One of the African countries where the democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have both galvanized the social movements for the deepening of democracy and provoked authoritarian, knee-jack reactions from the state and university authorities is Malawi. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and indeed the entire African intellectual community, have closely been following events in Malawi, where threats, intimidation and dismissal of academic staff members of the University of Malawi, are becoming too frequent. One recent victim of these intolerable treatments is Dr. Blessing Chinsinga, Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at Chancellor College, University of Malawi (UNIMA). Dr. Chinsinga was summoned to the Zomba Police Station for interrogation over the contents of one of his class lectures in which he gave examples of reasons for popular protest taken from Egypt and Tunisia. He was subsequently dismissed. So were Chancellor College Academic Staff Union president, Dr. Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, her Secretary General Franz Amin and Legal Advisor, Dr. Garton Kamchedzera, on Wednesday 30th March 2011. Fortunately, the decision to sack these colleagues was set aside by the Malawian courts. The threats and dismissals of academic staff of UNIMA constitute gross violations of academic freedom, and a violation of several sections of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, which inter alia provides for academic freedom.
CODESRIA is a pan-African organisation that promotes academic freedom as an integral part of the struggle for democracy and social justice. CODESRIA has therefore been monitoring all contradictory developments in Africa since the beginning of this year very closely. Indeed, the year 2011 will go down in history as a year when Africa would have displayed both ‘the most beautiful and the ugliest of its faces’.
The “Jasmin Revolution” in Tunisia and the fall of dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt, as a result of the relentless popular struggles for democracy, jobs and better living conditions, have made the promise of democracy much more real in Africa. On the other hand, the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, the massacres perpetrated by the Libyan Guide Momar Qhadafi and the bombings by NATO are reminiscent of some of the darkest pages of Africa’s history. During the World Social Forum held in Dakar in February this year, CODESRIA, the Third World Forum, and ENDA Third World jointly organized eleven (11) roundtable discussions on some of the greatest challenges facing Africa and, more generally, the Global South, with panelists drawn from all across the South and from Europe. The democratic revolutions unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt, and the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire were among the issues discussed at length. CODESRIA fights for the rights of African academics and researchers, and for all Africans to have better living and working conditions without any externally imposed restrictions. This means not only decent conditions of work and an environment conducive for research on campus, but also the freedom of research and the freedom of academics to express their thoughts and conduct teaching and research activities on topics of their choice. Therefore, CODESRIA cannot remain indifferent to threats and other acts of intimidation perpetrated against members of the academic and the larger intellectual communities in Africa. Such silence would be contrary to the principles of academic freedom and solidarity that CODESRIA has been fighting for since its inception in 1973. Dr Chinsinga’s class was infiltrated by informants hired by the Malawian state police, a practice reminiscent of the worst days of the Kamuzu Banda dictatorship. No modern university can properly function, let alone develop, under close police surveillance.
In recognition of his contributions to the development of CODESRIA and to the advancement of knowledge production in Africa and around the world, CODESRIA has planned to hold an international colloquium in honour of one of the greatest African scholars, the Malawi-born Professor Thandika Mkandawire. This event, organised by CODESRIA in collaboration with the University of Malawi and the South Africa-based Intellectual Heritage Project, was earlier scheduled to take place in his home country, Malawi, on 2-4 May 2011. Thankdika Mkandawire is currently a professor at the London School of Economics, after having spent many years as the Director of UNRISD, Geneva (1998-2009) and Executive Secretary of CODESRIA (1985-1996). This great icon and proud son of Africa marked his 70th Birthday Anniversary last October. For such a remarkable friend, inspiring leader and vigorous interlocutor for so many people, one who ‘shared in our tribulations and triumphs’ (to use the late Archie Mafeje’s phrase), the occasion is not merely an anniversary of the birthday of an individual; it is an opportunity us to celebrate a community that is as global as it is African. His 70th birthday is a milestone that we would like to turn into a collective celebration of a life: that of someone who has been a veritable gift to us, both as individuals and as a community.
There is no better place to hold such a colloquium in celebration of the life and works of Professor Mkandawire than Malawi. There is also no better institutional partner with which CODESRIA can organise this colloquium than the University of Malawi. However, the recent gross violations of academic freedom at the University of Malawi has made it necessary for us to postpone this historic occasion, until such a time when our Malawian colleagues feel less threatened in the exercise of their rights as scholars and the enjoyment of the freedom of research and expression, without fear of being persecuted because of their ideas.
Furthermore, CODESRIA and the entire community of African social researchers would like to appeal to the Government of Malawi to take urgent steps to reinstate the academic staff of UNIMA who have been dismissed, ensure that academic freedom is respected and guaranteed, in compliance with the Constitution of Malawi, and respond positively to the demand of the Chancellor College Academic Staff to assure them in writing that no such actions shall be repeated by any official authority, or agent connected with the Police. We hope the Council of the University of Malawi would also refrain from practices that make the academic staff of the university feel insecure.
Lastly, CODESRIA wishes to assure our Malawian colleagues of our solidarity with them in their struggle to make UNIMA a thriving centre of excellence in teaching, research, knowledge production and dissemination that can contribute immensely to the development of Malawi and the African continent.
Statement issued in Dakar, on 8 April 2011