Are political science departments failing to aid democracy?

In his book, African Religions in Western Scholarship, published in 1970 in Nairobi by the East African Literature Bureau, the late Ugandan scholar Okot p’Bitek faulted departments of social anthropology at universities in Africa as camping grounds for Western anthropologists who perpetuated colonial myths of African cultures as primitive.

Today, a group of academics appears to be walking independently in the footsteps of p’Bitek, by raising hard questions about the failure of political science departments in African universities to become forces that can contribute to democratic transitions on the continent.

In a study, ‘The unofficial curriculum is where the real teaching takes place: Faculty experiences of decolonising the curriculum in Africa’, published earlier in 2023 in the journal Higher Education, Dr Liisa Laakso, a senior researcher at The Nordic Africa Institute and Dr Kajsa Hallberg Adu, a researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, explored the role of political science in decolonising the curriculum in several African countries.

The researchers interviewed 26 political science academics currently teaching at universities in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe and their main objective was to establish what is being studied and taught about African political systems, African political thinkers, resources of political science, as well as employment opportunities for graduates in political science.

According to Laakso, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ student uprising in 2015 in South Africa created a concept for seeking social justice in higher education and they wanted to find out how curricula reforms and knowledge production systems were taking shape elsewhere in Africa.

In that context, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe were selected on the basis of being united by their British colonial heritage and academic traditions that included English as the language of instruction at universities, but diverged in their political developments which was necessary in the study of political science as a discipline in higher education.

“Together, the four countries can shed light on a variety of challenges inherent in decolonisation and our aim was to find generalisations applicable to the whole continent,” said Laakso.

The issue is that, whereas Botswana is dominated by one party, it is one of the most stable democracies in Africa while Ghana’s post-independence democratic rule was interspersed with military until 1992 and Kenya’s with a market-oriented one-party system until 1991.

“In turn, Zimbabwe had implemented a formal multiparty system already under Rhodesian white minority rule and, after independence, under an ideologically socialist and more recently market-oriented authoritarian rule,” stated the researchers as they outlined some differences between the countries studied.

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