Last week, I had a random chat with Prof Jude Ssempebwa, my cantankerous friend from Makerere University.
It started with an article by Prof Karim Hirji that I had forwarded to him, an impassioned critique of Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s earlier paper titled ‘The African University’.
Our chat wandered from one thing to another, but mainly around the deterioration of academic standards in many African universities in general and Uganda in particular. We both agreed that, whereas they are expected to be the societal pinnacle of wisdom, universities are no exception to the general institutional decay that we witness outside university walls.
A few words ahead, we were at the issue of staffing, especially wondering how many people with no disposition to research and writing get into academic positions with the effect that in most of our universities it is only a thin percentage of ‘academics’ that are productive in research.
Some can even hardly write a well-argued essay, starting from grammar! For many, the norm is to teach and mark. Of course, many structural problems bedevil our universities today, sometimes making it difficult even for those that wish to research to do so.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t generally explain the paucity of our contribution to knowledge. Yet, still, the problematic recruitment procedures that we cited in universities are as well symptomatic of what happens in most of our institutions, both public and private.
This is how we got to the factor of culture as one of the contributors to this malaise. This is not a general appraisal of African cultures in suggestion of their inappropriateness; rather, it is an attempt to explain how some of its aspects may promote inappropriate practices in public life.
Most literature on African cultural philosophy and anthropology particularly points out a communitarian outlook as one of the key elements of African traditional societies. Society tends to take a more privileged position than the individual.
This is most prominently captured in John Mbiti’s famous coinage: ‘I am because we are.’ Some scholars have argued, though, that this is a feature of all ‘primitive’ societies, not only Africa - an interesting debate for another day.
Our society is a wide web of interconnections and allegiances layered from the nuclear family, extended family, clan, family friends, village-mates, ‘tribesmen’, religion-mates and so on. This network serves several social roles, such as buffering orphans, collective upbringing of children, promoting care for the well-being of each other, etc.
However, in here as well lies the root to many tendencies deemed corrupt in the public domain, stretching beyond our families, villages, and ‘tribes’.
In an article titled ‘Status to contract society: Africa’s integrity crisis’ (2008), Prof Edward Wamala from Makerere’s department of Philosophy observes that in such settings, quite often when we get a job, our extended family, village-mates, and tribes-mates celebrate with us.
By extension, they have also acquired a job, either through handouts from you or through job connections to where you have gained influence. This becomes worse in poor communities where the person acquiring a job could be either the only one or among the very few that have made it, with the entire clan or village now placing their hopes in him/her for jobs, fees, healthcare, food, upkeep, building houses, bills for weddings, introductions, funerals, etc.
The Baganda say, ‘akuwa obwami aba akuwadde kulya’ (whoever appoints you a chief gives you ‘eating’), but also that ‘ono alya, n’ono alya, y’emmere ewooma’ (food is delicious when others are eating too).
So, one has a long line of immediate others to eat with. Eating alone has terrible community consequences, including not being voted again or being bewitched, hated, etc... And, as Wamala notes, ‘the public is after all an alien entity.’ It is somehow okay to ‘steal’ from the impersonal public.
That is partly why a community will mobilise to demand for the release of their ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ who is implicated in corruption scandals. P.L.O. Lumumba puts it thus: ‘he is a thief, but he is our thief.’
When one gets a job somewhere where it’s imagined or understood that they command some powers of recruitment, the next day they start receiving visitors and calls pleading for some job for ‘our son’ – who may not have any relevant qualifications.
With the desire to help a relative/village-mate but also not to seem unhelpful (mean), one starts finding ways of ‘fixing’ them somewhere.
An uncle’s son, a friend’s daughter, a neighbour’s brother, an in- law, a cousin, and so on. It’s worse where institutional recruitment procedures are easily abused with no negative consequences. Sometimes such window entrants may happen to be competent, but many times not the most competent.
Just a matter of time, with the simmering nepotism and tribalism, and the organisation starts choking on incompetence as one person after the other tries to fix in their own too. Before you know it, the office goes vernacular – everyone literally feeling ‘at home.’
Why do many communities demand for ‘their own’ to be appointed into certain positions? Sometimes it is simply about feeling included, but many times it relates to joining the dining table by proxy, re-echoing Michela Wrong’s book title ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat.’
It is a conduit through which they hope to access state resources. Little wonder that our members of parliament keep demanding for more and more emoluments, with loans too.
For, on top of their own luxuries, they also have to fundraise for village markets, funerals, mosques, churches, weddings, introduction ceremonies, graduation parties, and so on. They are as well invited to officiate at launches of village SAccos and all sorts of associations, where they must contribute.
Without a commitment to creating strong institutional checks, corruption is bound to take deeper roots in societies like ours.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.