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Saving Makerere Institute of Social Research? 0

Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda is in turmoil following a confrontation that saw one lecturer, Stella Nyanzi, stage a nude protest against the institute’s director, renowned scholar Mahmood Mamdani. The conflict has exposed serious administrative problems at the institute. A group of international scholars have waded into the controversy by addressing a petition to the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University.

There was nothing peculiar about the timid drizzle that ushered in the morning of Monday the 18th. It was after all April, our month of the long rains. But when Dr. Stella Nyanzi thrust her naked body against the expected unfoldings of an April morning, life at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) was suddenly unfamiliar, and the plot thickened with accusation, pain and shock. It was baptized the Stella vs. Mamdani affair and all positions have since been aligned in this fashion, centering the problem, in a predictably misogynistic style, on Dr. Nyanzi’s naked body as a culturally, religiously and institutionally unacceptable form of protest; one whose sole aim was to bring down the MISR PhD programme.

And so it has gone, that the multiple narratives that have designed this crisis, of the ethnic and religious issues, of the students’ positions and the plight of the workers, including the teaching staff who left have for the better part left untold. Our quest, in this writing is not to speak to the equally critical subject of forms of protest, but rather to respond to the petition to the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University signed by 40 scholars, mainly established in the North American academy (and a few scholars based elsewhere) in a bid to “save” MISR from its current crisis. We, the authors (three students from the MISR PhD program) of this rejoinder are writing this with the main objective of questioning the merit of this petition.

Monopoly over vision?

No one has a monopoly over the vision of MISR. As a colleague put it “no one person has the strict ownership of [the] idea”. It belongs to a lot more people. All of us who have been participating in the project, especially students and faculty who have been members of the institution for the past five years, are very important stakeholders in this project.

Therefore, despite our deserved recognition and due respect for Prof. Mamdani’s ability to give this idea an institutional expression by ‘housing’ it in MISR, he should not be assumed to have the monopoly over the vision that made possible the establishment of MISR. This assumption not only certifies and approves the false idea that the MISR project could not be realized without Mamdani, but also has constrained, over the past five years, the institutional development of MISR and the necessary review and critique of its curriculum.

The “international scholars” who were signatories of the petition we are responding to are primarily interested in campaigning for Mamdani’s renewal of contract in their charitable zeal to “save” the MISR PhD program from “closing down”. They imply that without Mamdani’s directorship, the programme is going to die. This is another proof of the conflation of the MISR project with the current Director of the Institute. This model of thinking is informed by the big man’s politics whereby the father becomes the family, the president the nation and MISR becomes “Mamdani’s Institute of Social Research”.

Who speaks for MISR?

In the words of the do-gooding “international” scholars, Prof Mamdani appears infallible. Indeed, Mamdani regards himself as indispensable and treats anyone challenging his authoritarian administrative style as the enemy and as an accomplice to those in Makerere higher authorities who are regarded as enemies of MISR. Our experience in MISR for the past 5 years clearly testifies that Mamdani treats any dissent coming from both faculty and students as attempts to dismantle the MISR project. Virtually all of the first and second cohort faculty (Pamela Khanakwa, Adam Branch, Giuliano Martiniello and Antonio Tomas, Anneeth Kaur Hundle, George Bob-Milliar, Emanuel Schwab) have left – of course with the exception of the Director himself!

The high staff turnover and parting of faculty whose devotion to the MISR project was unquestionable is a testimony to the unfriendly academic environment that is created mainly as a result of the heavy-handed leadership style of the Director. Therefore, unlike what the international petitioners claim, it is not true that Mamdani “HAS WORKED with MISR’s talented teaching staff” to build the institution. In fact he HAS FAILED to create a conducive institutional environment that is capable of retaining talented and devoted faculty who had been important assets to MISR.

On the student front, dissent and political activism are punished severely, even when they are pursued within the framework of Makerere University rules. MISR students who stand against injustice have been intimidated, threatened with disciplinary hearings or academically victimized. The patriarchal nature of the logic of rule exemplified by the Director has resulted in female students who have spoken against the authoritarian nature of the Director being attacked through pejorative slurs, intimidation and email accusations of their alleged promiscuousness.

Moreover, the lack of scholarship policies on maternity for pregnant women has also left afflicted women in the program academically and financially vulnerable and though this predicament has been questioned severally, it remains unresolved to the detriment of some students. The gender and diversity committees which were set up by the Director without public notice have since not established any policies that addressed pertinent gendered issues. So, we ask, how have the personal and political lives of these students been factored into the petition of these international scholars?

Moreover, Prof Mamdani’s administrative style has proved to be detrimental to the creation of a unified student body. For purposes of expedience, the MISR administration has gone as far as manipulating differences among students and using one group of students against others. In one occasion, the Director encouraged a group of students to petition against a petition by students submitted to him rather than trying to resolve the problems and concerns that were presented to him. This has contributed to eroding a sense of community in MISR and adversely affected the morale and enthusiasm of students as well as their academic and political engagements. The MISR administration recently went as far as labeling dissenting students in the media as “few” and “weak” students with bad academic records, equating dissent with weakness.

Continue reading on Pambazuka.org

By Semeneh Ayalew, Noosim Naimasiah and Sabatho Nyamsenda, PhD students at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Kampala, Uganda.

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