I last heard the term “brilliant polemicist” in reference not to Christopher Hitchens, who is dead now, but to another man of letters, Uganda’s own, Professor Mahmood Mamdani. It was a description another professor, a leader in the field of American political science gave him.
At the time I was “investigating” part time if Mahmood’s decision to return to the old Ivory Tower at Makerere had anything to do with his anti-establishment views on such things as US/Western policy in Darfur and the war in Iraq. Darfur was particularly bruising and Mamdani was given as good as he gave. Universities like any other institution have their politics- and therefore by extension academia too has its biases. But trading the ivy on the walls of Columbia for the peeling paints, potholes and chaos of MAK must have required some introspection. Mahmood now splits his time between Columbia and Makerere, though it is in his former Alma meter that he sees as his intellectual home.
As I was contemplating eulogizing Hitchens or rather what the man stood for, I looked up the email that I wrote to Mahmood. It made reference to the boom times of African intellectual thought and debate in the 60’s that was curated briefly in the literary magazine Transition that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. My request was that Mamdani somehow attempt to return to Kampala with the magazine- in a sense to restore the badly needed culture of critical debate that is like a long departed relative nowadays only spoken of with nostalgia by “men” of a certain age.
“My decision has more to do with Makerere than with Columbia, and beyond that, to my own relationship to home and my sense of priorities at this stage in my scholarly life” Mamdani wrote, saying no lobby, for which Columbia had a reputation, had forced his hand. Be as it may having an in-country polemicist is not the same as having a polemicist with the sort of gumption, skill and audience that Christopher Hitchens had. In fact the dearth of polemicism embryo-ed in the Transition, albeit briefly is not just about the eventual banishing of free and healthy debate in Uganda and around Africa but a central theme in the unhelpful reverence that the continent has assigned to many of its age-old myths.
With African Hitchens or Hitchenzian muckraking some of these myths and stereotypes perhaps would not occupy the haloed position they do. They persist because alternatives have refused to emerge. And alternatives have remained absent because debate on them is either stifled or passed over by conformity and intellectual laziness. No wonder the idea that “ Africa is a country” is shamefully resilient despite the obvious diversity on the continent. It is easier to refer to Africa by its geography than anything else. In this respect I welcome Michelle Bachman’s ignorant comment on how Barack Obama had taken America to Libya and now (after the deployment of US special forces in Uganda) sought to extend this to “Africa”. Libya in many ways is not Africa and in other ways it is. Libyans massacred many black Africans in their so-called revolution but that there is no clarity on such issues is not a reflection on the blonde streaks of Michelle Bachman’s hair (incidentally she has an ex-Ugandan/American advisor and gun-selling evangelist on her staff) but a joke on Africans themselves. No one mistakes Turkey to be in the Middle East even if she is Arab and Muslim. If we had our own Hitchens may be we could throw them at this constant reduction of what Africa means or is. Maybe.
Well, as I write this for example, Uganda, which turns 50 next year, is in the throes of two re-stated but hardly debated myths. One is that Africans are gay haters (Uganda has a bill now infamously referred to as the “Kill the Gays Bill) and secondly that Africa is a continent under siege from agents of neo-colonialism. This is not to say that Ugandans or other Africans are not culturally conservative or even whether cultural conservativeness is in fact a given. But this is certainly an issue that has been fabricated in the un-debated and un-interrogated ferment of intellectual inertia that has become fashionable in the country.
I for one look aghast at the hoopla over Uganda as ‘the worst” place for gays and ask if its not a worser place just to be a citizen. One’s rights of any variety can be deprived in my country quite arbitrarily and sometimes even without a whimper from the self-righteous defenders of sexual freedoms and the so-called community of conscience. When I blogged here that sexual violence against men occurred mainly in Ugandan prisons, which are populated by men whose crimes are often badly investigated and prosecuted as the criminal justice system is wont to do, few thought it a fitting rebuke to this obsession with whether consensual sex between men aught to take you to jail. One can judge a country by its prison inhabitants.
In Uganda they are often young, poor and after their alleged crimes – are double victims of the snails pace of justice. Meanwhile outside the official gays – including friends of mine are handholding, barhopping and frequent flyer types who despite Uganda’s track record of persecuting its own citizens (and if you believe the hype of gay persecution) have room to offer their views on minority rights at press conferences and in meetings around the country. This clearly is a nuanced field that a little Hitchenzian clarity could help with. Maybe.
Another staple of “debate” has been the colonial bogeyman. If colonial Britain imposed formal laws on sexual relations including criminalizing homosexuality (while it raped the resources of its colonies in its civilizing mission) it’s the leaders of Britain today who seek to do the reverse- impose penalties (aid cuts) for countries like Uganda that “mistreat” gays. It must be odd that African leaders, like Museveni, find themselves defending conservatism that was consecrated via British made law whose advancement is now opposed by the same forces.
All this is happening when modern Africa has had perhaps its most notable episodes of external aggression with the removal by force of the leaders of Libya and Ivory Coast and the imposition of external justice at The Hague. The thing about politics is that it is about competition. In this sense again there is no denying that African countries and their resources remain attractive to external appropriation and its cultural explanation. However what appears static here is Africa as a victim. Perpetual victimhood cannot be entirely the fault of perpetrator. If only Hitchens did colonialism as he did religion maybe we could arrive at some clarity here too. Hitchens would have to be black and indigenous of course to have that impact. Maybe.
Despite all the ink on the subject of African responsibilities – little headway has been made in seeing Africans not as victims but as victimizers for the large part or victims of their own folly. The popular debate still remains of the Africa at the time before Transition that was an object of civilized pity, a creation of the brutality of outsiders who now needed to atone for their sins against its innocent suffering. While that picture is true, even much truer is the Africa that is intolerant, petty, corrupting of its own cultural possibilities, violently negligent and eager either through a lack of confidence or simply a Stockholm syndrome- to pass the buck to former colonizers. If Hitchens did colonialism now would be a time to look at the so-called neo-colonialist scramble for “African” resources by the pincer action of the West and China through African lenses.
The problem is that African lenses tend to see things the same way, a mono-vision that is pervasive and comforting, promoted if not by design then by default because if Hitchens ( being water boarded across) were African he would be dead already in a Ugandan prison, an Eritrean one, a Congolese car-boot or Libyan dessert or the many undisclosed places of detention that flourish here, paid for often with donor aid and squandered taxes and with training, expertise and equipment offered by institutions abroad- from the countries who at every continental talk-shop we like to refer to as our oppressors. Mamdani would have to be a Hitchens on steroids to make his mark here.
Rest in Peace.