Beyond Reforms: The Politics of Higher Education Transformation in Africa

Article excerpt

Abstract:

In spite of over a half century of interventions and waves of "reforms," higher education in Africa today consists of institutions, systems, and practices that lack distinct values and goals, or a mission and vision connecting them to the major challenges of their local and global contexts. What is needed in African higher education is true transformation, which will involve practical and epistemological ruptures with previous ways of doing things and a reconstruction of structures, relations, cultures, and institutions. Of particular importance are initiatives that will ensure gender equity, changes in the organization and process of knowledge production, and a reenvisioning of universities' funding sources and mechanisms.

Editors' note: This article was presented as the 2009 Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola Lecture at the fifty-second Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in New Orleans in 2009.

Introduction

I would like to begin by expressing my sincere appreciation to the Board of the African Studies Association for giving me this opportunity to deliver the Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola lecture for the association's 2009 meeting. I had the opportunity to work with Bashorun Abiola in the early 1990s as a member of the editorial board of the magazine The African Science Monitor. This was a periodical founded by Bashorun Abiola as part of his vision and recognition of the need for a platform to challenge not only the asymmetrical power relations that constitute dominant discourses and practices in the sciences, but also to encourage and elevate Africa's self-conception of her role in the sciences and their place in the lives and cultures of her peoples.

Given Nigeria's complex political history and Bashorun Abiola's varying role in it, I need to add here that whatever the personal, political, or ideological shortcomings of Bashorun M. K O. Abiola may have been, he was an exceptional person in many ways. I still carry with me memories of those days of our editorial board meetings, which often were chaired by Muyiwa Awe, the former professor of physics at the University of Ibadan. At these meetings we saw a different side of Bashorun Abiola, one that was not often on public display. We heard of his passion for Africa, his often imaginative and even subversive nationalist political ideas on the global politics of knowledge, his unending commitment to keeping alive the question of reparations for Africans and peoples of African descent, and his unrelenting belief and confidence in the notion of an African renaissance, long before it became the vacuous contemporary political slogan devoid of content or traction.

The tide of this lecture is "Beyond Reforms: The Politics of Higher Education Transformation in Africa." This is a topic that I believe fits the panAfrican vision of Abiola and his understanding of the role of knowledge as a means of individual and collective emancipation and advancement. It is equally relevant to the theme of the fifty-second Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, "Africa at the Crossroads."

I must confess, however, that when I learned of the theme of the meeting, my first reaction was a slight sense of discomfort. I felt: No, not again! When is Africa ever going to be portrayed as traveling on its own chosen and productive paths? I had this image of Africa's development as nothing but a voyage of endless encounters with dangerous, pothole-strewn crossroads that baffle, bewilder, and wear out not only the pilots and cartographers of her journeys, but also her total populace of passengers cramped, as it were, in a decrepit but resilient matatu van. But I quickly took comfort in the fact that given the state of the world we are all in today, all humanity must be at one crossroad or another.

Indeed, the ironic and subliminal signification of such a theme is perhaps the recognition that Africa's stories of the development process are narratives of blocked transitions, routes not taken, itineraries hijacked, highways populated by robbers and bandits, and journeys led by shifty and unreliable scouts and guides. …