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A rejoinder to the petition by “international” scholars to “rescue” the MISR PhD programme
Diaspora News

Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda is in turmoil following a confrontation that saw one lecturer, Stella Nyanzi, stage a nude protest against the institute’s director, renowned scholar Mahmood Mamdani. The conflict has exposed serious administrative problems at the institute. A group of international scholars have waded into the controversy by addressing a petition to the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University.

There was nothing peculiar about the timid drizzle that ushered in the morning of Monday the 18th. It was after all April, our month of the long rains. But when Dr. Stella Nyanzi thrust her naked body against the expected unfoldings of an April morning, life at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) was suddenly unfamiliar, and the plot thickened with accusation, pain and shock. It was baptized the Stella vs. Mamdani affair and all positions have since been aligned in this fashion, centering the problem, in a predictably misogynistic style, on Dr. Nyanzi’s naked body as a culturally, religiously and institutionally unacceptable form of protest; one whose sole aim was to bring down the MISR PhD programme.

And so it has gone, that the multiple narratives that have designed this crisis, of the ethnic and religious issues, of the students’ positions and the plight of the workers, including the teaching staff who left have for the better part left untold. Our quest, in this writing is not to speak to the equally critical subject of forms of protest, but rather to respond to the petition to the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University signed by 40 scholars, mainly established in the North American academy (and a few scholars based elsewhere) in a bid to “save” MISR from its current crisis. We, the authors (three students from the MISR PhD program) of this rejoinder are writing this with the main objective of questioning the merit of this petition.

Monopoly over vision?

No one has a monopoly over the vision of MISR. As a colleague put it “no one person has the strict ownership of [the] idea”. It belongs to a lot more people. All of us who have been participating in the project, especially students and faculty who have been members of the institution for the past five years, are very important stakeholders in this project. Therefore, despite our deserved recognition and due respect for Prof. Mamdani’s ability to give this idea an institutional expression by ‘housing’ it in MISR, he should not be assumed to have the monopoly over the vision that made possible the establishment of MISR. This assumption not only certifies and approves the false idea that the MISR project could not be realized without Mamdani, but also has constrained, over the past five years, the institutional development of MISR and the necessary review and critique of its curriculum.

The “international scholars” who were signatories of the petition we are responding to are primarily interested in campaigning for Mamdani’s renewal of contract in their charitable zeal to “save” the MISR PhD program from “closing down”. They imply that without Mamdani’s directorship, the programme is going to die. This is another proof of the conflation of the MISR project with the current Director of the Institute. This model of thinking is informed by the big man’s politics whereby the father becomes the family, the president the nation and MISR becomes “Mamdani’s Institute of Social Research”.

Who speaks for MISR?

In the words of the do-gooding “international” scholars, Prof Mamdani appears infallible. Indeed, Mamdani regards himself as indispensable and treats anyone challenging his authoritarian administrative style as the enemy and as an accomplice to those in Makerere higher authorities who are regarded as enemies of MISR. Our experience in MISR for the past 5 years clearly testifies that Mamdani treats any dissent coming from both faculty and students as attempts to dismantle the MISR project. Virtually all of the first and second cohort faculty (Pamela Khanakwa, Adam Branch, Giuliano Martiniello and Antonio Tomas, Anneeth Kaur Hundle, George Bob-Milliar, Emanuel Schwab) have left – of course with the exception of the Director himself! The high staff turnover and parting of faculty whose devotion to the MISR project was unquestionable is a testimony to the unfriendly academic environment that is created mainly as a result of the heavy-handed leadership style of the Director. Therefore, unlike what the international petitioners claim, it is not true that Mamdani “HAS WORKED with MISR’s talented teaching staff” to build the institution. In fact he HAS FAILED to create a conducive institutional environment that is capable of retaining talented and devoted faculty who had been important assets to MISR. 

On the student front, dissent and political activism are punished severely, even when they are pursued within the framework of Makerere University rules. MISR students who stand against injustice have been intimidated, threatened with disciplinary hearings or academically victimized. The patriarchal nature of the logic of rule exemplified by the Director has resulted in female students who have spoken against the authoritarian nature of the Director being attacked through pejorative slurs, intimidation and email accusations of their alleged promiscuousness. Moreover, the lack of scholarship policies on maternity for pregnant women has also left afflicted women in the program academically and financially vulnerable and though this predicament has been questioned severally, it remains unresolved to the detriment of some students. The gender and diversity committees which were set up by the Director without public notice have since not established any policies that addressed pertinent gendered issues. So, we ask, how have the personal and political lives of these students been factored into the petition of these international scholars? 

Moreover, Prof Mamdani’s administrative style has proved to be detrimental to the creation of a unified student body. For purposes of expedience, the MISR administration has gone as far as manipulating differences among students and using one group of students against others. In one occasion, the Director encouraged a group of students to petition against a petition by students submitted to him rather than trying to resolve the problems and concerns that were presented to him. This has contributed to eroding a sense of community in MISR and adversely affected the morale and enthusiasm of students as well as their academic and political engagements. The MISR administration recently went as far as labeling dissenting students in the media as “few” and “weak” students with bad academic records, equating dissent with weakness. 

Fetishism of knowledge products?

These scholars claim to “regard [MISR students] with great admiration and hope; their work is timely and important”! Alas, they are simply fetishizing the knowledge products – the students and their work – and completely disregarding the social relations of knowledge production at the Institute. Prof Mamdani himself has critiqued the American academy for its incapacity to groom an independent mindset – one that speaks truth to power and committed to popular struggles. He referred to the professionalized, individualist, career-driven intellectuals that the Western academy produces as “mercenaries”. Taking their cue from Mamdani’s critique, in their 2015 “Position on the New Good Academic Standing Policy”, 23 MISR students warned the MISR administration that the harshest conditions of knowledge production such as MISR’s can only produce strategic students, whose sole aim is to survive in an increasingly coercive academic environment.”

These are some of the complaints that the international scholars do not seem to care to know and, consequently, are unable to evaluate. If they had the humility to learn about all the available political positions at MISR, they might probably have understood that the source of the crisis is internal and cannot be dissociated from the Director’s administrative style. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they praise Mamdani as an administrator with “greater organizational prowess” than any other Ugandan! They have missed a rare opportunity of advising their colleague and friend to change his administrative style, whose adverse effect to the knowledge production process is enormous.

Our intellectual saviors?

The substance of the international scholars’ petition is reminiscent of the ‘responsibility to protect’ complex of the NGO paternalistic discourse. As Mamdani would say (in his Saviours and Survivors), their “contemptuous attitude towards knowing” is combined with an “imperative to act” in order to restore order through intellectual aid and interventionist petitions. Take for instance, the ‘hard facts’ that are stated in the petition, including the number of students in MISR who the petition claim to be 31, as well as “MISR’s talented teaching staff” whom the Director has allegedly been working with to “create an extraordinarily valuable center for the training of a new generation of African social scientists”.

Firstly, the number of students at MISR is not 31. There are 43 students at MISR currently, excluding the 3 students whose scholarships were revoked at the beginning of the year on academically and legally contentious grounds that have been the subject of much political exchange at MISR. This number includes the students who have variously been labeled “weak” by Mahmood Mamdani in his newspaper interviews and on their miserable way to expulsion. Secondly, as we have already pointed out, 7 talented teaching staff at MISR have in the past the years left as their relationship with the Director at MISR became increasingly acrimonious.

These un-discussed details are a clear indicator of the decontextualized nature of the international scholars’ petition. Despite their dysfunctional disclaimer that they are “aware that some members of the MISR community have made serious complaints about Prof. Mamdani’s leadership of the institute”, in effect, their support for Mamdani is unconditional.

If they are not aware, as they claim, of the academic and political context of MISR, as illustrated by their misrepresented facts, on what basis then, was this petition written? And what facts went into its construction? A contemptuous attitude towards knowing is not limited to un-historicized and decontextualized knowledge. It is also exemplified by a level of superiority exercised by an outsider who tries to re-define you to yourself in a bid to explain you in simple palatable terms for the Western public. For this letter, addressed to the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, proceeds to tell him about the structure of the MISR program: “it is a five-year course. The programme begins with a period of training in social science methods and theory” and so on. Did it occur to the petitioners that the Vice Chancellor has greater detail of the structural functions and operations of MISR than they do and does not need to be re-educated on these facts? The Vice Chancellor of Makerere University is in this letter treated as the native subject who has failed to adequately understand his own local context. Either that, or the address to the VC was ceremonial and the intended audience was the international scholar, whose consent is required to expedite the responsibility to protect.

The international scholars’ petition sprinted past the thick line between solidarity into interference, where they speak from a position of privilege about lives and affairs that are geographically and politically distant from their own. Just like tourist holidays and training workshops are not sufficient to equip their partakers with substantial knowledge of the problematic, the petitioners should concede that their interests, attachments and visits do not provide them with the necessary knowledge to speak for MISR. We, its members, are not the de-subjectified masses of the “Save Darfur” discourse. We are not your project. We are people with lives that matter and the complexity of our plight should not be reduced to a “governance issue” as claimed by one of the petitioners.

Pausing to reflect

The current crisis in MISR should be a productive moment to think about the way forward. This moment should occasion a reflection on those of us who have politically and intellectually invested in the MISR project. We should reflect and look back on the processes that went into the establishment of the MISR PhD program and why MISR is in its current situation. MISR made crucial steps, at the beginning of the commencement of the PhD program, towards critiquing the neo-liberal assault of the university (the rampancy of consultancy culture that was detrimental to serious home-grown scholarship as Mamdani himself elucidates in many of his writings) and the decolonization of the curriculum. However, despite this critical intervention, we should ask if it is possible to materialize a revolutionary idea and vision in an authoritarian institutional context. Therefore, while the MISR project was established as anti-neoliberal, anti-colonial, enough thought and reflection did not seem to have gone into the institutional set-up to house this dream. One of the factors that led to this crisis, we believe, given our experiences for the past 5 years, is the failure to think seriously about what decolonizing the university could fully portend.

The masculinist and cavalier impulse in which the institute is run has to be seriously examined, exposed and challenged if the MISR project is to be realized. The MISR project of critical and socially relevant scholars cannot be realized in an antiquated institutional setting. An institutional framework that can allow internal democracy, diversity, open-minded intellectual and political engagement is critical to such an enterprise.

One should examine whether the MISR PhD programme, despite its critical steps to decolonize the curriculum and provide scholarships to all PhD students, succeeded in being anti-neoliberalist and anti-colonialist in its past 5 years. We should be cautious aabout the recent emphasis in MISR on “excellence” as measured in the student’s ability to win private grants from foreign donors, rather than “relevance” and dedication to their intellectual and social responsibility, as emphasized in the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility.

We want to conclude our rejoinder to the international scholars’ petition by outlining what we suggest their role could be at this critical juncture in the life of the MISR PhD program. The first is to remind them that they have no right to dictate the internal affairs of our institution (both Makerere and MISR). They need to have the humility to learn about the situation on the ground, the struggles in the institution by faculty and students and should try to examine the past 5 years to have a sense of how things have been. Their claimed affiliation with our institution (mostly as academic visitors) does not give them the right to speak on behalf of those of us who live and struggle at MISR. They should also bear in mind that those of us who are speaking out are doing this at an incredible risk. They should not excise our lives, the lives of students and other members of the institution, from the MISR project.

We feel that signing the petition was a mistake that could have been caused by many different reasons. We welcome their engagement with MISR, if their engagement is one from a position of solidarity among those seeking to decolonize their own universities; those seeking to decolonize and democratize global structures of knowledge production; those speaking from a position of shared struggle and not an engagement from a position of privilege.

* Semeneh Ayalew, Noosim Naimasiah and Sabatho Nyamsenda are PhD students at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Kampala, Uganda.



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Comments (1)

  • Stefano's picture

    I feel extremely sad to read this letter. I perhaps ignore some of the specific issues regarding the situation at MISR. Certainly, by reading this letter, I continue to be an ignorant. But this is precisely the point. 1. The letter does not contain any real fact that could help the reader to make up her/his own mind on such an important issue (for academia and intellectuality in Africa and the world) such as the future of the MISR. 2. Therefore it looks like a personal attack on Mamdani (not to forget: perhaps not the most charming person in this world but certainly a great intellectual, in the universal sense of the term) 3. The authors of the letter claim that they "are speaking out ... at an incredible risk". Taking the side of the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University (and perhaps of the Ugandan government) does not look to me like taking a big risk... 4. If in good faith, the strategy of the authors of the letter is to say the least quite poor. They should learn more about the history of political, revolutionary movements. Therefore, as a teacher myself, I grade this letter with an encouraging F.

    May 02, 2016