Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN) - University of Dakar. Senegal
|1. Concerning the legitimation of scientific knowledge he is indignant about the fact that it always comes back to the West, and asks whether Africa is "condemned to stagnate on the periphery" in this regard.|
It can be answered that so long as African societies and economies stagnate on the periphery, its scientific infrastructure (universities, laboratories, high-tech industries, fundamental and applied research centres) will do the same. They go together, apart from a few exceptions; in particular certain researchers who do a huge amount of work and achieve notable results.
But in general these researchers are not supported and appreciated in their institutional framework. They are fortunate if they are tolerated; consequently it is in other countries that they will get recognition, that they will have to publish, and will eventually be recruited by the USA, Canada or Europe.
The "exodus of high-level staff" cannot be explained only by the high salaries. But by better working conditions. We have all known academics who are highly specialised in nuclear physics, petrochemistry, Egyptology, isolated in decrepit laboratories, or relegated to administrative or higher secondary teaching jobs; when they insist on staying in Africa, they lose their level of excellence, facing the difficulty of documentaiton, experimentation and publication.
In the exact sciences much more than in the human sciences. Here, the sociologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist, the linguist, insofar as his equipment is lighter (books, reviews, computers), can work efficiently while remaining in Africa. The studies by A. Bara Diop, Achille Mbembe (sociologists), Bachir Diagne, Paulin Houtondji (philosophers), Samir Amin, Bernard Founou (economists), Mamadou Diouf, Joseph Ki Zerbo (historians), as well as a research centre such as the Codesria which has received significant resources (salaries, trips, study sessions, operational library, publishing house) from the USA, Sweden, and South Africa, are all producing work and a knowledge the intellectual quality of which is doubted neither by the North nor by the South.
But obviously in countries such as the Congo or the DRC, which have been disturbed by currents of extreme political violence, research becomes impossible and researchers exile themselves: another cause of the exodus of high-level staff. The school of medicine at the University of Kinshasa had successful areas. What has become of them? The meteorological research centre in Niamey had been regally equipped. It is now in neutral. The Orstom centre and labs in Brazzaville have been completely destroyed, and the Théophile Obenga library has been scattered. In "the North" there is a whole disapora of Rwandans, Nigerians, and Congolese from both banks who are working in the West only because they can no longer work at home. Because university research requires a technical and human environment which has become unobtainable in certain States, or else which has become so rickety or dilapidated that the researcher finds himself facing a dilemma: either stay and let himself be engulfed, or save the furniture and leave. Which he rarely does with a happy heart.
Also if "the desire on the part of Africans to create an autonomous and local framework for the validation and appropriation of a local body of knowledge" exists, or has existed, it is ineffectual insofar as a whole group of political and social forces are in league against this framework, preventing its creation or causing its destruction.
|2. With regard to "asking ourselves about the reasons for the multidimensional failure of our institutions" as Professor Kom says anxiously, well yes, that is the real question, the only question.|
But a question that could have several answers. To throw the cause of it back onto the "francophone plan", which finds so little response amongst the intellectuals as well as the peoples of Africa, seems to me to be quite laughable.
To accuse the training received in the "Institutions set up by the Other" is no better. It is only natural that research methods be learned where they exist. The said Institutions cannot be accused of delivering the knowledge they hold to whoever asks for it.
To hark back to the "African doctors" and other graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Outre Mer is no more convincing. Africa has been independent for forty years and the colonial officials are dead or retired. Without taking into account the fact that many of them did their work with more awareness and knowledge of the lie of the land than many academics fresh from local or foreign universities who succeeded them. The "African doctor" diagnosed malaria, appendicitis, meningitis or hepatitis without error. Which is no longer the case today, even though he knows how to manipulate a laser or echograph.
They are therefore, in my opinion, less responsible for the African collapse than these high-level staff who have come from Europe "disciplined in the rhetoric and imbued with that general and speculative knowledge the secret of which is held by our former masters". These new staff have difficulty in adapting to working conditions in Africa, considering the fact that they are too westernised, this is only to be expected, but this only reflects half the truth. Those who have made the effort have been successful. And if some have wanted to play the know-it-all-technocrat, many have simply harnessed themselves to the task with the available resources. And the high-level staff who have recently been trained locally are no more effective.
|3. So where do "the reasons for the failure, etc. etc." come from? The question is going to crop up again and again.
Of course the obvious factors of internal political tension (rivalry between parties and leaders) and external economic pressures (devaluations, fluctuations in commodities prices, petroleum trust monopolies, structural adjustment, etc.) can lead a country to pure and simple chaos.
But apart from that, the answers that I for my part would like to put forward here would be particularly to do with administrative management.
In the case of Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon or Benin for example, where a certain political equilibrium (although fragile) seems to have been achieved, serious drifts endangering the training and research institutions can be seen.
Perverse practices such as nepotism or ethnicism which grant access to stock exchanges and universities for some at the expense of others; the practice of the more or less secret sale or falsification of degrees; the awarding of high-level jobs to unwavering supporters of the party in power rather than to proper technicians or specialists; the priority given to political witch-doctery over efficiency and professional scrupulousness; finally the lack of controls and sanctions, which leads to generalised laxity in executing the regulations and obligations of serving government employees; all these attitudes and shortcomings, compounded into a slow forty-year drift, have profoundly disorganised the said teaching and research institutions; the same applies to all the administrative and legal mecahnisms, which are today just as jammed and warped as ever.
It is at all levels that working hours are skipped or shortened, that effort is put into whatever brings in a profit (overtime, private lessons, consultancy) rather than into official tasks paid for by meagre salaries, that the institution's (therefore the State's, therefore no-one's) assets are unscrupulously misappropriated, from petrol coupons to office equipment, from hospital medicines to the books supplied to secondary school students that are found for sale in the market, from research subsidies to the scholarships granted to those who deserve them. Everywhere the arbitrary has crept in at the expense of standards, individual interest has crept in at the expense of the general interest. Obviously, those who govern our states are demonstrating how to do it.
Such, I believe, are the real internal cancers that are eating away at "a disjointed society whose essential services - schools, public health, personal safety in particular - seem irremediably compromised".
It therefore seems to me that if "our continent is being left behind", it is for various reasons and that responsibility for it should be shared out. In fact, with the same handicaps in relation to foreign and neocolonial capitalist forces, Mali and Burkina are managing better, even though they are much less well endowed, than Côte d'Ivoire or Central Africa. One has to wonder whether a more rigourous management of the State and of the institutions, greater seriousness in work at all levels, political morals which are more respectful of the mechanisms of civil society, are not the only assets of these countries which do not have any more high-level staff or foreign aid than their neighbours. But these assets are enough to make the difference.
|4. Contrary to the opinion of Mr. Kom, the African countries have for several years been free to "connect themselves to all networks". France has let go of its "Square Meadow", it is flirting with English-speaking Africa, and it is up to us to work out a new school system, other research structures, instances of the legitimation of knowledge freed from the West.|
But what matters first and above all is to avoid the decadence of our current universities, and the devaluation of our degrees. Why? How? the strikes, the empty years, the destitution of students, the dilapidated and pillaged libraries, the relinquished subscriptions to scientific journals, the absenteeism of teachers, the overcrowded premises, the broken down computers and photocopiers, the basic books which are too expensive or unavailable in the bookshops, the prohibitively expensive residence (where one exists); in summary everything that constitutes the environment which is indispensable for higher studies has now seriously deteriorated.
It would therefore be desirable, in my opinion, for Professor Kom to think about the concrete ways in which our African universities can be cured; and since it is not in the power of the intellectual to act effectively on the (grasping) forces of politics, he could at least propose a radical reform on his own territory.
And this is not a problem of African, francophone or rhizomorphous identity.
(Translated by Linda Pontré)
Lilyan Kesteloot has been Director of Research at Dakar's Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN) for many years. She is the author of Anthologie négro-africaine : panorama critique des prosateurs, poètes et dramaturges noirs du XXe siècle (1967), and has widely published on Francophone African literatures and the Oral tradition.