Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o is a Kenyan politician. In the academic world Anyang’ Nyong’o’s credentials include a first class degree in political science awarded by Makerere University, after which he proceeded to the University of Chicago for his masters and PhD in political science in 1977. He was to later take on teaching positions in some of the leading centres of knowledge in and out of Africa. And he was also guild president at Makerere.
A few years ago he delivered a speech the substance of which, as that of this article, was hinged on the high table of public debate or intellectual discourse that Makerere occupied, acting as a brewery of ideas. Some of the ideas are so radical that they intoxicated the powers of the day and elicited presidential attention and fury.
In one of his writings he says: “We were all political science students under the mentorship of several exciting lecturers and professors: the indomitable Oxford trained political philosopher Ali Mazrui; the burning socialist Ahmed Mohiddin; the firebrand worldly intellectual Locksley Edmondson from the Caribbean Islands; the soft spoken but extremely sharp Yash Tandon specialising in international politics; the affable Tony Gingnyera Pincwa, steeped in Chicago behavioral political science and well versed in the politics of development; the lugubrious Apollo Nsibambi; and finally our friend Okello Oculi who made life exciting as our tutorial fellow. Not to forget Jeggan C. Senghor from the Gambia who was also our tutorial fellow.”
As part of encouraging the awareness of students in global and pan‐African affairs, with the aim also of introducing in the campus a more rigorous debate on socialism and democratic political participation, he shares: “We organised, in May 1970, a public lecture in the Main Hall on ‘the written word and mass mobilisation in African politics.”
“Good old days”
That was at a time when there was intense debate in Uganda on “Socialism and the Move to the Left Strategy” and the publication of the “Common Man’s Charter.”
There was urging to create a more dynamic modern nation within a national democratic state out of a semi-feudal society so students were tasked to return to their villages and break down the finer detail of this political move to the peasantry.
To take part on the panel at the public lecture, Anyang’ reminisces, “we invited Prof Ali Mazrui of the department of Political Science here at Makerere, Prof Walter Rodney from Dar es Salaam Department of History and Prof J.P.B.M. Ouma, who was then teaching alluvial geomorphology at the Department of Geography here at Makerere. I chaired the panel as the President of the Guild.”
The description of what transpired at the debate, with Walter Rodney concluding thus, “Prof Mazrui and I are not in conflict; we are not even in contact!” is even more exciting as the debate made its way to the lead story on Uganda Television with Aggrey Awori then as director.
For Dr Moses Khisa, a co-founder of the Society for Justice and National Unity, an academic hardly in his 50s, the bubbles of nostalgia burst effortlessly when engaged on the back seat public debate has taken in our universities. He thinks there are gaps and the academia must usurp its space back.
That space, for a country with highly polarising politics, is now dominated by pro and anti Yoweri Museveni forces. Sober debate is thrown to the alleys as propagandists from either side of the political divide take to the trenches.
Where for instance, is space for hard fact, evidence based and intellectually stimulating discourse?
Dr Khisa, currently based at the Northwestern University, says: “The Transition Magazine was the prominent forum for debate in the 1960s and 1970s. When it died then came Mawazo Journal in the 1980s. Then there was the Council for Development of Social Science Research in Africa which Prof Mahmood Mamdani once chaired and in 1990 they came up with the Kampala Declaration on academic freedom.”
Then there was the Freedom Movement with Makerere dons Prof John Jean Barya as secretary, Prof Fredrick Jjuko as chairman, human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi and Mwambusya Ndebesa as members that pre occupied itself with agitating for return to multiparty politics and when in 2005 pluralism returned it died a natural death.
“The struggle for critical public voices that raise socio-economic and political issues is important so if scholars retreat that means no other institution will take that mantle. A nation’s fortunes are as good as its intellectual resources. If the space for critical public engagement shrinks the role of universities is sidelined. Who will speak truth to power?”
But is it all lost?
But is there a gap and is there a point in continually romanticising about the good old days, which in the eyes of some might actually still be here, save that the context has changed?
Makerere University law don Prof Joe Oloka Onyango is one of the acclaimed minds in the academia that have shaped discourse on contemporary challenges, especially on governance but he also has the benefit of experience, seeing the water flow, hit its tide and settle.
He thinks the context has fundamentally changed. To appreciate the historical and international context, is to recognise that so much has possibly, just possibly, changed.
Prof Oloka told this writer in an interview on Wednesday: “The context has changed quite significantly in terms of knowledge, what interests society and the mechanism of dissemination of information, so one has to look at it in a comparative perspective. Each university and country has a history. Look at France in the 1960s, USA in the 1970s or critical legal studies, Dar es Salam in the 1970s and 1980s, Makerere in 1980s-1990s. What was happening then, what were the issues?”
Prof Anyang’ raises arguments that speak to Prof Oloka’s outlook with a reminder of the atmosphere then.
The year 1970, he says, “started as a tough year. In 1969 the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government had issued a series of policy documents to ensure that Uganda changed progressively as a socialist society. One document called Document No. 5 on the Move to the Left Strategy stipulated a leadership code for Ugandan leaders and stated, among other things, that anyone standing for parliament would have to contest in three constituencies.”
The students were awake to the politics and their role.
“We students were very excited about this arrangement. We thought that it would provide a perfect recipe for fighting regionalism, negative ethnicity and social chauvinism in Uganda. Ali Mazrui, in his usual academic quick wit, called it electoral polygamy and the move to the left strategy in Uganda. This document, Mazrui argued, gave the government a good method for political engineering in Uganda: elections would be used to force Ugandan politicians to have nationalist rather than tribal outlook in politics.”
“The academy has also changed with a movement away from a healthy mix of research and teaching to an unhealthy mix of dominance of teaching and marking,” Prof Oloka says. Mr Aggrey Awori agrees, arguing that the university, and indeed other institutions hardly focus on research and when academics do research, it is shaped by the funding entity.
Makerere University dons, Oloka argues, still do research, publish and give talks with journals like that one at the School of Law standing the test of time. The Law school has for instance, “in the last four years had inaugural lectures which are a contribution to the body of knowledge and debate”.
The question though, is the focus of the research that often time plays to the ‘he who pays the piper calls the tunes’ reality. Prof Mamdani, in a previous interview, said his energy at the Makerere University Institute of Social Research was to reverse what was clearly consultancies disguised as academic research. He hasn’t had the softest of time doing that.
This, Prof Sabiti Makara and Dr Phillip Kasaija argue, partly explains the shrinking of debate space as academics, like journalists, lawyers, judges, and other professionals, are reduced to struggling for economic breath in an increasingly costly world where state incentives and safety nets that universities came with such as subsidised quality education for children, have since collapsed.
“People are taking it easy also because the space for the academia to engage with the State is reducing, you will have debates but who will listen to you? People are also chasing survival and Prof Mamdani captures this in ‘Scholars in the Market Place’. “We are all striving to survive in this market place, so time for intellectual input is suffocated.”
For Awori, with the fall in the quality of post-secondary education, never mind global rankings still placing Makerere among Africa’s top universities, comes an increasingly disinterested young generation that won’t appreciate debate. Prof Makara captures it even better: “The students of today will ask if the discussions at the debates are going to be examined. They also have social media, so they imagine they know so much that debate doesn’t make sense to them.”
The quality of students at universities today is not the type Anyan’ describes in his speech. The caliber interested in the country’s direction and shaping it.
Discussion on current debate
In a January 7, 2016 article published in the New Vision, Information minister Frank Tumwebaze captured the role public debates played in grooming the current crop of Ugandans below 40 (UB40) and those slightly above.
“But even as early as during those days of our university debates, there was a tendency by many sections of the opinionated and partisan media, civil society, academia led by people like Prof Frederick Jjuko, late Prof Akiki Mujaju, Prof Oloka Onyango, among others, to try and control the political conversation in favour of the anti-NRM voices. They would portray anybody that spoke in support of the NRM and President Museveni as an opportunist and political stranger,” Tumwebaze wrote.
You might disagree with him but the point is made about the place of debate in shaping the outlook of young people to governance when he says: “Many known lecturers, mainly of Makerere Law School and political science department would dominate classroom-lectures, taking off good amount of time to sell this anti-NRM dogma at the expense of various course content. In fact, that is how university student guild politics got largely influenced against NRM aspiring student leaders.”
Mr Tumwebaze then discussed how politicians like himself, NRM deputy secretary general Richard Todwong, outgoing East African Legislative Assembly speaker Dan Kidega were swayed by Noble Mayombo against Norbert Mao.
In the bigger picture, Khisa reminisces, there was the Mamdani-Mujaju axis that always took on Prof Nsibambi. Young people then appeared to appreciate issue-based politics to make arguments grounded in logic, to admire politicians based on substance.
But Prof Oloka will be quick to remind you not to forget context. The context of the politics then, when the likes of Dr Kizza Besigye, Kahinda Otafiire and Tarsis Kabwegyere from NRM engaged students and swayed them to the ‘yellow bus’ are long past.
Today, President Museveni’s system seems oiled with so much patronage and client-master relationships that intellectually appealing to groups was thrown off the window. Money replaced ideas.
The sad story for and of Uganda though is, to point fingers at the academia would be to forget the speck in one’s own eye. What, for instance, happened to journalists standing for issues and taking their place in public policy discourse? What happened to judges standing for justice, democracy and rule of law in their judgments as Justices Mulenga, Constance Byamugisha did in the Andrew Mwenda, Charles Obbo vs Attorney General cases?
What happened to the quality of MPs who spoke and swayed even the opposite side with brilliant submissions? What happened to civil society that spoke and stirred ripples on governance?
Does Uganda just have little, if any room for ideas as materialism takes centre stage, politics of survival reigns and the academia takes a beating from a skyrocketing cost of living in a country with no sound health and education safety nets from the State?
On appreciating these interlocking issues, one then looks back at the good old days and the cliché, ‘once upon a time’ rings in the head like a migraine. Yet that is not the entire story. To look at the elephant in its entirety as sick and not only the tusk, is to come face-to-face with the question: where did the country go wrong?