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Mahmood Mamdani, the executive director of Makerere Institute of Social Research, is not an angel. And certainly the programme is not his fiefdom. MISR’s current mission  takes seriously Frantz Fanon’s resolute plea to the African revolutionary intellectual to not simply revert to our world of yore - the pre-colonial, pre-modern, primordial, etc. - but to rethink it anew.

On 5 June 2017, Pambazuka News posted an article by Dr. James Ocita titled, “The MISR experiment: Building a programme or a personal fiefdom?” Reading this story from the Makerere campus, I was more struck by the article’s sub-title: How does a 5-year long interdisciplinary MPhil/PhD in Social Studies—now in its sixth year of existence currently under the directorship of Professor Mahmood Mamdani—hosted at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) under the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS) of Makerere University, come to be analogous to a personal fiefdom? Perhaps beyond the awkwardness of coming across some uncorroborated claims, Dr. Ocita’s readers may still deserve further illumination about this ongoing graduate education programme at MISR. Indeed, this programme for whose first cohort of doctoral students there is already a post-doc, can be akin to the proverbial walk in the park! The urgent need for a sober critique of graduate education in ‘post-colonial’ Africa generally and the experiment at MISR in particular, is perhaps far more demanding to articulate and sustain than Dr. Ocita’s eventful and short-lived stay at MISR can offer.

The MISR’s MPhil/PhD programme, Dr. Ocita opines, could be critiqued from “numerous allegations of irregularities, including repeated favoritism and victimization.” His critique is summed up in this manner: “Mamdani has for long abused the goodwill of many well-meaning but unsuspecting people who looked up to him.” Well, the naïveté herein expressed notwithstanding, the MISR experiment no doubt deserves a much soberer critique!

Why, in the first instance, has Dr. Ocita summarily reduced the initial and continued workings of this academic endeavour at MISR to the persona of Mahmood Mamdani? That the latter has been key in getting this endeavour up and running is undeniable; but to note that “Mamdani has for long …” is perhaps an expression of lack of detailed knowledge about the nitty-gritties of this scholarly project. May I bring to the attention of Dr Ocita’s readers that a series of intellectual brainstorming sessions did precede the start of this academic programme. These brainstorming sessions, between 2010 and 2012 specifically, fed directly into the design and workings of this programme. Social science academics—dozens in number, over many week-long academic workshops, seminars and colloquia—occasionally met in MISR Seminar Room 1 to deliberate on the raison d’être for this graduate education project. A list of MISR Working Papers and Book-in-Series, including the seminal Getting the Question Right (2013), testifies to this pluralist input. Why then should Dr. Ocita simply treat the inception of MISR’s MPhil/PhD programme as an utterly Mamdani affair? Neither was this scholarly project at MISR ever solely a Mamdani affair at its inception, nor is it a one-man vision in its current running, as Dr. Ocita seems to suggest.

In the second instance, for Dr. Ocita to jot down with facility that, in April 2016, “five students registered formal appeals with the Examination, Irregularities and Appeals Committee of CHUSS under which MISR falls”, and then proceed to note that “I cannot comment on the specifics without risking the integrity of the process, except to say that the findings vindicate the students”, foregrounds a display of unreliability, if not carelessness on the part of a mentor, to say the least. Is Dr. Ocita simply oblivious to or disingenuous about the report of the Makerere Appointments Board’s Sub-committee’s inquiry into MISR?

Well, that MISR deserves a correspondingly audacious critique is undeniable, if not timely. Needless to emphasise is that MISR’s current executive director is neither angelic, nor has he always escaped from all human deficiencies! But what is it that we (faculty and students) are concerned with at MISR? “Our ambition”, Prof. Mamdani initially underscored, “is also to challenge the foundations of the prevailing intellectual paradigm which has turned the dominant Western experience into a model which conceives of research as no more than a demonstration that societies around the world either conform or deviate from that model... The global market tends to relegate Africa to providing raw material (“data”) to outside academics who process it and then re-export their theories back to Africa... If we are to treat every experience with intellectual dignity, then we must treat it as the basis for theorization. This means to historicize and contextualize not only phenomena and processes that we observe but also the intellectual apparatus used to analyze these.”

I will further argue that MISR’s current mission does take seriously Frantz Fanon’s resolute plea to the African revolutionary intellectual; that is, not simply to revert to our world of yore (the pre-colonial, pre-modern, primordial, etc.), but to rethink it anew! Hence, the rationale of the interdisciplinary scholarship at MISR is indeed to capacitate its MPhil/PhD enrollers to both re-think old questions and formulate new ones.

In the final analysis, far from Dr. Ocita’s utilitarian reading of building a decolonising graduate programme as is today’s MISR’s mission, thinking ‘our’ world anew is a no less challenging experiment. How should a university hosting such decolonising graduate programme come to re-define both its raison d’être and modus operandi? Put differently, how else can a university born out of a colonial project put up with such a decolonising graduate programme within its discursive as well as institutional womb? I hence wish to suggest that it is in view of such methodic question that ‘post-colonial’ academics as well as all other concerned minds should posture an audacity to specially think of graduate education anew! In its sixth year of existence, the raw material for a critique of the MISR experiment may indeed productively lie in a formulation of worthwhile questions. One such question would consist of interrogating a decolonising mission of graduate education within the framework of a university as we know it in modern, moreover post-colonial, times.

* DAVID N. TSHIMBA is a MISR MPhil/PhD Fellow and Assistant Lecturer, Uganda Martyrs University.



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