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New Vision

To tell whether Prof. Mahmood Mamdani has failed to implement the doctoral programme at Makerere Institute of Social Research requires that one is either a doctoral student, a teacher on the programme, or has done fieldwork at MISR with a research question on Mamdani’s ambition and its logistical requirements. Anything other than that is sheer gossip.

As a fifth year graduate student soon finishing his assignments for the award of a PhD, and proud of the new regime of learning at Makerere Institute of Social Research (having joined Makerere University as an undergrad in 2004, and have never left), commentators claiming that MISR’s PhD project is a failure really shock me.  Then quickly, I realize it is all loose talk; to quote an equally shocked Macbeth, it is like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. How do they arrive at these conclusions? Have these writers interacted with MISR’s students? Have they visited the place, at least once, and observed the community? Do they actually understand the knowledge production debates and interventions in which the present MISR is steeped? More disturbingly, however, this surge of middlebrow commenters does point to a persistent terrible reality about Uganda’s so-called elite pundits: A general vacancy of imagination, absolute laziness: Gossip. Fantasies. Speculation.

One of these articles recently popped up in African Arguments, excitingly entitled “Decolonizing Makerere: On Mamdani’s Failed Experiment,” by one Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, who signed off as a fellow at Africa Leadership Centre. Defining Mamdani’s agenda at MISR as “decolonizing the academy,” which he took to mean, “decolonizing the structure and form of the university” and not following “disciplinary modes developed in Western universities” the author is convinced that this project has failed. By whatever yardstick by which he reached this conclusion, we may never know. From where he got the idea that Mamdani’s dream was opposing the local against the global epistemologies, we may also never know. But we can revisit what Mamdani actually argued.

On taking the job at MISR in 2010, Mamdani variously argued that universities needed to “decolonize,” with which he meant, by countering the diabolical consultancy culture, which had eaten into university researches, turning African researchers into “native informers” who only respond to externally given questions. Mamdani noted that, “Faced with a context where the model is the consultant and not the independent researcher, we at MISR think the way forward is to create a PhD program based on significant preparatory coursework, to create among students the capacity to both re-think old questions and formulate new ones.” In this seminal argument for PhD driven research, Mamdani continued that,

“MISR will seek to combine a commitment to local [indeed, regional] knowledge production, rooted in relevant linguistic and disciplinary terms, with a critical and disciplined reflection on the globalization of modern forms of knowledge and modern instruments of power. Rather than oppose the local to the global, it will seek to understand the global from the vantage point of the local” [emphasis added]. 

At the core of this ambition was the understanding that,

“[The] definition of the research problem should stem from a dual engagement: on the one hand, a critical engagement with the society at large and, on the other, a critical grasp of disciplinary literature, world-wide, so as to identify key debates within the literature and locate specific queries within those debates.”  

To tell whether Mamdani has failed on this promise requires that one is either a doctoral student, teacher on the doctoral programme, or has done fieldwork at MISR with a research question on this ambition, and its logistical requirements.  That Bwesigye is neither a student nor teacher, and has done no fieldwork on the decolonization question at MISR is a serious handicap to his analysis. Did he read the promise against which MISR should be judged well?

Quickly, it becomes evident Bwesigye lacks basic familiarity with the major debates in the discourse on decolonization that have defined this conversation for quite a long time: Fanon (1963) on national culture, Aime Cesaire (1950) on universals and particulars, Chatterjee (1986) on nationalism as “a derivative discourse,” or more recently, David Scott (2004) on the notion of “conscripts of modernity” and “the tragedy of colonial enlightenment.” Our author clearly harbours an illusory longing for “total liberation.”

Anyways, just by getting the first question wrong—over the ways in which Mamdani articulated his claims to decolonizing the academy—whatever followed was malicious oversimplification, incoherence, uncritical deployment of terms, and general bad writing. Take for example this: Where Mamdani has “failed,” our good author mobilizes, and sadly, vulgarizes the ideas of Prof. Dani Nabudere behind the formation of Marcus Garvey Pan Afrikan University (MPAU) pitching it as a model “university,” which would base its “knowledge production on an existent indigenous knowledge.” Without telling us what actually “existent indigenous knowledge” means or where it could be found, Bwesigye tells us about “Afrikology,” calling it an “epistemology” [he surely doesn’t know what the term means] noting that it “provides a framework for absorbing and disseminating indigenous Afrikan knowledge… where peasants are the lecturers.”

Excited by this quite problematic term, “Afrikology,” it is evident Bwesigye believes in an existent “indigenous African knowledge” located somewhere among the “peasants.” Certainly, Bwesigye is unaware that terms such as “peasants” “university,” “lectures” and “students,” have a colonial history, and a mere deployment suggest a colonial paradigm.

Strangely, Bwesigye has the temerity to string the Stella Nyanzi saga into questions of decolonizing the academy, laboring that Dr Nyanzi represented the hope for MISR in the endeavor towards decolonisation. The connection is really a difficult read:

“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.”

The amount of confusion in this paragraph is dumbfounding. What exactly is the author saying here? That Stella Nyanzi presented MISR with the opportunity to solve tensions — epistemological tensions on knowledge production? Really? What about the reference to her longest service? And what about her refusal to teach? What is our good author saying about Dr Nyanzi in an article on decolonizing the academy? What has her fellowship at Stellenbosch got to do with decolonizing knowledge production? Is this to suggest that Stellenbosch is the epitome of a decolonized academy? Just inelegant thinking and sheer bad writing!

The same happens in the section on his critique of the 40 academics that showed support to MISR in the time of crisis early this year. Bwesigye reproduces chunks of text from a petition by the three students who inexplicably joined in with Nyanzi (who refused to teach them, and openly hates the project in which they are involved) during her protest. Without telling us his thoughts about these students, he concludes, perhaps siding with the student’s obvious poor judgment, that non-Ugandan support to MISR PhD (financial, spiritual) constituted an “imperial” agenda. Does our author know a thing about colonialism and decolonization in the post-colonial moment — our present?

My selfless advice: Other than embarrass oneself trying to be Mamdani’s critic, you are better served applying for classes under him.

* Yusuf Serunkuma is a fifth-year graduate student at MISR and an African Studies Association (ASA) Presidential Fellow for 2015.



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