A tribute to the pan-Africanist Ugandan leader and towering intellectual, one of the last of the liberation struggle luminaries.
I got to know Dani only fairly late in his life. We first met as fellow trainers of civil society and postgraduate students in Sweden in January 1996 at a workshop organised by the late Anders Närman, Sweden’s truly radical development geographer, who had a long history of engagement in and with east and southern Africa, during which he had befriended many liberation strugglers and senior government members of relatively newly independent states. Indeed, it is a measure of his standing that both Dani and the late Omwony Ojwok (the latter representing the Ugandan government), both members of the famous Ugandan “Gang of Four” of 1979-1980 attended Anders’ funeral in Gothenburg in November 2004.
Both of us had recently embarked on critical “re-thinkings” of prevailing development theories, conventional and “radical”, in the light of development failures and distortions, the post-structural challenge and the end of the Cold War. At that and several subsequent workshops and conferences, we engaged actively and productively, with a high level of agreement and occasional animated disagreement. I found his critique of post-colonialism for being too Eurocentric persuasive, despite the paradoxical nature of that charge, and was able to incorporate his resultant formulation of post-traditionalism into the analyses I was developing. He, in turn, enjoyed my perspective on postmodernism and its relationships with post-colonialism (1). Late night discussions were invariably facilitated by good beer and akvavit, or in his case, generally whisky. One conference in Copenhagen was particularly revealing in terms of the respect and affection with which those who remembered him from his period of exile in Denmark and work in Folk High Schools in the 1980s held him. He was quite touched.
We developed something of a double act in the training sessions. Initially the students were slightly nonplussed but once they “got” Dani’s wicked sense of humour and playfully provocative style of teaching, often playing off me or vice versa, they loved it even if they didn’t always understand the life experiences underlying his positions. The final time we worked together in this way was as part of a team convened again by Anders to provide continuing professional development (CPD) for social scientists (attracting both senior and junior staff as well as some postgraduates) at Makerere University in August 2002, updating and debating development theory, policy and praxis, informed by the Ugandan and East African contexts. Again, the wide respect for Dani, even from those who disagreed with him politically or young staff encountering him for the first time, was evident, and he soon disarmed the few who sought to cross swords.
In 1998 he produced a book manuscript that developed his ideas on African crises and post-traditionalism entitled “The crisis of modernity and the rise of post-traditionalism in Africa”. We discussed the manuscript at length and he revised the text in 1999. However, it proved surprisingly difficult to find a publisher and then a commitment to publish by one was broken. He grew frustrated and abandoned the search for an outlet. I greatly regret that it never reached the public as it would have been a signal African contribution to these debates, and in a markedly different register from his earlier books.
I commissioned Dani to write the biographical essay on Nyerere for my edited volume, Fifty Key Thinkers on Development (Routledge, 2006). This he took on enthusiastically, quite delighted that I wanted to include Nyerere in this context. He wrote well, delivered on schedule but at nearly twice the firm word limit, and was then somewhat taken aback that I insisted that he cut it. However, we got there and many people comment on what a fine essay it is.
Another particular regret is that I never made it to his Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute/University in Mbale, despite regular exhortations. I had set up an undergraduate field course for our Royal Holloway undergraduate students in rural West Pokot (now Pokot Central) on the Kenyan side of Mt Elgon around the same time and sunk costs plus cheaper air fares made it difficult to relocate. Once when I could have visited, he was in South Africa, a country where he spent considerable time after the end of apartheid, frequently based at UNISA in Pretoria, writing and conducting joint research.
Dani was a true polymath: an accomplished academic, lawyer, politician and government minister – not only a towering figure in Uganda but widely in East and southern Africa and Europe. He was one of the last of the liberation struggle leaders, an enthusiastic teacher, a complex character, a great raconteur and a good friend. His departure from the stage of life will be keenly felt.
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* This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 39 No. 132.
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1. Our respective conference contributions were published along with others in a special issue of Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography 79B(4), 1997. Dani’s paper is entitled “Beyond modernization and development, or why the poor reject development”, pp.203-215, and is almost certainly his only publication in a Geography journal.