Thandika Mkandawire: A friend and indefatigable African scholar

Saturday April 11 2020

Prof Thandika Mkandawire, Malawian scholar and thinker died on March 2020. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Prof Thandika Mkandawire, who passed away last week was one of the most brilliant African political economists I have ever met. He is well known for the eminent role he played in spearheading social science research and democratic struggles in Africa.

He was a household name among the African academia, much as the late Walter Rodney and Ali Mazrui were.

I remember one weekend in Dakar, Senegal, when Prof Thandika and I had had a long afternoon talking and having some beer in his apartment.

We were discussing Marxist approaches to the study of African politics, which Prof Thandika thought was rather deficient, with “everything being reduced to relations of production however poorly understood.”

The year was 1979, and the African Institute for Economic Planning and Development (IDEP) was at its highest point of radical intellectual fire power, headed by Samir Amin, the eminent political economist of the “accumulation on a world scale” fame.

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) had just been born literally on the ribs of IDEP, headed by Abdala Bujra, the well-known Kenyan anthropologist.


Prof Thandika straddled between the two institutions, subsequently succeeding Bujra to ensure that Codesria became the spring board for most young African scholars as astounding social scientists.

I remember that afternoon vividly. Prof Thandika was full of innovative ideas and impatient with some pedantic social science scholarship on the African scene,

I was surprised Prof Thandika had hardly published on any of the innovative ideas he had, which he expressed so convincingly. I challenged him to stop being a typical African in love with the oral tradition and begin writing and publishing. It did not take long before he hit the road, leaving me miles behind in a short time.

Not long ago Prof Thandika sent me the following mail:

“Here is an article I recently published in world politics. Remember it is you who once challenged me to begin writing when we were in Dakar. I will never forget that.”

The article was titled Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections (World Politics, Vol. 67, No. 1, January 2015).

I found this article perhaps one of the best analysis and critique of development theories in Africa, debunking theories of those who view the state as a pariah in Africa. Those who lump all African heads of state and government as “big men” out to eat state and society to the bone didn’t sit pretty with Prof Thandika in this article either.

Seeing the future of Africa as foretold, doomed and bereft of any meaningful development almost forever is something that could pass as propaganda but not social science.

On October 25, 2013, Prof Thandika wrote me as follows: “Early this year I met Willy Mutunga who reminded me of a meeting at your house where we drafted the principles of the Kenyan constitution. It is nice to see some things come true.”

Neither Dr Mutunga nor I worked on these principles with any idea that after the constitution was promulgated we would occupy the positions that we eventually did. Prof Thandika was, of course, miles away only to be happy eventually that his contribution to our struggle eventually paid some dividends in Kenya’s social progress.

That is why Prof Thandika could never accept a “one shoe fits all” view in of Africa’s political economy. Not all African middle classes are “comprador” nor are all African states dependent in the same way on external forces.

Class relations are historically given within social formations which can be subjected to analysis by the same theoretical models of political economy that are capable of bringing out their similarities and differences. This comes out very clearly in Prof Thandika’s World Politics article I have referred to above.

When I was writing the “Introduction” to a book I recently published—Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Africa: Choices to be Made (Nairobi: Booktalk Africa, 2019)—I remembered that sometime in the mid 90s, when we met as young Kenyan academics to discuss how we could advance the democratic struggle in our country, Prof Thandika happened to be among us.

As usual, he was always very ready to contribute productively to such discussions. We were so sure that the Moi regime was the only impediment between us and democracy. But Prof Thandika, always ready to be an intelligent gadfly at such times, posed the question: “Have you people thought about what kind of government you want to put in place after Moi which will be acceptable to the Kenyan people and which will achieve the democracy you seem to be looking for?”

From this statement one can see where Prof Thandika’s theory of the “national democratic and developmental state” as a progressive alternative to the presidential authoritarian regimes of the Moi type came from. He had a deep commitment to democracy rooted in popular acceptance by the people because it is, among other things, capable of paying democratic dividends.

On a light note. We used to drink a beer in Dakar called “flag”. For Thandika, these letters stood for “Front de Liberation Alcoholic de Gauche.” We were definitely leftist Africans committed to the liberation of our continent. But we were not always drunk!

Prof Nyong’o is the governor of Kisumu County, in Kenya.