A fortnight ago, Yusuf Serunkuma, a PhD candidate at Makerere University Institute of Social Research [MISR], won a Shs 25 million High Court award in general damages and an order stopping MISR and its head Prof Mahmood Mamdani from administration, supervision and examination of the graduate student’s PhD thesis.
The ruling delivered by Justice Lydia Mugambe finally extinguished the five-year Prof Mahmood Mamdani-versus-Yusuf Serunkuma war over supervision of the graduate student’s PhD thesis.
Baker Batte Lule interviewed Serunkuma to understand the genesis of his conflict with Mamdani.
You won a case against Prof Mamdani; how does it feel?
I feel so bad for Makerere University. It should be Mamdani personally paying for his crimes. Minutes from Makerere’s top organs show they did all they could to avoid a full-blown-out court case, but Mamdani singly held them at ransom.
You can imagine all the orders the judge gave had been given by Makerere’s top organs right from December 2017, but Mamdani and Dr Josephine Ahikire consistently conspired against it. Even now, I expect very little from the college since Mamdani’s surrogate Dr Ahikire is the principal.
Mamdani was your friend? What happened?
Mamdani was my teacher; I have never been friends with him. I battled with Mamdani from the first day I walked into MISR. That was January 2012. See, when we were admitted as students, we received two admission letters. One was signed off by Mamdani, and another from Makerere University, which only came later, maybe March or February.
It is crazy how I became a student of before Makerere University actually admitted me. This is irregular but we didn’t know then, and there was plenty of goodwill for Mamdani. On either admission letters, no scholarship package is spelled out. It is a blind date. Now, see this, Mamdani tells us about the package in our first meeting in January 2012.
We would be getting Shs 100,000 as subsistence allowance. And for those who were not residents in the MISR flats, there were only two of us, would be getting another Shs 100,000 as rent per month. There was cemetery silence in the room. And then Mamdani added selfishly, “no one is here to make money!”
Of course, no one was there to make money, but this scholarship package was simply bullshit. And can you imagine, the Mamdani-admission letter demanded that we resign our jobs since we are “full scholarship” students. I had just resigned my job at Fountain Publishers where I earned about Shs 2.5m plus several project allowances. I had gotten married in 2010.
I had a family to take care of, and here is Mamdani turning me into a pauper for a student. From then on, my battles with Mamdani began. We have never been friends. And that is how I became friends with Dr Stella Nyanzi, because both of us were outspoken about Mamdani’s administration from the very beginning.
And that is how I also became the first substantive president of the Students Union in 2013. The students wanted someone brave enough to challenge evil.
But using Mamdani’s words, were you looking at a scholarship as another employment opportunity for you?
See, Mamdani failed to understand that scholarship and livelihood move together. And this really puts to question Mamdani’s entire scholarship. He is so blind to the material conditions in which scholars live. Maybe because he is on a full stomach nowadays.
Look, Mamdani only became a scholar worthy the label after going to South Africa, in a bigger economy, otherwise, here, he was a hustler. Mamdani doubled as a taxi driver in the evening to get money for food and cigarettes. So Mamdani would have been aware that money and scholarship move together.
I actually almost abandoned the PhD. In my second semester of year one, I went and applied for a job at the National Curriculum Development Centre [NCDC] and got it. But before I would officially abandon MISR, I learned that the stipend had been revised upwards to $350.
It was still small, but seemed understandable. After consulting with lots of people, I resigned my second job at NCDC and returned. The rent was never revised till about 2014, and became $200. But how could Mamdani have all this liberty to gamble with people’s livelihoods just like that, using the name of a grand old institution? You can do this only in Third World banana republics.
You say Stella Nyanzi was your friend yet you sided with Mamdani in their 2016 public quarrel…
If you ask me at a personal level, Stella Nyanzi was my close friend. Our friendship grew out of our struggles against Mamdani but also because Nyanzi and I come from literature. There was plenty for us to share, and I published some of our intellectual battles with Nyanzi in this paper.
In fact, in 2013 when choosing supervisors, as per the Graduate Students Handbook, I proposed Stella Nyanzi to co-supervise me with Okello Ogwang, but Okello refused saying they couldn’t work with her.
But our disdain for President Museveni’s mess, and our struggles with the evils of his friend, Mamdani brought us close. But in 2016, we disagreed over strategy. While we were convinced MISR could be reformed from the inside through consistent agitation, in 2016, Nyanzi and the then vice chancellor Prof [John] Ddumba-Ssentamu seemed to stand for dismantling the entire programme.
It would be difficult for us to look on as the programme was being dismantled. So we took a decision to side with the less of two evils. But we could not stand the dismantling the programme.
And as I mobilised fellow students to support Mamdani, I recall vividly telling them our fights with Mamdani were not over. We would be his next adversaries, and needed to be mentally prepared. Nyanzi told me later that we misunderstood them.
So, it was some kind of self-preservation to side with Mamdani and totally disregard the claims made by Nyanzi? In some instances even lie about the facts, according to her…
The claims that Nyanzi makes were true, and had been there for a long time. But Nyanzi embellished them quite a lot in the context of the struggle.
This became the weak line we quickly pointed out. That Mamdani was crookedly pushing her out of her office, is true, but that Mamdani locked her office is not true. Although I recall Mamdani trying to project his power by claiming Nyanzi is a liar.
You must be a difficult student taking your teacher to court?
Yes and no. It is true, I am not a very easy student. I have seen many “easy” graduate students who are abused and simply walk away. I am not easy to the point that I do not take abuse. And for me, respect is earned, not automatic.
In the Islamic tradition, you have to earn even the respect of your children, it is not given. I do not take abuse. I love the Eritrean saying that goes, “better to die like a lion than live like a dog.” Better to live like a lion. Mamdani treats his students and faculty like dogs. No wonder all self-respecting people have either left MISR or are battling Mamdani in court.
Is Mamdani incompetent as your supervisor?
First of all, Mamdani has never been my supervisor before forcing himself on my committee in late 2016. He is simply the director of MISR. If he wanted to be on my doctoral committee, he would have come early not after all my supervisors have okayed the first draft of my dissertation, and he dismisses them.
Secondly, and most importantly, I work on things that Mamdani has zero competence to supervise. And Mamdani embarrassed himself plenty of times when he attempted to offer discipline or area-specific comments. I work on popular culture, and my field site is Somaliland, northwest of Somalia, a place surviving war and violence and has been campaigning for independence from Somalia since 1991.
My project is biased in literature, and I use materials such as music, newspapers, poetry, monuments, coffeehouses, paintings to make conclusions about my world. Mamdani is utterly clueless about these things.
Mamdani has Samson Bezabeh whom he has often fronted for his mischief. But both have limited understanding of my main disciplines. Let me be clear, this is not about academic rigour, but rather discipline and field. Let me give you some examples of incompetence.
First it was Bezabeh to tell me I worked on a “coastal town,” in reference to Hargeisa, and so I should steep my project in Indian Ocean studies. Look, if you know Somaliland well, Hargeisa is about 300km from the nearest coastline, and this is basic geography.
The coastal town in Somaliland is Berbera. Then Bezabeh started gambling with the little knowledge he had about the Horn, challenging me to cite his friends who worked on the 15th century Muslim sheikhs of southern Somalia. This was simply off-topic.
See, the assumption that whoever studies Somalia has to work on Islam, violence, Mogadishu, piracy inspired their comments. I wasn’t. And they were off-topic. Then Bezabeh published a little theme book in 2016, which sounds like Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject and started insisting I cite him. I refused.
Then Mamdani came asking for street poetry in Hargeisa. Now if you live in New York, there is plenty of street poetry, but not in Hargeisa, a place recovering from war. Mamdani was using New York to ask questions about Hargeisa. He then started defining popular culture through lenses of popular uprising as they do in political science.
Things like where is, “everyday culture against the transcript?” This is political science. In popular culture, we talk about medias, channels, communicative power, when you separate the two words, popular and culture, they become something else. Then he started getting agitated over “voices of respondents.”
Again, this is deep political science. If you come from my disciplinary bias, you will know about how we make texts speak. Mamdani would ask even more heedless questions such as “what was popular culture about paintings?” This was embarrassing. But he could not get it. He simply became more and more evil.
I see a lot of changes in your doctoral committee, were the changes legitimate?
The Graduate Students Handbook is clear about when and how supervisors are changed. We never went through that. And you can imagine, Mamdani is so arrogant that he simply sends you an email announcing that you have a new team of supervisors.
MISR supervisors for doctoral students are locally appointed without any documentation, and without the oversight of the Director of Research Graduate Training [DRGT]. There is a dubious thing called the MISR Academic Board, Mamdani runs it. Also note that Mamdani has no respect for lecturers at Makerere University.
He has on several occasions called them “native informers,” “mere data gatherers.” So to this end, he is supervising almost everybody at MISR. You have seen all the students that have graduated at MISR, they have one supervisor, Mahmood Mamdani.
There was a time Mamdani submitted a list of names to the college with their supervisors, and he had 17 students against his name as the main supervisor, and was on the doctoral committees of all the others. Of course, this is irregular, but Makerere allows it to roll. If you cared enough to read, most students graduating at MISR all have one conclusion: everything is a making of the legacy of colonialism.
How come other students have not gone to court with Mamdani?
Reactions are never the same. Dr Golooba-Mutebi bitterly fell out with Mamdani in 2011, he simply resigned. He didn’t appeal or anything. Stella Nyanzi protested, appealed and also went to court. I have stopped to count the number of students and faculty that have simply walked away from MISR in frustration with the director.
Mamdani is also very lucky, the first bunch of students to fall out with him were international students; Sabatho Nyamsenda, Semeneh Ayalew, Noosim Naimasia, Bernard Baha, Ayanda Wiseman, Charles Prempeh, some Cameroonian students, and without livelihood and visa extensions, they left.
Many local students simply sought opportunities elsewhere, and this list is long. But there is me, there is Judith Ikiring. There is Vincent Niwagaba, these will go to court. And the victories are starting to come.
The VC, Prof. Nawangwe wrote to you, warning against your critical articles about Makerere University
No, that was not Nawangwe writing to me. It was Mamdani writing through the vice chancellor. This is how I know it. There are three articles attached to the warning letter, two are about the Indians in Uganda who are criminally repossessing 1972 assets, and one is about Stella Nyanzi giving Makerere the identity of a university.
See all of them speak about Mamdani directly, or his “ethnic” constituency. The letter accuses me of racism and xenophobia, common slurs thrown at whoever intellectually questions the ways in which Ugandan-Indians are repossessing assets that the Amin government actually paid for.
But also, Mamdani wrote the same accusations and attached the same articles to court over the case that I have just won. It was so simple. In the same words, and grammar. He simply sent the same things to Nawangwe to sign.
It seems like Mamdani is not about to give up, he sent in a notice of appeal … Are you not scared?
No. If you live in a banana republic, there are inconveniences you have to be at ease with. These include abuse of power, long convoluted court processes, maternal mortality, inexplicable murders, land grabs etc. Expecting them to happen gives you peace of mind, and steadiness to challenge them.