Western bodies have long reduced African academics to native informants whose job is simply to collect data for those in New York or London who have the conceptual competence to study it. It is this native informant mentality that Prof. Mamdani is uprooting in his effort to transform Makerere Institute of Social Research from a consultancy unit into a full-fledged research institute. Such a person needs support, not slander.
It is quite sad that a writer as talented as Dr. James Ocita should be so impotent in his analysis. This guy has been peddling accusations against Prof. Mahmood Mamdani for some time. In his latest missive, he prophesizes doom for the PhD Programme that the professor runs at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR). A brief background is in order before we proceed.
Prof. Mamdani, Director at MISR, introduced six years ago a five-year interdisciplinary PhD programme at Makerere University to train researchers as part of a campaign to reverse the diminishing quality and quantity of research in African universities. The African university, in Mamdani’s eyes, faced two problems that constrained research. First, the would-be researchers had turned to consultancy to earn a living. He says that Makerere’s research institute had degenerated into a consultancy unit before he stepped in.
Second, and most troubling, the few scholars still committed to research have failed to ask the right questions. Driven by assumptions based on the experiences of Europe, the African researcher, according to Mamdani, is trapped in analogical reasoning and ignorant of the historical specificity of the African continent. Mamdani’s PhD programme is especially focused on addressing the second constraint.
Given the weakness of the undergraduate program in many African universities, a good number of students who join the PhD programme fail to meet Mamdani’s academic standards. They fell off one by one. Some of the drop-outs are Ugandans whose sense of entitlement to the Uganda-based academic programme is beyond belief. This has led to some sort of nativist uproar in which Dr. Ocita is the noisiest.
The main accusation leveled by Dr. Ocita, who served as a research fellow and briefly as an assistant director at MISR until his hope for contract renewal met a dead end, is that Prof. Mamdani, a Ugandan of Asian origin, discriminates against native Ugandans. To avoid the contempt of being associated with nativism, Dr. Ocita advances his nativist grievance among many other grievances, including the claim that Prof. Mamdani is a dictator who dismisses students at will and rides roughshod over university rules and procedures.
Basing on figures showing a decreased number of students, Dr. Ocita has declared in his latest missive that “The MISR Academic Program [is] Teetering on The Verge of Collapse.” Even when we assume that his claims and accompanying statistics, comical as some of them may be, are not stretched to blur the difference between fact and fiction, his analysis is poor.
To begin with, Dr. Ocita reduces explanation to description. He recounts all the wrongs he purports to have seen at MISR with touching eloquence. But when asked to make these alleged wrongs intelligible, he responds with name-calling in a cowardly attempt to shield his claims from scrutiny.
There are more sophisticated activists of the university whose ability to contextualize problems is enlightening. Robert Meister, whom we hosted at MISR some time back, is an example. In his The Public University as a Site of Struggle paper that he presented in one of our routine seminars, Meister gave us a contextual explanation, as opposed to a descriptive lamentation, of how US universities are able to hike fees both when the economy is doing well and when it is struggling. He noted that he was not interested in why the cost of higher education rises, for such a question would only lead to a list of endless university needs.
The critical question, he said, was why universities “assume that there is more to be gotten and why they see tuition…as the surest and safest way to get it.” He found the answer in student loans, which private capitalists have identified as a goldmine and in which they invest a lot of money. By setting out to investigate the circumstances in which universities get convinced that they can charge more and more fees and that students can ably pay regardless of general economic hardship, Meister was looking for context. In this case the context was bigger than the university, let alone individual university managers. Private capital had penetrated student loans and found them to be vastly lucrative and highly safe. Capital, therefore, unleashed cash.
During the debate that the paper generated, questions came up regarding the implication of private capital on the freedom of the university. The debate extended to the relationship between the state and the university and what this means for higher education. If Dr. Ocita thinks that Prof. Mamdani gets away with his decisions because he enjoys state backing, how would this change without addressing the broader question of the relationship between the state and the university?
If Prof. Mamdani is powerful because of his unequalled ability to attract funding, as Dr. Ocita often says, how would this be addressed by merely focusing on individuals instead of paying attention to the broader question of the challenges of university funding? Whenever Prof. Mamdani threatens to resign, Makerere kneels and begs him to stay. Not even the hatred and schemes of a former Vice Chancellor could unseat Prof. Mamdani. Dr. Ocita amuses me when he keeps on complaining that the professor was reinstated without presenting his PhD certificate and having exceeded the 70-year age limit. He fails to ask contextual questions and builds his analysis on handbooks of university rules. At the end of the day, he produces a bare-bones narrative that puts to question his analytical credentials.
The analytical hollowness of Dr. Ocita’s descriptive foray serves only to confirm colonial prejudices that Africans can only be collectors of data for Europeans and Americans to analyze. Western bodies have long reduced academics on this continent, including some of the most promising brains, to native informants. These informants, also known as consultants or contract researchers, are given research questions and asked to collect data from their respective localities. The native informant is not expected to think and make sense of the data he collects. His job is simply to describe as accurately as possible what he sees in the field and hand over the data to those in New York who have the conceptual competence to study it. It is this native informant mentality that Prof. Mamdani is uprooting in his effort to transform MISR from a consultancy unit into a full-fledged research institute. Such a person needs support, not slander.
The assumption that Africans can only be collectors of data after the fashion of Dr. Ocita’s descriptive rambling seems to be founded on the ideas of nineteenth century and subsequent anthropological scholarship. It was—and to some extent still is—believed that the ‘native’ may know all the events and facts of his society, but he is incapable of making sense of them.
The native can compile a list of occurrences in chronological order and attach dates to them, but he cannot generate history out of this data. The idea is that history is more than merely recounting past events however accurately these events might be described. When Edward Taylor says that the difference between civilized nations and barbaric tribes is to be found in the ability to write history, he meant that civilized people have history while tribesmen can only recount past events. As we try to dismantle such silly prejudices, people like Dr. Ocita choose to let us down by perfectly becoming the intellectual caricatures that some western scholars make of Africans.
It hurts me to expose the analytical worthlessness of Dr. Ocita in such a befitting manner. Having sat in a class in which he taught, I have a lot of respect for him. But his persistent ill-mannered behavior has put me in a difficult position. I cannot sit back and enjoy seeing the name of my professor being dragged through the mud at the hands of a slanderous attention-seeker.
And when we engage Dr. Ocita’s accusations, some think that we do so because we want ‘favors’ from one of the world’s finest scholars. They keep on reminding us of fellow students who stood with the professor in the fight against previous detractors and were later ‘dumped’.
I don’t think that there is any student who ever fought alongside Prof. Mamdani hoping in turn to be awarded a PhD without making the necessary academic effort. If there is, such a student needed to be advised that the professor did not return to Makerere to recruit fighters; he came to train researchers. Indeed, the fact that Prof. Mamdani can question the academic standing of his ‘allies’ speaks volumes about his firmness in separating ‘friendship’ from scholarship. Such a firm stance, contrary to the accusation of favouritism, should prove that nothing can prevent him from being just and fair in his academic relationship with students.
In the next part of my response to Dr. Ocita’s lengthy but empty dossiers, I have prepared a blow from which he may never recover. But he still has chance to spare whatever has remained of his integrity if he desists from slander. I have no problem with him criticizing the professor. But we shall not let slander go unchallenged, inshaa Allah.
* YAHYA SSEREMBA is a PhD Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research currently conducting fieldwork for his project: Popular Bloodbath and Subaltern Agency: Rethinking Mass Participation in Political Violence in Uganda’s Rwenzori Area.
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