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New Vision

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani imperils the survival of the programme he heads at Makerere University by his capriciousness and reliance on political connections. This raises serious questions about his integrity as a person, scholar and administrator. Mamdani has for a long time abused the goodwill of many well-meaning but unsuspecting people who looked up to him.

For many observers outside Makerere University, the protracted crises at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) started in 2016 when a group of MISR doctoral students rose up against what they viewed as the excesses of the administration of MISR under the director, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani. But for the Makerere University community, it dates back to 2014 when Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Research Fellow at MISR, launched a series of philippics against Prof. Mamdani over the institutional webmail.

But to better understand the deeper structural problems that explain how MISR functions as a unit within Makerere University, one should step further back to the period between 2009 and 2010 when the MISR experiment was being launched.

The introduction of a five-year taught MPhil/PhD program supplanted the culture of consultancy that had tightened its stranglehold on the unit. Prof. Mamdani’s argument then was that MISR had veered from its original mandate to train a crop of local researchers, which should be the core mandate of a postcolonial university. That Makerere University neglected to pay adequate attention to this mandate was a hangover from the colonialist mindset that researchers and other skilled personnel should be trained elsewhere as colonial institutions specialized in cheaply training clerical cadre to operate the colonial machinery.

From this perspective, and by his own confession, Prof. Mamdani came to Makerere University on a mission to build a programme and groom a well-trained crop of researchers. That is the vision on which the MISR MPhil/PhD programme was founded. The steady deviation from it has created deep rifts between Prof. Mamdani and the peers with whom he set up shop in Makerere University in or around 2011, all of whom have since then quit MISR citing Prof. Mamdani’s personalization of the founding vision.  

Regarding the contradiction between Prof. Mamdani’s stated vision and his conduct, several senior faculty at Makerere University, who were privy to Prof Mamdani’s activities between the mid-2000 and 2010 give a different spin to his agenda. Clues to that agenda, observed a senior faculty who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, can be gleaned from Prof. Mamdani’s 2007 book, Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005.

“Mamdani,” the source said, “is disingenuous when he says he came to Makerere to build a programme. That was certainly not his original intention,” the source adds. “His eyes were on the top-most seat…. He thought that he’d be able to engineer the necessary reforms once he was Vice Chancellor.”

According to this source, Prof. Mamdani came to realize that he was never going to navigate the mucky waters of Makerere’s institutional politics and wade successfully through the selection process to become the Vice Chancellor without severely damaging his reputation.

“He genuinely wanted to transform Makerere,” the source said, “so he came up with the MISR project…. He believed there was a narrow window under [Prof. Venancius Baryamureeba, then the Acting Vice Chancellor] within which to transform this into a reality.”

Thus, the MISR experiment was born. The proposal to establish the MISR MPhil/PhD programme, with all its defects, was hurriedly approved by the University Senate and University Council without any modification and sanctioned by the National Council for Higher Education.

Among the structural defects in the proposal was the unit’s problematic reporting structure. Even though MISR is under the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS) through which its academic and administrative procedures are channeled, its director, based on the unit’s founding proposal – in the absence of any other legal framework or documentation – reports directly to the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (DVC-AA). Attempts by the College Principal and the Directorate of Research and Graduate Training (DRGT) to rein him in have been rebuffed repeatedly. 

Against established procedures, MISR administers its scholarships and boasts its own parallel and locally paid personnel. This semi-autonomy, coupled with the vast resources under the unit’s control and the weak administrative oversight, accords the director the status of a Super Dean. Operating above rules, regulations and established procedures, he answers to no one in the university’s hierarchy except, in selective cases, to the DVC-AA and, recently, the Acting Deputy Principal of CHUSS, who by their involvement in MISR activities and/or the pay cheques they draw from such activities, are too compromised to provide any oversight over the unit.

It thus comes as no wonder that MISR is perennially embroiled in crises.

Because of my involvement in the administration of MISR, several people have pointed out the seeming irony of my criticisms, maintaining that I am simply sour-grapping. These criticisms ignore the fact and timeline of my resignation as well as my conduct as part of the directorate, which I should clarify before I can proceed.

Serving the Emperor

I served MISR as an Acting Director from September to December 2015. In January 2016, Prof Mamdani, citing increased workload, petitioned the university management for two assistant director positions, which would operate at MISR’s expense – one for research and students’ affairs and the other, the docket I held, accounts and administration. I held the assistantship position from January to August 2016, when I decided to resign, having privately notified Prof. Mamdani about the decision earlier in April 2016.

These roles meant constructively criticizing Prof. Mamdani constantly, given his disregard for established procedures and impatience with bureaucratic delays. Initially, Prof. Mamdani was very appreciative of my stance because it saved the unit from certain missteps. Prof Mamdani also appreciated my understanding of the policy and legal framework within which the MISR MPhil/PhD programme was established and within which it operates.

Thus, in defending Prof. Mamdani and joining what I saw as a fight for the survival of the MPhil/PhD programme throughout 2015 and early 2016, I was not blind to the weaknesses in the unit. Rather, I understood MISR to be a work-in-progress as Prof. Mamdani belaboured. The implication was that weaknesses and isolated mistakes made in the running of the unit should not lead us to dismantle the unit but learn from the missteps.

But when blatant irregularities and systematic disregard for institutional policies and established structures become enshrined as the mode by which the unit operates, one must in good conscience reconsider what one is prepared to defend. Prof. Mamdani imperils the long-term survival of MISR’s MPhil/PhD programme by reliance on his political connections as he shows willful disregard and even contempt for institutional structures.

From January 2016 to the present, case after case of capriciousness in the running of MISR have been leveled against Prof. Mamdani, who for good measure has also starred in flagrant cases of institutional abuse and violations of established procedures. By his own confession (See Monitor report), Prof. Mamdani demanded the suspension of relevant provisions of the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, especially the age limit, to pave way for his re-appointment to his second five-year term.

When he applied for the directorship position in April 2016, he did not submit the required documents and was given two weeks within which to do so. He did not and thus was shortlisted irregularly. By the time he did the interview, he still had not provided the documents. The Appointments Board gave him another ten working days. Still, he did not comply but was appointed, anyway. Prof. Mamdani believes that rules do not apply to him.

Abuse of MISR’s Academic Board

Some of the most glaring cases of Prof. Mamdani’s misconduct as the Director of MISR were cited in my memo of 20 January 2017. I highlighted verifiable cases of favoritism in the examination process and an unconscionable attempt to victimize a section of students and deny them further funding. I also drew attention to the irregularities in the 2017 admissions and the abuse of the independence of MISR’s Academic Board, etc.

On the case of favoritism, Student Y’s grade for one of the courses she took was entered as NG (Not Graded). The explanation that the course instructor gave during the January Academic Board meeting was that the student submitted her paper over a month late without any prior explanation. Prof. Mamdani asked the instructor what the student’s grade would be in his estimation, to which the instructor said an ‘A’ grade. Thus, the student was awarded ‘A’ for the course at the meeting. This should be understood in the context in which another student in the same course was tasked to submit her end of semester paper from her hospital bed, the week she delivered through a cesarean operation.    

During the same Board meeting, when the discussion shifted to cases of Third (now Fourth) Year students, who also had cases of late submissions, Prof Mamdani startlingly ruled that late submissions could not be considered. I drew attention to the double standards and Prof. Mamdani tried in vain to tinker with the rule on late submission to victimize specific students.

In any case, several of the affected students submitted late due to delayed (or in some instances no) responses from members of their Reading Committees. In a number of cases, some of these students had to remind their readers several times before they could receive feedback to their work, which came too close to the deadline. All this happened despite MISR’s policy of responding to students’ work within two weeks.

The late submissions of proposals thus resulted from a deliberate ploy to manipulate the examination process to pre-determine who qualifies for further funding.

Here is how it happened. On 16 March 2016, the directorate met to address an urgent dilemma arising from the expiration of several grants. Its computation revealed that MISR would be unable to fund 16 students in 2017. The directorate sought to figure out how to address the looming crisis and thought it prudent to cut down the number of students eligible for further funding. Prof. Mamdani and the Assistant Director (i/c Research and Students’ Affairs) felt that the most convenient cohort to reduce from was Year Three (Year Four of 2017).   

Prof. Mamdani and the Assistant took the position that MISR would continue to provide scholarships to only the students who would successfully develop their annotated bibliographies and pass qualifying exams, which together constitute the examination requirements for the MPhil qualification. This seemed sensible at face value - until one considers critically its presumption that some students would fail to qualify.

I took a dissenting view, questioning the logic of such a presumption, drawing attention to its effect in rendering a section of students ineligible for further funding. Besides, three of the Third Year students of 2016, who were part of the revolt against the MISR administration, presented easy targets for victimization. I cautioned Prof. Mamdani and my co-assistant against victimizing any student, drawing to their attention the legal implications of such a move. The scholarship award letter that MISR had hitherto been giving students does not have any caveat that justifies terminating funding midway, provided one maintains ‘Good Academic Standing,’ a precondition for retaining one’s scholarship .

The directorate tasked me to consult the Deputy Principal, Prof. Abasi Kiyimba, who concurred that terminating funding could cause legal complications. But to be doubly sure, he advised that the directorate should contact the Acting Director, Legal Affairs of the University. This did not happen but Prof. Mamdani was notified about the Deputy Principal’s counsel. Still, MISR tried to manipulate the examination process to predetermine examination results and eligibility for funding. MISR could do this easily since it controls both the examination process and the administration of scholarships.

Nuwagaba’s misfortune

Recently, MISR sacrificed another student on the altar of similar administrative manipulation and irregularities. Vincent Nuwagaba won a MISR scholarship in 2013 but the award was rescinded before he registered. Nuwagaba was eventually ‘reinstated’ as part of the 2017 cohort, but his scholarship was again rescinded by an administrative action taken by the DVC-AA.

The cancelation of Nuwagaba’s scholarship could have been avoided if Prof. Mamdani so desired. During the July Academic Board meeting that discussed the 2017 admission, I advised the Board about the irregularity of admitting Nuwagaba as I had earlier advised the Directorate. Prof Mamdani and the Board did not listen. By Prof. Mamdani’s own confession, some people were pressurizing him to ‘reinstate’ Nuwagaba on the MISR doctoral programme, since it was felt that rescinding his scholarship in 2013 was unjust.

During the 2017 selection process, Prof Mamdani’s overriding aim was to limit the slots available to Ugandan applicants. In a prior meeting of the Directorate, the resolution was to admit eight applicants with a distribution of 50:50 in view of the financial strain MISR faced. Normally, MISR admits ten applicants: six Ugandans and four non-Ugandans. The 50:50 ratio meant a reduction of only the slots available to Ugandan applicants. Even so, Prof. Mamdani did not honour this arrangement. The candidates that the Board shortlisted were irregularly struck off and replaced with those who could only have been handpicked by Prof. Mamdani and/or his assistant.

Eventually, only three Ugandan applicants, including Nuwagaba, were considered. This practically meant that MISR awarded scholarships to only two Ugandan applicants. Nuwagaba, in Prof. Mamdani’s scheme, was simply a space-filler.

Prof. Mamdani had been advised as early as March 2016 that it would be irregular to admit Nuwagaba, who had not re-applied. DRGT guided the Directorate that an applicant can be reinstated on the strength of a previous year’s admission only in cases where the applicant had registered. Nuwagaba had neither registered nor re-applied and his previous admission was then three years old.

If Prof Mamdani genuinely cared about Nuwagaba’s best interest, he would have advised him to re-apply. Prof Mamdani knew this because I personally advised him based on the advice I received from DRGT. The fact that he went ahead and included Vincent among those recommended for admission could have been only because he was playing Nuwagaba and manipulating the system, knowing pretty well that the candidate would be rejected. Prof. Mamdani maintained that Nuwagaba’s case is a problem for DRGT to deal with. Given that DRGT had already candidly advised MISR, Prof Mamdani’s end game could only have been to throw Nuwagaba under the bus and reduce the slots allocated to Ugandan applicants/students. Against available evidence, Prof Mamdani’s long-held view is that Ugandans are weak and he has repeatedly sought to reduce the slots available to them on that ground.

The termination of Nuwagaba’s scholarship amounted to a dismissal because it was effected three months into the semester. This resulted from MISR confusing its mandate of recommending students for admission for actual admission, which is the prerogative of the Board of Research and Graduate Training (BRGT). The 2017 cohort, to which Nuwagaba belonged, was admitted only towards the end of March, yet they had been studying since the first week of January 2017. This followed a standoff that was resolved only towards the end of March 2017 in the best interest of the university after MISR had apologized to BRGT, pledging not to abuse procedures again.

Nuwagaba’s anguish thus resulted from MISR overstepping its mandate, starting to teach its scholarship awardees before their admission as university students. Whether Nuwagaba deserves redress for the 2013 termination of his scholarship and the recent termination of his scholarship is a matter for legal interpretation.

Prof. Mamdani and the web of irregularities

MISR has been buffeted by numerous allegations of irregularities, including repeated favoritism and victimization. In April 2016, five students registered formal appeals with the Examination, Irregularities and Appeals Committee of CHUSS under which MISR falls. In their appeals, the students cited lack of fairness and victimization in the examination and supervision processes at MISR. The cases, which have taken a whole year, are nearing completion. I cannot comment on the specifics without risking the integrity of the process, except to say that the findings vindicate the students.

On a personal note, for the time I served at MISR, Prof. Mamdani, despite my pleas, avoided to process my appointment letter, contrary to earlier assurances. Appointment to the position of a Research Associate, my designation at MISR, as provided for under the university’s Human Resource Manual, should be done by the Appointments Board, the university’s appointing authority, on the joint recommendations of the two departments/units that an appointee straddles. Prof. Mamdani wanted me to choose between MISR and the Department of Literature where I belong. But that meant exchanging a permanent position for a contractual one.  In a meeting I had with him over my status at the end of August 2015, he assured me that he would initiate the process of my appointment as a Research Associate but that never materialized.

On 15 May 2016, he finally instructed the administrator to draw the letter, which he kept in his drawers. He eventually issued me the letter only in January 2017 after I had openly challenged his capriciousness because the letter served his pernicious scheme to end my contract retrospectively. Dated 8 December 2014, even though actually drafted on 15 May 2016, the letter is a blatant case of forgery and a desperate gambit by a crooked administrator who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

If Prof. Mamdani, too, is subject to ethical codes that regulate the conduct of other public servants, then these irregularities should raise serious questions about his integrity as a person, scholar and administrator. He has for a long time abused the goodwill of those who, in the absence of eminent men of integrity, look up to him.

From January 2017 when I began exposing irregularities at MISR, the arbitrary decision to terminate the scholarships of two students have been reversed. Besides, significant reforms, including proper appointment of doctoral supervisors, have been instituted. Even so, I believe that if this piece achieves nothing, it will at least puncture the naiveté with which many unsuspecting, well-meaning people idolize Prof. Mamdani.

* James Ocita, a lecturer in the Department of Literature, is former Research Associate & Assistant Director, MISR, Makerere University.



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