Although Africans were among early makers of human civilization the modern African university owes nothing to African genius. It is distinctly the creation of the colonial state.
In the contemporary world Africa lags way behind in development regardless of indices we use. The writer and broadcaster Ali Mazrui has likened Africa to the Garden of Eden in decay a place that once had it all but that now has lost all, a king only yesterday but a pauper today.
Yet in numbers alone, African universities have grown tenfold, churning out thousands of graduates. But numbers though important are not the game here. African universities as they are today betray little of the vibrant traditions that once animated the continent. Despite the poverty and the backwardness these traditions still animates rural Africa today. Take the case of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda.
The emergence of the African novel at Ibadan and the rise of the modern African art in Zaria, both events occurring in the middle of the last century, occurred because the colonial students that shaped the moments found a way to reconnect to their African past and from there drew strength.
The African university today, whether Senegalese or Malian, has routes not in the rich traditions of bromsgrove school Africa, but in Africa’s immediate colonial past. This is the problem. Because the colonial past is the past of despair. It represented a period when Africa had lost the initiative was clueless.
Unlike ancient Timbuktu or medieval European universities, the colonial university was not an organic institution. It did not rise out of the land. It could not offer a basis for the flowering of culture and learning. It was limited in scope and scale. It admitted few students, offered few carefully selected courses, taught by colonial professors. The colonial students were cultural refugees, cut off from the treasure house of their heritage.
There was little to distinguish between the colonial professor and the colonial administrator. Both were steeped in colonial culture. In colonial times you could not as a white person, live in Africa except as a colonizer. Colonialism as the life of Karen Blixen in colonial Kenya demonstrated was a collective thing. It was a lived experience that sucked in all persons from the metropolitan countries that lived in the colonies.
The colonial university however was a complex thing. There was little doubt about its mission, namely the reproduction of the colonial state and the promotion of colonial culture. In Africa there is a tendency to equate colonial culture with European culture. But colonial culture was not and is not European at all. Europe excepting only a few spots already had democracy. In Africa the European colonies were heavy handed dictatorships, the type you encounter in many African countries today.
The colonial university sprang out of the milieu of the debilitating condition produced by colonialism. The colonial university could never have been a marketplace of ideas in sense Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne were and still are. But within its framework, the colonial university functioned admirably. Immaculate facade bestowed the grace of a metropolitan campus, radiated serenity, civility, and wholeness. Within its four walls the contradictions that were imperialism seemed far away.
On the eve of independence the postcolonial state inherited the colonial university, little understanding its complexity. The inheritance was its most prized possession. So acute had been the hunger for knowledge and learning and so limited the opportunities. Chinua Achebe has remarked that the colonial university was the only good thing colonialism did in Nigeria.