Dons Can No Longer Speak Truth to Power! [opinion]

This week I had two contrastingly instructive conversations with two different people, one via email and the other in person at Makerere University. Both are ardent readers of The Observer.

The first is Remmy. We haven’t met except through the feedback forum on The Observer website and email correspondence. The second, Emmanuel, is an old friend from my student days at Makerere. Both readers have issues to pick with me but from opposite ends. Remmy’s disenchantment stems from a passing comment I made about President Museveni last week – that he was once a statesman who got trapped in clinging to power to the extent of carrying around money in sacks to rent support.

For Remmy, and indeed many other Ugandans, there is nothing positive to say about a man who has ruled Uganda longer than all previous heads of state combined. Thus, Remmy did not expect me to acknowledge that Museveni turned around our politics and economics in quite fundamental ways, put the country on a path to recovery and transformation, before he ultimately lost it when he chose to cling to power endlessly.

Unfortunately for Remmy, I can never engage in lopsided commentary, as that would be to not only betray my conscience. I had just responded to one of Remmy’s emails when I ran into Emmanuel, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. After quick pleasantries, he had some wise counsel for me: “Moses, in the current politics of Uganda,” he started, “you should be like Professor Bifuna (not real name) who maintains a neutral perspective whenever he comments.”

I listened patiently and attentively as he pressed on: “You never know what happens tomorrow. I always read your Observer column and you are openly critical of the government. You need to tone down and be neutral. That’s what Professor Bifuna does – being neutral.”

I thanked Emmanuel for his seemingly well-intentioned aice but also told him, firmly, that Professor Bifuna’s stance is the hallmark of opportunism that has come to define Uganda’s intellectual class. We want to be seen as independent analysts who don’t take positions even when there are fundamental injustices and political wrongs in society.

When we write for the wider public, which we rarely do, we deliberately make vague arguments and imprecise analyses under the pretext of being objective and balanced. It is morally wrong for an academic to take a neutral stance in the face of the kind of political decay and systematic misrule as it is under General Museveni.

It is equally unacceptable to hide under objectivity when in fact one is simply skirting around to avoid being seen as a government critic. World over, and historically, universities have been invaluable avenues for highlighting critical socio-political issues and asking questions that are discomforting to the political class.

In Uganda though, we increasingly see universities, and especially their academic staff, behaving as appendages of the government in power. During the many staff strikes at Makerere University, you hear of an utterly despicable characterisation – “NRM lecturers!” If one must openly express an opinion on the current state of our politics, they can only do so as “NRM lecturers.”

If not, as my friend Emmanuel tried to exhort me, one should be neutral in their public comments. So, rather than unequivocally speak truth to power, university academic staff keep an undignified silence. They steer clear of key political questions, just because they might seek a government consultancy so as to compensate for the paltry university salary.

Playing safe is the best bet. It leaves open the possibility of dining with the powerful and the mighty and picking some crumbs from the state dining table. It is little wonder, therefore, that the historian Pat Mwambustya Ndebesa has become the lone voice whenever journalists need a comment from a scholar on politically-sensitive or highly topical stories. Even when the university is under attack!

Although Makerere has been limping for many years and has suffered the same, perhaps even worse, institutional decay and dysfunction that we find with many public institutions, an even more insidious attack on the sanctity of a university is unfolding.

General Museveni has told the university to scrap certain courses in exchange for a salary increment. The one section of the university community that should decidedly oppose such a blatant onslaught on intellectual freedom, the academic staff, has opted to remain loudly silent.

Already on the chopping board is the bachelor’s in Development Studies, a “useless” course according to the president. Has he stopped teaching “useless” courses in all universities?

The author is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, EvanstonChicago-USA.

Source : The Observer

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