The ruckus kicked up by Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s nude protest against Prof Mahmood Mamdani, director of Makerere Institute of Social Research, refuses to die down. Responding to an article by three fellow graduate students in support of Dr. Nyanzi published in last week’s issue of Pambazuka News, another student now offers a different take on the controversial academic and the situation at the institute.
For a largely conservative community, Kampala is reeling off in shock at Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISRI). Protesting removal from one work facility to another, Stella chose nudity as a method of protest. Striping to her knickers, and screaming a thousand profanities in English, but mostly in her mother-tongue, Luganda (the gravity of which cannot be understood by foreign members of the community—especially the students who protested alongside her), many Ugandans are still in disbelief (over the method, her justification, and recently, the actual story behind the protest).
Turning up in the wee hours of the morning with chains and several padlocks, Stella found MISR’s doors locked. There was a still a bit of darkness on the horizon. Offices are always locked for the night. Some ground staffers had come and opened the main burglar proofing to an entire section of a building (which she later locked with her own padlock). Since Stella was in her office late on the weekend (her and I sit in neighbouring rooms), Stella could have opened the doors to her office if she wanted. Issuing her with a letter asking her to hand it over did not mean forceful ejection. Civility.
But not to lose the momentum she has built for a while over social media ever since she received the letter (accusing MISR director Mahmood Mamdani of racism, inciting anti-Indian sentiment, insinuating political witch-hunt etcetera), Stella chose to do otherwise: Announce to her affectionate readers that she had been locked out. (For Stella’s critique of President Museveni and support for opposition stalwart, Col. Kiiza Besigye, which is often seasoned with sexual imagery and innuendo, her following and admiration on social media is enormous). Earlier, she had posted pictures on social media against a burglarproof door with an ominous rusted padlock. That burglar was entrance to a hallway, not her office. Now, after that hallway-door, there are three other offices sharing the same hallway. Locking Stella out of her office via a hallway burglar proofing would mean locking out three other people! But she flew away with the story.
Anyways, prepared for the day’s show, she called media and staged her now famous mono-protest. There was no postponing, you know: She had come with red paint in her bags, and placards already written. In her company were MISR MPhil/PhD students Noosim Naimasiah (fifth year) and Sabatho Nyamsenda (third year) who came flashing placards announcing Prof. Mamdani’s end. For those who know them, some of Stella’s research subjects were on site for backup. (Stella mostly studies LGBTI and is a renowned activist). The script was well written. With this cast and crew, and preparation, it seems most likely that even if Stella had found all doors to her office ajar, she would have locked them and protested.
It was quite a skit: Before the cameras arrived, which was a few minutes after the cast’s arrivals, Stella had chained herself onto the adjacent library burglar—appealing to opposition political sentiments in the country. (In the aftermath of the 2016 Ugandan election, some opposition supporters protesting the outcome have adopted chaining themselves onto electric poles in the city as a form of protest. Stella’s intentions here are too obvious). Media actually delayed, so that Stella had to use her phone for the very first naked selfies and videos, which she posted on social media. Because of her very early arrival, there was no audience, except a few students who reside on the premises.
Several minutes into her performance, which was now happening live on TV, Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ddumba Ssentamu, her real uncle came pleading for calm. She threatened to bend over. He hit the nearest exit. College of Humanities and Social Sciences Principal Prof. Kirumira suffered the same fate. Because Stella had locked herself on the inside of the burglar, which is a large stretch of burglar mesh, her nude performance went on uninterrupted. Of course, she had the key to this new padlock. Surely, Stella’s target was bigger than the demand for office, and Mahmood Mamdani only played into her game when he asked her to hand it over. What she has often (and I mean often, as in years) sent to the director via emails, she put in action that day.
Enter Prof. Mamdani
Like a tragic hero, Mamdani’s pitfall is actually his strength: An acute obsession with quality. Ever since the introduction of the PhD programme, he introduced a rather rigorous process of academic inquiry, one that matches the quality offered at Columbia, Yale or Chicago. Pitching the programme as meant to “read the world from African vantage points,” Mamdani designed a comprehensive academic schedule, which requires both the teacher and student to read a minimum of 500 pages a week. With students required to resign their jobs upon admission, the first two years are spent in reading, writing and attending seminars. The third, where more reading is even required, asks of one to prepare a bibliography of over 20 pages, plus explanatory notes indicating that the cited books have actually been read. In the course of this year, the student should be preparing a project proposal, in addition to writing their qualifying exams (to become a PhD candidate), which are three essays of not less than 8000 words each. Now, this is not creative writing, it is serious stuff.
In various forums, Mamdani emphasised that there was no way African researchers will cease being “native informers” to ‘western’ researchers without going through the rigour of reading, writing and thinking. They ought to be steeped in the main debates at the level of theory, history, epistemology and emplotment. The result is that African researchers ought to do research where they define their own questions.
Of course, this is a difficult assignment. To achieve this, Mamdani started by making sure the environment was conducive: (by African, not just Ugandan standards) quality residence for students, good living out stipend, endless book-buys and library extensions, upgraded Internet connection, and 10GB mobile Internet every semester, onsite meals, etcetera.
As the programme started to roll, several challenges emerged: First, many of MISR old-timers were unwilling to teach. For understandable reasons: First, the workload is unusually a lot, yet it demands rigorous academic discipline, and time. Relatedly, with this kind of load, one is boxed into fulltime teaching. There is no space for sidekick projects, yet the Makerere University paycheck is dismal (in spite of the top up MISR gives to teaching staff). Working under a quality-freak such as Prof. Mamdani does not make matters any better. You just have to do the job. Many old-timers justifiably opted out. Did I add that being a native informer (more politely, academic consultant) is cheaply lucrative?
As director, Mamdani demanded that research fellows split their time into two halves: Teaching one half of the academic year, and research in the other half. Many of the senior researchers/consultants who disagreed with this new dispensation honourably left the institute. Stella, hired by Mamdani in 2011, despite disagreeing with the new dispensation, did not leave. She stayed. But refused to teach.
An avid researcher of sexuality and LGBT discourses, Stella openly despises the PhD programme, saying she can’t stand watching old people taught like primary school kids. In one repugnant email, she described MISR’s students as “Mamdani’s clones.” Stella does (private) research for her living. When she was being confirmed on her job in 2013, she was asked to make a written commitment to teach. She did; only to turnaround after the confirmation.
While accepting a fellowship at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she was asked to pledge to teach on return. She again accepted but turned around upon return. Mamdani narrates that he consulted university management variously but got no answer (he adds, that he was advised not to be naïve because Stella was kin to the Vice Chancellor). It is against this background that Prof. Mamdani asked her to hand over her office for a seat in the library since she was neither teaching nor doing MISR sanctioned research. That the decision came too long needs to be put in its immediate context. That the nude-protest also took days of planning and was responding to more than an office demand has been confirmed.
Prof. Mamdani’s five-year contract as director expired some time in March 2015. Since then, he has been performing the duties of director on six (sometimes three) months extensions. Informally, he had received assurance of contract renewal upon evaluation only to learn the Makerere University regulations for management positions changed from “renewal upon evaluation” to re-advertisement. On March 16, Makerere University advertised the job of director of MISR without consulting MISR’s home, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Strangely, in the sections on the responsibilities of the new director, MISR’s present flagship project, the MPhil/PhD was not mentioned anywhere, neither were MISR’s present research clusters. Instead, a pre-Mamadni, pre-PhD MISR was advertised. Technically, it was not only Mahmood being kicked out, but also the MPhil/PhD.
This set off the alarm bells. Thirty-one students out of 47 petitioned the university’s Appointments Board (and also lobbied other centres of power). On April 11, a new advert appeared substantially revising the old—with the MPhil/PhD taking central position. If the anti-PhD, anti-Mamdani crew had won through the earlier ad, the April 11 ad was a technical knockout. A few days later, April 18, we have a nude protest over offices that were never locked. That these dates are connected to each other is too conspicuous to ignore. Stella’s blunt opposition to MISR’s new dispensations, and its MPhil/PhD cannot be ignored in this context. And as the subsequent events have shown, the connections are both rude and intimate.
Staff loses: Stella’s seductive sensationalism
In the immediate aftermath of the protest, Dr. Stella Nyanzi coined #RotatMISR as the slogan for her protest. Claims of bad management, highhandedness, and victimisation of the politically active students were pitched. Absence of democracy and justice (whatever these terms mean in a school’s teacher-student relationship) were gaily chanted. It is not just the baselessness of these claims, but also their deceptiveness and sensationalism that is too much to ignore.
On April 19, the local newspaper Daily Monitor runs with a front-page picture of Dr. Stella Nyanzi speaking from her office. The picture ostensibly foregrounds Stella’s office blackboard where she has written the names of staff that have left MISR. Under the headline, “MISR Staff Losses,” the intention is to demonstrate a problem at the institute’s management—by implication, Mahmood Mamdani’s mismanagement! Stella had four categories of people on her board: Administrators, newbies [sic], Researchers, Personal Assistants, Accountants and an IT Specialist. Together, they are 28.
First, most, but not all, these people have left MISR. Second, for all those who have left, Stella seductively ascribes them a single story: Mamdani’s mismanagement! Surely, close to 30 people cannot leave an institute in a five-year period against a single story. Mahmood Mamdani must be so bad that Stella should have undressed a long time ago. I have been here for five years, and Stella six. Many of the people listed on Stella’s board were my teachers, and some my friends (many still are). I do not intend to deny Mamdani’s alleged poor management, but I want to offer a differentiated narrative outside of Stella’s sensationalism.
Researchers: This list includes mainly people that Mamdani found at MISR. He talks about them as having researched everything and specialised in nothing. Mahmood joined MISR in June 2010, and by the end of 2011 almost all the researchers had left. But the context of their departure is extremely important. The first year of Mamdani’s term marked a renegotiation of the strategic direction of MISR as a research institute. The debate over consultancy-led research and PhD-led research has been well documented. There was disagreement with many consultancy-leaning researchers (mostly all the old-timers) choosing to find space elsewhere. This disagreement was wilful and honourable. There was not a single incident, except the heated debates over strategic direction, which included lost opportunities of individual earning through consultancy-led research. When I joined MISR in January 2012, I found many of them had left. And for those I found, their intention to leave was clear. True to the spirit of mutual disagreement, parties were thrown honouring their dedicated service to MISR and Makerere University. They attended, gave speeches and were presented with gifts. They did not leave because of Mamdani’s bad leadership.
The Newbies: This is where I think Stella is being extremely dishonest and sensational: This list contains six expatriates. Till this year, Makerere University gave MISR’s “newbies” one-year contracts. Renewable upon review! Mamdani endlessly pleaded for five years, to guarantee job security, but Makerere University remained adamant. But, look, these are graduates of some of the best universities in the world: Columbia, Leeds, Harvard, Michigan, etcetera. Uncertain of their future at MISR, they never stop dropping their applications in other places. And since they endlessly give lectures elsewhere, their quality is easily noticed. When offered juicier and more secure opportunities their choices are so easy to make. Examples include Tomas, Giulliano, and Dr Schwab (who is not on that list). By the way, Guiliano is still officially working with students at theinstitute.
But one caveat is in order here: I’m not denying cases of complete fall-out where the director and faculty bitterly disagreed, say with Dr Branch and Dr Anneeth Kaur-Hundle. However, like that old English adage, it takes two to start a quarrel, and this story will require a bit more nuancing on another day.
Sadly, Stella mixes visiting professors such as Dr Julie McArthur, who was at MISR only as a visitor, and permanent staff to the MISR loss list! Julie left because her visit ended. Still present faculty such as Bob-Millier (away for a research semester) is also on her list. Dr. Pamela Khanakwa whom a couple of weeks ago I asked to consider my internal funding application for a summer school is also on Stella’s list of departures! Stella also mixes genuine Makerere University transfers of staff (such as PA Doreen, Accountant Christine) on her list. She does neither account for people who spent a few days and found their dockets too demanding and left, nor departures with alleged criminal behaviour, that MISR was only kind not to prosecute. What explains this sensationalism?
This juggernaut of conspiracy and intrigue bent on sweeping Mamdani and the PhD out of MISR has been unfortunately joined by a tiny but vocal and media savvy bunch of students. In an uncritical embrace of notions of democracy and justice, they have embarked on a media campaign to malign, malice and tarnish Mamdani as incompetent and utterly bad. They have written to Mamdani’s friends in the academia, some members of the donor community, and have sought any media outlet they could use to slander him. By the way, they do not say anything serious, except a litany of complaints, chants of democracy and justice and majorly discuss items outside the docket (and understanding) of a student. They claim victimisation for their political activity (including interpreting incidents of their first year semesters). They also claim some of their fellow students get favours in the form of easy fellowships and trips abroad. They also claim that the director has recruited spies among them. Because majority of this querulous band are non-Ugandans, they have had the temerity to describe their local students as xenophobic! But we still live, dine and reside in the same dormitories everyday! No incident whatsoever.
That they express support for a PhD-and-teaching-opposed research fellow is difficult to explain. Mamdani has been forced to openly describe these students as weak in their studies. In response, they argue that Mamdani “influences” their grades basing on their politics. Sad as it may sound, they have demanded to sit in academic board meetings discussing items such as grades. They have also demanded to be involved in deciding who is admitted and not .
As former president of the defunct MISR students union (which was actually illegal by university regulations), I’m saddened by all these claims. As one Eritrean fellow student, musing over the audacity of these dissenting students argued, we were “victims of democracy”, the freedom to speak!
Let me end with a personal note: This year, seven MISR students won themselves Social Science Research Council (SSRC) fellowships. I had won these fellowships for the last two years, and this is my third. I can actually claim to have introduced them to MISR. Sadly, some of my fellow students badmouthing Mahmood Mamdani claimed these fellowships were favours to me from him. They claimed the same thing after I was awarded the ASA Presidential Fellowship last year. If this is not ignorance, it is laziness masquerading as whistleblowing.
* Yusuf Serunkuma is a fifth-year graduate student at MISR and an African Studies Association (ASA) Presidential Fellow for 2015.
 I regretfully recall an incident where MISR admitted a French national but some staff members, having lost the argument in the admissions meeting, decided to mobilise students into protest. I remember spending ours debating this with these staff members and going on to chair a meeting with fellow students as we staged to protest. Sadly, this French national has also joined the chorus of chanting Mahmood’s un-democratic. Mahmood must be very disappointed.
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