In a time of crisis, why are academics so quiet?

Let's refer to the definition that Ignacio Ramonet provided in 2006 of what it is to be an intellectual, so that we can understand better why it is so difficult to find one in the Malian academic environment.

"An intellectual is a man or woman who uses their fame, acquired in the domain of science, the arts or culture, to mobilise public opinion in favour of ideas that they consider to be just. For two centuries, in modern states, their function has consisted, above all, in giving sense to social changes and clearing the path leading to more freedom and less alienation."

In Mali, despair, the humiliation of a people facing the massacres at Aguelhoc (24 January 2012), the revolt of women at the military garrison of Kati (2 February 2012), the coup d'état (22 March 2012) and finally the taking of the great Northern cities (Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal) by Jihadists contrast with the appalling silence of the academic world.

Amid a cacophony of different political and social groups, with rare exceptions there have been very few ‘intellectual’ voices analysing the great social and political crisis facing Mali or describing its causes and profound meanings.

Why has the academic world of Mali not been able to rise to the challenge of producing such an analysis and using it to project future developments? Why, despite the democratic context of the past 20 years – freedom of speech and opinion – have Malian academics not been able to create an environment that is conducive to evidence-based social critique?

This article is a contribution to understanding some of the major problems facing higher education in the transition to democracy in Mali. It looks particularly at why the intelligentsia has, since 1992, preferred to curl up shamelessly with its 'democratic comforts' rather than engage in an intellectual movement powerful enough to support fundamental reforms imposed by international institutions and support local political action in a non-violent way.

Despite the presence of a favourable climate for such an intellectual revolution, the intelligentsia has been more concerned with political positioning than studying society and politics. Gradually, the academic world has become discredited in the eyes of the masses.

I will describe the lamentable plight of a university with major problems including the devastating effects of radical professors, a glaring lack of infrastructure, and powerful students. These have led to inertia in innovation and critical thinking.

Under democracy, national education in Mali, as in all sectors of society, has undergone many reforms. In addition to educational and institutional reforms, Malian schools and universities have been the focus of many protest movements.

These reforms and movements have led to an academic disaster. They have undermined the entire education system.

They have reduced the academic year from nine to three months, have wiped out years of education, replaced scientific exams with ‘political’ ones, and developed through student evaluations a sense of favouritism at the expense of rigour and merit. Among teachers and students, they have led to lack of interest in a culture of excellence and scientific production.

Academics in the shadow of unions and politics

For two decades, in debates on the role of the university in democratic transition, Malians have had the impression that they are falling down a slippery slope because of the devastating effects of union struggles on campus, and above all because of attempts by politicians to get their hands on higher education and annihilate its freedom of action and thought.

Initially, in post-dictatorship 1991, Malians had the illusion that the radicalism of student and teacher unions would bring the changes desired by society: a spike in scientific ideas, good governance and the social development of youth.

But disillusionment would soon take over society, when people saw that university premises had been subject to manipulation by some political leaders and intellectuals who used universities to get themselves into powerful positions.

This brings me to the issue of academic space in Mali. How can we analyse the internal dynamics of this space?

I should note that the absence of intellectual life in Mali's universities is the result, on the one hand, of the political activism of older professors who abandoned teaching for political positions and, on the other hand, of the blindness of younger teachers to anything but their own narrow claims.

Since 2002, upheavals that have shaken higher education have resulted in the emergence of a type of teacher who is very focused on his hunt for claims: overtime costs, corrections, monitoring etc. This has gradually led to the death of true freedom for intellectual activity.

The politicisation of administrative posts and even scientific grades has destroyed intellectual life and spawned what might be termed a ‘double brain drain’, both internal and external – internal through the rush for juicy positions in administrations where the intellectual is forced both to remain silent and to speak an absurd jargon.

In the 1960s and 1970s, professors Victor Sy, Ibrahim Ly and Kary Dembelé (the first two were forced into exile) tried to act as a bridge between intellectual power on one side and society and culture on the other. Their fight aimed for the triumph of truth and justice.

They were teachers who tried to create a link between critical discourse and political power. Unlike the generation of teachers of the 1970s and 1980s, intellectuals from the democratic era are now treated by the public as traitors.

Crisis and opportunity

I am not naive enough to think that the efforts of intellectuals are enough to cure the serious ills of Malian society. I am, however, convinced that the involvement of Malian intellectuals both internally and in the diaspora is essential for the revival of true democracy in Mali.

The current crisis is an opportunity for Malian intellectuals to rise to the challenge. This is a time for questioning the relationship between democracy and the development of a critical viewpoint, for reviving the relationship between truth and justice, and for creating an academic environment where critical ideas will flourish and where intellectuals can strive to show the implications of the global ideology that dominates our national economies.

Couldn't the post-conflict context offer the conditions for the emergence of an academic space that would meet the challenge of serving the truth, and stand up against the practices and discourses of a superficial democracy and political oppression?

For the moment nothing portends the birth of this new space because the many strikes by teachers in secondary and higher education – for late payment of compensation money, marking, monitoring and administration – suggest that teachers have lost the sense of their calling and are instead obsessed with weighing their academic merit in local currency.

Society accuses higher education, wrongly or rightly, of not wanting to innovate. Higher education administrators and unions do nothing to stimulate our culture through publications, projects or grants for cultural activities for students.

When we speak of freedom at the university it is in terms of security. In recent years security has been a major cause of concern. Professors and administrators have been attacked. Discussions focus primarily on the material conditions necessary for professors to work. Comparisons are made with the income of prefects, mayors, police and customs officers.

In the era of globalisation, is it possible to have a professor of higher education without a laptop? Without a travel itinerary to attend scientific conferences? It is sad that Mali's professors have to do without basic facilities such as libraries, laboratories and air-conditioned classrooms. Does the concept of the intellectual and their role – as Ramonet defines it – exist in such a context?

This debate is posed again in the face of an unprecedented crisis affecting Malian society. The current political and social crisis is a real test for the Malian and African academic worlds, which must immediately study how and why a democracy so sustained from outside has been able to succumb. Malian professors are facing an important mission: to analyse a 'democratic' policy that gave birth to religious obscurantism and intellectual mediocrity.

Retreat into silence

And yet Malian academics have retreated for over a year into an appalling silence. This silence is a national scandal. It is equivalent, in a democratic country, to closing down newspapers and private radio stations and banning opposition parties.

It is in times of social crisis that people turn to their intellectual elite. A critical debate on the causes and consequences of the crisis requires academics to show a sense of responsibility and courage. But in this country, which wanted to be the jewel of democracy in Africa, 'truth' has too often been sacrificed to preserve selfish individual or collective interests.

Since 2006 I have denounced, in assemblies of teachers in higher education, the risk we run by focusing solely on our wages and benefits while the culture of excellence, the production of ideas and the struggle for the truth require greater responsibility on our part. But without public support, intellectuals are powerless against the state and the economic elite.

Who is perceived by the average Malian as being an intellectual? It is by definition someone who is bristling with great credentials and argues a case in the public sphere. Teachers who express the opinion of their political parties (in the form of scientific discourse), in the public media are often cited as civil society leaders.

Public media, both television and radio, have won the ‘hearts and minds’ battle that only what is told through the state media is true. How many Malian university intellectuals are there who have links with social movements through their work and objective criticism?

They are rare and, if they have the chance, express themselves through the foreign media. Otherwise, they live in the shadows. The 'media intellectuals', to borrow a phrase from Ignacio Ramonet, are for the most part men and women who have left higher education to work in public administration, NGOs and civil society organisations.

When we see the number of teachers who have left lecture theatres for air-conditioned offices in NGOs and the state bureaucracy, we see why Malian democracy has given birth to a corrupt, oppressive political elite rather than witnessing a flowering of engaged intellectuals. The rush of teachers to political positions to improve their living conditions thanks to corruption is an obstacle to social criticism and autonomy of the university.

The problem of amnesty

Why is this crisis recurrent in post-colonial Mali?

One of the reasons, I believe, is that after every crisis, Mali passes a general ‘amnesty’ law, which closes the records of those who are accountable to the people and those who have committed the worst crimes against the interests of the people, without putting in place a framework for understanding and reconciliation.

This is what was done after the coup of 22 March 2012. It granted amnesty to coup supporters and civilians before the process of political transition was even begun.

To understand the context of the amnesty, we need to go back to former Malian presidents Alpha Oumar Konare and Amadou Toumani Touré, under whom the consensual management of power favoured the idea of an amnesty as a natural right. This led to a general laissez faire attitude and laxity and has harmed the national economy and a culture of excellence.

For the country's return to true democracy, it would need to lift the veil of amnesty that stifles economic and political life and promotes the entry of the biggest opportunists into politics and civil society organisations.

Of course, academics are not the only intellectuals in Malian society and the world outside the university can be divided into two groups: those who seek external causes for the crisis and those who seek internal ones.

The first group is composed of people who began their careers in universities but turned to development projects financed by international institutions before leaving them and creating their own NGOs or businesses.

Many of them supported the coup, with the argument that it was an opportunity for Mali to reject the neoliberal policies of the international community and to let Malians have more say over the country's present and future.

The second group is composed of radical intellectuals who are active in political parties or marginal intellectuals who resigned from the major parties and have created their own associations to denounce the political subjugation of local people and looting of the public.

They point to the huge assets accumulated by political leaders that contrast with the principles of democracy. This latter group also supported the coup, but immediately warned the military against any attempt to retain power.

Although this group is aware of the international dimension of the Malian crisis, their immediate attention is focused on its local origins and the specific situation of the Northern War, which is seen more as a foreign invasion than a local rebellion.

The power of students

In Mali, we cannot write the history of democratic struggle without placing at the heart of the analysis the crucial role played by the Association of Students of Mali, EMEA. Students played a key part in the fall of Moussa Traoré’s dictatorial regime in 1991.

Between December 1990 and March 1991, EMEA undermined the military regime with a series of strikes and demonstrations. It was the catalyst of the fall of single-party rule. It is also widely believed that students have paid a heavy price for winning this freedom.

Since then, the movement has been convinced that the bloodshed and the role it played grant it rights and impose political duties on it. As an organisation, independent of any political party, EMEA had only been involved in economic and material issues. This changed from 1991 and the movement threw itself into politics.

Students were focused on education, but when we analyse what students meant by being involved in a substantive debate, we can see that it was all about having a say in the political and economic decisions of the new government. They were more engaged in influencing the evolution of the democratic process and controlling the transitional government than in education.

Between 1993 and 2000, student violence was so common that it caused the dissolution of the first two Konare governments. EMEA was an extra-parliamentary opposition. Almost all leaders of opposition parties relied on it to rise to power or to see the government change policies.

Student violence was not verbal. It was physical. Students targeted state institutions and the homes of politicians. They also destroyed school libraries.

Given this recurring violence, some observers point to the lack of an objective debate on the state of education in Mali. Many were afraid to speak out. Some opinion leaders who dared to criticise the methods of students had their property looted or received death threats. Teachers were beaten by students without the government taking measures against the perpetrators.

Student violence was a serious threat to state institutions and to the stability of the nation, and was extremely costly.

The university situation

Since the establishment of the University of Bamako in 1996, the number of students admitted per year has tripled, to over 100,000 in 2010.

The majority of students are not able to fulfil conditions for obtaining scholarships. They are exposed throughout their academic careers to food insecurity, poverty, and academic failure and to the prevailing insecurity in the world of work. The vulnerability of students has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, and their family and social networks have weakened.

The second problem facing students and teachers is unbalanced educational reforms that deprive higher education and research institutions of financial and material resources in favour of giving resources to basic education. These reforms undermine the teaching process and expose it to various forms of corruption.

Teacher and student protests and non-democratic reforms have raised four further issues at the University of Bamako. Established to promote social advancement, the university immediately fell into disrepute. In Malian society today, the university is no more than a depot where students must fend for themselves to get a foot on the labour market ladder.

The first problem is the political role of the EMEA. The movement, especially its radical wing, wanted to act as an extra-parliamentary opposition, which could not only paralyse the university but also modify the structures of government. The politicisation of EMEA has its origin in the hope society placed in the young for confronting 23 years of Traoré dictatorship.

The second problem is lack of infrastructure. In keeping with World Bank ideas, Mali expanded the educational base without worrying about the summit. Very quickly universities had more students than they could cope with. So more than 1,000 students crowd into lecture theatres designed for 300.

The third problem is the rushed integration of Mali into the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education.

This has angered young teachers who are required to produce high quality work without being given the financial means nor the academic setting that will help them do so. This has divided old and young lecturers since the former did not have to jump through these hoops.

It has dealt a blow to scientific collaboration between seniors and juniors. Each group or individual is on their own. There have been strikes to attain the same benefits that were available to senior academics. Young lecturers' lack of motivation is a cause of the crisis of academic renaissance in Mali.

The fourth problem is the commodification of examinations: over the past 20 years the university has become a place where knowledge can be bought and sold. The massive influx of students into faculties has posed a serious personnel problem. The state has recruited a large number of contract teachers.

Many came to education because they couldn't find a better alternative. Teachers say that working at the university is just about surviving. This makes the academic sphere a ‘place’ where some come for money, or for social or political reasons. It seems no longer to be a place where one learns the culture of living together or the production and discussion of ideas.

Today faculties, government, citizens and students seem to accept this ‘university business’. Despite the efforts of some teachers, the university system is plagued by a situation where marks are awarded for sexual or financial favours. The function of selecting the best and developing others has disappeared.

Parents negotiate the best grades for their children with teachers. Students use their networks to negotiate marks with teachers. It is thought that the success of a student is the result of their parents' networks.


As many experts say, in this era of globalisation, economies are not based on physical resources (oil, earth, steel, cotton, gold) but on intangible capital and resources (knowledge, information, communication, logistics).

How can a university system so poor and disorganised as that of Mali become a principal place of thought and knowledge production?

The road is still long. Research and education will enjoy better days if policies focus on the younger generations in their efforts to build the ‘knowledge society’. For the moment, we can say that none of the reforms so far undertaken by Mali have led to a university that is innovative, competitive and guaranteed autonomy and academic freedom.

* Isaie Dougnon is an anthropologist at the Université des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines in Bamako.