to their ideas. Thus, a footnote to this paper reads:

“For examples of works which have creatively used Marxist categories, see Samir Amin, Capitalism and Development in the Ivory Coast, in African Politics and Society, Irving Leonard (ed.) (New York: Free Press, 1970), pp. 277–288; and Giovanni Arrighi and John S. Saul, Essays on the Political Economy of Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973); E. A. Brett, Colonialism and Underdevelopment in East Africa (London: Heinemann, 1972); and Colin Leys, Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism (London: Heinemann, 1975),” (Mazrui 2013).

On the other hand, Mamdani’s call to theorise “our own reality” in a balanced way gives the impression that hardly anything of that sort has been done thus far. He negates the more than half a century of creative effort and volumes of writing by many African and Africa-oriented scholars, even the prolific and outstanding ones like Samir Amin. Had he taken a closer look, he would have seen that, in their search for relevance, balancing the local and the global in a scientific manner was a key aim of those he brands as the “super-left,” including Rodney.

It is a common among the neo-liberal scholars today to try to bury the efforts to find intellectual alternatives to capitalist theories undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s. They want us to forget that crucial aspect of our past, in particular, to ignore anything related to socialism. They talk as if we have to start from scratch; as if there is nothing to learn from history. Thankfully, as the above quote shows, the new Mazrui is not as narrow minded.

Mamdani’s proposal to reduce fees is a step in the right direction. But, given the depth and breadth of the academic malaise, it is a small step.

Other errors and omissions

Earlier, I noted two clear errors in Mamdani’s essay: giving an official status to the ideological classes and the call to abolish discipline based programmes. His declaration that Nyerere “went on to outlaw all parties except his own” also needs to be corrected.

Mamdani does not inform his readers that in those days, most African nations, whether they called themselves socialist or not, were headed on the path to effective one-party or one-man rule. Mostly that was done by decree and/or violent suppression of the opposition, as in Malawi, Kenya and Zaïre, three nations closely allied to the capitalist West. In contrast, one party rule in Tanzania came about after it was overwhelmingly approved by a popular, free and fair vote. The phrase “to outlaw,” which conveys a different story, is unsuitable in this context.

In consideration of what Mamdani said about Nyerere and Tanzania in his W.E.D Du Bois lectures, this misrepresentation is surprising (Mamdani 2012). There Mamdani presents Nyerere as an ideal leader who successfully and peacefully resolved the divisions along racial and tribal lines inherited from the colonial era. Tanzania is viewed as a model African nation where citizenship was the operational principle. I have indicated elsewhere that his assessment of Tanzania and Nyerere there was based on selective evidence and too skewed (Hirji 2017). There Mamdani is like a modern day adherent of Tanzania-philia, but in the present essay, he talks as if he suffers from Tanzania-phobia.

Thereby, Mamdani can refer to “deracialisation” implanted at Makerere in neutral terms. The correct term is “Africanisation”. In a bid to correct the inherited racial disparities, African academics, Mazrui among them, obtained rapid promotions in which the traditional rules of academia were suspended. The contradiction with the alleged policy of promoting academic excellence is not stated. At Dar es Salaam, academic promotions were based more on merit and citizenship, and not race.

Mamdani’s uncritically praises the magazine Transition, but does not inform his reader that it was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Thereby, he also gets away without noting that in those days Mazrui was the darling of the United States Agency for International Development and right wingers in the United States.

Mamdani omits the University College of Nairobi, the third campus of the University of East Africa, from his essay. With a right wing atmosphere firmer than at Makerere, Nairobi represented the opposite of Dar es Salaam in a number of important ways. The stridently pro-West government of Kenya, though it had a proclaimed policy of African Socialism, detested what was going on in Tanzania, and viewed the leftist tendencies at the Dar es Salaam campus with suspicion. Kenyan students at Dar es Salaam had to be selective in terms of taking home the books and papers they had acquired in the course of their studies. They would land in trouble if they were discovered to have books from China or any work by Mao Tse-Dong in their baggage.

The few progressive Kenyan and expatriate academic staff at Nairobi had to tread with care.

Student protests at Nairobi were suppressed with batons. Yet, all this was done in the name of academic freedom and excellence, and reducing the interference of politics on scholarship.

Lack of consideration of even the situation at Nairobi makes his focus too narrow. Nonetheless, Mamdani deems it fit to present his case as if it applies to the entire African continent. As Colin Leys observed in a response to his essay, many specific aspects of the universities have to be considered before one can draw the type of broad conclusions he does (Leys 2018).

Finally, Mamdani views intellectuals in a static manner, as if their views do not evolve over time. Some regress and some progress. Many leftists at Dar es Salaam were educated by intellectual interactions and the trends in the Tanzanian and African societies. There have been two versions of Mamdani, the Marxist of the 1970s, and the anti-socialist, identity-politics driven scholar of today as there were two versions of Ali Mazrui, the rabid anti-socialist, Ameriphilia driven sloganeer Mazrui of the 1960s and the Pan-Africanist, more open-minded and erudite cultural theorist of the later years.

For example, in his later days, Mazrui confessed that in the past:

“[W]e were all influenced by Marx and Lenin without necessarily becoming Marxists or Leninists. Some Africans embraced Marxism as an ethic of distribution. Others believed in Marxism as an ideology for development. Most African intellectuals were also stimulated by Marxism as a paradigm of analysis. (Mazrui (2012)).

That Ali Mazrui was, politically or intellectually, a Marxist to any degree in those days is a dubious proposition. Nonetheless, the fact that he made such a statement in his later years was indicative of the degree to which his views have converged towards those of the “super-left” he had lambasted earlier.

The omissions and misrepresentations in Mamdani’s essay noted here augment those I mentioned earlier. Combined with a host of conceptual and factual flaws, they enable Mamdani to make seemingly sound case. Yet, his essay is a hollow effort based on selective evidence to support an ideologically predetermined case.

The downward slide

The progressive picture of the University of Dar es Salaam I have painted applies to the period from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, the period that is also the focus of Mamdani’s essay. In the subsequent years, most of the progress that had been achieved through creative efforts of local and expatriate staff, most of them left wing, and radical students, began to unravel.

The ban on USARF and Cheche, the first major step in that direction, represented the determination of Nyerere and the ruling party to ensure that the leftist tendencies on the campus did not go out of hand. Accordingly, key positions in the university administration were placed in the hands of party loyalists. The process accelerated after the student pro-democracy uprising of 1971. From then on progressively inclined local and expatriate academic staff were removed from the campus via unjustified transfers, non-renewal of contracts and other devices. The recruitment leftist staff was reduced. EASE was abolished and DS became a shallow version of its former self. After the middle of the 1970s, with the campus TYL dominated by the ruling party faithful students, the ideological classes and MajiMaji lost their radical edge. In no time, only a few Tanzanian academics on the campus and active in the staff organisation independently promoted the banner of academic freedom, struggled against an authoritarian administration, critically analysed the trends in the nation at large and Africa, and espoused a radical political stand.   

From the early 1980s, the discipline-based study programmes also began a downward slide in terms of the quality of scholarship and academic standards. This deterioration was also observed at Makerere University and the University of Nairobi, and at many universities in Africa.

The driving factors behind this trend were internal as well as external, educational as well as societal. Overall, under the rule of autocrats of varied hue, and economic domination by the Western nations, multinational firms and financial institutions, most African states had lost the nationalistic sense of direction of the 1960s, and had become mired in debt and destitution. Unable to stand on their own feet, their educational infrastructure began to crumble as well. I talked about this at the outset.

Vast inequalities prevail across Africa. Poverty remains entrenched. Major portions of the economy are under the control of foreign capital. Levels of indebtedness are rising rapidly. Social services like health and education have become grossly unequal. The elite and their children get good but costly health care, at home and abroad, and attend well-resourced schools that charge high fees. As the universities have become universities in name only, their children go to India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America for further education.     

What is to be done?    

The problems of the modern African university are grave and wide-ranging. While it is daunting to visualise how and where to begin to deal with them, we need to appreciate that they are multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary in scope. The problems of higher education cannot be resolved without tackling the problems of the education system as a whole. The problems of the education sector are related to the problems in the health, transportation, agricultural and other sectors. They have common roots. A compartmentalised approach cannot work. This task also entails restructuring the relationship between state and the people, transforming the basic internal and external economic relationships, and making the state accountable to the ordinary people, and not the billionaires, multinationals and the international capitalist system. A viable future for Africa and African education can only come through struggles to transform the neo-liberal system that dominates and exploits its people and resources.

Nonetheless, it is not an either-or issue. Simultaneous struggles on all fronts are essential. The general endeavour to achieve a just, people-oriented society has to be contemporaneous with the struggle to transform education, and higher education in particular.

With regard to the latter task, I deem four measures to be essential at the outset. First, Africa needs fully funded, state supported universities, where most students will get a full scholarship in return for a contract of five years of public service upon graduation. The mushrooming of private universities, many of which lack qualified staff and offer abysmal quality education, has halt and the existing ones attached to one or the other public university.

Second, the universities should enrol only well qualified students, and award degrees to only those who demonstrate required, high standards of achievement. The mass degree-awarding mills have to cease. Academically irresponsible conduct on the part of the teaching staff and administrators so prevalent today has to be curtailed. Given the dearth of qualified academics, this means that at the outset, we will have fewer universities with lecturers and professors who have the needed academic credentials. They will enrol fewer students but produce graduates who have mastered their disciplines. There is no running away from that unpalatable reality.

Third, reform of the curricula of the discipline-based study program is a prime necessity. The reforms should focus on enhancing excellence and making the study programs more relevant to the needs of a social system that will benefit the ordinary, reduce mass poverty and combat inequality.

Fourth, all university students, irrespective of their specialisation must attend an interdisciplinary course in each year of study. Such courses will help them locate their particular profession in the context of the society as a whole, practice it more effectively and be responsible citizens. These courses need to learn from the lessons and contents of the earlier era courses like Development Studies and East African Society and Environment, and take into account Mazrui’s proposals to introduce compulsory courses on the Global History of Science, Third World Civilisation and Great Systems of Thought.

Comprehensive research, interdisciplinary analysis and critical thought are the essential tools for this monumental pedagogic and practical task.


Mamdani’s essay does not reveal the depth of the malaise faced by the African university. It is an ideologically biased, factually flawed, conceptually effusive and selective portrait of its history, causes and current situation.  His method of analysis cannot lead to a sound course of action to resolve it. More likely, following his diffuse mode of reasoning and ill-defined recipes may just compound the problems of the African academy. His essay educates us more about what we should not do, than what we should.

While Mamdani remains a captive of the flowery Cold-War era rhetoric of the ancient Ali Mazrui, the person he admires has moved on. According to many observers, Mazrui later came to adopt positions that he had earlier identified with Rodney and other leftists at Dar es Salaam. There is much of value in his later day publications on culture, religion, language and history. In particular, his latest recommendations for improving the state of the African education are worthy of note.

In this era, the African university has become a bastion of conformism to capitalist ideology and the worship of everything Western. It suffers from a dearth of erudite, independent scholarship. The academic staff struggle for better terms of service and salaries; the students seek improved terms for loans, better hostel and cafeteria facilities, and not much more. Excellence and deep learning have been put side; relevance is conceptualised in terms of enhancing entrepreneurship and market-based personal competiveness. The political authorities have no tolerance for critical academic voices.

Changing the situation entails a major struggle. University students and academic staff must study the histories of the African and global academies, learn from the efforts of their predecessors, and embark on bold struggles to transform African education and society. The works of erudite scholars from all corners of the world need study. Not just the socialist but also liberal academics who have done specialised but meticulous research on education and other fields need attention. Close attention to the works of the revolutionary intellectuals of the past is also essential (Shivji 2018).

In sum, while the methodology underlying the writings of the Mamdani of the 1970s retains its relevance today, attending to the mode of reasoning of the modern Mamdani, especially as embodied in his recent essay, will only drive Africa astray.

* Karim F Hirji is a retired Professor of Medical Statistics and a Fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences. He can be contacted at [email protected].  

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