Theory and practice have been butting heads at Makerere University's Institute of Social Research, resulting in graduate students decrying the "authoritarian" leadership style of its director, public intellectual and crusader for the decolonisation of higher education, Mahmood Mamdani. Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire chronicles the machinations of a protracted struggle against perceived creeping neoliberalism.
On 18 April 2016, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), staged a protest against the administration's attempts to lock her out of her office by stripping on the institute's premises. In the weeks leading up to the April 18 protest, Nyanzi had listed several grievances against Executive Director Mahmood Mamdani's administration. They included the blocking of her promotion, the allocation of institute office space to Mamdani's spouse, Mira Nair, for a private film initiative, and the change of the institute's mission from research, among other grievances.
The MSIR responded with its side of the story. Nyanzi was accused of insubordination, for refusing to teach in the institute's Interdisciplinary PhD in Social Studies programme. "Since her appointment at MISR, Dr. Stella Nyanzi has done only private research," Professor Mamdani said on Twitter. "So long as she spends her time exclusively on private matters and personal research, MISR can only offer her a seat at the MISR library. The day she begins teaching in the PhD programme, she will be provided an office by the institution."
The affair captured national attention in Uganda, yet the voices of PhD students at MISR were drowned out of the debate. The students themselves were divided between those in support of Mamdani and the administration, and those who sided with Nyanzi. Yusuf Serunkuma, a Fellow at MISR, published Facebook notes and at least two opinion pieces in support of Mamdani's position on Pambazuka in 2016. He stressed that the director's standards were too high for Nyanzi.
On the day of the Nyanzi protest, PhD students Noosim Naimasiah and Sabatho Nyamsenda joined the protest condemning the violation of students' rights at MISR. The students complained of academic victimisation and the disbandment of the students' union. They were joined by fellow students, Mahiri Balunywa, Charles Prempeh, Bernard Baha, Vincent Nuwagaba, and Semeneh Ayalew. The latter had co-authored, with Naimasiah and Nyamsenda, an article titled "Saving Makerere Institute of Social Research?" This was in response to a petition signed by international scholars for the renewal of Mamdani's contract as the director of MISR.
While these student activists faced disciplinary and other consequences for their participation in the April protest, their struggle for students' rights and decolonisation of education has a longer history, which can be traced to their countries of origin. It is a history of resistance to neoliberalism, one of political activism, academic excellence and the struggle to turn the classroom into a site of freedom.
Naimasiah, Ayalew and Nyamsenda, the three student activists I interviewed in Kampala in October 2016, all spoke glowingly of Mamdani's vision for MISR. They had been university academic staff in their respective countries, before they joined the institute. Naimasiah taught at the University of Nairobi, Ayalew was a researcher and editor of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University (AAU), and Nyamsenda taught in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam.
The trio engaged Mamdani's various ideas on the need for reform of higher education in Africa in the wake of neoliberal capitalist restructuring, which had led to bloated class sizes and the dissolution of university research units. In a very real sense, Mamdani's anti-imperial critique of the economy of knowledge production spoke to their own university experiences. They also appreciated Mamdani as a politically and socially engaged public intellectual. The MISR was the realisation of a shared dream: a home for radical pan-Africanist thinking and practice. They saw themselves as "competent, socially responsible, and intellectually independent scholars able to formulate their own research questions based on concrete conditions of Africa".
Mamdani was hired as director of MISR in 2010. At the start, he outlined his priority for the institute as conducting academic research and turning away from a consultancy culture. This was informed by his earlier research, published in his 2006 book, Scholars in the Marketplace. In it, he argued that neoliberal reforms in higher education had affected the quality of research and instruction at Makerere. In MISR, he saw his opportunity to put in practice his recommendations for the improvement of Makerere. This ideology is what Nyamsenda called "Mamdanism" in a semester paper. He contrasted it with Mamdanisation, which is "Prof. Mamdani's single-handed and heavy-handed administrative style."
The student activists are beneficiaries of Mamdanism and simultaneously victims of Mamdanisation. In Mamdanism, they saw a revolution in higher education on the continent. It was a revolution whose story started long before they learnt of MISR. Its roots can be found in their life histories.
Of the three, Naimasiah is the one whose educational biography crosses countries and continents. She moved to South Africa for matric (school-leaving certificate), stayed there for undergraduate study and left for England for Master's studies. She studied economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and politics at the University of Bristol. Cape Town awoke her blackness, specifically her black womanhood. She was employed as a tutor at UCT and taught sociology (an introductory course on race, class and gender). She offered free extra tutorial classes for black South African students. In Bristol she found the environment more difficult - racist, Eurocentric and isolating. She immersed herself in the work of Michel Foucault, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and other critics of liberal feminism.
On return to Kenya, she found a part-time teaching job at the Catholic University of East Africa and later the University of Nairobi. Her teaching practice centred on the students. The class sizes were large, with more than 200 students, but she still offered free tutorial sessions to struggling students, and counselled some who had personal problems. The university did not value such work. They were only interested in her appearance in class. She used this freedom to apply innovative methods of teaching, outside the exam preparation grill. She made the curriculum more relevant by weaving in radical feminist theory, Marxism and the works of Frantz Fanon and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
This piece appears in the Chronic, April 2017.
The conditions of study were poor. At times, classes were held in open space and exams written under candle light. The library did not have enough books. It was during this period that she was introduced to Mamdani's scholarship by a friend. In the process of exploring his work, she found out that MISR was looking for pioneer students. Fed up with the situation in Nairobi, she applied. In December, 2011, Naimasiah received a phone call from Mamdani himself inviting her to join MISR.
When Naimasiah came to MISR, she was excited about the idea of a quality PhD programme from an African location. She was enthusiastic about MISR's curriculum engagement with African knowledge. To her, MISR demonstrated a decolonised curriculum, one that would be relevant to its environment, and provide hope for the de-commodification of higher education and knowledge. Naimasiah looked forward to a different relationship between resources and knowledge.
On arrival in Kampala, Naimasiah scanned the list of the pioneer students and realised that with the exception of herself, a Kenyan, and two Ethiopians, the other seven students were Ugandans. She also noticed that there was only one other woman in the programme. Even before she met Netsanet Gebremichael and Ayalew, the Ethiopian students on the programme, she felt drawn to them. With her interest in indigenous knowledge systems, popular culture and social movements, her connection to the Ethiopians was immediate.
Ayalew describes himself as a feminist, pan Africanist, teacher, Marxist and Ethiopian. He was educated exclusively in Ethiopia, until he joined MISR. In the Ethiopian national exam, he emerged among the top students in the country. He joined Addis Ababa University, where he read for a degree in history. It was at the AAU that he developed his interest in political economy. He read a lot outside his assigned syllabus. He learnt at the feet of African American literature, from James Baldwin to Toni Morrison, and educated himself in African history, pan Africanism and Black nationalism.
After university, he taught history and social studies in a mission school. He encouraged students to debate in his classes and did not require them to memorise dates as a way to learn history. He focussed on the context, the whys and hows of historical events. He also taught in both English and Amharic to ensure that students understood what he taught, as many did not have good command of English.
After two years, he re-joined AAU to study for a Masters in history. Ayalew's discomfort with the teaching methods was not helped by what he regarded as apparent discrimination by the department of history, which denied him a fellowship he qualified for, on what he alleges was his perceived Amhara heritage. He wrote to the university administration to appeal against the victimisation by the department but met no success. His frustrations worsened and he openly challenged instructors in classes.
He got a job with Action Aid Ethiopia in the period leading up to the 2005 elections. He was a keen follower of the politics of the Coalition for Union and Democracy that challenged the ethnic federalism promoted by the ruling party of Meles Zenawi. The election was allegedly rigged, sparking massive protests. After four years of working with Action Aid, and realising that the logics of the organisation's mission were neoliberal, that the NGO sector wasn't value driven, but career oriented, Ayalew quit his job in 2009. It was in the few months of unemployment that Ayalew encountered Mahmood Mamdani's Saviours and Survivors.
He joined the Institute of Ethiopian Studies as a researcher in history, anthropology and linguistics towards the end of 2009. It was here that Ayalew met Gebremichael, who was a student in the institute's Master's programme. He read more of Mamdani's work, notably When Victims Become Killers and Good Muslim Bad Muslim. He appreciated Mamdani's public intellectual ethos and the accessibility of his writing for a general readership. When he heard of the MISR PhD, he did not hesitate to apply. In the MISR vision he saw a community that shared a vision of decolonising knowledge production.
He quickly grew close to Naimasiah. There was a pan Africanist feel to the MISR, with discussions of music and culture generally among the student body, consuming much of the free time, away from the heavy academic workload. There were conversations about the continent, the development of a shared vision and proposals for collaborative work. The MISR student body's pan African credentials were boosted by the 2013 and 2014 enrolments. By 2014, MISR students hailed from eight different African countries. Nyamsenda, from Tanzania, joined MISR in the 2014 lot, alongside Prempeh from Ghana, and students from South Africa and Eritrea.
Nyamsenda came to MISR with high expectations. His life was after all a long story of activism. He combined academic excellence, political activism and community engagement.
As a youth in high school, Nyamsenda engaged in United Nations outreach programmes, rising to the position of president of the United Nations club in his school and member of Youth of United Nations Association (YUNA). He became President of the Tanzanian Model United Nations General Assembly (T-MUN) in 2008 and during this period clashed with the UN coordination office when he led members in demanding that the UN model debates be held in Kiswahili, and address local issues. Nyamsenda left YUNA and formed a new youth organisation, Sauti ya Vijana Tanzania (SAVITA - The Voice of Tanzanian Youth). Through it, they organised the Dar es Salaam Youth Shadow Parliament.
Nyamsenda soon developed interest in the work of the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair at University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and attended the 2008 Julius Nyerere Intellectual Festival. By 2010, he was volunteering as an intern with the Nyerere Chair. He brought his politics with him. While the Nyerere Intellectual Festival was previously held in English, by 2012 it was being conducted in both Kiswahili and English. It was also televised to encourage public participation and broader relevance to the masses. Nyamsenda was also recruited as a researcher on the Nyerere Biography project and, in 2012, he was recruited to teach at UDSM.
Although he was familiar with Mamdani from the 1970s Dar es Salaam debates, it was after a professor recommended Citizen and Subject that he read his work extensively. This informed his decision to apply to study at MISR. Nyamsenda would capture the euphoria of arriving at the institute in a 2014 open letter:
"When I entered my apartment, I was awed by the amenities: TV, free internet, kitchen, fridge, etc. The 150 USD monthly stipend a PhD student at UDSM receives - from which he has to pay for accommodation, meals and stationery - is only one-third of my stipend at MISR, which I get on top of free accommodation, free breakfast and lunch, and free stationery."
It wasn't just about the amenities. There was egalitarianism in the community. Students, faculty and non-academic staff ate together, without distinctions. This freedom extended to the classroom where students could disagree with their lecturers without reprisals.
Naimasiah, Ayalew and Nyamsenda came to MISR to contribute to the decolonisation of universities in Africa. But in embracing the articulation of this vision as Mamdanism, they soon were met with an obstacle in Mamdanisation. In demanding that MISR live up to the principles and values it claimed, they were resisted. But the situation wasn't always so. In 2012, the students amicably argued for and received an increase in stipend. They challenged the eurocentrism of the Western Political Thought course and it was changed to History of Political Thought. Times at MISR were good and no one could have foreseen the departure of the original faculty, along with those who replaced them.
But by 2014, things were going awry at MISR. Nyamsenda described the decline in the atmosphere in an open letter to the director in mid-2014:
"The classroom has become an avenue for threatening students with grades, and forcing them to say and write things that please the instructors. And because each instructor has his/her own worldview, one has to learn how to satisfy each of them even when one does not agree, even by an iota, with the instructor's outlook."
The threat to academic freedom that Nyamsenda's letter bemoaned extended to the issue of the institute's reliance on donor funding: "The same imperialist countries that we denounce in words are funding our programme. Is it possible for us to protest? Is it possible for us to be self-reliant?" Nyamsenda was talking of protesting imperial powers, but on 27 August 2014, when he penned his letter, the student community had witnessed the peril of daring to exercise a right to petition.
On that day, Naimasiah took exception to the director's characterisation of a student petition raising various concerns as criminal and racist. She was told by Mamdani himself to shut up and sit down. The petition had been written and signed by eleven students, including Naimasiah and Ayalew. The issues it raised included high academic staff turn-over, lack of scholarship contractual terms, lack of information regarding comprehensive exams, the admission of a white French student and the absence of a graduate student advisor.
The petition warned that the entire MISR community was demoralised. These issues added onto existing grievances, notably the gender question. In a presentation at the PhD programme evaluation seminar in 2014, Naimasiah pointed out that there were only 20% women students in each intake and that there were no policies on sexual harassment and family needs. She decried lewd patriarchal jokes and abuses as well as the slut shaming that women at MISR were subjected to. That seminar saw a narrative around local men as sexual harassers and "African foreign" women as victims gain currency among the dominant male student population.
The administration did not say anything in defence of the "African foreign" victims. The student activists read this as the administration's preferred strategy to disintegrate the wave of student activism following the 2014 petition. In one of the email exchanges in the aftermath of the petition, a Ugandan student described non-Ugandan students as "wolves". The administration was silent, yet it would later describe a pan Africanist critique of the admission process as racist and criminal.
The 2014 petition kicked up more dust than its signatories intended. On the one hand, the administration responded with sheer force, intimidating student activists like Naimasiah, and is alleged, on the other, to have manipulated Ugandan nationalist sentiments. Matters were not made any easier by the lack of student leadership structures.
The biggest lesson the students learnt from 2014 was that they would probably survive divisive manipulation from the administration with a proper leadership structure. While Ayalew and Naimasiah and other fourth year students at the time were away from the institute to conduct field research, Nyamsenda and other students mobilised and gained some concessions from the MISR administration. In 2015, a student's union was finally formed. Prempeh was elected president. Through the student union, the students resisted an arbitrary attempt to change the policy on good academic standing from a cut-off Grade Point of 'B' to 'B+'. The 2015 gains however had their limitations. While the students won representation on the academic board, a requirement of the university guidelines, Prempeh was not invited to board meetings. On some occasions, he was asked to leave the room following the chair's opening remarks. In 2016, the MISR administration arbitrarily disbanded the students' union.
In October 2016, when I interviewed Ayalew, Naimasiah and Nyamsenda, they were part of five students facing consequences for standing with Nyanzi. The other two were Balunywa and Prempeh. In the aftermath of the Nyanzi affair, student activists found out that the director and his assistant had forced themselves onto the students' respective examination committees. To victimise critical students, the director would personally handle their academic work and fail them. Two of the third-year students were not allowed to sit the comprehensive exams, and another who sat them, failed. At the time of our meeting, there were hearings of their appeals to a committee established by Makerere University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS). The fifth years, Naimasiah and Ayalew, had requested change of supervisors.
Although the futures of the five comrades at MISR were uncertain at the time of the interview, most of them expressed no regrets. They considered their activism a crusade against the capitalist, patriarchal and pro-imperialist tendencies at the institute. They also believed that Mamdanism remained a legitimate vision for decolonised higher education, and they were committed to the idea of the university classroom as a site of freedom. They agreed that education should be de-commodified and African universities should be free of neoliberal influence. The MISR chapter in the struggle exposed them to the contradictions between theory and practice. They witnessed and suffered the actions of a director whose scholarship inspired them, but emphasised the importance of praxis, valuing the practice of theory as much as philosophy itself.
* This piece appears in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2017).