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Vol 61 No 8

Published 16th April 2020

Thandika Mkandawire, 10 October 1940-27 March 2020

An independent and pioneering intellectual, an obituary by Michael Chege

With the death in Stockholm on 27 March of Professor Thandika Mkandawire of the London School of Economics, the continent has lost a leading thinker and author on economics, politics and governance.

He was a polymath whose erudite pen also extended to essays on the state of African universities, appreciation of Afro-Jazz, the community of African intellectuals and the damage done to objective understanding of Africa by some opinionated Western intellectuals.

Thandika was no ideologue, rather a humane centrist. His life's objective was to ensure Africa was understood objectively and that its development policies would advance the lofty aims that motivated the struggles for independence and against apartheid: dignity for Africans and other oppressed people, poverty eradication and social welfare, respect for human rights and a saner, more caring world.

I first met Thandika in the mid-1970s when he was the deputy executive of the top pan-African research institute, the Council for the Development of Social Research (Codesria) in Dakar. Already, he had shown his mettle, taking an independent line from Marxist-grounded 'dependency' theories that were popular at the time without offending their adherents. At the same time, he could see the dangers of unfettered market economics that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were to peddle as Africa's cure. Theories mattered to him but in the end Africa mattered more.

The study of the political economy of African development was Thandika's stock in trade, and he stood above his peers in Africa and outside of the continent. Though highly knowledgeable about African development trends from the earliest nationalist days to the present, he was modest, even self-effacing.

Thandika was never condescending or brusque to his colleagues, students, or leaders who sought his opinion. To the end, he objected to learned publications in the West that traced African problems to racial stereotypes. With analytical verve, he argued that stereotyping African leaders as opportunity-plundering 'neo-patrimonial' types was inaccurate, and some African states had indeed delivered growth and widely-shared development.

A role model to younger African economists who aspired to policy development, Thandika was born in colonial Malawi to a Zimbabwean (then Southern Rhodesia) mother and Malawian father. As a young man, he was an eyewitness to racial discrimination in colonial Malawi, and Southern and Northern Rhodesia, where his parents worked.

After high school, Thandika started in journalism covering nationalist politics in the region. At the time, there were no university openings in the region for Africans worth the name, so he travelled to Ohio State University to take a Bachelors, and Masters degree in economics.

From there, Thandika's career took flight: a doctorate from Stockholm, Executive Secretary of Codesria (1985-96) who described him as: '…a brilliant economist and prodigious scholar whose works on African political economy challenged dominant ways of seeing the African on a wide range of issues including the structural adjustment and economic reform, democratic politics, neo-patrimonialism and insurgent violence.'

After Codesria, Thandika was director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva from 1998-2009, and then was appointed Chair of African Development and Professor of African Development at the London School of Economics. He was also awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Fort Hare, York, Helsinki and Legon in Ghana, where he was invited a guest lecturer.


Recent publications written and edited by Thandika Mkandawire:

African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development ed. Zed Books, London, 2005; 'Maladjusted African Economies and Globalisation' in Africa Development, Vol. XXX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005; Social Policy in a Development Context ed. Palgrave Macmillan, London 2004; 'Disempowering New Democracies and the Persistence of Poverty' in Globalisation, Poverty and Conflict, Max Spoor ed., Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004; 'Good governance: The itinerary of an idea' in Development and Cooperation, 2004; 'African Voices on Structural Adjustment' CODESRIA/IDRC/AWP, Trenton, NJ, 2003; 'Intellectuals: Post-Independence', Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century African History, Paul Zeleza ed. Routledge, London, 2003 ; 'Economy: Post-Independence' in Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century African History, Paul Zeleza ed. Routledge, London, 2003. 'Incentives, Governance and Capacity Development: What Role for Technical Assistance in Africa?' in Capacity for Developing New Solutions to Old Problems, Eds. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Carlos Lopes and Khalid Malik, Earthscan, 2002; 'African Intellectuals, Political Culture and Development', Journal für Entwicklungspolitik (Austrian Journal of Development Studies), XV 111:1 (Special Issue edited by Henning Melber), 2002; 'Globalization and Social Equity' African Sociological Review, 2002; 'The Terrible Toll of Post-Colonial 'Rebel Movements' in Africa: Toward an Explanation of the Violence Against the Peasantry', Journal of Modern African Studies, 2002; Social Policy in a Development Context, UNRISD, Geneva, 2001; 'Thinking About Developmental States in Africa', Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2001; 'Non-Organic Intellectuals and 'Learning' in Policy-Making Africa', in Learning in Development Co-operation, eds. Jerker Carlsson and Lennart Wohlgemuth, EGDI, Sweden, 2000; 'Crisis Management and the Making of 'Choiceless Democracies' in Africa', in The State, Conflict and Democracy in Africa, ed. Richard Joseph, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, Colorado, 1999; 'Shifting Commitments and National Cohesion in African Countries,' in Common Security and Civil Society in Africa, eds. Lennart Wohlegemuth, Samantha Gibson, Stephan Klasen and Emma Rothchild, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 1999.


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