We will always look back at the 2016 standoff between Dr Stella Nyanzi and Prof Mahmood Mamdani as one between the state and the intellectual.
While Nyanzi stood for the intellectual, Mamdani was the scrawny state agent dressed in an intellectual’s cloak. But this nuance – a scholar facing off with a state agent – would only become clearer as the conflict twisted and turned through the throes of time. True to spirit, autocrats tend to conscript rusted celebrity scholars at universities into their ranks.
I was there, in the thick of it, racing to finish my PhD. As a powerful [former] president of the student’s union, I deeply participated in the impasse. I disagreed with both the then known ambitions and strategies that the Nyanzi camp deployed.
That Mamdani was evil was no news, but the ambition to dismantle a PhD programme we had struggled to reform – from inside – for a long time was unimaginable. (Nyanzi would explain to me later, that we got them wrong).
But while 2016 will be recalled as the year that saw Stella Nyanzi emerge as Kampala’s most exciting public intellectual and activist, it will also be recalled as the year in which his nemesis, the heavily conflicted Mahmood Mamdani, evolved as a thoroughbred regime associate.
These two share a context I need to explain. While Nyanzi’s poetic eloquence and boldness reminds us of Okot p’ Bitek, Mamdani’s uncle-Tomism is reminiscent of Karanja, the eminent comprador in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s novel A Grain of Wheat.
The story goes that then vice chancellor, Prof Ddumba-Ssentamu, while ensconced in his office trying to figure out the next steps after Nyanzi had stripped naked in protest, he received an urgent call to State House.
The president wanted to meet him and discuss the ignominy his long-time gango, Mamdani was going through. The story continues that Ddumba’s effort to explain Mamdani’s well-documented abuses, and insubordination, and the simple fact that Mamdani had clocked the age of retirement fell on Museveni’s deaf ears.
Museveni loves exploiting the law. But when Ddumba cited evidenced cases of Museveni’s abuses, and the age issue, Museveni was short of words. Tactfully, he asked and actually fixed an appointment for Prof Ddumba to meet with the sterner minister of Education and Sports, Janet Museveni. If you know, you know.
The story continues that Mrs Museveni was in no mood for lengthy negotiations. She only had two demands: (a) a letter dismissing Stella Nyanzi from Makerere University, and (b) a new five-year tenure for Mamdani as director of MISR.
When Ddumba cried that he did not have the absolute mandate to execute these demands, or that there will be legal costs in case of a suit (for other over-age academics had been simply retired, though would have loved to stay on), and terrible precedent be set with the execution of these demands, the minister of education would have neither of it. She advised Ddumba to simply find a way of doing it.
Ddumba would return to Makerere with a heavy heart. The state had just slumped its entire weight onto his old shoulders. But there was more coming. Then inspector general of police, Gen Kale Kayihura, despite not attending the meeting, had been tasked to follow up.
Before Ddumba would catch his breath, Kayihura was on the phone angrily reiterating the minister’s demands. What followed was classic tragicomedy: Mamdani would author the advert for a new MISR director, a job he would apply for and currently occupies.
An earlier advert authored by right recruiting authorities would thus be discarded and earlier applicants ignored. [Recall, Mamdani had not applied for the job on the first advert). But still defiant, Ddumba did not dismiss Nyanzi, he simply had her suspended.
The years that followed saw a complete evolution of Mamdani as a regime beneficiary to some “sophisticated surrogate.” He recently discarded all pretensions maligning the university’s staff trade union, MUASA, as “regime-change intellectuals.” The effort was to opportunistically bait his friend, Museveni. And he was successful.
This article is about Stella Nyanzi. But it is difficult to understand the evolution of Stella Nyanzi as Kampala’s most eminent activist and intellectual without putting her in that bitter context with the celebrity Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia – on a ten-year sabbatical in Kampala. [By the way, MISR is just Mamdani’s side-hustle, which explains his blatant recklessness and abuses].
While the old fire-spiting Marxist-leaning Mamdani was renowned for critiquing power, the new exploitative tribalist running MISR is high on power – enjoying the benefits of a secret friendship with Museveni.
Nyanzi quickly appreciated this Mamdani-Museveni affair and promptly re-directed her horses away from a mere beneficiary of patronage – Mahmood Mamdani – tow the holders and dispensers of it.
Indeed, her attacks on Mr and Mrs Museveni remain the most painful the couple has received in recent memory. It does not threaten their seat of government, but it hurts them deeply. And the wananchi are drumming and dancing to Nyanzi’s melodies.
The bigger point I want to make here is about Makerere University – and what it means to be a university. A university is home of free thinking individuals who use their craft and aesthetics to critique and hold power accountable.
Scholars at a university are not expected to be the best welders, mechanics or surgeons. Rather, they are thinkers, who engage in the difficult task of giving their compatriots discourse and direction – and constantly checking the evils of power.
To this end, Nyanzi gives Makerere identity as a university. I have no doubts that once liberated, a monument would be built for her at the main entrance alongside Ali Mazrui, Okot p’Bitek, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.