This is the second and concluding part of Yusuf Bangura’s tribute to Thandika Mkandawire with whom he worked closely for eleven years. It is the sort of stuff journalists like to call explosive, especially towards the end which is more relaxed. Read on !
By Yusuf Bangura, (Nyon, Switzerland, Bangura.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Developmental states and neopatrimonialism
Development economists recognised the critical role states play in industrialisation. States are useful for correcting market failures, devising catch up strategies, mobilising and allocating resources, and ensuring that firms comply with rules and development-enhancing targets. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, the development literature on catch up was theoretical and aspirational, and focused largely on Africa, Latin America and South Asia. It had no clear cut success stories to draw on apart from the historical experiences of Western societies. East Asia’s rapid industrialisation in the 1960s and 1970s hardly featured in the debate.
By the 1980s, however, East Asia’s successful state-led industrialisation could no longer be ignored. There was an explosion of scholarly interest in the 1990s in what came to be called the ‘East Asian miracle’, despite the World Bank’s attempt to downplay the state’s role in that miracle (The East Asian Miracle: Economic Growth and Public Policy, 1993). The concept and literature of the developmental state gained wide currency and strongly challenged the assumptions of neoliberal theory. Thandika devoured that literature, which confirmed many of the ideas he was grappling with in his critique of Africa’s adjustment programmes. His article, ‘Thinking about Developmental States in Africa’ (Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 21, Issue 3, May, 2001), set the tone for the Africa debate. It is his most widely read and cited work, generating more than 1,000 scholarly citations.
The key value of ‘Thinking about Development States in Africa’ was the systematic way Thandika critiqued what he called the ‘impossibility arguments’ for crafting developmental states in Africa. These arguments range from Africa’s presumed lack of ideology, weak state capacity and external economic dependence, to the continent’s alleged neopatrimonial systems of governance and rent-seeking behaviour of special interest groups. As he argued, if developmental states are assessed on the basis of ideological dispositions that are developmental, and in which serious attempts are made to deploy the state to the task of economic development, Africa had many such states in the first decade and half of independence.
Using tax efforts and public expenditure patterns as proxies to measure seriousness, it was clear that many African states took development seriously before experiencing hard times in the mid-1970s. Some of these states were among the fastest growing economies in the world, registering growth rates of six percent or higher. Indeed, as Thandika demonstrated, 10 of the 27 fastest growing economies were in Africa. The savings rates of many countries were also high. The problem, as he argued, is that critics assess the developmental potential of African states by focusing only on the crisis period when the administrative, technical and coordination capacities of most states had been eroded by the fiscal crisis and the anti-state policies of the IMF and World Bank.
The most popular thesis in the ‘impossbility arguments’ on African developmental states is neopatrimonialism. This bemoans Africa’s failure to develop Weberian-type rational-legal bureaucratic state systems. The African state is, instead, said to be mired in redistributive activities that are guided by patron-client and affective relations, rendering economic development impossible. Thandika was highly critical of this literature, which he consistently challenged in many articles. However, because of the framework’s appeal in the study of Africa, he decided to engage it more comprehensively in 2015. The result is his 50-page magisterial article, ‘Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa’ (World Politics, Vol. 67, Issue 3, 2015). This is a work of outstanding scholarship—rigorous, empirical, and a tour de force on the literature on neopatrimonialism. It is, unequivocally, a demolition of the conceptual edifice on which much of the study of Africa has been constructed. It may well end up as the most important work for devising new ways of thinking about African states, economies and societies. It is, in my view, Thandika’s best piece of work.
Neopatrimonialism is the default explanation for every bad outcome or ‘pathology’ in Africa’s development. Thandika identified the specific mechanisms and effects highlighted by the literature on neopatrimonialism, and used empirical data, alternative findings in the development literature, and logical reasoning to assess the concept’s explanatory power. The pathological effects of neopatrimonialism range from bad governance, low savings and lack of capitalist classes, to hyperinflation, bloated state bureaucracies, low taxation, interest group capture of industrial and trade policy, and misuse of foreign exchange.
The empirical evidence is, however, different. As he demonstrated, the governance performance of African states is not worse than what should be expected for their level of economic development; Africa’s low savings is a recent development that is tied to the fiscal crisis and almost twenty years of adjustment policies; clientelism is not confined to African capitalism—it is also a salient feature of East Asian developmental states; African countries did not have Latin American-type levels of hyperinflation—indeed, inflation rates in the pre-crisis period were relatively low in Africa; African states employ less people per capita and spend less per GDP compared to other developing regions, suggesting that the continent does not have over-bloated bureaucracies, but is instead largely under-governed; African countries vary greatly in tax efforts, however on the average they collect a higher percentage of taxes than other countries and their tax efforts surpass the minimum of 15 percent of GDP recommended by the IMF for developing countries; and there is no evidence that special interest groups are the main drivers for initiating industrial and trade policies, even though they benefit from them.
Advancing the development agenda in social policy
Although Thandika took the social aspect of development seriously, it did not feature prominently in his work before he joined UNRISD. He often made brief remarks on post-colonial social contracts and in discussing social development his main focus was on education and health expenditures. His primary concern in the study of development was economic growth and structural change. This was to change when he arrived at UNRISD–an institution whose raison d’etre is to examine development from a social lens.
Thandika was at the peak of his powers in advancing a developmentalist agenda in the study of Africa when he joined UNRISD in 1998. How would he address UNRISD’s social concerns and remain faithful to his own agenda as a development economist? UNRISD’s work on ‘the social’ covered a wide range of issues—such as the social impact of economic reforms; environment, sustainable development and social change; gender and development; corporate social responsibility; new information and communication technologies; public sector reform in developing countries; land reform; social integration in urban settings; the international trade in illicit drugs; ethnic conflict and development; political violence and social movements; war-torn societies; agriculture and food systems; social indicators; and participation. There were also a few studies on social welfare policies.
Thandika resolved the problem by injecting his concerns for economic growth and transformation into the study of social policy, and narrowed the issues to be addressed in social policy to social protection and social services, while paying close attention to issues of equity, social pacts, cohesion and democratic processes. The result was what I believe was his most innovative contribution in development studies—the mega project he christened ‘Social Policy in a Development Context’, which gave social policy the same powers as economic policy in theorising development. There were tensions between this radical turn in conceptualising ‘the social’ and UNRISD’s other programmes that also addressed important social issues.
In the end, ‘Social Policy in a Development Context’ became hegemonic because Thandika was not only a great thinker; he was also a super-effective fund-raiser with a wide network of friends in the donor world. The social policy project became UNRISD’s biggest project in much of the 2000s, generating 18 books and numerous programme papers, journal articles and book chapters. At its peak, it had four or five resident research coordinators, seven external coordinators, and more than 150 researchers world-wide working on different dimensions of the project. Part of that work continues in the research programme of the coordinator of the Africa study, Jimi Adesina, who now organises regular conferences on social policy in Africa, after a series of successful summer programmes he directed for senior African development policy makers in Dakar.
In rolling out the project at UNRISD, insights on the developmental role of social policy were derived from the experiences of successful late industrialisers, especially the developmental states of East Asia and the Nordic social democratic states. The project contended that for social policy to be developmental, it must do five basic things. It must stimulate economic development or enhance productive capacities; serve as a redistributive channel for narrowing economic and social inequalities; protect people from income loss associated with unemployment, pregnancy, sickness, disability and old age; reduce the burden of reproduction or care work; and act as an automatic stabiliser to the macro-economy in periods of crises. The social policies of late industrialisers used combinations of these roles in various forms in transforming their economies.
Importantly, the project affirmed that social policy can be transformative when it is universal rather than targeted to specific groups, and when it is linked to employment-centred growth strategies, which may allow more people to be incorporated into social insurance schemes that are redistributive across classes, groups and generations. Thandika’s ‘Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction’ (Social Policy and Development Programme Paper No. 23, 2005, UNRISD), which influenced many UN agencies, systematically laid out the advantages of universalism over targeting when crafting social policies.
Four of the five social policy roles discussed above were already well researched in the welfare state literature of advanced economies before the social policy project was launched. Thandika was particularly drawn to the fifth—the productive role, which he felt was under-theorised. This addresses the issue of how social policy can spur innovation by creating conditions for industrial peace; raising human capital, skills and savings rates; converting savings into productive investments; and deepening the financial sector.
The social policy-savings-investment links are best captured by the experiences of late industrialising countries in using pension funds to generate high savings rates and promoting rapid industrialisation. For instance, Singapore’s Central Provident Fund accounted for about 40 percent of its gross domestic savings in the 1980s, and South Korea’s funds represented 30 percent of its GDP in the mid-2000s. These funds were used to finance heavy and chemical industries in Korea and universal home-ownership in Singapore. Finland, a late Nordic industrialiser, used its own pension funds to industrialise through extensive electrification and provision of public housing (Olli Kangas, ‘Pensions and Pension Funds in the Making of a Nation-State and National Economy: The case of Finland’, Social Policy and Development Programme Paper No. 25, 2006, UNRISD).
Thandika wrote extensively on the developmental role of social policy. These publications, which spanned his tenure at both UNRISD and LSE, include the following: ‘Social Policy in a Development Context’, Social Policy and Development Programme Paper No. 7, 2001, UNRISD; Social Policy in a Development Context (ed.), UNRISD and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004; ‘Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction’, Social Policy and Development Programme Paper No. 23, 2005, UNRISD; ‘Transformative Social Policy and Innovation in Developing Countries’, European Journal of Development Research, 19 (1), March 2007; ‘Transformative Social Policy and the Developmental State’, LSE and Institute for Future Studies, n.d; ‘How the New Poverty Agenda Neglected Social and Employment Policies in Africa’, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Vol. 11, Issue 1, 2010; ‘Welfare Regimes and Economic Development: Bridging the Conceptual Gap’, in F. Valpy and T. Rosemary, (eds.), Overcoming the Persistence of Inequality and Poverty. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; ‘Social Policy and the Challenges of the Post-Adjustment Era, in E. Paus (ed.), Getting Development Right, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013; (with I.Yi), Learning from the South Korean Developmental Success, 2014; and ‘Colonial Legacies and Social Welfare Regimes in Africa: An Empirical Exercise’, Social Policy and Development Working Paper, 2016-4, 2016, UNRISD;
His succinct policy brief on the 16 lessons drawn from the project, titled ‘Transformative Social Policy: Lessons from UNRISD Research’, is also highly recommended (UNRISD Research and Policy Brief No. 5).
Grounding development in democratic processes
So far, I have presented Thandika as a committed, indeed unflagging, developmentalist. People with this mind-set, including the pioneers of development economics, often privilege economic development over everything else, including democracy, or have a benign view of authoritarian rule if it delivers economic growth and transformation. It is very common to hear colleagues in economics and other disciplines in Africa arguing for a benevolent dictator or ‘strong man’ to sort out the problems of the continent. Thandika was very different. He refused to accept a trade-off between economic development and democracy.
He strongly believed in both the intrinsic and instrumental value of democracy. In a popular debate in the CODESRIA Bulletin in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Kenyan political scientist, Peter Anyang’ N’yongo, Thandika defended the intrinsic value of democracy against attempts to instrumentalise it as a prerequisite for development. Throughout his writings and public interventions, he advocated for democracy to deliver on development, but did not reject it if it did not; instead, he often insisted on more effort to get democracy to deliver good outcomes.
He was a great admirer of East Asia’s developmental states, but detested, in equal measure, their authoritarian history. He always held up the rich tradition of democracy, industrialisation and equity in the Nordic countries as a counter to the authoritarian underpinnings of the East Asian miracles. In fact, to his delight, and as he often pointed out, many studies now treat economic growth and democracy as mutually reinforcing. Thandika’s dislike for authoritarian rule may have been influenced by the harsh treatment he received under Banda’s despotic government in Malawi, causing him to spend 30 years in exile. As head of CODESRIA, he played a big role in defending academic freedom in Africa when, in the 1980s, university academics were under attack as governments tried to implement unpopular structural adjustment programmes.
For Thandika, therefore, development should be grounded in democratic values and processes. In this sense, he shared Amartya Sen’s view of development as freedom—including political freedom. He identified with Sen’s statement that ‘a country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy’ (A. Sen, ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 3-17, 1999; p.4), which he quoted approvingly in one of his papers on democracy.
There were two sides to Thandika’s treatment of democracy. The first was his defence of new or fledgling democracies against the technocratic styles of policy making associated with the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes. He coined the term ‘choiceless democracies’ (see his ‘Disempowering Democracies and the Persistence of Poverty’, Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Governance Paper, No. 21, UNRISD 2006) to underscore the American Political Scientist Adam Przeworski’s observation that the conditionalities of the IMF and World Bank limit the choices of new democracies, producing, as Przeworski observed, ‘societies which can vote but cannot choose’ (A. Przeworski, Democracy and the Market, 1994, p. 84).
One of the first projects Thandika launched at UNRISD was ‘Technocratic Policy Making and Democratic Accountability’. This examined the tensions between technocratic styles of policy making and democratisation in a selected number of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The adjustment programmes, we should recall, narrowed policy options to a limited number of objectives that emphasised fiscal restraint, privatisation and liberalisation. To meet these objectives, governments tried to insulate policy making technocrats in finance ministries and central banks from pubic pressure. This approach to policy making distorted structures of accountability and made governments more answerable to multilateral agencies and investors than to emerging representative institutions and the wider public. It also downplayed the importance of employment, social protection and poverty eradication as policy makers were mainly concerned about stabilisation and market-enhancing activities.
Thandika’s second approach to democracy was instrumentalist. He downplayed, at least at UNRISD, the study of democracy in its own right and insisted that it must be linked to development objectives. The difficulty with this position is that many countries that have held multiple elections and liberalised their political systems still have strong authoritarian reflexes and are not always responsive to the needs of voters. It may explain why studies on the link between democracy and economic or social development always produce poor or ambiguous results.
Linking democracy to social or economic outcomes may require, therefore, interrogating the quality of democracy itself. How institutionalised are social and political rights? How independent are state institutions, especially the judiciary, electoral management bodies and police, from governing parties and leaders? How competitive, fair and credible is the electoral system? What are the social bases of political parties? How are the poor connected in the political process? Are political parties governed democratically? What is the quality and depth of civil society organisations and mass-based interest groups? And how responsive are governments to citizen demands? Answers to these questions, which fall in the domain of political science, require studying democracy as an issue in itself if we are to understand democracy’s role in advancing good or bad social and economic outcomes. These are issues that I enjoyed discussing with Thandika as we both tried to understand the links between democracy and developmental outcomes in Africa.
An institution-builder in social science research in Africa
Thandika was not just a great scholar; he was also an innovative institution-builder. He was central in the development of CODESRIA’s infrastructure for collaborative social science research in Africa when he headed that institution from 1986 to 1996. I am sure his colleagues who worked closely with him at CODESRIA will provide richer insights into this aspect of his work. But let me say a few things, based on my observation as a participant in CODESRIA’s work.
It was under Thandika’s leadership that CODESRIA’s membership expanded beyond the limited circle of deans or heads of social and economic research institutes, to embrace all who teach and do research in the social sciences in Africa. CODESRIA’s triennial General Assembly has now become the largest gathering of social scientists in Africa, attracting more than 500 participants, who are mostly sponsored by CODESRIA.
In promoting social science research in Africa, Thandika was concerned about many issues, which can be summed up in seven ways. First, he was critical of the tendency of many Western scholars to publish articles and books on Africa without citing African scholars or engaging with local African debates. Second, he strongly disapproved of debates on Africa that did not include African contributions. Third, he criticised the North-South intellectual division of labour in collaborative projects in which Northern scholars arrogated to themselves more intellectually challenging roles of theory building and delegated less challenging roles of case studies or supply of primary data to African scholars.
Fourth, he bemoaned the crisis of African universities in the 1980s and 1990s, which was linked to the defunding of universities and the World Bank’s myopic and destructive view that Africa did not need universities. Fifth, he worried about the future of young scholars growing up in highly under-resourced university environments. Sixth, he strongly believed that senior scholars should be empowered to inspire and mentor young scholars. And seventh, he was a firm advocate of inter-disciplinary research and breaking of geographical and linguistic barriers in African social science research.
In order to build national and cross-national research capacity, CODESRIA created two important tools—National Working Groups, which encouraged scholars in any country to organise teams and conduct research on any theme of their choice; and Multinational Working Groups, which were headed by senior scholars, involving the participation of scholars from different regions on the continent. The senior scholars are required to produce Green Books, which provide methodological guidance and comprehensive reviews of the literature on the subjects to be studied.
CODESRIA also mounted a well-resourced, Rockefeller-funded ‘Reflections on Development’ programme, which targeted established and promising young scholars. They were offered USD30, 000 each to go to reputable foreign universities or research centres for some research, and given office space at CODESRIA on their return to conclude their research and produce book manuscripts. Some of CODESRIA’s best books came out of that programme.
Another innovation was the Small Grants Programme, which targeted Master’s degrees students by providing them with grants for their dissertations. This programme was launched in the 1980s when most universities were experiencing difficulties in funding postgraduate students because of cuts in university budgets. Grantees were required to send copies of their theses to CODESRIA to be deposited in the institution’s library, which should now be a rich source of knowledge on various aspects of development in African countries.
Under Thandika, CODESRIA also launched two Summer Institutes—on Gender and Governance—which exposed young academics to the literature and debates on these emerging issues of global concern. Summer Institutes on a variety of issues have since exploded in leaps and bounds.
The popular CODESRIA Bulletin, which publishes think pieces, debates and short articles on burning issues, was another of Thandika’s innovation. The Bulletin is now more widely read than the Council’s lead journal, Africa Development. It published two famous debates during Thandika’s tenure—on democracy, and the Mazrui-Mafeje debate on recolonisation.
An ‘outsider’ in the UN
UNRISD was already an established institution with a 35 year history when Thandika was appointed to head it in 1998. It had developed its own rules, infrastructure, networks and competence for conducting social development research on a global scale. Its staff—those in administration, publications and research—were well trained, experienced and highly motivated, and required little supervision. UNRISD’s efficiency was of such quality that it could be run on auto-pilot. What it needed from directors were fresh research ideas and ability to raise funds.
Another feature of UNRISD that played to Thandika’s preferences and strengths is its unique position within the UN system as an autonomous institution with an independent board—made up largely of top scholars from different regions of the world. It also has a tradition of questioning conventional wisdom and advancing critical ideas on contemporary social problems. The administrative hierarchy is relatively flat, with researchers enjoying considerable autonomy in leading projects.
These features of UNRISD suited Thandika very well—he was ideas-driven and iconoclastic, very informal in his personal relations, and not impressed by the trappings of bureaucracy. The dress code at UNRISD was, as in universities, ‘business casual’ without ties, unless when attending formal meetings. But the Director always dressed formally, which Thandika had to adjust to because of his frequent official meetings. He once told me that he did not like dressing formally, and always looked forward to summer when he could be his normal self in wearing loose African shirts or slightly unbutton his shirt and roll up his sleeves. His informal approach could sometimes confuse those who did not know him. During the closing session of a CODESRIA project planning meeting I once attended in Harare in the 1980s, one of the participants asked the group to censure the Executive Secretary for failing to attend the meeting. Those of us who knew Thandika exploded in laughter because Thandika made some of the most incisive contributions at the meeting. The poor guy obviously expected to see the Executive Secretary in a suit.
The organisational setup and tradition at UNRISD allowed Thandika to focus on ideas, project proposals, fund raising and his own research and writing. His strength was not in administration or management. Indeed, we very quickly learned that copies of every paper that required his attention should also be given to his secretary for easy retrieval. His love of ideas and the efficiency of the staff meant that he could give valuable feedback on projects without interfering in how they were run. I always joked with friends and colleagues that you could go to Thandika with one idea and leave with three or four new ones or seriously question the one you took to him.
As an ideas person, he staunchly defended the integrity of the academic content of research projects even at the cost of losing funds. I would like to narrate two incidents that stuck with me in thinking about him as Director of UNRISD. The first was our effort to secure from the Swedish aid agency, SAREC, funding for a project on ‘Economic Policy Making and Parliamentary Accountability’. SAREC suggested that they would consider funding the project if we worked with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which was headed by a Swede. However, the Head of IPU insisted that we should delete references to the IMF and World Bank in the research proposal. He touched a raw nerve. Thandika chastised him in a telephone discussion on the project for making such a demand. When he dropped the phone, I knew the funding request was up in flames, but he greatly earned my respect for standing up for his ideas and protecting the integrity of our research.
The second incident was in Durban during the anti-racism world conference in 2001. UNRISD had sponsored a parallel conference on ‘Racism and Public Policy’, involving the participation of 40 high level scholars from around the world. We had invited the Ghanaian sociologist, Kwesi Prah, who had taught at the University of Juba and worked on identities and xenophobic practices in Sudan to prepare a paper and lead a discussion on that country. The Sudanese ambassador to South Africa contacted Thandika on the eve of the conference and demanded the withdrawal of the Sudan paper. He ‘threatened’ to take the matter up with Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and convener of the official inter-governmental conference, if his demand was not met.
Thandika told him that UNRISD would not take instructions from governments and Mrs. Robinson had no power over UNRISD’s work. He advised him that the best he could do was to reply to Prah after his presentation, and UNRISD would willingly give him a few minutes to do that. As coordinator of the project, I informed Prah to expect a rebuttal to his paper from the Sudanese mission. The following day, about five members of the Sudanese mission attended Prah’s session and occupied the front row seats. The hall was full to capacity, with more than 500 participants. We thought there was going to be a nasty exchange, but Prah completely disarmed the Sudanese delegation by his brilliant presentation. They did not utter a single word during the discussion of the paper.
Thandika’s relative distance from the day-to-day running of research projects sometimes created problems. One clear case was the preparation of the Institute’s flagship report Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics (2010), which I coordinated. The project’s conceptual framework had taken a different direction from his original ideas, which I thought were not feasible because of data limitations. He had not consistently followed the evolution of the project, which involved contributions from more than 100 individuals, detailed comparative research in eight countries selected on the basis of the extent of their industrialisation or structural change, and numerous thematic papers.
He questioned the direction of the project only after the first draft report had been discussed in a review meeting. A stalemate ensued that threatened the report’s viability, but his position was untenable because the research staff that worked on the report did not agree with his approach. After a series of heated but inconclusive staff meetings and bilateral discussions, he asked me to lock myself in my office and write the report. I was deeply moved when he said, ‘Yusuf, I know I have been an obstacle, but I’m sure this report will be concluded very quickly as soon as I get out of the way’. He was such a remarkably honest and transparent person that was driven largely by ideas.
Let me conclude this tribute by saying a few things about my personal interactions with him. Thandika was remarkably open, welcoming, witty and charming. Every minute spent with him was intellectually and socially enriching. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether it was his ideas or wit that attracted people to him. He was good in stimulating your brain and making you laugh. Like all humans, he could be impulsive and lose his cool when he did not have his way on issues he felt strongly about. But he did not hold grudges and found ways to make amends and let you know he was wrong.
His joie de vivre was just as intense as his love of intellectual work. I sometimes felt that his enjoyment of life was a stimulant for his academic work ethic and sharp mind. He enjoyed bantering with colleagues and loved music, football, beer, nightclubs and the arts in general. He was an amazing story teller and frequent—indeed, very frequent—traveller, having literally visited every part of the world many times over. I always liked to engage him after his missions to hear his jokes and stories about the places he had visited. He was a good listener and observer—quick to feel the pulse of a place and pick up what people were worried about. His jokes and stories could have produced tons of books that would have been the envy of scholars who rely on anecdotes to explain the African condition.
I first heard of Thandika in 1983, when I engaged CODESRIA on a paper I wrote with two colleagues, Abdul Raufu Mustapha and Sa’idu Adamu, on the politics of Nigeria’s economic crisis. I met him for the first time in 1985 at a conference CODESRIA organised at the Ahmadu Bello University, where I was teaching, on structural adjustment programmes in Africa. I met him again in Sweden in 1986 after another conference on structural adjustment. Thereafter, I became involved in CODESRIA’s networks, attending its workshops and conferences in Dakar and other cities. Even when I moved to Geneva in 1990, CODESRIA, through Zene Tadesse, Thandika’s Deputy, asked me to join the Carter Centre’s elections monitoring team in monitoring Ghana’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 1992.
Thandika introduced me to Dakar’s jazz nightclubs and the music and nightclub of Yousou N’dour in the 1980s, before N’dour became a superstar. We discussed football a lot. I recall the time Zambia won the African Cup of Nations in 2012. When we met after the match, he thought he could tease me because Zambia defeated a West African team, Cote d’Ivoire, in the final. He laughed and changed the subject when I told him I rooted for Zambia because West and North Africa had dominated the Cup of Nations for too long.
I also recall when Guinea fielded three Banguras in their football team in a Cup of Nations tournament. He rushed to my office the following morning and joked that he did not know that the Bangura clan had so many footballers. I informed him that Bangura is originally a Soso name in Guinea and parts of Sierra Leone, which the Themneh, Limba and Loko in Sierra Leone have appropriated on a large scale through a long history of migration and inter-marriage. I don’t even know one percent of the Banguras in Sierra Leone, let alone those in Guinea. He dropped the football talk and launched into a discussion on ethnic identities.
When he was at CODESRIA, he invited me in 1994 to give two seminars at their Governance Institute. Since I was holidaying with my family in Sierra Leone, I decided to take them along. At the end of the seminars, he took us to Gorée Island at St. Louis, an important trading post during the transatlantic slave trade, to see the so-called House of Slaves. As other Africans and African Americans who have visited that island have recounted numerous times, it was an emotionally draining experience. We later regained our balance when he treated us to a lovely meal—a super huge grilled fish—in one of the restaurants on the island. I still have a picture of him carrying my two year old son on his chest in the return journey as the boat was trying to anchor on the shores of Dakar.
I introduced Thandika to Nollywood films (Nigerian movies), when the industry was still in its infancy. He fully embraced the films as a source of entertainment and for understanding how young Africans view their world. He was pleasantly surprised that Africans were beginning to make films about their everyday lives and aspirations that appeal to mass audiences—something literary scholars have been unable to achieve using the written word. As we both observed in one of our discussions, these mass produced videos have transcended the more intellectually challenging films that have dominated the Pan-African Film and Television Festivals in Burkina Faso, which most Africans do not have the opportunity to watch.
Thandika was an amazing person who touched many lives in many different ways. I will miss his infectious laugh, wit, vision, hunger for development, critical scholarship, indefatigable defence of justice, and effortless ability to relate to people across the divides of race, ethnicity, class, gender and age. I thank the Mkandawire family in Malawi and Zimbabwe for giving us such a fine, gifted and engaged human being; and Kaarina Klint, his wife, and children, Andre and Joshua, and grandchildren for sharing him with us.