Intellectuals and change in East Africa

6 09 2009

September 5, 2009

Prof. Ali A. Mazrui

Prof. Ali Mazrui

Prof. Ali Mazrui

Academics and intellectuals have been major agents of political change but relatively minor agents of economic change in post-colonial Africa. Phase one of decolonisation was from the 1930s to the 1970s. African academics with a wider pool of African intellectuals helped to mobilise the masses against the colonial order.

Perhaps this is why African liberation was much faster than most people realise. Kenya became a British colony after Jomo Kenyatta was born. Kenyatta lived right through it and came to rule Kenya for 15 years after the British left.

Uganda’s earliest anti-colonial manifestations took the form of defending Uganda from white settler-dominated Kenya. Many Ugandans recoiled when Britain tried to unite Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda into a greater union. When Kabaka Mutesa II articulated fierce opposition to such East African union, he was resisting the encroachment of white settlers from Kenya into Uganda.

The Kabaka was exiled by the British. Many of his male subjects vowed not to shave their beards until the British returned their king. When Kabaka returned in the 1950s, many of these subjects celebrated shaving their beards. Some of those beards were stuffed into pillows as souvenirs. The momentum of Buganda’s defiance quickly extended to other parts of Uganda. The country became independent in 1962.

Makerere’s contribution to the anti-colonial struggle included the early graduates who sometimes defied the British for ethno-cultural reasons and sometimes for Pan-Uganda patriotic reasons. Among the Pan-Ugandan nationalists was Apollo Obote, who adopted the additional name of “Milton” out of admiration for John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost. Obote was inspired by Satan’s indelible line in Milton’s poem: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

Another immortal product of Makerere was Julius K. Nyerere who, in the struggle against colonialism, created the Tanganyika African National Union in the 1950s. Although Tanganyika was the least developed of the three British East African colonies, Tanganyika was the first to win independence in 1961. And although Kenya was the most economically developed of the three colonies, it was the last to win independence in December 1963. Uganda won its independence in 1962. The real achievement in all the three East African countries was the speed of political decolonisation.

If Phase I of East Africa’s basic decolonisation was impressively triumphant, the second phase of nation-building was truly in fits and starts. Because African intellectuals and academics could not come to grips with viable strategies of economic development, nation-building was extremely difficult to sustain in the post-colonial era.

Intellectuals and academics thought that they could be effective agents of economic change by the ideology that they adopted. In the 1960s and 1970s socialism, and even Marxism, were popular on many campuses in East Africa.

Marxism offered to play three roles: as ideology of development, as an ethic of distribution and as a methodology of analysis. It became the opium of the post-colonial intelligentsia. Addiction to Marxism and socialism was at its height on the campuses of the universities of Dar es Salaam, Haile Selassie I (Addis Ababa.), Nairobi was next in leftist orientation, with prominent figures like Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the vanguard.

The Makerere campus was the least intoxicated by socialism and Marxism. In Kenya, the political intellectuals, like Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki, were at variance with the academic intellectuals, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Michere Mugo. The campus intellectuals were to the left of the political intelligentsia.

Uganda also witnessed an ideological divergence between the political intellectuals who were pushing for Obote’s move to the Left and the campus intellectuals who were skeptical of leftist rhetoric, such as Mat Kiwanuka in the History Department, Apolo Nsibambi in Political Science and George Kanyeihamba in Law. Apart from a minority of political scientists on campus, like Yash Tandon, Ahmed Mohiddin and young Okello Oculi, academic intellectuals in Uganda were to the right of the political intellectuals under Obote I, while in Kenya, campus intellectuals were to the left of political intellectuals under Kenyatta and early Moi.

Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University, New York
amazrui@binghamton.edu


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