102. The Afropolitan Intellectual

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 07 April 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: The Nordic Africa Institute /Susanne Linderos.

Thandika Mkandawire, who died on 27 March 2020 at the age of 79, was the ultimate Afropolitan intellectual. He was not only a dyed-in-the-wool Pan-Africanist, but a cosmopolitan citizen of the world. Born of a Malawian father and a Zimbabwean mother, he grew up in both countries, and then spent the rest of his life in the US, Zimbabwe, Senegal, and Europe. Also a Swedish citizen, he was married to a Swede, and died in Stockholm.   As a young firebrand who came of age under British colonial rule, Mkandawire was involved in Malawi’s independence struggle. He was arrested in 1960 after protesting against British prime minister, Harold Macmillan’s visit to Blantyre on his “Winds of Change” tour of Africa. Thandika won a scholarship to study journalism at Ohio State University in the US, and was then exiled from Malawi for three decades by the country’s erratic dictator, Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

Mkandawire headed the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS) from 1982 to 1985, helping to train the country’s first post-independence generation of social scientists. He helped to found the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar in 1978, which he headed from 1985 to 1996. CODESRIA produced some of the best research on the continent on issues of militarism, class struggle, social movements, and socio-economic development. But critics complained that this rich harvest was not well disseminated, and thus did not directly challenge literature on Africa in Western policy and academic circles. Others regarded CODESRIA as a cult of heretical leftist scholars who lacked ideological diversity. But the impact of the think-tank in promoting Pan-African discourses was never in doubt.

Mkandawire spent 1996 to 2006 leading the Geneva-based United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) which lacked the policy influence of the Addis Ababa-based UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), particularly under its flamboyant Nigerian head, Adebayo Adedeji.  Thandika then went on to occupy the Chair in African Development at the London School of Economics (LSE) where his inaugural lecture, “Africa Must Run while Others Walk,” borrowed its title from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. He ended his illustrious career at Sweden’s Institute For Future Studies.  He was also a Visiting  Professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and a great admirer of Nelson Mandela.

One of Mkandawire’s most celebrated articles was his magisterial Nyerere Lecture, “Fifty Years of African Independence,” delivered at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2013. In it, he stressed the commitment and courage of African nationalism in driving the continent’s successful liberation struggle, while bemoaning more contemporary ahistorical approaches to assessing Africa’s challenges which often dismissed the impact of slavery, colonialism, and the Cold War. Thandika was, however, equally unsparing in his criticisms of African civilian and military autocrats who manipulated fears of disunity to justify tyrannical rule. He further derided Western scholars who propounded pseudo-theories about the “routinization of charisma” to justify such autocracy.

Mkandawire observed that many of the draconian laws adopted by African leaders were inherited from colonial powers, further arguing that the Cold War’s superpower patrons cultivated autocratic rulers. He highlighted the fact that African countries grew rapidly between 1960 and 1975, massively expanding education and health. He praised Africa’s pragmatic decision to freeze colonial borders for reducing inter-state conflicts. Thandika countered the notion that Africans had simply retreated into national shells after independence, noting that Africa “is the most sung about, the most painted, the most sculptured and carved of any continent.”

Mkandawire wondered why Africa, like Asia, had not been able to produce “developmental states” that effectively promoted industrialisation. He, however, consistently insisted on the importance of democratic governance, and was critical of Western-backed “developmental” autocrats like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi who ran “choiceless democracies.” He further bemoaned the failure of African leaders to diversify their economies, and particularly castigated their inability to embrace genuine regional integration.

Thandika was one of the most eloquent critics of the World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the 1980s and 1990s. He noted that the Bretton Woods institutions had launched these diabolical experiments on African guinea-pigs involving large enforced cuts in health, education, and employment. These reforms often undermined democratic governance and fuelled social unrest. As Mkandawire noted, the main features of the SAPs involved massive increases in social inequality; neglect of infrastructure; lack of indigenous ownership of development programmes; technological dependence; the retrenchment of the state; and a damaging one-size-fits-all model. Thandika further stressed that Africa’s economic recovery by 1995, was based on its exports to Asia doubling to 27%, and had not created sufficient employment. With the Chinese boom slowing, he cautioned against the fragility of Africa’s “growth without development” approach and massive de-industrialisation, based not on greater production, but on higher prices.

Mkandawire played the role of the public intellectual for much of his life, courageously confronting the stereotyping of Africa by leading Western scholars who often produced “heavily-footnoted travelogue” and lazy analyses that lacked an empirical basis. There were no sacred cows or intellectual demigods spared in these often conceptually brilliant, elegantly lucid, but stinging critiques. Thandika methodically demolished British economist, Paul Collier’s notorious thesis that African civil wars could be attributed more to the greed of rebel movements than to genuine group grievances. He described British academic Stephen Ellis’s work on Liberia’s civil war as “poorly veiled” racist writing that suggested that “there is something fundamentally wrong with African culture.” Mkandawire instead reminded readers of the urban roots of African rebel movements in explaining their brutality against rural peasants. He ridiculed American academic, Jeffrey Sachs, as a “poverty-reduction Band Aid guru” who moved seamlessly between Davos and the World Social Forum. He criticised the lack of empirical rigour in the work of American political economist, Robert Bates, and condemned the prejudiced “neo-patrimonial” analysis of scholars like Frenchman, Jean-François Bayart, and American, William Reno.

Mkandawire’s career was devoted to restoring Africa’s humanity. He was optimistic about Africa’s next generation, though he worried about their “naïve cosmopolitanism.” Many have remarked on Thandika’s sardonic wit. Despite his deep commitment and sharp academic jabs, he was an amiable bon vivant, often clad in the smart jackets so beloved of Western-trained African academics. Having lived most of his life in the global diaspora, Thandika was a strong believer in rebuilding bridges between Africa and its scattered descendants, noting that “a detatched diaspora would be like a head without a body.”

Not only did Mkandawire admire such historical figures as Edward Blyden, W.E.B. du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Bob Marley, he also felt that the 2018 blockbuster movie, Black Panther, “contributed in a spectacular way to the cultural underpinnings and imaginary of Pan-Africanism.” For him, “a new Pan-Africanism must be democratically anchored and based on notions of solidarity and collective self-reliance.” Tanzanian scholar, Issa Shivji, offered perhaps the most fitting tribute to his friend in 2013: “For Thandika the whole continent is his country…He is an African first, an African last and an African always. The Pan-African spirit resides in him.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.