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History, context and decolonisation at Makerere University
Makerere University

This article is a critical-theoretical reflection on a graduate programme at Makerere University – the Interdisciplinary PhD in Social Studies at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR).  

From its founding, the MISR MPhil/PhD programme arcades itself as a method to decolonisation in three significant ways: seeing the world from African vantage points; ending the pervasive consultancy culture; And asking context-specific home-grown questions. In a paper delivered as at Makerere University Research and Innovations Dissemination Conference in Kampala on 11 April 2011, Mahmood Mamdani, then the new director of MISR, while pitching for what he called PhD-driven research, wound his argument around the knots above – in the broader language of decolonising the academy. Titled “The importance of research in a university,” the paper was published as a MISR working paper (No. 3; 2011), but also as an article in Pambazuka News. [Link]. One of the combative highlights of the paper was Mamdani’s condescending labelling of the scholars he had met at MISR as “native informers,” mere “supervisors of data collection.”

There was no coherent theoretical response to the new regime of power under Mamdani. Instead, in 2013, a year after the first PhD cohort had enrolled, the last researcher among those the new director had found at MISR left. Labelling colleagues native informers, which actually strips them of all claims of scholarship and by extension, sounding the war drums against these colonial collaborators must have hurt a great deal. Mamdani appeared like a whirlwind marshalling all power he could afford to turn MISR upside down. One of the departing researchers remarked that, simply on sabbatical from Columbia, the impression was that Prof. Mamdani was actually doing Makerere University a favour. Coming along with a fair share of celebrity aura, all his postulations, however illogical, had to be accommodated.

I use the MISR MPhil/PhD as a case study to reflect on the broader conceptual pitfalls the present intelligentsia of decolonising the academy.  Part of my intention is to make visible the hubris of our theorists, and a terrible obliviousness to their historicity and subjectivity. Thus, my argument is twofold: Firstly, Mamdani got the colonial question, not necessarily wrong, but on a populist lane. It is populist, ahistorical and denialist to explain our present crises—in education, leadership, civil war, religious conflicts, underdevelopment, land conflicts—as a failure to completely erase the legacy of colonialism (Mamdani, 1996, 2001, 2007, 2011). A great deal of scholarship has demonstrated that human history is a story of contact between civilisations often of different levels of sophistication (Diamond, 1974; Asad, 1992; Cooper, 2005; Mazrui, 2005). The weaker ones, as a method to survival, concede and graciously refashion themselves under the new terrain. They do so without mourning the constraining limits that were set in motion by the superior (violent or most persuasive) civilisation.  This is the history of empires, religious movements, colonialism, hegemony and capital. There is no triumphalist overcoming of this legacy.  Secondly, going via Marx, I argue that scholarship is conditioned to materiality.  Any debate on context and funding needs to foreground the material conditions in which actors exercise their agency. Thus, scholars of African parentage lucky to operate in western or first world economies ought to beware of their good fortune, but also humbler and more respectful to their colleagues hustling an existence in third world economies and banana republics.

In this critique, my intention, as one of the pioneer students of the programme, is not to portray the programme as bad.  Rather I seek to contextualise its goodness as contained in enabling students based on the African continent to access a (version of) Columbia, Harvard or Oxford graduate education, seasoned with a lavish reading list of Africanist scholars.  But, not its claims of decolonising the academy.  Surely, importing a Columbia-type curricular to Kampala is not to decolonise.

As a naïve East African graduate student inspired by the ambitions spelled out in the PhD founding document, the most sobering moment to reflect on the conceptual founding came in 2015 while I did my year of fieldwork in the Horn of Africa, in Somaliland. I had been encouraged by the mantra that asking home-grown, relevant and context-specific questions as the true meaning of scholarship. Especially after the 2010 Kampala bombings (allegedly committed by Al-Shabaab), the Horn and East Africa shared a closer context, which made studying the Horn, as an East African, more timely.  As I negotiated my space in the Horn, it struck me that the foundations upon which my ambitions built were terribly flawed. They needed revisiting and revising. To quote Bernard Yack (1986), the ambitions spelled out in the founding of the PhD programme were philosophically incoherent and practically impossible. The picture that emerges is conceptual contradictions, outright deception, and egregious selfishness.

The longing for total revolution

I am inspired by David Scott’s (2004) rendering of history (especially our colonial history) in the story-form of tragedy and not romance. If history were read and written in the story-form of tragedy, heroes and heroines would be seen as caught up in a web of tragic circumstances in which they cannot extricate themselves. So Oedipus murders his father and marries his mother.  He can neither walk backwards nor continue with the affair.  Either step – backwards or forwards – is damned. So the Shakespearean slogan, “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”  The tragic characters choose to bravely face the consequences of their actions. They never imagine a day when they will overcome these tragic circumstances but instead choose to act from within their new terrain at peace with their actions (White 1973; Scott, 2004). Antigone faces death with equanimity. So a character in King Lear proclaims, “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither,” (Wilson, 2008: 223). This process gives the actors peace of mind and the opportunity to be creative within the new terrain. The story-form of romance, on the other hand, promises a Disney story of triumphalist overcoming (White, 1973: 8-9).  Scott has summed up this problematic as thus:

“If one of the great lessons of romance is that we are masters and mistresses of our destiny, that our pasts can be left behind and new future leaped into, tragedy has a less sanguine teaching to offer. Tragedy has a more respectful attitude to the past, to the often-cruel permanence of its impress: it honours, however reluctantly, the obligations that the past imposes” (2004: 135).

Scott challenges the anti-colonial intelligentsia to think about decolonisation—in the story-form of tragedy, not romance.  What I want to take from this section is more profound in the sentence that follows. Scott notes that the story-form of tragedy, “raises a profound challenge to the hubris of revolutionary (and modernist) longing for total revolution” (ibid). Tragedy challenges us to appreciate changes of history against the understanding that the history of civilisation or human progress is a narrative of contact of civilisation and a re-ordering of spaces.  White has noted that the sensibility of tragedian emplotment is actually liberating. It appreciates the permanence of events in the past, which in turn limit but also set one free to act within those limits. Writing that all forms of dramatic emplotment involve reconciliations (conclusions, to speak plainly) at the end of the day, White notes that while reconciliations of the story-form of romance promises transcendence of world’s experiences to a happy-ever-after moment the reconciliations in story-form of tragedy are much more sombre but liberating, and certainly more realistic. As earlier noted after Yack (1986), the promise of romanticist overcoming is utopian, unnecessarily painful, and does not stand historical scrutiny.

“The reconciliations that occur at the end of Tragedy are much more sombre; they are more in the nature of the world resignations of men to the conditions under which they must labour in the world. These conditions, in turn, are asserted to be inalterable and eternal, and the implication is that man cannot change them but must work within them. They set the limits on what maybe aspired for to what may be legitimately aimed at in the quest for security and sanity” (White, 1973: 9).

From the above, it becomes clear, that accepting (or resigning, to use White’s word) to the new re-ordered terrain and not setting fallacious and wild ambitions. This is a form of catharsis. It is liberating oneself and being respectful to the history of civilisation. White and Scott poignantly suggest that the longing for total revolution or even mourning the constraints of the legacy of colonialism, and citing colonialism as a totalising hindrance or counterpoint point in academic and political pursuit is nihilistic, and unnecessarily costly. It assumes and longs for a time when the things will finally disappear opening ground for a blank slate (see also, Yack, 1986).  These ambitions and aspirations defy the logic of human history and progress.  [Let me clarify that the continued demand for asset redistribution in the campaigns for land access and use, or fees reduction as happening in South Africa is another terrain in the decolonisation discourse].

My point is this: despite its egalitarian overtures to other intellectual traditions (the Enlightenment, Asian studies, Islamic political and social thought etc.), Mamdani’s MPhil/PhD programme at MISR is actually a project of romanticist ambitions. It is a project of longing for total revolution, which is actually an act of essentialism on the part of its founding thinker. There is an interesting contradiction about Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject from where this line thought springs.  Mamdani bazaars a critique of the progressive wing of African historians that longs for total revolution. But then, he foregrounds failure for complete erasure of the legacy of colonialism as explanation for the present crises. Picking the cue, the PhD at MISR disguises the longing for total revolution through captivating egalitarianism (such as viewing the world from African vantage points) but ironically, at the implementation, at funding and historicist level, it is confused on whether to completely delink or sustain relations with the world outside.  This confusion is born of the refusal to be honest to history and context. To make this point more succinctly, I want to pursue a Marxist train of thought relating to the material conditions in which actors make their decisions.

Bringing Marx to MISR

Marx noted that humans are not spiritual being in the Hegelian sense. They make their decisions in view of the conditions in which they live. The first historical actions of human being is realising their materiality connecting their bodies to the environment. Any conversation on decolonisation has to focus its intelligentsia, their subjectivity and problem space.  The idea of problem space, is particularly interesting and in Scott’s usage, it denotes a discursive context, a context of language (2004: 4). The idea of problem space has Marxist undertones.

“Notice, then, that a problem space is very much as context of dispute, a context of rival views, a context, if you like, of knowledge and power… Notice also that a problem space necessarily has a temporal dimension or, rather, is a fundamentally temporal concept. Problem spaces alter historically because problems are not timeless and do not have everlasting shapes” (ibid).

The temporal dimension he attaches to problem space makes visible the difference of contexts. Thus, under another historical juncture, “old questions may lose their salience, their bite, and so lead to a range of old answers that once attached to them to appear lifeless (ibid).  Focused on discussing language-games of criticism, Scott suggests that critics ought to be mindful of the alterations in historical time. Thus instead critiquing the answers to seemingly good or simple questions, it is important for criticism to understand the questions that the present answers sought to respond to. This is vintage Marx demanding criticism to understand the material conditions in which decisions/answers are taken. The question then: How does Mamdani think about the conditions, context and problem-space under which scholars at MISR before him decided on the line of consultancy? Were they responding the same questions as Mamdani newly arrived on sabbatical from Columbia University?

With a new approach to scholarship, came a complete redesign of the unit’s infrastructure (huge investment in books, offices and library expansions – on donor funds, of course) and academic-year/semester structure. The funds issue is enduringly interesting: Mamdani often gloats that funders joined him without asking for their help; that they actually asked to be involved in the programme and thus funded his idea/questions without imposing their (imperial) agendas on him. (We will examine the problems with such as a claim in a while).  But with new leadership and research agenda, MISR resorted to a uniquely different academic year from the rest of Makerere University. The MISR academic year runs from January to August, while the larger Makerere University academic year runs from August to May. Ironically, the reasoning behind this MISR uniqueness is not scholarly but material. The director has a side-kick job at Columbia University in New York for which he takes off four months every year—specifically September-December—and thus the unit was transformed to meet the director’s schedule. The irony of this is that while theorising the necessity of a PhD-driven research against an irritable consultancy culture, castigating the former regime of scholars for turning MISR into a think-tank, the material conditions in which these fellows operated are strategically silenced.

Research at a university (debating context, funding)

In a broader sense, Mamdani’s paper sought to foreground two items in research: (a) vantage point as a method of decolonisation and (b), the source and position of funding in research in African academies. Mamdani argued that, for Africans, decolonising the academy needed viewing the world from African vantage points. We needed to understand the global from the local (7-8).  For so long, the world has been seen and read from other vantage points of especially Europe and North America. Scholarship tends to privilege the period of the Enlightenment in Europe, and other western intellectual traditions.  Mamdani wrote that these Eurocentric or west-centric worldview assumes “that there is a single model derived from the dominant Western experience reduces research to no more than a demonstration that societies around the world either conform to that model or deviate from it (6).” There should be space for other knowledge experiences to foreground their contexts and knowledge traditions.  The danger of assuming a dominant western model is

“[T] o dehistoricise and decontextualise discordant experiences, whether Western or non-Western. The effect is to devalue original research or intellectual production in Africa. 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” (ibid)

The concern that Mamdani raises here is an old one. It has informed debates in the subaltern studies and Negritude movement. Can the Africans produce knowledge? Do they make history or are they recipients of history? Gayatri Spivak’s thesis, “can the subaltern speak?” is informed by similar shades of emancipatory aspirations. Mamdani’s rightly judged idea is that questions have to be asked from a point of proper historicizing and context. Thus, plainly, African have ask their own questions in their original context and history – not a context imposed from elsewhere.  You can miss how I imbibed this rhetoric hook, line and sinker and crafted a project to study Somalia and Somaliland because as an East African, and Africans more generally, the Horn presents us with some of the most pressing questions in our time.

However, the problem here is that Mamdani silences his sense of context. He does not unpack “African.” Does context consider the material political conditions or this is simply a theoretical utopia?  But this is not a failure to define context, because Mamdani actually has a context in mind—only that it is not African! Mamdani’s non-African context stems from his historicity and subjectivity as an employee in a European/North American economy and politics. In this context, matters of bread and butter, school fees for the children, and a good house are no longer a concern to himself as they are for compatriots operating exclusively in an African-Ugandan economy and politics. In several African economies (Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda), university staff salaries are meagre and scholars have to eke an existence in several side-kick engagements still within the same economy.  Industrial action over salaries is rampant.  Sadly, politicians have also found it easy closing these universities for extended periods. Thus consultancy offers an easy respite to the material challenges of these scholars.

Mamdani’s failure to understand this context is excusable for he is, virtually, a western academic. Besides his birth and early childhood Indian-secluded education in Kampala, Mamdani’s claim to the Uganda and the continent is by affiliation and work.  Mostly educated in the United States, Mamdani’s true scholarship came to life while he operated in a South African economy (1990-96) producing Citizen and Subject (1996), from where he continued to Columbia University.  Before entering the first world economies (South Africa and United States of America), Mamdani was perhaps in a worse off material position than the fellows he found at MISR in 2010—an imprint visible through his scholarly production. By his own admission, most of the scholarship he produced from the time he got his PhD (about 1973) and South Africa (1990-96) are raw materials unquotable and untidy (Kuan-Hsing, et al. 2016). He loves to tell the story of how, during his professorship days at Makerere in the 1980s (in a third world economy), he had to eke an existence by turning his personal car into a taxi business ferrying people from the suburbs of Kampala.  The result was no worthy scholarship to his name.  It is not my intention to have this section read like an assault on the persona of Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, but I want to make visible the point that in ridiculing his colleagues, Mamdani forgets his own history and subjectivity as being lucky to operate in a non-African economy.

The second concern, which is very related to the first, is about funding.  Mamdani discusses funding of graduate education going through his experiences with University of Dar-es-Salaam in the 1970s, and Makerere University in 1980s and early 1990s.  He notes that in Dar, where there was state-led education, they were able to develop a robust “historically-informed, interdisciplinary curriculum.” But the state often sought to compromise academic freedom.  In Makerere, during the introduction of private paying students in the 1980s in the wake of structural adjustment programmes, and the introduction of a market-driven curriculum, with fees paying students (all students at Makerere before this period studied for free on a government scheme), the university somewhat improved its financial base but consequently opened its doors to a galloping consultancy culture (2).  In the end, robust scholarship died at the expense of a market-driven curricula.  Scholars went into a place they were not supposed to go, that is, the marketplace. This concern—which forms a core part of his argument in an earlier book, Scholars in the Marketplace—is rather problematic. It is both inexcusably ahistorical and selfishly bereft of context.

Firstly, this approach embraces a terrible and anachronistic assumption that the academia is a cathedral of sorts and has no relation to the market dynamics of demand and supply. Yet, with the rise of private property and primitive accumulation in the 1600 English countryside, human beings were turned into labourers or owners of capital.  Labourers earned their sustenance from selling their labour and skills.  With colonialism, people thriving on tilling the land were turned also systematically and sometimes violently turned into labourers subsisting on providing labour measured in terms of work hours. The colonial university follows the same paradigm. It is a marketplace where scholars sell their labour—intellect and instruction—for rent. They are thus constantly seeking to make the best returns on their labour. The academia is intimately a labour-market model.

Secondly, it is difficult to understand how Mamdani makes the connection between (a) private sponsored students paying for their education, (b) a university designing courses suited for the demands on the market, and (c) the rise of consultancy where external organisations ask questions, and hire scholars at a university to answer them. Besides not seeing any connection between these three strands, I also fail to understand why those three different strands could not exist alongside each other, in addition to developing a robust historically informed and interdisciplinary curricula.  Sure, Mamdani seeks to make the proliferation of consultancy culture as a condition responsible for the under-development of a robust historically informed curriculum. But this juxtaposition is rather superficial. Why should it be difficult for both to survive – and why would we blame one for the failure of the others yet both were different and had an equal share of the market?

If we could afford to stretch Mamdani on the connections he makes as regards the pervasive consultancy culture and the failure to develop home-grown questions in scholarship, we could accommodate an understanding that once universities started designing tailor-made programmes for fees paying students, courses became responses to questions set by the market—and thus the market started setting the agenda for university research and education.  However, read this way, Mamdani vulgarised a historically locatable demand.  As Prof. Mukwanason Hyuha – former Academic Registrar of Makerere University – responded when Mamdani shared the same ideas in a newspaper article in 2016, there was public demand for Makerere University to allow parents who could afford to pay for their children and enable them pursue education at home rather than seek it abroad as they had been doing. [[i]] Hyuha noted that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the numbers of qualified university entrants had increased, but the Makerere University government sponsorship scheme could not take all of them.  Hyuha also argued that around the same time, the university was facing severe financial challenges and thus had to find ways of making money. [[ii]] One would seek to ask why Mamdani so stubbornly chooses to ignore these valid context-specific and historically verifiable realities.

There are several other questions to ask relating to context.  Take for example, what is the problem of a country needing journalists, engineers, or development experts and its main university designing courses to respond to these demands? Thus, why shouldn’t a university respond to both its internal challenges (resources), and also meet a public demand? Of course, the adoption of this model came with myriad challenges as every department wanted to cash in on the bonanza leading to things such as duplication of courses. But, we would be mistaken to vulgarise context-specific processes simply to argue for a historically-interdisciplinary curriculum.

We are left with one key question: funding model.  Mamdani is critical of a state-led curricular, noting that the state often sought to compromise academic independence and thus determined the direction of research agenda or set the questions to be asked. He is also critical of a market-driven model where universities set courses depending on the market – which he argues, albeit problematically, that it ended in commercialisation and a proliferation of consultancy culture. What are the alternatives? From where will funds come for the home-grown questions where the payer of the piper does not want to call the tune? Of course there are other ways of raising funds for a university—such as doing business, or grants from philanthropists. But these responses need to be suggested in context and history.

The native informer

Speaking in 2011, Mamdani shared several anecdotes from his one-year experience at MISR. He narrates that upon joining MISR, as director of the unit, he started by meeting researchers asking them questions about their time at MISR and the nature of their research output.

“The answers were a revelation: everyone seemed to do everything, or rather anything, at one time, primary education, the next primary health, then roads, then HIV/AIDS, whatever was on demand! This is when I learnt to recognize the first manifestation of consultancy: A consultant has no expertise. His or her claim is only to a way of doing things, of gathering data and writing reports. He or she is a Jack or a Jane of all, a master of none. That was the first manifestation” (4)

It is curious in this conversation that Mamdani does not seek to problematise the motivations for the decision to do everything.  Whilst he “discovers” the manifestation of consultancy culture, he does not seek to understand it or its roots.  But rather he quickly scoffs at it for its obvious weaknesses – no expertise except a way of doing things, of gathering data and writing reports. This was quite arrogant. Firstly, he problematically generalises about their scholarly output judging it as “raw data” for a foreign scholar. Secondly, he does not seek to understand that while these scholars responded to questions set from outside, as they sought to eke a living, they also had the opportunity to reformulate these questions to suit their presents – as happened with colonialism (De Certeau, 1984; Stoler, 2004). The third problem, and perhaps, major problem with Mamdani’s theorisation is the assumption that these decisions – to do everything as a consultant, which is obviously strenuous – is taken in a vacuum.  But as noted earlier, coming from and anchored in a different problem space, Mamdani could not countenance, or selfishly ignored, the material conditions in which these scholars exercised their agency.

It is with this same absurdity that Mamdani chastises the partnerships that MISR often entered with other universities before his arrival. Despite acknowledging that there was research done under these arrangements, he quickly disparages of it noting that it was externally driven, and was built on demands of European donor agencies that European universities doing research in Africa must partner with African universities (4).  Mamdani thus concludes that the result of these partnerships “was not institutional partnerships but the incorporation of individual local researchers into an externally-driven project. It resembled more an outreach from the UK or France rather than a partnership between equals” (ibid).

Again, Mamdani disingenuously generalises to a manner akin to deceit. Surely, not all projects were wound around individuals. Some, as continues to happen, were entered with the institution. Secondly, not all externally funded project/research come in a singular model of partnerships.  In arguing this way, Mamdani thus exhibits, or actually feigns, unawareness of the myriad ways in which donors fund research projects in Africa.  In several cases, scholars write proposals to funders when calls are announced. Calls for proposals often, as possibly could, define their themes more broadly. In other cases, funders discover the problem together with the scholars before negotiating ways of funding the research agenda. For the town he has been around the academic marketplace, it is difficult to understand why he seemed unaware of these non-homogenous ways of foreign-local engagements, individual-institutional arrangements in research and knowledge production.  There is not a single model for donor funding of research in Africa.


The purpose of this essay is not to challenge efforts towards decolonising the academy. I am not suggesting that scholars and activists in formerly colonised places should sit back and idealise the status quo. Instead, my point is that we need a more honest and practicable response to challenge of colonisation. Our theoretical language-games have to be coherent and achievable. In this, I also seek to problematise the salience of the language of decolonisation as it blinds us from a more feasible ambition of refashioning our futures under a new terrain. It exhausts us with the infantilism of searching for a “de-colonised” world.  As regards history and context, western-based African academics name-calling their local colleagues as native informers, disparaging consultancy is nothing but arrogance akin to belching in public after a heavy meal.


* Yusuf Serunkuma is a Ugandan scholar

* This paper was presented at a conference organised by the American Anthropological Association and African Studies Association in Johannesburg, South Africa on 27 May 2018. The theme of the conference was: “Africa in the World: Shifting Boundaries in Knowledge Production.” Panel theme: “Revolutionising African Academic Institutions.”



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[i] Mukwanason Hyuha. “A Reaction to Prof. Mamdani’s Makerere University: Time for a Rethink.” Uganda Radio Network. 23 November 2016. Available at, accessed on 24 May 2018.

[ii] Mukwanason Hyuha.  “A rejoinder to my reaction to Professor Mamdani’s “Makerere: Time for a Rethink.” The New Vision, 20 December 2016. Available at, accessed on 24 May 2018.