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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 African genius. This is by definition the creation of the colonial state.
In the contemporary world Africa lags behind in development regardless of the indicators we use. Writer and broadcaster Ali Mazroui compared Africa to paradise in decay, a place that once had everything but now has lost everything, a king only yesterday but today is poor.
But in numbers alone, African universities have grown tenfold, producing thousands of graduates. But important numbers are not the game here. African universities as they exist today betray little of the vibrant traditions that once animated the continent. Despite poverty and backwardness, these traditions still animate rural Africa today. Take the case of the Acholi people in 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 the colonial students who shaped the moments found a way to reconnect with and from their African past. There he drew strength.
The African university today, whether Senegalese or Malian, has tracks not in Africa’s rich traditions, but in Africa’s immediate colonial past. This is the problem. Because the colonial past is the past of despair. It represented a time when Africa lost the initiative and had no idea.
Unlike ancient Timbuktu or medieval European universities, the colonial university was not an organic institution. He did not leave the country. It could not offer a basis for the flourishing of culture and learning. It was limited in scope and scope. It admitted few students, offered few carefully selected courses taught by colonial professors. The colonial students were cultural refugees, cut off from the treasury of their heritage.
There was not much to distinguish the colonial professor from the colonial administrator. Both were steeped in colonial culture. During the colonial times, you could not as a white person, live in Africa except as settlers. Colonialism as demonstrated by Karen Blixen’s life in colonial Kenya was a collective thing. It was a living experience that drew all the people from the metropolitan countries who lived in the colonies.
But the colonial university was a complex thing. There was little doubt about his mission, namely the reproduction of the colonial state and the promotion of colonial culture. In Africa there is a tendency to compare colonial culture with European culture. But the colonial culture was not and is not European at all. Europe, with the exception of a few places, already had democracy. In Africa the European colonies had heavy-handed dictatorships, the kind you find today in many African countries.
The colonial university emerged from the milieu of the debilitating situation created by colonialism. The colonial university could never be a marketplace of ideas in the sense that Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne were and still are. But within it the colonial university functioned impressively. An immaculate facade gave the grace of a metropolitan campus, an air of serenity, politeness and perfection. Between its four walls the contradictions that were imperialism seemed distant.
On the eve of independence, the post-colonial state inherited the colonial university, but little understands its complexity. The inheritance was her most valuable possession. The hunger for knowledge and learning was so acute that it limited the opportunities. Chinua Achebe commented that the colonial university was the only good thing that colonialism did in Nigeria.
In the post-immediate colony, the new president became the new chancellor of what overnight became the national university, but it was national in name only. Nothing pleased the president more than when he appeared at academic events and presided over convocation ceremonies. Seen as a symbol of prestige, the colonial university in its post-colonial phase drifted towards the external and away from the material. During the period of colonialism, the Mossad knew exactly its purpose, understood its mission and acted accordingly. Now the new managers of the place did not understand the dynamics at work but acted as if everything was fine.
According to the powers granted to me, I confer upon all whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Science. According to the powers granted to me, I confer the title of Bachelor of Arts on all those whose names have been read. These have become the litany of the post-colonial establishment. Everything will eventually come down to it. And so the regime of signs took root.
The ceremonies were held in a post-colonial culture saturated with music and modern pop culture. Modern pop was suddenly the new force in Israel.
Over time the neo-colonial state continued to multiply its most valuable possessions. So acute was the hunger for knowledge. There was a need for men and women of learning in all kinds of fields. All kinds of technical skills were needed. In the post-colonial country everything was in short supply.
The country really longed for progress and the desired development and prosperity for the people. But at the old colonial university, it was business as usual. The old colonial professors continued to do the same things they had done before.
Even as it routinely graduated students, the postcolonial university faced 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 was deep but these questions were not asked. For a society emerging from colonialism and in search of its own paths and place in the modern world, the program of learning and research in the post-colonial university was laughable. At the end of the sixties at the post-colonial university in Nairobi, it took a struggle of determined young lecturers led by the then young Ngoji Wa Thiong’o to accept African rather than European literature on the curricula.
Five decades since independence, the old question now takes on an urgent tone. How have the universities in Africa fared since independence? What is going on there? Is it true what Ologson Obasanjo once said according to a Nigerian daily, that all the professors were interested in was drinks and pretty girls?
In the mid-seventies, a famous African statesman declared in Addis, during the summit of the Organization of African Unity, that Africa had come of age. But in all of Africa even as he spoke, it was the age of revolution. He himself earned his way to the top with the gun.
How can Africa mature without its universities? Was this Japan’s example? Is this the example 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 well rooted.
There is a little-known novel about the state of the post-colonial university called Marks on the Run. It was published at Ahmadu Bello University (where I taught) in 2002. The book was written by a lecturer from Ahmadu Bello University, and provides a rare insight into what is really happening in universities in Africa. It is of course a Nigerian book but it can be assumed that it generally represents the African reality.
Although its author is far from a great man of letters and in many ways lacks the talent of a writer, Marx on the Run manages to introduce one to the world of the post-colonial university in a way that gives the experience similar to that of a viewer on a website.
The old colonial campus is no more. without tears In its place stands a huge structure, put together in a hurry. Hundreds and thousands of students participate but many have no idea why they are 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 almost nothing about their disciplines, who do not represent a body of knowledge, who do not have any characteristics of culture. Of course there are exceptions. The living conditions for students are appalling. Rented accommodation in the city is worse. Really, how anyone can study and learn under these conditions is beyond imagination.
The old colonial mission of “for the glory of the empire” that once guided learning and curricula is gone. But nothing was put in its place. In the empty space, the grading system and grades and the final certificate at the end take center stage. It is operated through a combined dictatorship of lecturers and professors who state, out of context, the African interest in valuing elders. “Where are your manners?” is a regular chant on campus.
The university has become a big business. Fake businessmen haunt the halls of learning hunting fake contracts to supply fake equipment and unused reagents. An increasing number of lecturers find a place here to mark time and make quick dough. For most students, the university became a place to pick easy grades and unearned certificates, far from the rigor and discipline of the colonial university. “Where did the good times go?”
Not long ago, a professor from Ahmadu Bello University told me. Here, no one earns their title. We knock them out. He pointed to a group of his own graduate students huddled under the shade in the midday heat. They included some of his younger colleagues studying for the Ph.D. Now, to jump in Nigerian terminology is to give for free.
In the novel, learning and intellectual things take a back seat; Money and sex will replace ideas as the true way of academic exchange. In real life this is seen embedded across the post-colonial campus through the attention to material possessions and the general lack of regard for academic work.
But don’t despair, all is not lost on the post-colonial campus. There is a group of gifted professors and dozens of talented and determined students – young people in love with the idea of a modern and prosperous Africa. On the post-colonial campus there is a battle between the good, the bad and the ugly. Signs on the Run by Audee T. Giwa is a report from the front.
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