A lot has been said about the state of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in the wake of Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s nude protest there. Many have come out in defense of Dr. Nyanzi and her style of protest, while just as many condemn her. Similarly, many have come out to defend Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, the Director of the Institute, who was the primary target of Dr. Nyanzi’s protest.
It has been said that Mahmood Mamdani has a great vision for MISR, evidenced by the PhD program that he designed and which Dr. Nyanzi has refused to teach in. Since he joined MISR as Director, funding to the institute has tripled. Prof. Venansius Baryamureba, the former vice chancellor of Makerere and a former Presidential Candidate, wrote a missive in which he highlighted the brilliant changes that Mamdani has made. He encouraged Makerere University to extend his contract so that he can continue the good work he has started.
If Prof. Baryamureba’s comments sound familiar, it is because it is not the first time Ugandans, and indeed many East Africans are hearing these arguments. A similar argument was advanced in Rwanda, prior to the referendum in which the majority of Rwandans voted to lift term limits in order to allow President Paul Kagame run for another term in office. Ugandans hear the same every time that Yoweri Kaguta Museveni needs to justify his continued stay in power: “Mzee has a vision for Uganda which he has not yet fulfilled, give him another chance.” This syndrome manifests in the blind.
The “Big Man” syndrome elevates individuals over the institutions and nations they serve, praising these individuals for their great successes while ignoring their even greater failures which often cripple the institutions and nations they serve.
Despite the fact that Mahmood Mamdani is past the retirement age stipulated in Makerere University’s policy and that his contract expired recently, many Ugandans are advocating for him to be retained as Director of MISR because of his great vision. In fact, his contract has already been extended twice, first for 3 months and most recently for 6 months. Makerere University actually withdrew and edited the advertisement for the position of Director of MISR in order to ensure that he is eligible to apply again.
Added to that, Mamdani’s friends and colleagues from many prestigious institutions all over the world have written emphatic letters supporting their friend and reminding us of his credentials. Prof. Derek Peterson, from the University of Michigan in the United States of America, writing on behalf of several professors from all over the world had this to say:
We (further) urge you to take into serious consideration the possibility of renewing Prof. Mamdani’s contract as Executive Director of MISR. This is of course a matter that you will have to determine in accordance with the regulations governing staff employment at Makerere. We wish simply to point out that, so far as we are aware, there are no social scientists in Uganda’s universities who have greater intellectual and analytical reach, greater organizational prowess, and better connections with external supporters than Prof. Mamdani. In our view it would be premature to deprive MISR of his expert leadership at this crucial stage in the programme’s life.
That Mahmood Mamdani is a brilliant scholar is not in question, what is in question, highlighted by Dr. Nyanzi’s nude protest, is his management practices. The allegations made against him by Dr. Nyanzi and a number of PhD students at MISR generally revolve around abuse of office. It is alleged that he allocated office space at MISR to his wife so that she could develop her passion project, a film lab. It has also been alleged that Prof. Mamdani has allocated office space at MISR to persons who are neither teachers at MISR, nor employees of Makerere University and that he has arbitrarily withdrawn scholarships from students in his PhD program. Mamdani has increased funding at MISR and his PhD program is one of the most rigorous Makerere has seen, however, as a public servant, he is not above the procurement and employment policies in Makerere or above policies governing academic requirements for students. These are just three of the many allegations made against Prof. Mamdani.
Prof. Ddumba Ssentamu, the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University stated on Monday the 18th of April 2016, that he would constitute a committee to investigate what is happening at MISR after Dr. Nyanzi’s protest; however, Prof. Mamdani has come out to say he will not cooperate with an investigation by a committee constituted by Ddumba Sentamu, who also happens to be Dr. Nyanzi’s uncle. He has not stated, to my knowledge, whether he would cooperate with a committee constituted by someone else.
Noosim, a 5th year student at MISR, stated the following in a press release shortly after Mamdani’s:
Prof. Mamdani clearly stated in his address to students in a meeting that the university is NOT A DEMOCRATIC INSTITITION, but rather, a FUEDAL ONE. This public response was aired in a meeting where he was responding to a petition students had written to him in 2015, demanding representation on decision making boards at MISR. Does Makerere University agree with this approach? Do the donors uphold this approach? Do academics in the university and the public in general agree to this idea of the political structure of the university? I therefore request, that an investigation into the problems at MISR by an unbiased team should continue, under the terms of that committee, and not those of Prof. Mamdani. Long live MISR, long live Makerere University, and Long Live Democracy! Aluta Continua!
Despite the issues raised by Dr. Nyanzi and the PhD students, which in the very least justify an investigation into the management of MISR, many Ugandans continue to laud Prof. Mamdani and his great achievements. Students at the PhD program and some members of staff insist that he is not who his publications portray him to be. Noosim stated in an interview with NTV Uganda that “you can’t reconcile his actions with what he has written because it’s so painful to do so…many times, we keep re-quoting things he wrote back to him…you said this, how can you then victimize students this way, how can you then victimize staff this way?” Indeed many of the Students and staff at MISR, including Dr. Nyanzi were once greatly inspired by this man.
The very powerful, public, and uncritical support for Mamadani feeds into the “Big Man” culture that is thriving in Uganda, sending the message that “Big Men” are above the law, “Big Men” are above following procedures and respecting the hierarchies in institutions they serve or having their actions investigated even when they inspire such a desperate protest as someone undressing at their workplace, because their vision is so bright that the institution cannot survive without them. Some of Yoweri Museveni’s most ardent supporters have found company with Mamdani’s supporters, arguing that maintaining an individual in power, is more important than respecting constitutionally set term and age limits, or following legal procedures created by instutions.
The microcosm of Mamdani and MISR raises larger questions about the building of institutions in Uganda and in East Africa generally. When will we start to build strong institutions that can survive beyond the people placed in charge of them? Are there no other Ugandans who can push MISR forward, especially given the firm foundation that Prof. Mamdani has laid, as argued by his most ardent supporters? Are legally set term limits and age limits worth nothing in this region? It is clear that the “Big man” syndrome which began with and defines our political leadership, has now penetrated academia. Is “Big Man’ syndrome the curse of Uganda?
IMAGE CREDIT: Mahmood Mamdani [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons