I was last weekend invited to Makerere University’s 90th birthday and asked to make remarks on the theme, “Leadership towards Africa’s Transformation in the 21st Century”.
Reflecting on this subject, a few home truths struck me.
How can African universities claim a place of honour in, and fully benefit from, a world that is increasingly interested in our resources and geopolitical relevance?
But first things first. Ninety years is, by all means, a long time. For Makerere, it is not the number of the years alone, rather it is the institution’s iconic and illustrious story.
Any university worth its salt should aspire to influence the course of human progress. If and when this becomes the default culture of the intellectual and academic pursuits of our universities, it will provide the sources of light in an array of spheres of human interest and inquiry.
The university will do Africa a great service to provoke us to rethink such core fundamentals as work ethics, self-doubt and ethnicity and human diversity.
Thankfully, our older universities around the continent boast a pantheon of luminaries and the legacies they are known by. By the same token, deep inside and on the sidelines of Makerere’s nine decades of excellence is a rich legacy of memorable firsts. These legacies must now find their way into the fabric of Africa’s statecraft.
A few case studies are available to us from a number of our region’s post-Independence leaders. These include Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Uganda’s Milton Obote, Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa and DRC’s Joseph Kabila.
Also embedded in Makerere’s alumni, faculty and associates is a group of distinguished Men and Women of Letters whose immense and timeless influence is of global proportion.
These include Nuruddin Farah, Ali Mazrui, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, V.S. Naipaul and Peter Nazareth. A way of fusing hindsight, insight and foresight through the individual stories of our universities’ alumni can form a foundation that bequeaths our fountain of knowledge a solid primacy of place in our history.
The Makerere of the 1950s and ‘60s was an unprecedented melting pot of Africa’s rich diversity. Back in the day, there was hardly another arena in sub-Saharan Africa where diverse cultures, religions and belief systems mingled and interrogated each other freely across the entire spectrum of intellectual inquiry. That boundless cultural Bluetooth enriched mindsets of thousands and should be the primary quest of universities.
Perhaps Makerere’s most profound attribute is its indomitable resilience. During the regrettable years when political turmoil beset Uganda, Makerere was the one institution that stood the tempest as if nothing adverse were afoot.
The important lesson here is that our institutional, moral and intellectual watersheds must be built upon solid rock to ensure a throwback does not find communities of nations intellectually rudderless.
As we move deeper into the 21st Century, our universities must join the leaders of their nations in the search for answers to Africa’s persistent challenges of poverty and disease in the midst of plenty.
Our institutions of higher learning owe the people answers to the following two, among other, questions: One, how do we instil an industrial-strength work ethic and visionary culture among, especially the youth, so they embark on modern use of African resources and how do we provide them the post-industrial digital tools and expertise to facilitate this ethos?
Two, what concrete measures should we take to lift our citizenry from poverty to a people with dignity and unassailable self-confidence? How do we empower our people to ably play their part in shaping the destiny of the community of modern nations?
It’s now the turn of young scholars to break new ground for Africa’s resurgence through innovative research geared towards African transformation. Younger intellectuals should expand our horizons of imagination and creativity to forge practical solutions that can yield measurable results.
Greek philosopher Plato discerned the genesis of genius at the very outset of intellect and learning, when he observed, 24 centuries ago: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”
To be globally relevant, Africa must unleash the dormant power and genius trapped in and available to its institutions of higher learning.
Mr Kibaki is a Makerere alumna and third President of Kenya, December 30, 2002-April 8, 2013