UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture: The Political Economy of Violence in African Universities
The intellectual and the university as the mediator of knowledge, ignorance or mediocrity, have been at the centre of power and powerlessness in the postcolony in Africa. The ambivalent position and importance of the university as an institution lie in its appeal both to the reactionary and revolutionary forces in society. Thus, while autocratic regimes have traditionally drawn from universities and co-opted intellectuals to provide the conceptual noises they have needed to justify their excesses, promote a culture of violence and silence, and foster mediocrity, disempowered arms of civil society have also, in their helplessness, sought to recruit their torchbearers and messiahs from the universities. Indeed, at the same time that most university authorities and some lecturers have tended to side with repressive regimes, more progressive ones and most students have been at the forefront of liberation struggles all over the continent. The position and reality of the university as a bridge between state and civil society account for its ambiguity and predicament. The university is pivotal role in the current democratic processes in Africa, and how well society stays on the rails or excels in dissemblances vis-à-vis democracy and excellence, could arguably depend not only on the vested interests of staff and students, but also on their quality and the quality of knowledge they produce.
This ambiguous appeal of the university and intellectual calls for a critical distinction between universities and intellectuals that are free from political and economic constraints on the one hand, and those that are subjugated by party political affiliations or the diktats of financial and economic dependence of all kinds. While conscious of the relationship of unequal exchange that such constraints could occasion between African universities and more endowed and more autonomous universities elsewhere, the emphasis here is on how the postcolonial state in Africa has sought to skew the balance in its favour, especially in the last decade (1990s) when the modes of access to power and knowledge have increasingly been contested by other forces in society. In this connection, it is of particular importance to understand the dynamics of African universities through the extent to which various states have sought to control universities and intellectual production through physical and symbolic violence, and to understand the form that violence takes (e.g. censorship, the political commodification of knowledge translatable into privilege and office, and the evacuation of meritocracy and collegial democracy). It is of interest to seek to know to what extent has survival politics triumphed over genuine democratisation, creating in the process a type of intellectual that seems more preoccupied by politics of upward mobility than with theoretical activities and the pursuit of science and knowledge. In other words, how have diminishing resources for universities and the loss in value of academic qualifications engendered or exacerbated opportunism, corruption, mediocrity and politicisation in academic circles? With what consequences? How do academics, who have for one reason or another abandoned their vanguard role in favour of vested political interests, justify their options?
Although universities are in themselves highly hierarchical and undemocratic institutions, they are still expected to play the conventional role of serving as liminal spaces that privilege dialogical reciprocity. As such, they should be, par excellence, sites for the practice of democracy. However, given their very seductiveness to reactionary and revolutionary forces alike, intellectuals and universities have the potential to play the double-edged sword. It is therefore not surprising that in Africa both the state and civil society have tended to appropriate universities in the quest for justifications to their competing versions of societal projects. And African scholars have, quite predicatably, produced competing, if not conflicting agendas or visions for state legitimation or deconstruction. Various strategies have been used by the state on the one hand to police the production of subversive literature, and by some contending forces (e.g. opposition parties, critical media, NGOs, churches, trade unions, student organisations, etc.) on the other, to enable the very production. The role African universities have actually played in various struggles including the current democratisation process, could serve as a barometer for state commitment to institutional change on the one hand, and resistance to state repression or manipulation on the other. If premium is on containment rather on facilitation and empowerment, then criteria for appointment to and retainment in universities of lecturers and/or administrators would be loyalty not meritocracy, gate-keeping not instruction. Modes of selection or access to power, it could be argued, have impact upon or indeed determine modes of perception and commitment to promoting scholarship. To this end, operational principles used in African universities as microcosms of society are therefore revealing. Thus, if bias is introduced into the employment process to ensure the recruitment of ideologues and an emphasis placed on a subjecting pedagogy, then it is improbable that such a university could become a fertile ground for a democratic culture. But it certainly would be a ground for serious conflicts, latent or overt, as the dominant ideology seeks to reproduce itself through mediocrity and the blunting of the intellect. University education finds itself in crisis, as vacillation and dissemblance over reform become the order of the day and protecting vested interests the overriding concern.
Intellectuals and universities, the knowledge they produce, and the services they provide to processes of democratisation or its obfuscation, are shaped by nonstate local institutions and international contexts as well. The relationship of intellectuals and university personnel to the state and its programmes must be understood in relation to other sponsors of intellectual production and other venues for the propagation of knowledge, many of which also sit ambivalently between civil society and the state. Academics in Africa work not only within local discourses, but in relation to transnational disciplinary debates. How do African scholars mediate the international discourses of their disciplines with the intellectual and political demands of local contexts? Academics and other intellectuals are also often engaged by NGOs, whose programmes are either tied into the silencing needs of the autocratic state or into worldwide, "universalist humanitarian" discourses whose terms may reproduce mediocrity and banality and stifle the development of an indigenous African intellectual renaissance. Intellectuals may be drawn to the various media - literary, reporting and commenting, other research centres, film, public lectures - as an alternative venue to the universities and state institutions, but the role of these media themselves as genuine participants in a democratising civil society or as complicit in processes of silencing, delimiting legitimate knowledge, and underwriting state extractions, must be carefully scrutinized.
Violence in the African university, the political commodification of knowledge, the uncertain status of the scholar/academic in local socio-political hierarchies, must all be examined closely in terms of parallel contradictions at the global level. Programmes of structural adjustment and the unequal flows of labour, capital, and knowledge are reproduced within the African academy significantly mediated by the often self-serving and extractive programmes of African states. Global economics, transnational disciplinary discourses, national welfare, state political programmes, the local university, and local social affiliations set up competing horizons within which intellectuals must establish orientations and affinities, often with a significant measure of ambivalence. While some African intellectuals may be compelled (for various reasons including economic hardship and political repression) to pursue careers elsewhere, for those who remain within Africa, the question is one of how intellectual orientations are formed, how different interests are recognized and articulated, and what limitations are placed on the pursuit of these interests.
Contradictory expectations in the role of the African academic, for example, in promoting a culture of autocracy and/or democracy, should allow him/her to contribute to the cutting edge of scholarship. Surprisingly, they have produced only a few narratives, which though only passing references in the literature, point to a rich body of knowledge out there needing to be harnessed. Only by doing this will African scholars contribute to the cultural revival of the continent, even if this contribution takes the form of a move forward to the past, as Mazrui would have it. Which factors account for the failure of this prise de conscience? Could it be the fact that higher education as a valid field of study and research in the social sciences is yet to make its mark in Africa?
Answering these questions and others is precisely what we would like to achieve in this special issue of African Studies Review on African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture: The Political Economy of Violence in African Universities. Since this requires firsthand experiences rich in ethnographic detail, we would like to address the call for articles to: (a) scholars teaching and doing research in African universities who can reflectively comment on and provide informed analysis of the crisis and violence in African universities, and their role in the democratisation process; and (b) scholars and/or researchers working specifically in the field of study of higher education or universities in Africa, and who have actually taken time to investigate developments and happenings in this area with necessary methodological rigour and social scientific insight.
Contributions are welcome from any disciplinary background or standpoint in the humanities and social sciences. Although a very political topic, we are not interested in articles that are merely political tracts. The articles should be more scholarly than descriptively political, even if they are about political situations, as is bound to be the case. Final drafts for consideration must be received by 15 January 2001. Interested scholars should send abstracts and inquiries to either or both of the following addresses:
Dr Francis B. Nyamnjoh
Department of Sociology
FSS, University of Botswana
Private Bag UB00705 Gaborone, Botswana
Fax: (267) 585099
Dr Ben N. Jua
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