Fountain of reason: Revisiting Uganda’s Age of Enlightenment when it was revered as the Pearl of Africa  

Fountain of reason: Revisiting Uganda’s Age of Enlightenment when it was revered as the Pearl of Africa  


In the book Public Intellectuals in South Africa: Critical Voices From the Past edited by Chris Broodryk published in 2021 by Wits University Press, aimed at scholars and researchers whose academic interests and activities link with the ideas and practices of public intellectualism, and intended to engage with those whose work in academia is politically committed, we learn a lot about the virtue and value of public intellectuals.

Public intellectuals are dedicated to speaking truth to power, and who help to give voice and presence to those who have been (and possibly remain) marginalised and even silenced in especially the silenced African history.

According to Carolyn Hamilton, in his article, “Recalibrating the Deep History of Intellectual Thought in the KwaZulu-Natal Region”, which appears in the above-mentioned book, ‘public’ in the phrase ‘public intellectual’ refers to the public of the ‘public sphere’, one of the social imaginaries of a modern democracy.

Public intellectuals have long used and engaged with the arts to communicate ideas about power, identity and society. Public intellectuals have long used and engaged with the arts to communicate ideas about power, identity and society.

As Anna-Marié Jansen van Vuuren (2021) writes public intellectuals have their history, experience their tensions, different roles and different ideological conditions, according to country. According to Oxford Dictionary, the term public intellectual refers to “an intellectual who expresses views intended to a general audience”, but van Vuuren says this is a narrow definition that lacks explanatory precision. However, Collins English Dictionary defines a public intellectual as “an intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs”.

Uganda since independence has boasted of some public intellectuals, whose public intellectualism was most pronounced in the 1960s and the majority were based at Makerere University. They included Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui and Chango Macho. Abu Mayanja was an active public intellectual who was based outside the University.

The most prolific public intellectual who was willing to comment on current affairs of the 1960s was Ali Mazrui. He was known to debate with Apollo Milton Obote (and founding Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere).

Of all the public intellectuals of the 1960s and beyond, Ali Mazrui was the most dynamic and prolific. He was a widely known public intellectual, a major African public intellectual and was the subject of numerous articles and books. Mazrui witnessed the ebbs and flows of local and global events affecting Africa and the Muslim world. In both talk and writing Mazrui helped promote a different examination of the history of Africa and its present circumstances.

For 50 years, until his death on October 13, 2014, he dominated the field of African studies through 26 internationally acclaimed books and hundreds of articles, essays, interviews and appearances on radio and television programmes. On October 13, the world lost an intellectual giant who helped shape academic and scholarly understandings of Africa during a critical period for not just the continent but global history as well.

According to Al Jazeera, “Mazrui was also an early critic of the type of African communism that developed in the post-colonial era, considering it to be another dimension of western influence. More recently, Mazrui provided a critical assessment of African neo-liberal economics while remaining committed to the notion of African liberalism as a concept emerging from the historical experiences of the continent and its diverse people. Furthermore, Mazrui offered constructive analysis of Islam’s role in society and the emergence of Islamism while at the same time rejecting the emerging violence in many parts of the Muslim world. Mazrui was a global figure prepared to take on the world’s most difficult issues. He was among the first to compare Israel’s occupation of Palestine to South Africa and was an early supporter of the anti-Apartheid struggle. He was a steady critic of exploitative capitalism; US and European military interventions, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; and western intervention in the developing world”.

Ali Mazrui was a scholar and prolific author who set off a tsunami of criticism in 1986 by writing and hosting The Africans: A Triple Heritage”. Apart from a book and a television documentary based on this, his writings include: The African Conditions: A political Diagnosis; Cultural Forces in World Politics; African Institutions, AFRI Asia: A Tale of Two Continents, Cultural Engineering and Nation-Building, Africa and Other Civilisations, The Politics of Gender and the Culture of Sexuality: Western, Islamic, and African Perspectives, The political Culture of Language, The Political Values and the Educated Class, Violence and thought: essays on social tensions in Africa, The Politics of War and the Culture of Violence: North-South Essays, The Political Sociology of English Language, Soldiers and Kinsmen in Uganda and Africa: The Next Thirty Years.

He wrote or edited more than 20 books and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles. In 2005 the readers of Prospect magazine in the United Kingdom ranked Mazrui as the 73rd of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world in a list topped by Noam Chomsky.

In the 1970s, public intellectuals disappeared in Uganda. This was a period of excessive military dominations. No public intellectual was willing to comment on public issues at the time. If they did not flee the country, they assumed a conspiracy of silence. The military dictator, Idi Amin was left to dominate the public space. It was as if there were no more intellectuals or public intellectualism no longer mattered.

Ali Mazrui fled to the USA never to come back. He left a huge gap in the growth of public intellectualism in Uganda in particular and Africa in general.

In the early 1980s, there was a slow emergence of public intellectualism because the sociopolitical environment was not completely free because of the numerous rebellions against the Milton Obote second regime. The most prominent was the rebellion waged by Yoweri Museveni (today known as Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni). Even the short-lived regime of Tito Okello did not encourage the re-emergence of public intellectualism in Uganda.

However, when Yoweri Museveni seized the instruments of power in 1986, he allowed the emergence of public intellectualism. We had many Makerere University public intellectuals such as Akiiki Mujaju, Barya, Tamvaku, Oloka Onyango, Adoniya Tiberondwa, Mwambutsya Ndebesa and Oweyegha-Afunaduula. Mahmood Mamdani occasionally joined the stream of public intellectuals in Uganda, but was more of an international public intellectual. He was an intellectual giant.

Mahmood Mamdani is the writer of the 2016 online article Between the Public Intellectual and the Scholar: Decolonization and Some Post-Independence Initiatives in African Higher Education. The article explores the role and tension between the public intellectual and the scholar from the perspective of decolonization. In 2008, Mamdani was voted the ninth “top public intellectual” in the world on the list of Top 100 Public Intellectuals by Prospect Magazine (UK) and Foreign Policy (US). Mamdani specializes in the study of African and international politics, colonialism and post-colonialism, extreme violence in civil wars, the politicisation of culture, and the politics of knowledge production. He is the author of many books, including Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (2012); Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (2009); Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-liberal Reforms at Makerere University, 1989-2005 (2007); Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (2004); When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda (2001); Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996); Politics and Class Formation in Uganda (1976).

Public intellectuals in Uganda were active in much of the 1990s in public debates, on Bimeeza, (public platforms), on FM Radios, on television stations and in workshops, articulating and clarifying public issues as vigorously as possible. With the passage of time, some public intellectuals used the power of the pen without fear or favour to interact and make minds meet publicly. Initially there was little political interference. This allowed public intellectualism to gain in power and influence in the country. 

Virtually every issue of public concern attracted the minds of public intellectuals: education, health, agriculture, energy (dams), militarisation of politics, justice, food production, sale of public enterprises, industrialisation, civil society organisations, community development, taxation, environment, wildlife conservation, indigenous development, industrialisation, decentralisation, terrorism, pluralism, single party state, mafiasm, corruption, deep state, presidentialism, genetically modified organisms (GMO), freedom, East African cooperation, African unity, land grabbing, development, elections, et cetera. In their public intellectualism some degree of activism is involved. What was interesting was that minds freely clashed and often produced new knowledge, which benefited students and those that participated.

Over the years, however, the power and influence of public intellectuals have declined simultaneously with the rise in the power and influence of President Tibuhaburwa Museveni, aided by some obnoxious laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Political and Other Organizations Act, and the continuous enhancement of the power of the institution of president over and above other institutions, including parliament and the judiciary. The majority of the remaining public intellectuals of the country have chosen to coil their tails and left the articulation and clarification of issues for the people to regime functionaries, including NRM-Party leaders, resident district commissioners, ministers, local council leaders, the president himself, his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, his wife Kataha Museveni and the ideologues of the NRM regime at the Kyankwanzi ideological school, with intermittent interventions by leaders from the opposition parties.

However, the deep-sea of fear in the country has meant that intellectuals in the opposition and in the media intervene guardedly and only when they think they will not fall prey to the regime security organs. Makerere University, once the haven of public intellectualism is now near silence due to the excesses of the administration and the clogging of its structures, including the University Council and Appointments Board, with NRM regime-leaning officials.

Academics who would allocate their intellectual capital to public intellectualism have been compelled to allocate far more time and mental energy to academic survival, scholasticism and careerism. Centrally organised debates, which used to nurture public intellectuals have been almost completely stifled by fear and excessive control of knowledge labourers and students. The situation is not drastically different in the other state and private universities in the country.  All this reflects the truism that intellectual capital does not matter in Uganda any more than it did in the past.

For God and my country.

  • A Tell report / By Prof Oweyegha-Afunaduula, a former professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences of the Makerere University, Uganda
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