Rajat Neogy’s dead, and so is intellectual debate

Saturday January 30 2016


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

This year is the 55th anniversary of Transition magazine.

Transition was founded as a magazine of ideas and policy debate for East African intellectuals by Ugandan-Indian Rajat Neogy in 1961 in Kampala.

It quickly became Africa’s leading intellectual magazine, publishing such diverse figures as Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, and the Americans James Baldwin and Paul Theroux.

In 1968, the Ugandan government jailed Neogy for sedition after the magazine criticised proposed constitutional changes by President Milton Obote’s government. Never mind Obote himself used to join debates in Transition.

After Neogy’s release, Transition was revived in Ghana in 1971. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka took over as editor in 1973, but it was overwhelmed by developments on the continent and closed shop in 1976.

American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr resurrected the magazine in 1991. It remains based at the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Neogy died at the tender age of 57 in 1995, in the US.

Most of the preceding story is known. But the fascinating thing about Transition is that with time, what it meant, and how much its reality contrasts with current times, gets more fascinating.

Consider for a moment, that since then, there has been no popular magazine of ideas to rival it in Africa.

Second, Neogy was 22 when he started Transition! His modern-day East African peers are definitely not about to start magazines to debate the state of pan-Africanism.

Third, there is probably no room in the polarised politics of the region for an East African of Indian descent to play the role Neogy did.

No doubt the arguments among East Africa’s chattering classes, commentators and columnists in the media, academics, and politicians is louder and more furious.

However, there is no debate. They have been replaced by denunciation and accusation.

Any journalist or academic who supports the government, is alleged to have been bought by the regime or of siding with the president because they are from the same ethnic group. While there are intellectuals for rent, it is perfectly possible for an educated man or woman to actually support even a dictator on a very rational basis.

On the other hand, critics are denounced as puppets of the West, paid to bring down a patriotic government, or making noise in order to attract money from bleeding heart donors.

The idea being that you cannot unlock an African’s tears for someone who is not related to them or their democratic sentiment without first greasing them with donor or opposition money.

Transition was born at a time when the only university in the region was Makerere in Kampala, and the city was the centre of learning. It was inevitable that therefore it was international ideas that were in contention.

Today, you can’t take a rural path in East Africa without running into a university of some sort. There are over 300 of them.
That is a good thing.

However, many of them are also very local, and the things that exercise them are village-level issues.

Neogy, then, started out at the perfect time. If he had set out today, he would have been an accountant or real-estate developer.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]