In Summary
  • Others like Arthur Kemoli were renowned oral artists whose enchanting musical compositions and performances played a huge role in spreading pro-Moi propaganda..
  • It is little wonder that after a while, these leaders would, and continue to, discard these academics in the most disgraceful of ways.

As I noted recently (Saturday Nation, May 16, 2020), dictators in postcolonial Africa continue to exploit the disciplinary distinctions between STEM and the humanities to extend their regimes in the pretext of ‘developing’ their respective countries.

And while this could be a well-known fact, what remains unclear is that the dictators would hardly design manifestos and ‘development plans’ without the willing and selfish support of some of the most brilliant humanities and social science scholars in their countries.

In short, although many dictators either shoot their way to power or cunningly masquerade as democrats until they ascend to office, what sustains them in authority is not exclusively the use of violence and other instruments of authoritarianism, but also ‘sensible’, ‘persuasive’ or even ‘necessary’ ideas propounded by respected intellectuals, who are co-opted by regimes in authority to do their bidding.

This unfortunate development is traceable to the first years of independence in Africa, where, as I suggested earlier, the pioneer African political leadership was also its intellectual elite, brimming with ideals of economic growth and development, equality before the law, democratic dispensations of their countries, and the overall dignity of the individual person.

Come the responsibilities of freedom and the taste of power, these politicians soon deviated from their ideals, greed set in, and their dictatorial fangs were unsheathed.

This led to a split in the academy at the time. While some conscientious scholars called the wayward regimes to order and, in doing so, exposed themselves to the dangers of insecure regimes, others chose self-preservation; seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil.

SCHOLARS EXPLOITED

It is from the latter group that dictators reached out for help, both in running the state while also making life tough for those who wanted a return to the ideals of freedom.

In Kenya, each leader, from Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki to Uhuru Kenyatta, used these otherwise brilliant professors, ‘renowned historians’, or ‘political scientists’, from this or that university to serve the political interests of the rulers.

These academics have routinely morphed into what Ngugi wa Thiong’o elsewhere describes as ‘the messenger class’ of the respective postcolonial draconian regimes that are sustained in the national psyche by the propaganda that the intellectuals spin.

Kenyans with a long memory would recall that historian William Ochieng served as one of Moi’s permanent secretaries, as did linguist Karega Mutahi, and sociologist Philip Mbithi, who went on to head the civil service; Benjamin Kipkorir went into diplomatic service to whitewash Kenya’s image abroad.

Others like Arthur Kemoli were renowned oral artists whose enchanting musical compositions and performances played a huge role in spreading pro-Moi propaganda.

But there was another lot of pro-system academics who remained in lecture halls, making do with positions of authority within the university, and ensuring that the curricula taught there would not only glorify the ‘achievements’ of those regimes, but also protect it.

Many of these are well-known literary critics and historians who need no naming here.

LOST OOMPH

While these academics and their friends were appointed to serve in powerful offices within and without the university, where they lived off the fat of the land, their more conscientious colleagues from the academy, such as Wanguhu Ng’ang’a, Katama Mkangi, Shadrack Guto, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who asked hard questions, were hounded into police cells and the torture chambers, where they were humiliated, charged with treason and other ‘serious’ offences, their lives ruined, some forever.

One could go on with other names, but it is unnecessary. These few are sufficient to make the point that the pro-system academics raised the respectability of the draconian regimes, and contributed to a greater degree to sustaining dictatorships.

Yet in so doing, these academics also became specimens for the dictators’ observation - their grovelling mannerisms, their lack of moral spines, their material poverty, and their general willingness to endorse ill-conceived policies and play reactionary, survivalist, politics.

All these gave the earlier dictators – Jomo and Moi – the assurance that they needed to begin disrespecting the academy in general, and the humanities in particular, a trend that Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta merely perfected.

It is little wonder that after a while, these leaders would, and continue to, discard these academics in the most disgraceful of ways.

To the general public, this trend has had a very unfortunate outcome; people have generally lost respect for the academic, and the initial respect that the public had for education and the educated has given way to a general disdain for the professoriate and more admiration for the politician who, as is plain to the general public, routinely outwits the academic.

POLITICAL CHARLATANS

This is why the honorifics associated with the academy are so commonplace that these politicians – and even preachers – now pass off as professor this or that.

Even Moi would occasionally humour himself by pronouncing himself a professor of politics.

And as is clear, many of these impostors have found it easier to claim professorial or doctoral status in the humanities and social sciences; I am yet to see a single impostor claiming to be a professor of physics or chemistry.

Having seen the ease with which political charlatans lay claim to academic honorifics, many lecturers in the humanities and social sciences have found ways of accelerating their own promotions to professorships, some of which they use to invade the public spaces hustling for ‘consultancies’ on virtually every subject under the sun, others choosing to insert themselves in the more lucrative ‘mercy industry’ that thrives on the rampant poverty pornography that is beamed to the global North for the feel-good effect of Western ‘philanthropists.’

So the social science or humanities scholar who cannot wangle a political appointment finds their way to the NGO and ‘humanitarian’ sectors, where they use their research skills for profit.

This is not wrong in itself, after all no one should suffer poverty quietly when their employers do not remunerate their labour sufficiently.

MISLEADING PERCEPTION

The problem is that these academics who allow themselves to be seduced into political service or incorporation into the non-state and non-academic spaces of service give the unfortunate impression that the academics have abdicated their role as thought leaders in society, and instead joined the gravy train of what used to be called the primitive accumulation of wealth.

Overall, all these dynamics give the impression that academics in the social sciences and humanities have little to offer the country because they have not demonstrated that they have the capacity to solve routine problems that afflict society.

This may explain why those who appear to stick to their lanes – for instance, natural scientists who focus on medical trials – appear to be doing more for society when they are actually only doing their parts.

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi