Prof Issa Shivji: It’s institutions that matter

Former constitution review commission chairman Joseph Warioba exchange views with the director of Nyerere Resource Centre Prof Issa Shivji (Right) during a past forum in Dar es Salam. In the middle is Prof Prabhat Patnaik. PHOTO| FILE

What you need to know:

In an exclusive interview with Khalifa Said on Monday this week, the acclaimed legal and development scholar sheds light on the disbandment of NRC by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (Costech).

Nyerere Resource Centre (NRC) Director Prof Issa Shivji shares his views over what he thinks is authorities’ disregard of institutions as important aspects of sustainable national development infavour of individualism. In an exclusive interview with Khalifa Said on Monday this week, the acclaimed legal and development scholar sheds light on the disbandment of NRC by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (Costech). The following is an excerpt from the interview;

Thank you very Prof Shivji for agreeing to speak to us about the future of the NRC. May you please start by telling us what exactly happened?

Prof Shivji; Okay. I am not sure if you did attend the last NRC session, I think it was on December 12, just a week ago. But during that session, where we were bidding farewell to the NRC, I explained clearly why the NRC will cease existing. The truth is that the NRC will cease to exist from December 31, 2019.

This follows the decision by Costech’s Board [of Commissioners] who, according to their the wisdom and while acknowledging the good works by the NRC, have seen that it has grown irrelevant– and that is the word they used – to Costech’s activities. Now we had no other interpretations of the decision apart from being a notice to cease our activities.

Maybe very briefly explain to us what led to the NRC idea and how it came to existence.

Well, the NRC was established through a contract between Costech and us – three scholars from the University of Dar es Salaam; two serving and one retired, I, Saida Othman and Ng’anza Kamata. At the end of 2011, we sent an application to Costech asking them to fund a project to publish a biography of Mwalimu [Julius] Nyerere.

Costech because, though mostly known for its science and technology activities, it also has a social science department. They went through the procedures on what to do with such an application and immediately accepted to fund it.

They thought it good to fund the project to have a biography of Mwalimu. At that time Costech director-general was one Dr Hassan Mshinda and I must thank him as he was of great help to the project during its initial steps.

One among the sections of the contract required that the scholars establish an institution – the NRC – which will preserve all important documents collected during the research project. Also, there was a requirement to have a place where our younger generation and other researchers can come and read [about Mwalimu]. So the work started and we were given an office by Costech.

But it’s not enough to only preserve the documents because Mwalimu’s thoughts are alive. And how do you make sure that they always do? That is why we saw the need to go beyond and organise a platform where these thoughts are discussed, critiqued, applauded and so on so that we can enlighten our generations on where, as a nation, we have come, what type of a person Mwalimu was and what his philosophical, political and cultural ideas were…

But that’s one. Two is what Mwalimu’s political practices were and how were they in line with his ideas? This is important because Mwalimu was not only a leader but also a politician. He was the head of the government as well as a head of state. Therefore we said we will create a platform for various discussions…

But it is also important to understand that NRC was not an independent institution. It was under and within Costech.

You talked of the contract that you and your fellow scholars entered with Costech establishing the NRC. Was there a section in this contract that the NRC would come to an end after a given period?

No, there was no such a section. Because it is important to differentiate between a project to write a biography – and we have completed it and the draft biography has been submitted to the publisher – and the NRC as an institution. The former has a timeline just like any research project does. But not the NRC, as an institution, it did not have a timeline.

You said that the decision to stop NRC’s activities was due to a decision by Costech’s board of commissioners. I am just wondering if you were involved in any preliminary discussions before the decision was publicly announced.

No. I have never had a meeting with the board. My entire communication is through the director-general who is a board member. But it needs to be understood, and Tanzanians must understand, that this institution was not established in a non-professional way.

There were rules of governance of NRC. They stipulated what type of organ it would be. To whom it would be accountable to. And how it would carry out its responsibilities. So in those rules, nowhere is stated that the NRC’s activities will cease after a given period…

If that is the case then it means that the decision took you by surprise?

Yes and no. Yes, because as a director I never expected that the NRC was thought to have an expiry date because it’s an institution. And one among the important task of bringing about national development is through the building of institutions. Do you understand? It is a very important task. People die but institutions live on.

Look at other countries where you find a century or two-old institutions. So I and my colleagues thought we were building an institution, we build a particular culture. Tomorrow we won’t be here. I would not remain as a director personally. This was my final year because I have been here for six years. But the institution of Kavazi would remain, someone else would replace me.

Therefore I say yes, in that sense. Now let me explain the no. No, not as a director of the NRC, but as someone who has lived through the politics of this country.

And I have seen a lot as far as I am concerned. With our political systems, it remains difficult for the powers that be to foresee, to value the importance of institutions and continue to support them. They are more inclined to see individuals, not institutions.

That’s why, jokingly, of course, I have been telling my colleagues that life expectancy of everything good in Tanzania is five years, and that’s exactly what happened [with the NRC].

Do you think this decision was taken to target you as an individual?

No, that’s not what I am saying. Honestly – and I have to admit—I have been a lucky person in my life. I am such an intellectual who has been able to speak on various issues and throughout all administrations, especially until the fourth-phase one, be it senior or junior government leaders, apart from disagreeing with me, were very respectful to me.

There are views that the decision to end NRC’s activities is just the administration’s efforts to stifle people’s freedoms like that of assembly and opinion. Do you share these views?

It’s hard to say because we do not know if there was any force behind the decision. It may just be the executives’ own and what they perceive of the NRC. It is very possible. But we have to understand one thing; though there was freedom to debate at the NRC, the discussions were essentially intellectual – not mere presentation of opposing views. Therefore, I do not see anything in such discussions so sensitive that might have influenced its closure.

Prof, when you look back since the founding of the NRC, what makes you feel proud of the initiative and what do you think is going to be its legacy?

I am always an optimistic person and I always think that having spaces to debate is very important. Thinking is the lifeblood of any human being. Not lifeblood of the body, but the state of being human.

This one space might have been closed down but you never know, the youngsters may be innovative and create a new one. That’s my belief.