In this interview originally published as Mamdani talks about his research legacy and work at Makerere, notable scholar of African politics, Prof Mahmood Mamdani looks back at his tenure at Makerere University in Uganda where he has been incubating PhD students since 2010 as Executive Director of the university’s Institute of Social Research. He is now back at Columbia University in New York, USA.
By John Agaba
Professor Mahmood Mamdani was the executive director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University, Uganda, from 2010 to the end of February 2022. During this time, he has revamped the institution’s mission and established a robust PhD programme.
Following his departure, Mamdani shared his views about how to build a strong research culture, his work as an academic and threats to higher education. He has returned full-time to his work as the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the department of anthropology at Columbia University, New York, where he has remained a faculty member since the early 2000s.
UWN: You headed the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) for 12 years. What is your legacy?
MM: When I came here in 2010, the appointments board asked me to explain my vision for the institute. I told them that MISR had become a consultancy.
Its original mission had been to promote research by researchers, but from outside Uganda and Africa. I would want to rededicate MISR as a research institute, but also to modify that mission, to focus on creating a generation of researchers — Ugandan and African.
That has been my main contribution. We began a master of philosophy (MPhil) programme in 2012. The first doctoral students began in 2015. We have graduated more than 50 masters and 11 PhDs. A total of 15 (students) are doing fieldwork and writing their doctoral dissertations. That is 26 PhDs when they finish.
All of our students who have completed this PhD programme have received coveted jobs. They are teaching at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia) and the University of Gulu in Uganda. They are working at international organisations like the Worldwide Fund for Nature in The Netherlands.
UWN: How did you build a strong PhD programme?
MM: The standard PhD at Makerere had very little course work. Specifically, it was based on fieldwork.
We introduced intensive course work; put our students through intensive training for two years. Then we put them through a third year of comprehensive exams where they spend a whole year reading two kinds of literature: the first on a theme and the second on a location of their choice. The point is to identify the debates through which the scholarship on each has developed.
We do not teach our students to approach knowledge as some kind of a sacred gift that they should memorise. We teach our students to approach knowledge as the product of an ongoing debate — always provisional. So they have to think of how they are going to contribute to this knowledge and not how they are going to consume it.
UWN: How does one build a research culture in an institution?
MM: You build it by doing it. We built that culture, not just by teaching students in classrooms, but also through extracurricular activities: seminars, workshops, conferences, and so on. We built it by constantly encouraging students to read and write.
Every student in every course reads 200 pages a week. They are taking three courses in a week. So they are reading 600 pages a week. They write two-page response papers every week. That is six pages of writing each week, 60 a semester. In addition, they write a 30-page research-based semester paper for each course. That is a total of 150 pages of writing each semester.
UWN: What are the key elements that need to be in place to build this culture?
MM: Well, in universities I know, the most innovative research is done by doctoral students. Not by professors.
Professors usually end up fine-tuning the subject on which they did their PhD. Very few professors move out of their field into something new. So, the onus is on the doctoral student to study the field, and keep up with both the latest writings in the field, and the latest debates. Where you have a healthy crop of doctorate students, there you have dynamic frontiers of research.
UWN: What factors can undermine the nurturing of such a culture?
MM: Look, there are two requirements. One is academic. The other is institutional. The academic requirement depends on the type of student and type of teacher you have.
One of the big challenges in this programme has been to make sure that the community of research fellows here (and not administrators and bureaucrats) evaluates both the students who apply to enter the programme and the research fellows who apply to teach in the programme.
Another challenge we have always had is encroachment on peer review and academic freedom by administrative powers. Then, of course, there are financial issues.
UWN: What makes the institute relevant in Uganda? And in Africa?
MM: As I said, we ask students to spend an entire year reading two kinds of scholarly literature, one thematic and the other locational. The point of the thematic work is the pursuit of excellence.
If your interest is gender, you study gender debates globally. Then there is the second kind of study, which is the study of literature on a place or location. You decide which place you want to specialise in. If you specialise in Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania … your focus will be the literature on the place.
The idea is the pursuit of relevance. Our objective is not to train clones of people graduating from London, Columbia, or Paris. Our graduates combine two kinds of knowledge: not only thematic and, thus, global, but also place-specific and, thus, relevant to where they are.
UWN: What would you have wanted to still achieve at MISR?
MM: I have no regrets when it comes to what I have done, what I could have done or what I did not do. But, yes, we could have done more. I would have loved to take this programme across universities in Uganda and East Africa. We had collaboration with the Islamic University in Mbale (Uganda) and the Uganda Martyrs University, but not the rest of the universities in the region.
UWN: Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence dominate talk about the future. What is the future of social research and humanities in this context?
MM: The more powerful the instruments and weapons we invent, the more we are in need of the humanities and social sciences and people who can ask the big questions. For instance, what’s the purpose of the thing that we have invented? Towards what end? For whose good?
UWN: What would you say is the biggest threat to higher education in Africa? Why?
Our threat is a leadership which is infatuated with technology and which thinks that you do not need the humanities and social sciences, that all you need are engineers and doctors. We need to put aside the question of narrow specialisation. Narrow specialisation leads to a dead end because it focuses on means and methods and not on goals.
There is always this question of relating means to ends. How to do something and what for? You cannot emphasise one to the exclusion of the other. Education has to be holistic.
UWN: You have advocated for identity and decolonialism in higher education. How can African universities be responsive to local realities but be engaged with global questions at the same time?
MM: The idea of a university was born with the enlightenment project in Europe. It was born at the same time as the colonial project.
The West believed Western education was one of the two key institutions by which they would execute a civilizing mission globally. The other was rule of law.
The problem was they believed that the only valid law or education was what was created in the West, not elsewhere. It only needed to be distributed to the rest.
It is time that we put a stop to this idea that Makerere and other African universities were created as centres for knowledge dissemination and not knowledge production. This is MISR’s vision.
Human beings everywhere create knowledge. Similarly, the idea that knowledge can only be imparted in English and not in any other language is also not true. If you want to do a PhD at MISR, you have to have competence in at least two languages. The language of instruction: English; and the language of research — which is a local language, the language of where you are going to do research.
We not only aim to learn of the world, but we are also quite clear that we do so from the vantage point of Africa.
UWN: What drives you?
MM: We are all humans. We are all driven by our convictions and notions of what is good and what is bad.
UWN: Who or what is your intellectual muse?
MM: I am not going to answer that question. My muses have changed as I have changed and have had to ask different questions and discovered new meaning.
UWN: What are some of the threats intellectuals face?
MM: Look, I’m not a believer in orthodoxy. I believe in originality. I believe in continuous thinking and rethinking; there is no shame in admitting that one was mistaken and in changing course.
On the other hand, ideas can also put you in trouble. People can think that your ideas are dangerous if these ideas affect their interests adversely. And you can face consequences. Socrates had to take poison.
UWN: How important has your family or background been in making you who you are today?
MM: My father was a small-time poet. He edited a magazine in Gujarati. Here in Uganda. He also worked to make a living because he made no money from editing the magazine. We lived in Kampala.
I went to Shimoni Demonstration School. The school I went to in colonial times was called Government Indian Secondary School. It was only for Indian children. I graduated in 1962. Most of the kids with me wanted to go into trade or business.
For the few bright ones, their parents wanted them to be doctors, lawyers or engineers, professions that would bring in money. I was supposed to be an engineer.
At Uganda’s Independence, I was one of the 23 Ugandans who got fellowships to go to (the United States of) America – part of the American gift to Uganda for her independence.
But the American university was very broad-based. You may want to become an engineer, but you still have to take a minimum number of courses in the humanities and social sciences. I discovered a completely new world. I left engineering and ventured into what I wanted.
UWN: So you could have been an engineer ..?
MM: I would have been an engineer if I had been left to my family. But I also wanted to be a lawyer, had I been left to myself. Because I thought lawyers could become politicians and famous. Fortunately, there were other influences that shaped me.
UWN: You have been a productive author. Which of your books is your favourite?
MM: That’s like asking a mother which one is her favourite child. There is no favourite child. They all came in different times. They all remind me of different contexts and aspirations.
UWN: In your latest book, Neither Settler Nor Native, you argue that more nations struggle to accommodate minorities because of the colonial ‘define and rule’ attitude towards ethnic or religious minorities that live on in postcolonial states. What could be a solution?
MM: I will give you an example. South Africa changed its political system in 1994. Towards the end of apartheid, there was an election. The big question in the election was … who can vote? There were two positions. One position said only citizens of South Africa could vote.
Citizens: those who were born in South Africa of parents who were born in South Africa. The other position said, No. Whoever lived in South Africa could vote. Now, there is a very important difference between these two positions because there were millions of people who lived in South Africa who were migrant workers. They came from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, and so on. But, more importantly, these migrant workers were the driving force behind the trade union movement COSATU in the 1970s and ’80s (which supported the ANC).
That position won. Everybody who lived in South Africa could vote in the 1994 election. Not citizens, but residents. From that point of view, there were no minorities.
Things changed after that election, with a coalition government. Those opposed to equal rights for residents began to tell people they were not enjoying the fruits of independence because these fruits were being distributed to the rest, residents who were not South African citizens.
Just a few years after independence, xenophobic violence began. The solution lies in the political system in place. If somebody works here and pays taxes, they should have political rights.
UWN: How important is the process of academic book writing in the higher education sector?
MM: It is as important as the process of knowledge production. Not that everything that anybody says or thinks should be published. Then, we would just be inviting a lot of rubbish in print. The point is that ideas should be subjected to an ongoing debate alongside distribution.
UWN: You are the chancellor of Kampala International University, but what will follow MISR?
MM: I had to retire here because Makerere (University) has a retirement age. But Columbia University does not. So, I’m going back to Columbia. Full time.