Prof Cliffe, first chair of the Department of Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam and founder-editor of the Review of African Political Economy, was a socialist, sympathetic to Mwalimu Nyerere’s policies, and a supporter of the total liberation of Africa from external domination
The academic staff at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in the 1960s reflected a spectrum of ideological orientations – unabashed right wing Cold Warriors, eclectic liberals, traditionalists claiming disdain from politics, African socialists, Fabian socialists, Pan-Africanists and Marxists of varied dispositions. The field was ripe for a battle of ideas -- ideas about the role of the university in society, curricula, university governance, social and economic policies, African liberation, and imperial domination of Africa.
The conceptualization and teaching of subjects like sociology, political science, history, economics, and even law was a key bone of contention. The academics on the right desired a continuation of the scheme inherited from the West whereby each discipline has a special status and a supposedly unique methodology. The left said this traditional approach was inherently flawed; an artificial division of an intrinsically unitary mode of human existence. Historians and sociologists, they said, view the same entity but at different points in time; the past affects the present; and both disciplines have much in common. In order to gain a good understanding of human society, the students, whatever their particular fields, have to clearly and openly be made aware of these aspects of intellectual inquiry. They argued that the fragmented approach is biased against fundamental social change and favors the status quo, in substance and style. An integrated vision of society is essential for the liberation of Africa from the socio-economic quagmire inherited from colonial rule.
To overcome these conceptual and pedagogic limitations, the left leaning academics called for the establishment of a required, interdisciplinary course on human society and development. It would make students aware of where the nation, Africa and the world had come from, where they were headed, the modes of societal structures and innovative strategies for improving the lives of people. It would underscore the need to make university education relevant to national needs, combat the elitist attitudes prevalent among the students and staff, and orient the university towards becoming an active, supportive element in the ongoing drive for social and economic progress.
Development Studies is a now respected discipline taught across the world. In our days, even its name aroused controversy. It was through a prolonged struggle that it managed to gain a footing in the academia. To the cut a long story short, the first Development Studies class at the UDSM finally began in the year 1969. Each first year student had to take some version of the subject.
It was a bold step. In taking it, the UDSM became a global trailblazer, laying out an innovative curriculum and creating an impressive body of scholarly course material that was taught by astute lecturers and professors, expatriate and local.
The first head of the new Department of Development Studies was Lionel Cliffe, a British scholar who had come to Tanzania in 1961. After teaching at the Kivukoni College and a brief spell in the civil service, he joined the Department of Political Science of UDSM in 1964. Lionel was a socialist, sympathetic to Mwalimu Nyerere’s policies, and a supporter of the total liberation of Africa from external domination. Right from the start, he undertook pioneering socio-political research and became involved in the effort to make the university curricula more relevant to national needs. The book One Party Democracy: A Study of the 1965 Tanzania General Elections (East Africa Publishing House, Nairobi, 1967) that he edited and co-authored and which contains several detailed investigations and political analyses is regarded as a pioneering work in the field that also provides a bright insight into the political dynamics of Tanzania of that time.
Lionel was not just an armchair academic. As a leftist student activist at the UDSM at that time, I vividly recall him providing much needed support to progressive student groups in ways more than one. For example, our student magazine, Cheche, had no external funder and was perpetually short of resources needed for bringing an issue into print. Though we did the printing ourselves, paper was expensive. Lionel helped out by selling printing paper from the departmental stock to us at the wholesale price. That assistance allowed us to increase the number of copies we could produce by around 50%. He also helped with the distribution of the magazine.
Rightwing academics sought to derail the Department of Development Studies even after it had been set up. They issued memoranda saying that it was a waste of time and resources. Only the firm alliance between progressive academic staff and activist students managed to successfully confront this backlash.
Lionel organized the course along three key lines: societal relevance; critical, scientific analysis; and sound factual footing. Under him, it was not a propaganda platform for regurgitating the party line on socialism. Rather, its primary aim was to inculcate a critical though pro-people approach to analyze national and international affairs. The university administration was thereby not well disposed towards him and the course content, and hampered his task by not giving him adequate resources. Yet, the class size of Development Studies was larger than that of any other course. Faced with such problems, Lionel efficiently utilized the limited resources at his disposal and mobilized sympathetic academics who taught extra hours for no extra pay. Within a year, it was a resounding success.
By the time Lionel left the university in 1972, Development Studies had become an integral part of the local academic scene. Slowly but surely, universities the world over began to imitate this higher education initiative pioneered at UDSM. Lionel also edited (with John Saul), a two-volume work entitled Socialism in Tanzania: A Interdisciplinary Reader (East Africa Publishing House, Nairobi, 1972). This remains a standard reference work for anyone interested in the post-Independence history of Tanzania, and a relevant text for present day students in disciplines like development studies, economics, education and political science that focus on Africa.
I pen these words with a heavy heart because Lionel Cliffe passed away after a brief illness on October 23, 2013. Until the time of his death, he was engaged in issues relating to Africa. Among his many achievements, he was a founder editor of the Review of African Political Economy and the first Director of the Center for Development Studies at the University of Leeds. Over the years, he had established a distinguished academic reputation, and published on a range of issues spanning from land tenure and reform to political affairs and external barriers to development. His area of focus remained Africa. He remained a champion of social and economic self-determination for the people of Africa and took a sharply critical stand on the Western strategies that promoted continued domination over the continent.
I last met this fine, ever smiling, soft-speaking human being in April this year. He was in Dar es Salaam to attend the annual Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival at the UDSM. He had regularly visited many countries in Africa over the years, maintaining strong links with progressive African scholars striving for social and economic justice.
In this context, I cannot but reflect on the horde of pseudo-scholars from Europe, UK and the USA that descend on Africa today. They and their local counterparts are into the NGO-based, lavishly funded superficial and superfluous consultancy projects that are erroneously branded as research. Unlike Lionel Cliffe and his cohort, they lack genuine commitment towards Africa. Most are inextricably mired in the neo-liberal paradigm. Those I have met do not display even a modicum of intellectual depth and breadth of knowledge needed to understand the African socio-economic realties and promote sustainable progress of the people of Africa. Many seem to be here for a tropical holiday in fine beach hotels than for anything else. And being holders of the purse string, many of them display a patronizing attitude towards local scholarship and scholars.
In the light of our predicaments, it is essential that we appreciate the achievements of the activist scholars of the 1960s and 1970s. The essence of their accomplishments has been lost. Though Development Studies continues as an academic discipline, today it is a shell that has largely lost its integral interdisciplinary character and critical analytic perspective. It is now akin to a bundle of super-specialized academic areas formally functioning under a single administrative unit. The form exists but the essence has evaporated.
Lionel engaged with us on an equal footing; at times we critiqued him, and at times, he critiqued us; but in the spirit of comrades undertaking a joint long term journey. He had the outlook of and functioned like a global citizen. At his passing, Africa has lost a good comrade; an upright champion our people’s rights. Let us pay homage to this stellar specimen of humanity by drawing sound lessons from the work of activists scholars like him and begin to recreate an African academia that will challenge the neo-liberal establishment and truly champion the rights and needs of the people of Africa.
One thing I am certain of: Wherever in the heavens he has landed, Professor Lionel Cliffe is already busy establishing an inter-galactic Institute of Development Studies, and boldly challenging the status quo. Most likely, he has us within his sights too. Let us then once more elicit his usual broad grin by retaking similar steps on this planet.