Top brains join hands to revive academic freedom at varsities

What you need to know:

  • The three-day symposium aimed at re-envisioning the role of universities on the continent was hosted at the University of Dar es Salaam

Dar es Salaam. Professors and veteran scholars gathered in a conference yesterday to revive efforts to restore academic freedom at African universities.

The three-day symposium aimed at re-envisioning the role of universities on the continent was hosted at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) as the First Debate on Academic Freedom, Democracy, and Sustainable Development in Africa.

The event also witnessed the launch of the Second Edition of Prof Issa Shivji’s seminal book, “The Concept of Human Rights in Africa.” The book was first published in 1989.

A respected scholar, Prof Shivji, recalled a time when UDSM was a hub for debates and progressive academic discussions during the 1970s, 1980s, and part of the 1990s.

He spoke passionately about the deterioration of academic freedom in African universities due to what he termed “neoliberalization.”

“There was a time when the fear of surveillance dominated this campus. No one could talk or discuss anything. We became a ‘Kibali’ society. You must apply for Kibali (permission) a month ahead and say who is coming, what he or she is going to talk about, and why you are inviting him,” Prof Shivji lamented.

He emphasised that such constraints resulted in the decline of public lectures and debates, which were once the hallmark of UDSM. “This is the situation we are in,” he added, pointing out that the restrictions have a direct impact on human rights and academic freedom.

Former Chief Justice of Kenya and Professor at Kabarak University, Dr Willy Mutunga, acknowledged the challenges facing academia today but expressed hope for the future. “We must return what we have lost for many years. We must now show the way for the upcoming intellectuals because society currently needs universities like never before,” Dr Mutunga stated.

The symposium also brought to light the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility of November 1990, a historic document that addressed the obligations of the state to uphold academic freedom.

According to Article 13 of the Kampala Declaration, the state is required to take prompt and appropriate measures in response to any infringement by state officials of the rights and freedoms of the intellectual community.

Article 14 states that the state should refrain from deploying military, paramilitary, or security forces within educational institutions’ premises, ensuring that such spaces remain sanctuaries for intellectual exchange and debate.

Article 15 calls for the state to abstain from exercising censorship over the works of the intellectual community, further emphasising the importance of unrestricted academic inquiry.

Moreover, Article 18 highlights the importance of allowing the free movement and employment of African intellectuals across borders, fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange across the continent.

The principal of the University of Dar es Salaam College of Social Sciences (CoSS), Prof Christine Noe, discussed the current state of academia and the urgent need to reclaim its relevance to society.

She underlined that the College of Social Sciences was reviving the spirit of the Dar School of Thought and was committed to increasing its visibility through various academic activities.

“We are reviving the spirit of the Dar School of Thought,” she stated. The current collaboration with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), she said, falls within the framework.

“We are very happy for this first step. We hope it will be an impetus for many other significant events,” Prof Noe noted.

The symposium also highlighted the commitment of UDSM to support intellectual debates and discussions. UDSM’s Deputy Vice Chancellor-Research, Prof Nelson Boniface, stressed that the university recognised the importance of debates and seminars in effecting change in society.

“Intellectuals and scholars in our university are free to use their expertise to bring about changes to society and the country at large. We have given them freedom to discuss their issues because this is what makes up a university,” Prof Boniface asserted.

Prof Issa Shivji’s disappointments with the current state of academia resonated with many in attendance, who now see the urgent need to reinvigorate the role of universities in shaping Africa’s future.

“With this movement, it is clear that our universities are poised to play a more significant role in the continent’s development and progress, honouring the legacy of the Kampala Declaration and the quest for academic freedom,” Executive Committee for CODESRIA, East Africa, Ms Mshai Mwangola, believed.