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Book Reviews

Common People’s Uganda

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 30/10/2019
  |

Author: Yash Tandon

Publisher: Zand Graphics, 2019.

Reviewer: Karim F Hirji

Yash Tandon is a dedicated, experienced and knowledgeable Ugandan, Pan-African activist and scholar who has been in the trenches for over fifty years. A prolific author, he has focused on elucidating the nature and scope of imperialist economic intrusion in Africa and analyzing contemporary African societies. His latest work, Common People’s Uganda (CPU), shines with his accumulated insights on these issues.

CPU covers Uganda’s political and economic history from the colonial times to the mid-1980s, the struggles for freedom, the realities of that nation from the end of the Iddi Amin period to the present, and reflects on the theoretical and practical aspects of the Ujamaa days in Tanzania. It concludes by examining the relevance of past struggles to the present struggle for the liberation of Africa.

Chapter 5 presents the Marxist analytic framework utilized in the book. Today, it is rare for a book on Africa to declare its analytic method and rarer for it to use the Marxist one. Implicitly framed within the neo-liberal mode of analysis, most are inclined towards the interests of the local and external business groups, and those holding state power. In that regard, CPU is a commendable exception.

The material is well organized and clearly presented, making it an excellent resource for both beginners and those somewhat familiar with of the subject. The historic photos interspersed throughout add to its appeal. And the relevant questions for discussion posed at the end of each chapter make it a valuable educational text.

Yet, I have concerns about CPU. Typographical and factual errors detract from its quality. Some important issues are dealt with in a cursory manner. Thus, the description of the nature of American `democracy’ on page 138 is superficial. Chapter 5, the methodological chapter, should be placed upfront. Education and the media are vital to the perpetuation of the neo-liberal ideology. Hence, they belong to the superstructure. Challenges posed to the system by contradictions within it need further elucidation. The labor theory of value, a foundational part of Marxist theory, has been omitted. But these flaws can easily be remedied.

My serious concerns on CPU are restricted to the sections that deal with Tanzania, which is about a sixth of the book. The analysis method used for Tanzania differs in a significant manner from that used for Uganda. What is said for the latter is backed up by empirical evidence from varied sources, and accords with the Marxist framework laid out in Chapter 5. The analysis for Tanzania, however, relies on official documents and the author’s subjective perceptions. The assessment of Tanzania’s socialist program, Ujamaa, is conducted along this non-Marxist line. Yet, a host of meticulous studies authored by both Tanzanians and expatriate authors on what transpired in Tanzania in that era and their consequences exist.

The assessment of Ujamaa is deficient at the conceptual level. The CPU stand is: Tanzania was building a unique brand of socialism that had no relation to scientific socialism or foreign brands of socialism. The author thereby declares that since Nyerere did not profess to be a Marxist, it was inappropriate for the radical students at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) to criticize him for not adhering to the scientific socialist line.

Consider the case of the Christian Evangelists in the US who campaign to remove the theory of evolution from school curricula. According to CPU’s logic, as they do not profess to be scientists, it is inappropriate to criticize them for failing to adhere to science. That, clearly, is an illogical proposition.

The phrase `scientific socialism’ has been a part of the Marxist lexicon since the time when Friedrich Engels used it to distinguish scientific from utopian socialism. The former links the struggle for socialism to concrete trends in history by using concepts like economic base, superstructure, state, production relations and class conflict. The latter accords primary importance to noble intentions.

Without using the label `scientific socialism,’ Chapter 5 posits precisely these Marxist ideas as its guiding framework of societal analysis. CPU thereby implies that the method of analysis deemed valid everywhere is not applicable to Tanzania. In those days, it was common for reactionary politicians in Africa and the ruling party demagogues in Tanzania to reject Marxist ideas because they represented a foreign ideology. Julius Nyerere adhered to the same view. But the actual effect of such `socialism’ was not to make Africa stand on its own feet but further align it with the Western capitalist world and influence its people to succumb to Western ideas in all the spheres of life.

CPU presents ruling party documents as the vehicles for giving power to the ordinary people, and promoting democracy and development, and finds only minor flaws in implementation of those policies. Yet, the gap between theory and practice was substantial. Millions of rural folk were forcefully herded into unplanned villages. Many died. Much property was looted by the militias. Realization of the promised social services was painfully slow and uneven. Food and water shortages, high rates of disease transmission and lack of alternative to planting traditional export crops led to a decline in rural living standards. It is of relevance to note that the World Bank, the bank whose central mission is to stabilize the global capitalist system, was supportive of this `socialist’ program.

When thousands factory workers and students rose up to demand the rights promised to them in the party documents, they were forced into submission by the riot police. The so-called ring leaders were expelled. Life for the ordinary people after the elegant pronouncements remained as it was earlier.

Instead of dealing with such realities, CPU pours venom on the radical students who investigated and exposed them. These students were not opposed to socialism but called for people-oriented implementation of the declared policies. CPU brands them as youthful, idealist dreamers who had been misguided by foreign neo-Trotskyists. Nothing they said or did was of any value.

The major part of CPU’s coverage of Tanzania deals with the intellectual debates at the University of Dar es Salaam. The debates, which went on for about two-and-a-half decades, addressed academic issues, student politics, university governance, and national and international affairs. In terms of the parties involved, they broadly fell into two categories. There were exchanges between leftist students and academics on the one hand, and rightist students, academics, the university administration and the national authorities, on the other. The leftists wrote scholarly papers on these issues. Further, the radical students issued strongly worded statements, organized sit-ins and demonstrations, boycotted classes, conducted media campaigns and took high officials and external powers to task in public venues.

The progressives conducted public and internal debates to resolve their differences on these issues as well. The exchanges, with one exception, were conducted in a comradely spirit of learning from each other.

CPU presents only that small portion of the debates in which the author was involved. And for the debates it covers, the description is incomplete and biased. Instead of tackling issues through evidence and reason, it resorts to dismissive name-calling based on selective extracts from a couple of books. It as well fails to apportion blame on those leftists who vociferously attacked fellow comrades and turned the exchanges among them into a divisive, harmful exercise. This un-comradely style was a key factor contributing to the eventual decline gradual of the university as a vibrant center of progressive discourse. (As a party to the debates, I felt it necessary to document my assertions in a detailed fashion. That is done in the material supplementary to this review which appears in the Awaaz Magazine website.)

History and theory are crucial. Issues of import in the past retain their prime importance. The modern day African activists need to be aware of the struggles that transpired in the past. But they need a rendition of the past that is not tainted with major inaccuracies, emotive labels and partisan bias. Else, instead of learning from the efforts of their predecessors, they may be driven to repeat their errors.

With some improvements, Common People’s Uganda has the potential to be a standard work on the political economy of Uganda as well as a valuable instructional text. The significantly biased material on Tanzania and the Dar es Salaam debates though are a blot in an otherwise fine book. Without a significant revision of that material, the quality and utility of CPU will remain sharply compromised.

Karim F Hirji

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Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2019 17:15

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