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The Decline of African Universities, Hope and Despair on the Postcolonial Campus
Although Africans were among the first creators of human civilization the modern African university owes nothing to the African genius. This is clearly the creation of the colonial state.
In the contemporary world, Africa lags behind in development regardless of the indices we use. Writer and broadcaster Ali Mazrui likened Africa to the Garden of Eden of decay a place that once had everything but now has lost everything, a king just yesterday but poor today.
But in numbers alone, African universities have grown tenfold, producing thousands of graduates. But numbers though important are not the game here. African universities seem as if they now betray little of the vibrant traditions that once animated the continent. Despite poverty and backwardness these traditions still animate rural Africa today. Consider the case of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda.
The emergence of the African novel in Ibadan and the rise of modern African art in Zaria, both events that took place in the middle of the last century, happened because colonial students who shaped the moments saw a way to reconnect with their African past and from there draw strength.
Today’s African university, whether Senegalese or Malian, has routes not to rich African traditions, but to Africa’s immediate colonial past. This is the problem. Because the colonial past is the past of despair. It represents a time when Africa lost the initiative that no one knows.
Unlike ancient Timbuktu or medieval European universities, the colonial university was not an organic institution. It does not rise from the ground. It does not provide a basis for the flowering of culture and learning. It is limited in size and scope. It admits some students, offers some carefully selected courses, taught by colonial professors. Colonial students were cultural refugees, cut off from the riches of their heritage.
There is little difference between the colonial professor and the colonial administrator. Both were steeped in colonial culture. In colonial times you could not as a white man, live in Africa except as a colonizer. Colonialism exemplified in Karen Blixen’s life in colonial Kenya is a collective thing. It is a living experience that absorbs all the people from the metropolitan countries living in the colonies.
The colonial university was however a complex thing. There is little doubt about its mission, which is to multiply the colonial state and promote colonial culture. In Africa there is a tendency to equate colonial culture with European culture. But colonial culture was not and is not European at all. Europe except for a few places now has democracy. In Africa the European colonies were heavy dictatorships, the type you encounter in many African countries today.
The colonial university emerged from the environment of debilitating conditions created by colonialism. The colonial university could not be a marketplace of ideas in the sense that Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne were and still are. But within its framework, the colonial university functioned admirably. The immaculate facade gives off the grace of a metropolitan campus, radiating peace, respectability, and wholeness. Within its four walls the contradictions of imperialism seem distant.
On the eve of independence the postcolonial state inherited the colonial university, little understanding of its complexity. Heritage is its most valuable asset. The hunger for knowledge and learning is intense and the opportunities are limited. Chinua Achebe said that the colonial university was the only good thing that colonialism did in Nigeria.
In the immediate post colony, the new President became the new Chancellor of what became an overnight national university, but it was national in name only. Nothing pleased the President more than when he appeared in full academic regalia and presided over the convocation ceremonies. Seen as a symbol of prestige, the colonial university in its post colony stage slides towards external appearance and further away from substance. At the time of colonialism, the institution really knew that its purpose understood its mission and acted accordingly. Now the new area managers do not understand the dynamics of the work but act as if everything is fine.
By the powers vested in me I entrust to all whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Science. By the powers vested in me I entrust to all whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Arts. That became the litany of the postcolonial institution. Everything eventually hinged on that. And so the regime is rooted in marks.
Ceremonies are held in postcolonial culture filled with music and modern pop culture. Modern pop suddenly became the new power in the land.
Over time the neo colonial state continued to multiply its most valuable possessions. The hunger for knowledge is so great. There is a need for men and women to learn in all kinds of fields. There is a need for all kinds of technical skills. In the postcolonial state everything is lacking.
The state truly aspires to progress and desires the development and prosperity of the people. But at the old colonial university, it was business as usual. The old colonial professors continued to do the same things they did before.
Even with the regular graduation of students the post colony university is facing an identity crisis. What does it mean to be a university? What does it mean to be African? In the post colonial campus the crisis is deep but these questions are not asked. For a society emerging from colonialism and seeking its own routes and place in the modern world, the learning and research program of the postcolonial university is ridiculous. In the late sixties in the postcolonial university of Nairobi it took a fight with determined young teachers led by the young Ngugi wa Thiongo, to get African and non European literature in the curricula.
Five decades have passed since independence the old question has now taken on an urgent tone. How have African universities failed since independence? What happened there? Is it true what Olugesun Obasanjo once said according to a Nigerian daily, that all professors are interested in are drinks and beautiful women?
In the mid-1970s a famous African Statesman famously declared in Addis, during the Summit of the Organization for African Unity, that Africa has matured. But throughout Africa even as he spoke, it was the age of the coup de tat. He himself reached the Summit with a gun.
How will Africa grow without its universities? Is that the example of Japan? Is this the epitome of the new China we saw at the Beijing Olympics? Without its universities where would Europe be? In Russia and Poland the intellectual tradition was deeply rooted.
About the postcolonial university state there is a little known novel called Marks on the Run. It was published by Ahmadu Bello University (where I teach) in 2002. Written by a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, the book provides a unique insight into what is happening in African universities. This is of course a Nigerian book but one might think that it represents a typical African reality.
Although its author is far from being a great man of letters and in many ways lacks the gift of a writer, Marks on the Run manages to let one into the world of the postcolonial university in a way that provides in experience similar to that of and site observer.
The old colonial campus is gone. No tears. In its place stood a large building, which was hastily put together. Hundreds and thousands of students attended but many had no idea why they were there. The old colonial professor is gone; no one there talks about spears, bows and arrows anymore!
But there are lecturers and professors on campus who know nothing about their disciplines, who do not represent a body of knowledge, who do not have any cultural trappings. To be sure there are exceptions. The living conditions for the students were terrible. Rented accommodation in town is worse. Indeed how anyone can learn and learn under those circumstances is beyond imagination.
The old colonial mission of “for the glory of empire” that once guided learning and the curriculum, is gone. But nothing was put in its place. In the vacuum, the regime of marks and grades, and the final certificate at the end is the center stage. It is used by the joint dictatorship of teachers and professors who ask out of context, the thing in Africa is about respect for elders. “Where are your habits?” is a constant constraint on campus.
The university has become a big business. Counterfeit traders toil in the corridors of learning hunting fake contracts to deliver fake equipment and unused reagents. More and more teachers are looking here for a place to mark time and make quick dough. For the majority of students the university became a place for choosing easy regionalgategatefront student’s student’s students the university’s university a place for easy degrees and unearned diplomas. “Where are the good times?”
Not long ago, a professor at Ahmadu Bello University said to me. Here, nobody gets their degrees. We hit them. He pointed to a group of his graduate students who were basking in the midday heat. They include some of his younger colleagues who are pursuing PhDs. Today, dashing in Nigerian terminology is giving for free.
In the novel, learning and intellectual things take a back seat; money and sex can replace ideas as the true means of academic exchange. In real life you can see this imprinted on the face of the postcolonial campus through the attention given to material possessions and the general lack of reference to academic work.
But do not despair, not all is lost in the postcolonial campus. There is now a band of talented professors and many talented and determined students – young people who love the idea of a modern and prosperous Africa. There is a battle raging in the postcolonial campus between the good, the bad and the evil. Marks on the Run by Audee T. Giwa is a report from the frontlines.
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