Thandika Mkandawire the Boss

I do not like funeral orations. They announce, with brutality and despair, the disappearance of a loved one who has marked his time and left a mark. They strive to tell a story, to unearth a remarkable contribution, to bear witness to its closure, even if we claim continuity. Notwithstanding our efforts, funeral orations signal death; they bury a person and leave only a trace and seal a life.

What shall I say about Thandika? What testimony accounts for the complexity of his personality? Following the departure of my colleague Zenebeworke Tadese, of the Publications department, who personally approached me, he recruited me to assist in setting up the CODESRIA research program. I knew CODESRIA publication, some of its organizers, without being familiar with either them, or the institution. I arrived as my colleague Boubacar Barry left the Council.

Economists and other political economy and social science specialists, but also his closest friends, Issa Shivji, Peter Anyang Nyong’o, Mahmood Mamdani, Zene Tadese, and his compatriot and young brother Paul Zeleza, offer (will offer) testimonies that, with a profusion of detail, will set him in academic and human landscapes, where his strong personality and his qualities are displayed with disarming sincerity. They will certainly question his scientific contribution and measure the results of its untiring efforts to ensure the sustainability and scientific yield of the African institution that, in a world troubled by the consequences of the Cold War, the crisis of post-colonial states, linguistic divides and an array of knowledge production and training traditions, showcased itself on the academic stage. Some of them will decipher his iconoclastic questions, and his arguments, fed by a considerable documentation, produced through continent-wide poaching.

Two issues, on which he did not specifically elaborate though, inform his research: First, the past and future of a (conquering) capitalism carried by an “African” bourgeoisie. Thandika was the advocate of a thorough investigation of the manifestations of this nascent “African” capitalism stifled by colonialism (in the colonies of Gold Coast, Kenya and South Africa and), and postcolonial regimes (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana). On the other hand, he questioned the “pan-African” commitments of two “resolutely neocolonial” countries, resisting all “socialisms”, even an African one: His country of birth, Malawi and Côte d’Ivoire. The two countries have, for at least three decades, received migrants from neighboring countries. Migrants were granted the right to vote in Côte d’Ivoire. His hypothesis remains to be verified by future research: Malawian and Ivorian plantation economies were heavy labor consumers.

Rightly or not, I have always thought that some of these iconoclastic issues, including the two I selected, to which may be added his participation in democratic transitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, are the reason of his interest in the study of structural adjustment programs. A maneuver that, despite his proclamations, systematically explored the second of the three mechanisms that established the “colonizing structure: the incorporation of colonial economies into those of imperial metropolises. The first mechanism is territorial conquest and the last, the reformation of the indigenous spirit (Valentin Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa, 1988). While contributing to discussions on the “disconnect” so dear to Samir Amin, Thandika’s interventions documented the connection and colonial maneuvers to stifle economic and democratic endeavors in Africa. The structuring concepts of Samir Amin’s analysis of global center-periphery geography of uneven development, indeed favor the systematic deconstruction of imperialist relationships. Thandika’s interventions, without exiting this geography, pay more attention to internal situations in their local African space and the economic, political and social rationale they are associated with. They were only obliquely concerned with revolutionary rupture, so central to the center-periphery and to unequal development theory; Or, to a third way promoted by the non-aligned movement. I always suspected him (perhaps wrongly) of settling in a theoretical and pragmatic interval imposed by his research themes (economic policies and their social and political consequences). A positioning that sometimes intrigued his African leftist friends and Bretton Woods institutions and economists. Had he not become (a little bit) a Swede? Both in his governance of the Council and in his conversations, traces of the social-democrat tradition of his adopted country emerge.

The gap he discerned in the discussions of African academics, during CODESRIA and other institutions’ meetings, and their learned interventions, made him say that African intelligence had attained a point of incandescence at the margin. Can we reconcile the two, he wondered? He emphasized, with precise examples, the insight that welled from analyzes; in an ironic and vernacular language, they came out of the academic box to explore daily life and its manifestations. Both the local ethnography on which they are founded, and the primary theoretical elements they fiddle with, give the analysis an unprecedented scale, he observed. They give a relevant account of colliding paths and of an obscene brutality of the governance of African societies. Analyzes that are deeply rooted in the unveiling of internal domination mechanisms. A quest that has remained at the heart of his academic research. Thandika has always been concerned with the time of the world in its local manifestations.

Thandika was also on the move to provide practical and programmatic responses to the consequences of structural adjustment programs on higher education and research infrastructures. For some, including Thandika, in the face of the terrible crisis affecting African universities, CODESRIA must directly participate in the training of the third generation of African humanity and social science researchers (Three generations of African Academics: A Note, Transformation 28, 1995). Others felt that the Council should not be diverted from its main task: The promotion of African research in the social sciences and humanities. Thandika has managed to maintain a balance by strengthening the presence of academic institutions in CODESRIA’s activities and by setting up a small grant program for Master’s and thesis students. This is probably the program with the most indisputable success. He has succeeded in maintaining quality research in many African universities and in making many African students competitive on the international educational stage.

On research, Thandika had a strong consciousness of time and of the world stage that are necessary inscription areas for the social science and humanities in Africa. Interventions are in the form of autonomy assurances by the latter, and its scientific confrontation with international research. For example, refusal to be an annex is the reason for the establishment, after numerous forums, of the Gender and Democratic Governance institutes. By entering the discussion on gender in the history of Africa and the Diaspora, and by calling to “democratic” governance, he has opened a path to plural indigenous reflections that powerfully question the social science and humanities library, and contributed to its review by introducing African experiences.

I would also like to talk about the man I worked with everyday for six or seven years at CODESRIA headquarters, first in Fann Résidence and on Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop. He signaled a reluctance for bureaucracy that paradoxically made him the perfect bureaucrat, as evidenced by his successful adventure in the mysteries of UN bureaucracy, as head of UNRISD (1998-2009). He mobilized the institution on social policy issues (in particular, social protection, education and health) closely articulated to the issue of development. Personally, during this period, Thandika invested in examining the figures that deal with the African situation and the (universal or vernacular) conceptual and political representations of development.

In the mind-boggling mess of his office, he found sequencing ways that challenged the bureaucratic order. Thandika knew how to seduce Europeans (Scandinavians in particular) and American foundations. He knew how to take them on, meet their requirements and maintain the autonomy of the Council. The rule was simple: All funding had to meet the needs of programs developed by CODESRIA. Not by donors. Against all odds, he managed to maintain that rule.

He was persuasive because the scientific programs he submitted were solid and well-argued; in the end, intellectual and financial reports were not disputed. How many times have I heard CODESRIA partners say “this time your boss will get nothing”. His disarming smile, his earthly laugh, his sometimes caustic mood, always light, never aggressive, brought barriers down.

Thandika was a bridge; he could handle the oversize egos of a community that felt cramped and marginal, and to which CODESRIA offered a space of incomparable commitment. His long exile, as his professional activities, in Stockholm, Dakar, Harare, Geneva and London, have opened multiple horizons and incommensurate ethnographic acuity. Reading and presence at popular venues combined with a perfect knowledge of Senegalese mbalax and music from Southern Africa called Raceland as opposed to Graceland by Paul Simon, gave him access to a multiplicity of territories. His cosmopolitanism was under control because it was the product of varied transactions. It made it difficult to identify a home (Malawi?) on the continent.

I have always wondered if his nomadic spirit came from his peregrinations. Thandika was born in Nyassaland (present-day Malawi); he grew up in the mining towns of Rhodesia. Unlike the great majority of intellectuals of his generation, he was not of peasant origin. He was an urban. He had hilarious reflections on the impact of this dominant peasant origin on the CODESRIA’s intellectual agenda. I will always remember our unrestrained laughter when I came to tell him that the green color of CODESRIA publications was really “boring and unattractive“. I was showing him sketches by a Senegalese artist, Aisha Dionne, tasked with proposing a new cover for CODESRIA publications. His amused reaction was to say: “It is a cover with the colors of the Sahel, the ochre-brown color of drought as opposed to watered landscapes of greens, trees and herbaceous savannahs”. In a way, he was signaling how water and its absence had configured our imaginations and imaginaries.

Thandika left CODESRIA; then it was my turn a few years later. We continued our conversation, intermittently, at various meetings of the Council. We met twice a year at the Board of Directors of the American Social Science Research. His favorite joke at every meeting was to conclude by saying that he was my boss. That the situation had changed because of my role as Chairman of the Board of Directors.

My reply was always the same. He will forever be “my boss“. He introduced me to the world of African, English-language and international research, and the relations between the many traditions of academic research.

Where did I meet him last? Dakar, or New York? I do not remember. He spoke to me with restraint and decency about his illness. And as usual, he made me laugh, confiding with disgust, that instead of his favorite beverage, beer, he now drank tea. It made me smile. He also said to me: “Aging sucks“, marking distance with the wisdom attributed to the elderly. A very urban iconoclasm.


Mamadou Diouf

Leitner Family Professor of African Studies and History

Director of the Department of Studies on the Middle East, Asia of South and Africa.

Columbia University, New York


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