How dictators exploit STEM vs humanities debate to retain status quo

Kenya's President Jomo Kenyatta (right) bids Malawian President Kamuzu Banda goodbye at Nairobi Airport. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • For these leaders, there was no contradiction in pushing for economic development of their countries and embracing the beauty of literature and other humanities.
  • A people who know their literature, their history and their political sciences have always caused fear in the breasts of dictators.

One would imagine that in 2020, the question of disciplinary hierarchies of knowledge, if such ever existed, would now be settled in favour of a consensus on the equality of disciplines in the expanse of human knowledge.

But clearly, going by recent pronouncements by some Kenyan leaders and their behaviour at this time of Covid-19, the misconception that certain disciplines of knowledge are superior to others is still persuasive to some people.

Yet if the current global shutdown following Covid-19 tells us anything at all, it is that the prioritisation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects over others on its own cannot guarantee our development, let alone securing us from other dangers.

That is why we read about rich countries without enough ventilators, infected people who spit on healthy ones, leaders who ignore curfew restrictions to go binge drinking, and about some national leaders who are happy to expose their followers to the disease just to notch some political gains.

Such people may know the science behind the pandemic, but they are deprived of the moral and ethical anchoring that would compel them to do the right thing.

I guess this was the implied message in Egara Kabaji’s piece, “Time for scientists to learn the arts and humanities, and vice versa” (Saturday Nation, May 9, 2020).


We all remember back in 1983 Benedict Anderson had hailed national writers as key actors in the process of nation formation because it is writers who capture national experiences in idioms that citizens can relate to, and ultimately imagine themselves as compatriots.

Earlier, Nigerian critic Obi Wali, in his widely cited essay - “The Dead End of African Literature” - had observed that no country in human history had risen to greatness without the contribution of its writers who, collectively, create national narratives that instil national pride and a sense of belonging to their compatriots.

For Wali, Russia had the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin; Germany had Brecht; Britain had Shakespeare, Pinter and others; France had Balzac and Beckett, while the US had Steinbeck and Hemingway, among others.

These writers were not just cultural monuments that made their countries stand out, they also became whetstones upon which the first generation of African political and intellectual leaders sharpened their anticolonial struggles in their quest for Europe’s recognition of Africans’ humanity and the restoration of their liberty.

It is not a historical coincidence, therefore, that some of the most outstanding of African leaders — overlooking their individual weaknesses for a moment — were also literary writers or historians of note.

Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau, Steve Biko of South Africa, and Antonio Jacinto of Angola, among others, crystallised their political ideologies and expressed them via literary forms of speeches, novels and poetry.


More significant, their agendas for development and national unity were also conceptualised and packaged in terms of poetry, music and literature in general.

That is why, for instance, Julius Nyerere opted to translate Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar.

It is also possibly why Uganda’s Apollo Obote, so much enamoured of English poet John Milton’s quip, ‘I would rather be a master in hell than a servant in heaven’, took Milton to be his name too.

For these leaders, there was no contradiction in pushing for economic development of their countries and embracing the beauty of literature and other humanities.

Clearly, the examples from Euro-America, where a long history of the arts has traditionally coexisted with STEM, mean that our leaders’ obsessive regurgitation of the mantra of ‘STEM equals to development’ derives partly from a parochial understanding of these disciplines in relation to development.

Although many of our leaders conceive of development in the physical terms of buildings and other infrastructure modelled on what they see in Europe and America, they are either ignorant or forgetful of how such developments came about.

Chinua Achebe, in Anthills of the Savannah, counsels that every time we marvel at the cathedrals and boulevards in Europe or the skyscrapers in America, we must always remember that these humongous feats were not achieved by free willing labour, but by slaves who had been yanked from their families and shipped across the Atlantic to a new and cold climate where their humanity was degraded and bodies exploited for free labour.

Add slave trade to the plunder and pillage of African mineral resources, says Walter Rodney, and you end up with the cold, industrial and mineral-based modernity that Europe boasts of as development, and which Senghor caricatured in his powerful poem “New York”.


Even if this cold development is what our leaders now piping STEM wanted, focusing on these subjects at the expense of the humanities and social sciences will not suffice because, as another critic once observed, awareness and development begin with history.

But for our leaders, this historical awareness that is midwifed by the humanities and social sciences is also a threat to their disposition towards corruption, dictatorship and all the shenanigans that they have so far perfected.

A people who know their literature, their history and their political sciences have always caused fear in the breasts of dictators; it is not that these disciplines are inferior to STEM, or have little to contribute to development, they simply make it hard for despots to survive.

That is why dictators such as Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi persecuted artists such as Abdilatif Abdalla, Ngugi and Maina wa Kinyatti in Kenya; Kamuzu Banda in Malawi exiled poet Jack Mapanje and, on the extreme, Nigeria’s Sani Abacha executed Ken Saro Wiwa.

These leaders’ disdain for art and artists had nothing to do with pushing for development, but with self-preservation as they prayed and hoped for a docile populace upon whom they could mount, pun intended, their draconian whims.


That is why every time you hear leaders talk about STEM, you ought to remember the Kenyattas, Mois, Bandas and Abachas of our times.

Their interest is not about development and the relative contributions that different disciplines can make, but in ensuring that huge chunks of their populations remain unaware of how historical developments determine their current economic predicament.

Sadly, this is something that political leaders cultivated with the help and support of a certain cadre of academics, ironically from the humanities and social sciences, who spearheaded the now common trivialising of knowledge generally, disdain for institutions of knowledge production and belittling of the academic as an individual.

Godwin Siundu teaches at the University of Nairobi