Mahmood Mamdani interviewed by Moses Mulondo in Pambazuka
MOSES MULONDO: Why have you chosen to return to Uganda?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: In 2001 I had a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni. East African Affairs Minister Eriya Kategaya and the late James Wapakhabulo were also present. We were discussing regional issues, but at the end of the meeting I expressed concern about declining standards at Makerere University. I told the president how the commercialisation of the curriculum was undercutting the culture of research and how the university was being destroyed before our own eyes. In response, the president asked me if I would be willing to lead a visitation committee/commission of inquiry. I said I would be happy to do so.
Subsequently I was in touch with Wapakhabulo, but the issue got lost. I then decided that it was better for me to go ahead and do the research myself. That is how I came back to Makerere between 2003 and 2004 to do the research and write the book titled ‘Scholars in the Marketplace’. The research convinced me that Makerere would have to be reformed from within. I felt that as a product of Makerere, one who had benefited from it, I should also play my part in this reform process.
MOSES MULONDO: How?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I decided to wait until there was a leadership at Makerere University that would be interested in reforms that would halt the deterioration of standards and until a position was open that would give its occupant a strategic role in promoting the culture of research.
So, when the position of director of Makerere Institute of Social Research was advertised, I applied. During the interview, the appointments board asked me whether I had changed my mind and no longer shared the views expressed in the book ‘Scholars in the Marketplace’.
I said no. I said that in fact I applied because I was convinced that Makerere needed reform and because I wanted to make my small contribution in upgrading social research. I said I was happy that the current vice-chancellor, Venansius Baryamureeba, was interested in reforms and had pledged to create an enabling environment for reforms.
MOSES MULONDO: What did your research discover as the major factors causing the declining standards of Makerere University?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Makerere had made two changes. The first was privatisation, which means they agreed to recruit fee-paying students. I thought this was fine because the university needed more funds to finance its activities. The second was commercialisation of the curriculum, which led to introduction of new programmes and courses.
Unfortunately, this process was driven more by the desire to make money than by the urge to provide quality education. In this new culture, anybody could teach anything. These new courses were often being taught by part-time lecturers, based in faculties without the competence to supervise them.
Over time, there emerged two universities at Makerere. One was the formal university where academic staff was appointed through formal procedures by the appointments board and supervised by senate. The other was an informal university where part-time staff hired by course coordinators taught courses more or less unsupervised. There was no check on their quality. That is how the standards of Makerere University went down.
MOSES MULONDO: But it couldn’t have been that alone because the university began declining much earlier. What could be the other factors?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: The whole process was set into motion in the early 1990s when the government succumbed to the pressure of the World Bank to cut funds to the university so as to increase funding for primary education. What the government and the World Bank forgot was that you cannot expand the primary education sector without expanding university education because you need university products in building a strong UPE (universal primary education). The policy itself was wrong.
MOSES MULONDO: Why was it wrong?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: You cannot have a successful UPE without a strong university system. Their policy was wrong because they assumed that you could let a university system collapse and it would not affect the primary system or secondary system or even the economy and other sectors.
A university is like a power-generating plant, generating intellectual power which feeds all sectors of the country including industries, businesses, education, health and indeed all other sectors.
It must be known that the fastest growing economies in the world are knowledge-driven and the fastest growing sectors in these economies are knowledge-driven.
The idea that investment in higher education is unproductive is nonsense. Even the World Bank has realised it and changed its policy. It is time the Uganda government realised that the World Bank was wrong and give university education the priority it deserves.
MOSES MULONDO: How do you see research in terms of the country’s development?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Most people think of knowledge as something you read of in a book. The crucial question is, who writes these books? What is the process that one goes through to produce a book?
A country which wants to lead in anything has to seriously invest in research, otherwise it will be forever dependent on what others produce as knowledge. The problem with depending on other countries’ knowledge is that they don’t face the same problems which we face as Uganda or Africa. It is through your own research initiatives that you can think for yourself.
MOSES MULONDO: What do you think needs to be done for Makerere University to regain its past glory when it was referred to as the ‘Harvard of Africa’?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Makerere University needs to grow its own timber. It means you cannot be like a primary school, which waits for others to train its teachers. You have to train your own lecturers. Makerere needs to put more emphasis on postgraduate studies, PhD programmes. It requires a vibrant culture of research which would shift the focus from looking for answers to learning how to formulate a problem.
MOSES MULONDO: What do you mean by teaching students how to formulate a problem?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Today, the whole teaching focus is on how you solve a problem. The most important thing is to know what the problem is. About 90 per cent of the solution lies in the problem. You cannot import a solution.
I cannot take the design of a Swedish architect to build a house in Uganda. My design must reflect local conditions, use local resources in response to local problems. Anything from the outside must be complementary to this. That is what we call sustainable development. Sustainable development requires research that leads to long-lasting solutions. Research means knowing the society you live in and knowing yourself.
MOSES MULONDO: A lot of volumes of research never get to the public domain for usage. How do you plan to bridge that gap?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, we plan to do two things. We plan to address two different audiences. These include the scholarly communities and the public.
We will have seminars for the scholarly communities and we will organise public policy forums on key issues, where we plan bring together policymakers, the media, advocacy groups, religious groups, business; in short, all sectors of society that influence public opinion which ultimately bears on decision-making. This way, we shall be able to inject researched information into the public debate.
MOSES MULONDO: At one time you contested for the Local Council 3 (LC3) position of Makerere and you went through. What prompted you to seek a political office?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I was convinced, and I still am, that if you do not participate in reforming the institutions under which you live and work, then you will be condemned to live and work in conditions in which you find yourself. Every generation has to come to grips with the legacy left behind by its elders and to decide what it must change and what it will hand over to the next generation.
MOSES MULONDO: Do you think the LC structure is still necessary in Uganda’s politics after embracing multiparty politics?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I chaired the commission of inquiry into the local government system. Our commission recommended the Resistance Council (RC) system, the predecessor to the current LC system. Even at the time, we were aware that the LC system could develop in different directions, depending on the balance of political forces in the country.
In our report, we pointed out that LCs could become representatives of the people or of the ruling power, that the former would be positive but the latter negative.
MOSES MULONDO: There is pressure that Uganda should embrace the federal system of governance. What are your views?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Time has shown that successive governments in Uganda have tended to monopolise power by undermining the legislature and the courts. This has been true whether the government has been civilian or military, single or multi or no-party.
Democracy requires that power be accountable. We are still in search of institutions that will ensure accountability under our institutions. The time has come to consider federalism – multiple governing structures – as a possible solution to our problems.
MOSES MULONDO: What do you think is the best federal model for Uganda?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: We can learn from others but we cannot blindly import from them. The real question is not whether federalism but which kind of federalism. There are basically two options. There is the ethnic option which colonialism introduced in Africa, where in each federal unit, rights are limited to those considered ‘indigenous’ to those units. This is the system introduced in Nigeria after the civil war. It is also the system introduced by Mobutu Sese Seko in the DR Congo under the name ‘géopolitique’.
Ethnic federalism has tended to create ethnic conflict inside federal units. Instead of holding those in power accountable, it has allowed them to fragment the population into more and more units. The alternative to ethnic federalism is territorial federalism. This is the system you find mainly outside Africa, whether in the US or Canada or in India. Your rights under territorial federalism depend on where you live, not on the ethnic group you come from. This system depoliticises ethnicity.
MOSES MULONDO: So, which one on those two is the best for Uganda?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: In our case, ethnic federalism will be a disaster. Migration is an important part of Uganda’s reality, not just in Buganda but in all parts of the country. Ethnic federalism will disenfranchise all Ugandans who do not live where their parents were born, even if they are native to Uganda. Only territorial federalism will make sure that your rights as a Ugandan are guaranteed no matter where you live inside the country.
MOSES MULONDO: Do you think the idea of curving out southern Sudan as an independent country is a bad idea, as Professor David de Chand, one of the leaders of southern Sudan’s parties, argues?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I am a Pan-Africanist, a firm believer in African unity. But I do not think that the process of unification is a linear process, whereby you keep on building larger and larger political units, whether by force or by consensus. For unity to hold, consensus is crucial and force is counter-productive.
The unity of Sudan has been based on force, not consensus. If the people of South Sudan vote for independence, we have to respect it, even if we think it would be better for the Sudanese to be one country. Those who think that Sudan should remain united would do well to respect the will of the people of South Sudan and direct their efforts to change that will after 2011.
MOSES MULONDO: From your research what have you found about Sudan’s other problem, the Darfur civil war?
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: My key findings were as follows. One, the civil war in Darfur began in 1987–89, before the present Islamist government came into power. Only those ignorant of history can hold that government responsible for starting the civil war.
The charges of genocide were first made at the reconciliation conference in 1989, before Omar al-Bashir became president of Sudan. Second, the civil war was a result of several factors. The most important of these was the land system created by the British during the colonial period.
The British created tribal homelands called ‘dars’, whereby they gave more land to settled peasants in the southern part of Darfur and none to fully nomadic peoples in the northern part. This became a problem when the four-decade long drought that began in the 1940s led to the expansion of the southern boundary of the Sahara desert, pushing cattle nomads southwards in search of a living.
The result was a land conflict around the good land in the central mountains of Darfur. Then there was the civil war in Chad, where the US, Israel and France supported one side and the Soviet Union and Libya another. When one side was in power in N’Djamena, the other was in exile in Darfur.
It is in Darfur that they organised and armed. In the 1980s, there was no water in Darfur but it was flooded with AK-47s. The big powers were involved in Chad and Darfur before the Islamists came into power in Khartoum.
For them to point the finger in the direction of the Government of Sudan and not to take any responsibility for the bloodshed in Darfur is sheer hypocrisy and political opportunism.
Three, I was struck by the propaganda effort of the American lobby, Save Darfur Coalition. The US government agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), found that Save Darfur claims of 400,000 dead in Darfur were a gross exaggeration. More credible figures from the WHO (World Health Organisation) showed that the numbers dead were close to a quarter, and that nearly 80 per cent of these were children and infants who had died of effects of the drought, mainly dehydration.
I also found that Save Darfur propaganda about Arabs in power killing non-Arab Africans out of power was mischievous and misleading. Whereas it is true that the power in Khartoum is mainly Arab, these Arabs are not from the Middle East but they are indigenous Sudanese whose mother tongue is Arabic.
The power in Darfur, however, is not Arab. The Arab tribes of Darfur are among the poorest people in Darfur. No matter what indicator you take, they have the least education and the least representation in government.
Save Darfur and the media linked to it and have painted the civil war in Darfur as an Arab–African war. Unfortunately, our own media has tended to swallow this propaganda. The African Union Commission under former president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has done valuable service in correcting this distortion over the past few years.