Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The joint university experiment, by pooling resources within the same sub-region and drawing on the different strengths of the three member colleges and their respective host countries, represents an early and instructive model of South-South cooperation. 

For the newly independent countries in the early 1960s, especially in Africa, one of the main priorities was to develop the capacities of their own nationals. The East African countries – Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika and Zanzibar (later Tanzania) –agreed to use the existing services that the British colonial government had established under the East African Common Services Organization (EACSO). These services cut across all key sectors such as transport, agriculture, education, civil aviation, water, banking, culture and others. East Africa was not the only sub-region where the British used this kind of arrangement. Other areas included British West Africa (Nigeria, the Gambia and Ghana) and the British West Indies.

In the East African countries these common services had already been decentralized before the system was dissolved. For example, higher education – which is the focus of this article – benefited from the devolved East Africa Common Services Organization only until the early 1970s. In each academic year, the three sister states agreed on the number of qualified students to be shared between and absorbed by their constituent colleges, whose responsibility it was to ensure that they provided them with accommodation and other necessities. This system of sharing fell by the wayside because each of the three states felt that they should take responsibility for their own destiny and for ensuring that they developed the urgently needed manpower to manage their civil services.

This brief paper examines to what extent the concept of South-South cooperation, as it is now known, was applicable to the East African university system in the 1960s before it was dismantled. The paper focuses on some elements of the East African Common Services Organization, namely ownership, reciprocity, shared responsibility, and others.


The colleges of East Africa were either specialized or had been assigned certain areas before they split up in early 1970s.For example, Makerere College was assigned three areas in which it specialized, namely: education, forestry and medicine; Royal College Nairobi: engineering, architecture, surveying and photo-grammetry, land economics and building economics; and Dar es Salaam College: law and social sciences. These arrangements were applied on a reciprocal basis: all the colleges ensured that they admitted qualified students from the sister states to take the courses they had been assigned. For the first few years after independence, the reciprocal arrangement worked quite well. Moreover, other students who had not attained the minimum entry requirements to the colleges of the University of East Africa benefited from scholarships provided by friendly governments, such the United States of America, the Soviet Union, Germany and others. The first generation of East African doctors, engineers and lawyers in the 1960s and early 1970s were trained under this arrangement. Students from the three countries who had passed their examinations received their diplomas or degrees from the University of East Africa.

Shared facilities and responsibilities

At independence, the three countries had many priorities and they took advantage of existing facilities to share them. This was the case with the colleges of the University of East Africa. Fortunately, it was easier because the British colonial system had introduced the shared system under the East African Common Services Organization. It was relatively easy to harmonize tertiary education in the three countries since they had been under the same colonial system and the education system was the same. The college students shared similar experiences because they spoke the same official language and the official currency was the same. Makerere, however, had much better facilities than the other two colleges—Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In addition, Makerere had been offering full degree courses since the mid-1950s, well before the other two colleges. The three sister states shared lecturers in the disciplines they were assigned. For example, if there was a qualified Ugandan scientist with a Masters or PhD from a recognized university in, say, engineering, he or she was offered a teaching post in Nairobi, and likewise with the various disciplines in the three institutions. Moreover, the students knew that after graduation they could work anywhere in East Africa, if they wished.

Political will

Immediately upon gaining independence and for some time thereafter, all three East African countries showed strong political will. The interest of each of them was to develop the capacities of their people. The challenges that the countries faced were, therefore, to develop national capacities in education, medicine, law, engineering and other related areas. Towards the end of the 1960s, the environment had changed from pan-African to nationalistic. Two of the three countries changed their political ideologies to socialism. Thus, President Nyerere of Tanzania adopted a form of socialism known as “Ujamaa” and he decided to use Dar es Salaam College to popularize his ideology. Similarly, President Obote of Uganda took up socialism, while President Kenyatta of Kenya decided to follow western capitalist ideology. With weak political support, the University of East Africa was faced with the situation, memorably described by the Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, in the words of W.B. Yeats, as one where “the centre cannot hold” and, therefore, “things fall apart”. By the early 1970s, the three colleges had split and had gone their different ways as autonomous universities: Royal College became University of Nairobi; Dar es Salaam College ended up as the University of Dar es Salaam; and Makerere College too became a full university  – Makerere University.


The ultimate cause of the breakup of the colleges of the University of East Africa was the desire of each country to have its own university. It was believed that the University of East Africa had been tailored in such a way as to discourage the expansion of higher education and the three countries saw this as an impediment to the aspiration of their many students to have a university education (Kithinji, 2012). This view is confirmed by Professor Ali Mazrui, who observes that the three countries developed a nationalist attitude to higher education and decided to create separate universities, and by Mngomezulu (2012), who demonstrates how nationalism overpowered the spirit of regional integration in higher education. In this rush to claim ownership of their universities, the countries concerned perhaps gave scant heed to an important aspect of ownership: the responsibilities that came with it. Among the challenges facing the three countries were financial constraints in meeting the costs of running these three institutions, in particular the recurrent costs. They were forced to seek assistance from friendly donor countries, United Nations agencies and major international foundations. In some cases, the assistance came in kind – such as through the provision of lecturers and other expertise, including equipment for specific periods.

Lessons from the East African university system for South-South cooperation

South-South cooperation has undergone several changes since the Buenos Aires Plan of Action for Promoting and Implementing Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries was launched in 1978 in Buenos Aires (Argentina). Known at its inception as Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC), the term “South-South cooperation” came into prominence in 2002 to reflect the expanding scope of development cooperation among countries of the global South. There are several definitions of South-South cooperation, some of them perhaps unnecessarily complex, but for the purposes of this article “South-South cooperation” refers to a process whereby two or more developing countries pursue their individual or collective development objectives through the sharing of knowledge, resources and technical know-how. Normally, this may occur through bilateral, sub-regional, regional and/or interregional arrangements or agreements. Traditionally, for developing countries to participate in South-South cooperation, they would assess their strengths and the areas in which they needed assistance and look for Southern partners who could meet their needs, for example through supplying expertise or providing training to build capacities. The cooperation undertaken would need to be beneficial for each partner. 

As an illustration of how this works we may take the example of students sitting for their final exams who, at the end of the semester, organize themselves into groups. Within each group, they identify the strengths of each member and select one or perhaps two or even three to be the focal points of the subject in which they are very good, with the aim of sharing their knowledge with the group and in so doing strengthening their own understanding, illustrating one of the main principles of South-South cooperation: mutual benefit. This was the original arrangement when the emphasis of South-South cooperation was on economic solidarity among the developing countries, but the concept has since been expanded by recent developments to include far more than economic solidarity.

Based on the above analysis, there are a few lessons that can be drawn from the history of the University of East Africa, lessons that have implications – either directly or indirectly – in terms of South-South cooperation.

Unequal cooperation

Although South-South cooperation is supposed to be cooperation of equal partners, in practice, as Chisholm, L and Steiner-Khamisi, G (2008) argue, it is really cooperation among the unequal. For example, Kenya and Tanzania realized that Makerere had more advantages than the other two colleges. This is because Makerere had been inaugurated in 1922, while the others only started in the 1950s. The British government had invested more in Makerere and the quality of education which it provided was far superior to that of the other two. This was one of reasons why the two countries (Kenya and Tanzania) insisted on staying in the common services system until their institutions had achieved standards similar to those of Makerere. After 1969, however, this became impossible. Moreover, since South-South cooperation (formerly TCDC) was established in 1978, the countries engaged in South-South cooperation are now divided several categories, namely: least developed countries (LDCs), lower middle income and middle income countries.

The three East African countries under consideration here, however, are still participants in the South-South cooperation process: one is a lower income country (Kenya), while the other two are LDCs (Tanzania and Uganda). At the same time, the higher education landscape has changed since the 1970s in the sub-region. In short, there have always been and continue to be disparities between and among the members of the South-South cooperation network, just as we have observed between the former colleges of the University of East Africa.


By late 1960s, the spirit of cooperation had been undermined and this severely affected the smooth running of the University of East Africa system. Kenya and Tanzania still wanted the regional university arrangement to be maintained to enable them to expand and improve their university colleges.  As Kithinji (2012) observes, the conflicting views relating to the University of East Africa created a source of disunity rather than cooperation among the three countries. The University of East Africa was thus dissolved and the colleges restructured to reflect the local realities of each country.

A quintessential feature of South-South cooperation is trust, which is one of the key ingredients of any successful cooperation arrangement. After the joint system had been under way for six years (1963–1969), the three countries had grown deeply mistrustful of one another regarding the running and operation of the colleges of the University of East Africa. Added to which, the growing sense of suspicion between the countries was exacerbated by the collapse of the East African Common Services Organization in 1977, an initiative which, in today’s world, could have flourished as a very good example of South-South cooperation. Therefore, trust is key in any relationship or cooperation, socially, economically, politically and others.

Mutual benefit

Another important factor to be borne in mind regarding the colleges of the University of East Africa system was that the arrangement was supposed to be for the mutual benefit of the three countries. This is a strong point of South-South cooperation. In other words, whatever cooperation arrangements are in place, the participating countries of the South should benefit. From the perspective of the three colleges, however, the feeling was that Makerere benefited more from the arrangement than the other two colleges: this was partly for historical reasons, of course, since it had been in existence since 1922, while the others were opened almost thirty years later. Mngomezulu (2012) notes that the requirements of the three independent national governments were also different: these differences later necessitated the dissolution of the joint university, so that each government could work closer with its national university in drawing up and implementing national policies. The disparities between the three institutions were in themselves an impediment to any benefit they should have derived from their cooperation, however. To this day there have really been no examples of South-South cooperation that have failed to benefit any of the partners involved. We might take, for instance, the South-South cooperation arrangement between China and individual African countries, such as Angola, Zimbabwe and others, in which both partners derive some benefit from the relationship. This too was the case with three East African countries that supported the University of East Africa, regardless of any imbalance between them.


The three colleges shared financial and human resources and physical facilities. Under South-South cooperation, ideally the local costs are covered by the country receiving the assistance. At that time, however, the newly independent East African countries had multiple competing priorities, so they were unable to meet all recurrent costs without external support. This was the case with the colleges of the University of East Africa, some – if not most – of whose financial resources came from external sources, such as the British government, UNESCO, major donors and the Rockefeller Foundation. This hindered the expansion of the activities of the University of East Africa and put pressure on individual countries to come up with other options. Unfortunately, even today the problem of financial resources is the major constraint on South-South cooperation activities. Although some commentators argue that South-South cooperation is cost-effective, Chisholm and Steiner- Khamisi (2008) warn against the misconception that the process is free: they point out that it still costs money, no matter the amount.


Clearly, although the note is brief there are some lessons which can be drawn from the University of East Africa that could be directly or indirectly relevant to South-South cooperation. For example, the definition of South-South cooperation includes cooperation between two or more countries of the South. Therefore, the cooperation of three colleges of the UEA somehow meets the definition. Furthermore, some of the challenges faced by the University of East Africa are not unique to that institution and could easily apply to any South-South cooperation arrangements.

Unlike South-South cooperation, the University of East Africa was heavily donor-driven and it was a colonial project. Despite the similarities with the later model of South-South cooperation, therefore, there are also differences. South-South cooperation discourages competition and duplication of efforts among the member countries. In that sense, it was perhaps fortunate that the colleges of the University of East Africa had financial constraints and could not have afforded competition or the duplication of efforts on agreed courses within the six years of the joint university’s existence. Moreover, South-South cooperation emphasizes the sharing of knowledge and experience. Regrettably, given the subject range assigned to each of the three colleges, it is fair to say that there was no sharing of knowledge and experience between them; what they shared were the existing facilities established by the British colonial government. Furthermore, the three countries shared funds from their treasuries on agreed common expenditures, although Makerere received more than the rest, partly because the headquarters of the University were located at that campus. This was a cause of resentment by the other two colleges.

At the same time, one salient feature which is shared both by South-South cooperation and the three governments of East Africa is the principle of respect for national sovereignty, national ownership and independence. Upon the dissolution of the University of East Africa, each country was guided by nationalism, ownership and independence from the British experiment. None of the three countries wanted to be controlled or told what to do, especially after their independence, regarding the development of capacities in their respective countries. They wanted the freedom to make decisions relevant to their local situation in theory, but in practice limited due to financial resources.

In summary, therefore, a variety of lessons may be learned for South-South cooperation from the experience of the University of East Africa. The joint university experiment, by pooling resources within the same sub-region and drawing on the different strengths of the three member colleges and their respective host countries, represents an early and instructive model of South-South cooperation. Perhaps, the most important of these lessons is a simple one: given the financial challenges experienced by East Africa countries, instead of encouraging the mushrooming of many universities, the focus should be placed on establishing a number of centres of excellence, ideally based on selected, existing institutions. As successfully demonstrated in large countries with multiple provinces and states such as China, India and South Africa, these centres would provide opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary work and the development of skills in research and training. They would explore frontier areas of science, technology and innovation within the framework of the East African Community. This, in turn, could be an exemplary application of South-South cooperation.

* Amb. Dr. John O. Kakonge is a Sustainable Development Consultant and Adviser.


Chisholm, L and Steiner-Khamisi, G (2008). South-South transfer: Cooperation and unequal development in education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kithinji, M.W (2012). “An imperial enterprise: The making and breaking of the University of East Africa, 1949-1969’’. Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol.46 No2 August, 195-2014

Mngomezulu, B.R (2012). “Politics and Higher Education in East Africa”: From 1920s to 1970. Bloemfontein: Sun Press.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to [email=[email protected]]editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org[/email] or comment online at Pambazuka News.