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Remembering Thandika, Honouring a Colossus

  • Professor Thandika Mkandawire

Tribute from Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana

It is with a deep sense of loss but also pride that the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon, joins the African social science community to bid farewell and pay tribute to Professor Thandika Mkandawire, a colossus of our times. It bears recalling that at its formal opening in 1963, the Institute was charged by President Nkrumah in his speech titled the ‘African Genius’ to make unique contributions to the advancement of knowledge about the peoples and cultures of Africa, and to study Africa and its diasporas in African-centred ways, in contrast to prevalent derivative and Eurocentric approaches. 

For many of us at the Institute in the late 1970s and 1980s, CODESRIA and Thandika were intertwined, as we begun our careers as social scientists and researchers in the extremely stretched and deprived conditions that most African higher education institutions, including Legon, found themselves in. Through CODESRIA and under the leadership of Professor Mkandawire, we joined a larger community of Pan-African scholars to fashion out a modus vivendi for ourselves as scholars and as Africans in the drought that the African academy was experiencing. The home we found and helped to build at CODESRIA not only launched us as scholars, but it anchored us firmly in our African realities and in working through African-derived solutions in our national and multinational Working Research Groups and the different other fora that was provided. CODESRIA became our go-to place, our intellectual Mecca, a freer and larger space to think outside the box, away from the strictures and stultifying environments of our home campuses. The community of elder scholars that mentored and guided us, including Archie Mafeje, Zene Tadesse, Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, Ebo Hutchful, Fatou Sow, Horace Campbell and others, and of course Thandika, were mostly tolerant and nurturing, and offered us sounding boards and rigorous criticism and debate, to sharpen our skills and focus. The modest sums that we were subsequently able to secure for several of our students over the years to conduct research and complete their Masters and doctoral programs were vital in helping us nurture a new generation of scholars, following Thandika’s own analysis of the changing generations of scholars in African higher education institutions. The volume, Our Continent, Our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment, authored by Thandika and Charles Soludo, served us and our students well as the neo-liberal turn took hold in our countries and institutions. His trenchant critiques on neo-patrimonialism in the analysis of the African state and economies countered prevalent models of African exceptionalism, while his analysis of the developmental state and of social policy especially in Africa, provided examples of African-centred scholarship for us and our students.    

Some us at the Institute were instrumental in getting the University of Ghana to invite Professor Mkandawire to deliver its preeminent lecture series, the Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg Memorial Lectures in the early 2010s. When he was finally able to accept the invitation in 2013, when the University also conferred an honorary degree on him, the Institute invited him to interact with staff and students at a brief Breakfast Meeting at our Yiri Lodge, which he graciously accepted despite a crowded schedule. Also invited to that event were students from other departments at the University and some high school students. Ever the teacher and elder scholar attuned to Africa’s demographics, Thandika observed that Africa’s future should not be determined only by the opinions of experts, but also those of the youth living the realities of post-structural adjustment Africa. He urged the youth to determine to be an active part of an upliftment project, both economically and intellectually. The get-together that some of us were able to put together for him after the delivery of the lectures was an opportunity for him to relax and reconnect with some old friends, and ever the raconteur, to regale us with some of his many stories and experiences gleaned over a rather eventful and highly productive life.

Go in peace, beloved and respected scholar and Pan-Africanist! You have left us a true inheritance.