Mahmood Mamdani – An intellectual leader in African higher education

The role of senior academics in leading higher education is more difficult to define than that of vice-chancellors. But some intellectuals are arguably so prominent that they inspire change and development – and such is the case with Professor Mahmood Mamdani, internationally renowned commentator on African history, politics and society.

Once voted the world’s ninth most important public intellectual by the US’s Foreign Policy and the UK’s Prospect magazines, he is today director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Uganda’s capital Kampala. He is also Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York.

Mamdani spoke to University World News in his office at Makarere, where he has headed up the social research institute since 2010 and is currently working with its first batch of PhD candidates.

When we met, Mamdani was almost hidden in his office – which is situated inside a maze of parking lots between decrepit buildings amid an oasis of cool hibiscus and banana palms – in a room full of books and thrumming computers.

Despite its modest location, the institute is influential in Uganda and beyond. Mamdani’s presence there is particularly important, given that African higher education has afforded the humanities declining weight in recent years.

He focuses on the study of African history and politics, with research exploring intersections between politics and culture and ranging from studies of colonialism and the history of civil war and genocide in Africa to human rights, the Cold War and the War on Terror.

Mamdani aims to help cement Makerere’s position as a moderator of discourse in Uganda and to develop a think-tank combining “research with training researchers”.

He wants to re-inject a tradition of ‘anti-discipline’ education and citizenship into Makarere’s scholastic culture where, he said, ethics among educators are weak and a reliance on rote learning is widespread.

“It’s really about a different mindset,” he explained, and at the institute he has two ambitions: to provide a scholarly education, and to make research relevant to policy and society.

Such ambitions are befitting of Mamdani’s career and of Makarere, once considered among the top universities in the developing world and a hotbed of Africa’s nationalist literary movement. Standards, however, slackened during Uganda’s chaotic early decades of independence and have struggled to recover ever since.


Mamdani was born in 1946, a third-generation Ugandan citizen of Indian descent. He grew up in Kampala during the final years of the British protectorate over Uganda, which gained independence in 1962, and finished school that year.

He received a grant from the United States government – part of an independence gift of 23 scholarships that America gave Uganda – and studied at the University of Pittsburgh before obtaining a masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Mamdani had not planned on becoming an academic. He went to the US to study engineering. Later he decided he wanted to be a diplomat in the United Nations system and became a UN intern, but became disillusioned and decided it was not for him.

On a visit to a friend in New York in 1969, Mamdani’s briefcase was stolen, and along with it his passport. It was around this time, under Uganda’s third post-independence, dictatorial president Idi Amin, that Ugandans of South Asian origin started being expelled from the country.

The Ugandan embassy refused to issue him a new passport and so Mamdani found himself stuck in the US. “I became stateless.” Eventually he received a draft notice, and got so scared, he flushed it down the toilet. He decided to apply for graduate school, and was accepted at Harvard University.

“I got a big scholarship, five years. I got in there and still hadn’t thought that I would be an academic. I didn’t know what I would be. I was doing a PhD because there was nothing else that I knew I could do. Even though I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to do, I knew that I enjoyed writing.”

As a graduate student at Harvard, Mamdani wrote a semester paper, and it was published as a book. He returned to Uganda in 1972 and became a teaching assistant at Makerere University while working on his PhD. Later that year he was expelled from Uganda.

“I was thrown out and ended up in a refugee camp in England for three months.” In London, he met a young PhD graduate of the London School of Economics. She had been unable to find a job in publishing, so decided to set up her own publishing house.

“She said to me, ‘Look, why don’t you write what you were talking about’.” Mamdani agreed, but demanded a £200 advance so that he could pay rent for his parents to move into a place. “She said, ‘Yes, if you can do it in three weeks’. I said OK, and I wrote the book in 20 days.

“So I had the sense that I could write. Not fiction, but I could write about life and experiences and stuff like that.”

Around that time, a former colleague at Harvard got a job as dean of arts and social sciences at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania – a very young dean. “He offered me my first job. And that’s how I became an academic”. Click here for the video clip

Mamdani taught at Dar es Salaam from 1973 to 1979. He obtained his PhD in government from Harvard in 1974, and became a professor. He moved back to Uganda in 1980 – the year after Amin was overthrown – to teach at Makerere, where he remained until 1993. Click here for the video clip

His desire to focus on research relevant to current affairs was realised early in his academic career: “My initial writing was in political economy,” said Mamdani. “I wrote my thesis on a historical understanding of Ugandan politics and economy, and it was driven by the fact that I was doing my research while the expulsion was happening.”

Mamdani said he grew up “very much” with a worldview of somebody who was part of a colony, “who lived in a highly racialised community”. Schools and universities “used to be an exclusive, elitist affair”.

His realisation that such problems had seeped into independent Africa deepened during a trip to South Africa in 1993, the last year of white rule, to research a chapter for his book Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism, published in 1996.

This, he said, provided “the first big change in my scholarship”.

He had previously been appointed chair of a new national committee in Uganda established by current President Yoweri Museveni, charged with touring Uganda’s countryside, interviewing “peasants, teachers, local officials” to consider questions of reform.

He found that “the key issues that determined the peasant’s life circumstances were all determined by officials, not representatives”. Officials who “had the right to pass a bylaw, demand government tax; had the right to arrest you if you transgressed a bylaw; and since there was no prison in the village, had the right to decide how to dispose of your labour”.

On the trip to South Africa he realised that “actually apartheid was no stranger” in Africa, Mamdani recalled. “I knew all the institutions.

“The introduction of a market economy had set into motion integrated tendencies pushing people out of their homes, migrant labour, urbanising people; and…politics was [about] how to counteract these tendencies, how to keep people at home, how to keep unions from being formed, how to keep traders from shaping the pulse of politics.”

Governments had “long given up the ambition of the civilising mission” through universities and other enlightened institutions. “Now the new priority was Order.”

In 1996, when Citizen and Subject was published – it has since been named one of Africa’s greatest books of the 20th century – he took a job at the University of Cape Town, as chair of African studies. He worked there until 1996, leaving after a disagreement over a foundation course on Africa that he had developed.

From 1998 to 2002, Mamdani served as President of CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa, headquartered in Darkar, Senegal. He joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1999, where he currently spends a semester each year while also heading up the Makarere Institute for Social Research.

Makerere University

Under colonial rule, there were few universities in Sub-Saharan Africa, and many of those that existed were dominated by expats.

A post-independence explosion in higher education promised a vibrant, radical intellectual culture – but lack of funding and political support from nationalist governments sensitive to criticism, and later a World Bank-inspired focus on primary education, conspired to dash such hopes.

This too was the fate of Makerere. The university began as a small technical school in 1922, an isolated institution in British colonial East Africa.

The authorities were wary of expanding its intake, said Mamdani. They “talked of avoiding the ‘Indian Disease’”, by which was meant creating an educated class – which was all too apparent in India of the 1920s as a rival source of political power: “Because the educated class has aspirations of taking control.”

Makerere developed as a conduit through which colonial subjects could pass exams to graduate to the University of London. It became part of the University of East Africa and a national, independent university in 1970.

When independence came to Uganda and presidents Milton Obote and Amin imposed oppressive regimes, the university increasingly became the hotbed for opposition intelligentsia.

It was an “unusually eyeball-to-eyeball situation”, Mamdani recalled. “The university was being closed down, and students were thrown out, and that sort of thing has been happening ever since.”

The colonial legacy was not only about political rebellion and radical counter-thinking. There was also a damaging academic tradition passed down of rote learning, through all tiers of education – something that Mamdani has been battling for years, as his leadership contribution to higher education, his way to effect change.

When the late 1980s rolled around and a new regime drafted reforms, expanding student bodies and increasing the number of universities, development aid donors – primarily the World Bank – pushed poor nations such as Uganda to focus funding on primary education where, it was argued, the returns on education spending were far greater.

Higher education funding dried up, and standards fell even further, despite the comparative political stability of Uganda under Museveni, who has been president since 1986.

In the past decade the university has been reviving, although it still faces considerable problems, and today it is home to 30,000 students. It has a substantial presence in business, accounting and engineering, but it is in technology and the social sciences that the university punches hardest.

Also, Mamdani noted: “Higher education is expanding very fast. So from the point of view of access, it has improved. There are now many more universities, the number of students in universities is also 50 times, 100 times what they were at independence.” Click here for the video clip.

But with rapid expansion came pressure on resources and funding did not keep up with student numbers. The result was declining quality. Lack of funding is a major problem for Makerere and most other universities in Uganda and across Africa.

On returning in 2010, despite the nascent revival, Mamdani said he found the higher education sector still steeped in neglect, from bottom to top. “Standards have inevitably fallen. Quality control is extremely weak. The calibre of students coming out is weak. The reading culture has come down.”

At an administrative level, ethics in leadership among faculty had crumbled, to a point currently where lecturers need rewards and allowances just to perform common job obligations such as attending teacher meetings or grading homework assignments.

“People who teach here get a pittance as their salaries, so if they want to make up their salary, they get allowances.

“They get allowances for meetings; if you get into a meeting you get a sitting allowance so you have as many meetings as possible, and meetings that last as long as possible, because you will get breakfast in the meeting; maybe you will get lunch,” he complained. “You mark an exam script; but you won’t mark it unless you get marking allowances.”

“This is what the university system has got used to over the last couple of decades,” said Mamdani. “The university system I got used to was that your salary was your salary and everything else was citizenship and duty. Because you were committed to it.”

Mamdani wants Makerere to build on the improvements it has made in the past decade, by encouraging students to break established habits of thinking and by returning the university to its foundation of scholarship and subversive thinking.

“Fixing is really about a different mindset. It’s about the fact that education is not about discipline; education is actually very anti-discipline in that it’s about getting a kid to think, and you can’t get a kid to think with a stick.”

“The school system here thinks that a stick is the way to get a kid to not think; to study, memorise,” said Mamdani. “So they produce kids who come out of school and are adverse to thinking, who think that thinking is dangerous and who identify those who think with danger, with lack of discipline.”

This thinking, he claimed, has seeped through to education administrators – and even to professors.

“Fixing primary education is good and very important, but who is going to fix the primary school?” Mandani asked. “The curriculum for primary schools, the teachers for primary schools, are produced in higher education; they are not produced in primary schools.

“So to fix the primary school you may have to fix higher education.”

The Institute of Social Research

A key thread in Mamdani’s work has been encouraging critical, independent thinking among his students, and this is reflected in the Makerere Institute of Social Research’s current work.

“I came in with a mission to turn it around, from consultancy to research,” said Mamdani. Studies have found that many good researchers at African universities spend much of their time on consultancy work, which is a way to boost low salaries but is done at the expense of producing research and training postgraduates – producing the next generation of academics.

“And also combine research with training of researchers, so we introduced a PhD programme here.” The PhD programme has four disciplines – history, political economy, politics and culture – and a set of interdisciplinary requirements

“It is a five-year PhD, it was the first PhD in the social sciences and humanities here that was based on course work and not simply research. We admitted the first students in January 2012 and the second batch last month. We look forward to graduating the first set of PhDs in another three to three-and-a-half years.

“So for us it great, so long as there’s funding.” The university funds about a quarter of the programme, and the institute must look for funding for the rest. “So far we’ve been getting it.” Click here for the video clip

Under his leadership, the institute has forged ahead with work in the fields of crime in society, land policy, development-aid in service delivery, and Uganda’s notorious laws on sexuality – homosexuality is illegal in the East African country and a proposed law would make certain acts of homosexuality punishable by death.

Mamdani is keen that the institute's work focuses on current issues in Uganda and undertakes cutting-edge research that gives the institute an active voice in national dialogues.

“There are two issues in which most of our energies are working right now: one is the question of violence in public life.” The other is land policy. Two other issues in which some researchers have interest are the role of non-governmental organisations in service delivery, and how Uganda’s laws impact on sexuality.

“Those are the ways in which we connect with policy and politics.”

“We try to do two things,” said Mamdani. “One is to give a really scholarly education, so that the students are right up to date with other debates that are driving each discipline and driving research in each discipline.

“The second thing we do is the question of relevance. We try to connect our scholarly interests with day-to-day policy and society.”

With PhD students emerging well versed in the problems of contemporary Uganda, and thinking critically, there is a chance that future government policies and practices will be more effective.

Ultimately, this is the contribution that one intellectual leader hopes to make to higher education and the continent he calls home.

Some publications
  • • 2009: Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, politics, and the war on terror. Pantheon, New York.
  • • 2004: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror. Pantheon, New York.
  • • 2001: When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, nativism and genocide in Rwanda. Princeton University Press, Princeton; David Phillip, Cape Town; Fountain, Kampala; and James Currey, London.
  • • 2001: “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the political legacy of colonialism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43(4).
  • • 2000: “Indirect Rule and the Struggle for Democracy: A response to Bridget O’Laughlin.” African Affairs.
  • • 1999: “Historicizing Power and Responses to Power: Indirect rule and its reform.” Social Research 66(3).
  • • 1996: Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton University Press, Princeton; David Phillip, Cape Town; Fountain, Kampala; and James Currey, London.
  • • 1987: “Extreme but not Exceptional: Towards an analysis of the agrarian question in Uganda.” Journal of Peasant Studies 14(2).
  • • 1976: Politics and Class Formation in Uganda. Heinemann Educational Books, London; and Monthly Review Press, New York.
  • • 1973: From Citizen to Refugee. Francis Pinter Ltd, London.
  • • 1972: The Myth of Population Control: Family, class and caste in an Indian village. Monthly Review Press, New York.