The role of African scholars in national development


However, an inquiry into the role of African scholars in national development must be extended to include the role of universities in contemporary Africa. To a large extent, the majority of African universities have been patterned after the European model; very few resemble the much preferable American prototype where students are not isolated in expensive residences. Seclusion from social reality, such as been the case with the older British universities, does not provide an example for African institutions to emulate. It is not sufficient that universities dedicate themselves in a detached manner to the ‘advancement and dissemination of knowledge; (they) must also persuade the public that this detached dedication is a national necessity’, and that, they need public support.   

There is no evidence to warrant the suggestion that university spokesmen have accepted this responsibility. They autonomy for the universities and academic freedom, and thus, negate the value of close association between the universities on one hand the societies which they must serve on the other. Universities are not special bodies requiring preferential treatment, nor are they supranational organizations. Their function is to serve society, not to impose their will on it. In as much as arbitrary political instructions in universities may be a disruptive factor, the unchecked catholicization of institutions of higher learning may equally make them nothing better than social parasites, extracting from societies without adding. In a speech in 1954, the former Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, stated his commitment to ‘vital principle of academic freedom’, but insisted that a university ‘must relate its activities to the needs of society in which it exists’. Academic freedom is not an end in itself, but a means to accomplish specific tasks for the society.

Frequently, African demands for academic freedom have taken the form of escapism a path to sanctuary which would provide them with the necessary protection from involvement in the tedious task of social development. Africa does not lack scholars, but if the task of scholars is to publish socially relevant books and articles, and to champion movements for social justice- we believe this to be their responsibility – then Africa has very few, perhaps none. Some of the most socially meaningful works on Africa have been published by foreign scholars, particularly North Americans. Is the reward of Africanisation than going to be social stagnation? As Professor Dumont has asked, ‘Sur cette planete en pleine transformation, le continent afrcain serait-il le condamne a la stagnation, sans avenir et sans espoir?’ Can there be hope for a brighter future without the support of those in positions of leadership?


With very few exceptions, African scholars have repudiated all that scholarship represents; those who have ventured into politics have even feared worse than the politicians whom they had described as ‘illiterates’. Surely, they must know that in nineteenth century Europe, intellectuals and students championed the liberal movements and advocated political and economic reforms? There is widespread discontent in Africa, but without an articulate leadership, it cannot transformed into measures aimed at promoting social justice. Intellectual leadership and popular discontent are complementary requisites for meaningful reforms. As one observer has pointed out, ‘popular discontent in itself could not bring about the desired change in the same way that ideas by themselves could not accomplish the revolution. The intellectual stimulus is always needed to shake people out of their complacency and servile conformity.’ Scholarship cannot flourish in a stagnated Africa; as a society decays, so does the quality of its scholarship and ,indeed, every other thing in it.

In addition to their academic pursuits, African scholars can contribute greatly to the economic and social emancipation of their much tormented continent. They should not just believe in the preservation of their institutional loyalty to the Western tradition, but must attempt to pick out from it those parts that seem to be of greater relevance to their own societies. Above all, ‘they must discover and proclaim a loyalty to the indigenous values of African society’, without which it would be difficult for them to serve it.


Mr Sillah is the coordinator of Youth Organisation for African Unity (Youth OAU, Gambia Chapter) and finance minister of National Union Of Gambian Students (Nugs)