Dr Mamdani changed the entire MISR programme in 2010, when he returned, away from research and into teaching!

Mahmood Mamdani

Mahmood Mamdani

I think Mr Moses Khisa’s analysis gets closer to the truth and to what I have been arguing all along. Dr Mamdani changed the entire MISR programme in 2010, when he returned, away from research and into teaching. Previously MISR was only doing consultancy work, which did not benefit Makerere University itself. This is the crux of the struggle at MISR. Dr Nyanzi and a few others want MISR to remain a research institute, whereas the whole focus of MISR changed in 2010. She is therefore in a wrong place at the wrong time. She should have fought her battle at the time when MISR’s remit was changed in 2010, when the University Council decided to make it the teaching arm for ALL Social Sciences Ph.Ds, with Dr Mamdani in charge. She can not begin to go on a one woman rebellion, and refuse to accept the strategic direction the University Council has decided for MISR. Other Researchers have left MISR because they did not agree to the new teaching direction MISR had embarked on, and may be this was the only option left for Dr Nyanzi.

The options open to Dr Nyanzi is to put a case to the University Council to revert MISR back to its previous position, but she can not do this by resorting to lunatic tactics like nude protests or mobilising disgruntled students whose scholarships have been withdrawn because of failure to make progress in their research. She has to make a proper and detailed academic and business case, and also COST it. This includes indicating where she will get the funds to support a research institute in a third world university.

Secondly, as Mr Khisa has noted, doing consultancy work usually brings personal reward to the research scolars like DR Nyanzi, so in a sense turning MISR into a teaching institute would not benefit her financially as she would be forced to survive on a lecturer’s salary, which is nothing to write to grandma about in the Uganda of today, whereas doing research, especially if independently funded, brings additional income to the researcer involved. Dr Nyanzi for eg is now doing research on Female Homosexuality in Uganda funded by a Dutch organisation, and this reserach is private and has nothing to do with MISR. She is not unique in doing this as all previous researchers did the same. Indeed, nearly 99% of all Ugandan public servants monnlight or take advanatage of their official positions for private gain. there is no secret or even condemnation of this method of resilience or survival in Uganda’s collapsed economy.

This is the Insitutional Governance issue that Mr Khisa is hinting at, and which I have already discussed at length. What is the role of MISR and what is its future direction? Will it continue to host consultancies, some of which address research needs of other organisations, mainly western universities and NGOs rather than those of Makerere University itself? Has the Ugandan statem through its Minsitry of Edcation, set an agenda for its premier research Institute?

The other issue, and which people like WBK and others are trying to run away from, is that most funding in the world is intrinsically linked to reputation, programmes or personal contacts. I am Chairman or Trustee of many NGOs in the UK who would not get or retain their current funding if I was not on their boards or committees. The presence of a category of personality will always give re-assurance to funders. In my case, the funders know my mere presence on the board of an African charity is a firm guarantee that their money is not going to be abused and that high standards of service delivery is going to be maintained because I am very ruthless, and once sacked the entire 9 member staff of an organisation that was not delivering, when I was appointed to oversee and re-structure it as an emergency measure. And I made it absolutely clear to the Board that either all the staff members left or I left. That was the only way of dealing with the crisis in the organisation.

This is the same dilemma facing MISR today. Dr Mamdani has lifted its income from $1.5 million to $7.5million. Most of this funding is contingent on his continuing to be Director. And he can not remain Director of an organisation that is not pulling in the same direction as he wants it..

I have known Dr Mamdani both peronally and professionaly for the lastt 35 years, and I know the guy has very high standards, when it comes to academic excellence. MISR has benefited from this, and so has Makerere Univerisaty as a whole. But the University needs to review its entire governance structure so that Dr Mamdani does not hold too many responsibilities that may be conflicting.


The iconic executive director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Prof Mahmood Mamdani, is facing a stormy situation.

To many outsiders, the problem is narrowly seen as a clash between Mamdani and the eccentric Dr Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow. Years of mutual hostility reached a crescendo Monday morning when Nyanzi stripped to protest what she believes is Mamdani’s exercise of raw power.

This was triggered by Mamdani’s insistence to force Nyanzi out of her office for refusing to teach courses on the institute’s PhD programme. Mamdani pressed on with the eviction in flagrant disregard of advice from the university’s deputy vice chancellor for finance and administration.

In the wake of Nyanzi’s Monday act, the predictable happened: emotionally-charged arguments, condemning her and praising Mamdani, lambasting Mamdani while praising Nyanzi for courageously standing up against patriarchal repression. In the charged debates, getting to grips with the full picture of the crisis is obstructed. The problem is bigger than Nyanzi refusing to teach and Mamdani forcing her out of office.

Whichever way the stand-off ends, Mamdani’s image has been deeply dented. With a knack for magnifying even small disagreements into bigger fights, Mamdani has issued threats to the university: discipline Nyanzi and take her away from MISR or else he will quit Makerere.

Apparently, without him, the PhD program will crumble. This sounds like veiled blackmail, but it is not. The PhD program, started in 2012, is built around Mamdani without much institutional anchorage.

It was conceived by him and only he knows how to implement it, at least in the short run. Now, this is the problem of Mamdanism. An integral part of this problem is the disdain for other people and disregard of work done by those Mamdani found at Makerere when he returned in 2010.

At the start of the PhD programme in 2012, Mamdani made a series of misleading assertions, which I responded to in these pages and The Independent magazine. Some were half-truths, others were outright false.

First, he claimed that Makerere was not a research university because there was no research work coming out. This is patently false. One can rightly question the quality and bemoan the quantity of research output by our premier university, but there is no merit in claiming that there was no research going on at Makerere. This dismissive tone is what Mamdani started with as MISR director.

Second, in a rather disingenuous attempt to justify the new PhD programme he was implementing, Mamdani reasoned that a research university must ‘grow its timber,’ meaning it must train its own researchers. And that the best way to do so is to have PhD programmes that include a substantial coursework component. This is only partly true.

PhD training is one of the most important ways to orient scholars into the onerous task of knowledge production. But it’s no guarantee. And a coursework PhD programme cannot be looked at as the magic bullet. You can locally train PhDs but if the work environment is unconducive and the social milieu does not comport with the search for knowledge and pursuit of ideas, not much can be achieved.

The bit of this second argument that is utterly misleading is the claim that research universities ‘grow their own timber’. To the contrary, reputable universities pride themselves not in inbreeding but in being able to competitively attract the best scholars with rich CVs.

One can argue that a financially-constrained university like Makerere cannot attract the best scholars trained elsewhere; so, it needs to train its own researchers. But this is not the same as saying that a research university must train its own.

Also, there is no guarantee that locally-trained researchers will be committed to the cause of research in a tough economic environment of striving to earn a living and in the absence of crucial research resources, including funding.

When he was hired, Mamdani announced that he was going to sweep aside the consultancy work the institute was doing, and reorient it back to genuine research. He had a vision.

The vision was the interdisciplinary PhD in social sciences, the ultimate solution to doing research and ditching consultancy. You either agreed with this vision or you had to quit. All the researchers he found at MISR left, one-by-one. Those who came in with him or after have all since left, except the iconoclastic Nyanzi.

But the starting point for anyone seeking to turn people away from the consultancy culture is to carefully understand why they are drawn there. The crisis at Makerere is institutional and structural. It cannot be cured by a ‘magic-bullet’ PhD programme.

Instead of attempting to persuasively chart a new agenda for the institute, Mamdani started his tenure as MISR director with an adversarial attitude and a dismissive rhetoric. Thus, the PhD programme has largely been a one-man vision, assisted by foreign researchers whose stay inevitably ends up being untenable due to a combination of institutional rigidities and the miserly way Mamdani treats his colleagues.


The author teaches political science at Northwestern University/Evanston, Chicago-USA.


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