In informal academic circles, Makerere is often referred to as the ‘Harvard’ of Africa.
While the University of Cape Town is arguably the top ranked University in Africa, there is something special about Makerere over and above its other peers like the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, the University of Nairobi and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
Makerere rightfully supplanted the University of London as the birthplace of East Africa’s centres of higher learning.
In many ways, Makerere was the cradle that not only fashioned the leading intellectuals of the time but was also the university that gave East Africa some of its most transformational political leaders.
Mecca of knowledge
From Julius Nyerere, Benjamin Mkapa, Milton Obote, and Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki and more recently, Congo’s Joseph Kabila, Makerere nourished the social, economic and political space of the region in ways that are matchless. It was the mecca of knowledge. For the bright East Africans growing under colonial rule, it was either Makerere or nothing else.
Makerere still boasts East Africa’s pantheon of the all-time greats-men and women of letters such as David Rubadiri, John Ruganda, Nuruddin Farah, Ngugi wa Thion’go, Okello Oculli; Okot’PBitek, Mahmood Mamdani and historian Bethwell Ogot. Even Africa’s most influential public intellectual in the past decade, Ali Mazrui, began his academic career there.
It is therefore not surprising when ambitious politicians seek to draw on this vast cultural capital.
So, when on December 21, 2019 Makerere University proclaimed that it was inaugurating the William Ruto Centre for Leadership and African Studies -- oddly on Ruto’s birthday -- it was a both a grim reflection of the treacherous path that the university has trodden, and a sign that the once Harvard of Africa is in desperate need of advice.
I understand that the direction to set up the centre was a presidential directive, and the university merely acquiesced to political muscle.
There is virtually no problem in Ruto, or any other politician, walking into a campus and donating centres or immortalising their contributions to society. What worries are the contradictions endemic to the entire project.
First, Ruto has been pretty vocal about the need to drastically cut back training on social sciences and the humanities, and instead invest more on vocational training.
To buttress his point, Ruto has derisively dismissed the value of studies such as History, arguing that merely knowing Vasco da Gama journeyed to the East Africa’s coast is not terribly useful.
Yet, among objectives of the institute to be named after him, is the extensive, if not exclusive use of knowledge and methods from the humanities and social sciences. It is hard to believe it, but oddly as it sounds, one aim of the proposed centre is to establish an environment for flourishing study and debate on African languages, arts, philosophies, social and political systems. Another objective is to enhance and enrich intellectual and cultural life. These objectives speak to a humanities orientation.
I would have imagined that a self-confessed agitator of occupational training, a despiser of the arts, would have given preference to establishing a technical, or vocational facility to immortalise his name in a range of crafts.
But the contradiction and ambivalences of the proposed centre does not end there. I have had the honour of visiting many African universities.
I can bet the family heifer that Makerere University will be the first in the continent that created an institute in the hope that the person receiving the honour would one day be President.
And that he would go on to become an exemplary leader worthy of such honorific recognition as to invest academic infrastructure to his name. That is a gamble Makerere have taken and only time will vindicate them.
The Makerere brand is at stake. There is a pattern of well beaten path to naming academic facilities in African Universities. Ghana’s Institute of African Studies centre is named after Kwame Nkrumah in honour of his credentials as a pan Africanist and one of the founding fathers of the African Union, formerly the OAU.
No African leader comes close to Nelson Mandela, not just for the academic centres named in his honour, but for the sheer number of entire institutions honouring his selfless leadership and enormous sacrifice to humanity. Julius Nyerere has an imposing Chinese built edifice named after him at the beautiful campus of University of Dar es Salaam as the adored father of his nation.
Would it have been wiser for Ruto to defer his appetite for honour and recognition from the university until his public career is over, or in its sunset? So that his own legacy nourishes the momentum of ‘naming things’ rather than political coercion.
Beyond Ruto’s impulsive craving to be Kenya’s President, I find it difficult to point one thing of altruistic value, of lasting impact, of tested and enduring service to humanity as to warrant an entire institute in Makerere University to be named after him.
Not that he is not a good man, but everything about the optics of the exercise was problematic.
The timing with his birthday, even if by happenstance, recalls his previous birthday which also coincided with his graduation with a doctoral degree from the University of Nairobi.
It is possible that Ruto’s birthdays seem to overlap with important academic milestones, but it might also be evidence that the mix between politics and academia in the region has now reached worrying levels. But more fundamentally, would it have been wiser, not just for William Ruto, but also for all other political and business leaders, to have followed the path of individuals such as industrialist Manu Chandaria? Chandaria’s philanthropic influence in academic research and infrastructure locally is plain for all to see.
True and honest charity begins at home. Not abroad.
-- Dr Omanga works for the Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn (NYC)
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