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Makerere University Impasse: What Went Wrong, Right?

By Francis Otucu

Once heralded as the Harvard of Africa, Makerere University is currently ranked 11th best university in Africa, according to renowned university ranker, Webometrics. On the other hand, UK weekly magazine, the Times Higher Education, places it among the top 500 universities in the world. This ranking is a departure from the top 5 ranking that Makerere boasted during the recent reigns of Nawangwe predecessors Prof. Venansias Baryamureeba and Ddumba-Ssentamu.

The slump in rankings notwithstanding, Uganda’s premium university has lately been in the media for the wrong reasons following a staff strike that paralysed business for close to a month.

NORMALCY RETURNS

Currently however, calm has been restored at the university, bringing an end — at least temporarily — to the strife that had put the entire country on tension.  Makerere University lecturers have announced that their three-week strike has ended and will on Monday resume lectures.

Reports show that the teaching and non-teaching staff resolved to end their industrial action after getting assurance that the newly elected University Council led by Ms Lorna Magara is committed to addressing their grievances. These mainly center around the suspension of MUASA leader Deus Kamunyu as well as complaints against committees that VC Nawangwe instituted in a bid to bring normalcy and discipline at the university. “We are trusting the goodwill of the new council to do the due diligence of the ongoing investigations into lecturers’ suspension,” said Makerere University academic staff association vice chairperson, Mr Edward Mwavu. The university Council’s Vice chairperson, Dan Kidega also assured the striking staff that the council had agreed to disband all the committees formed by Nawangwe with immediate effect.it is however important that the normalcy is temporary as the staff vowed to resume their strike if their issues are not conclusively settled in the next one month. In this analysis, the second opinion digs deep into Makerere University’s underlying issues to reveal what went wrong and what is right at the once Harvard of Africa.

EGOS, EGOS AND EGOS

While addressing guests at the Makerere University main hall during a United Bank for Africa’s Thought Leadership forum, Vice Chancellor, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe defended the reforms his new administration is initiating, saying the changes are aimed at ensuring that both staff and students are disciplined.

He later further argued that his reforms are transparent and that is partly why they are fought. But responding to him, MPs on the parliamentary committee on Education found his methods quite tyrannical, thus advised him to rethink his managerial skills and style while running the university.

According to the committee, Nawangwe should consider exploring dialogue to restore normalcy instead of undermining and suspending colleagues with divergent views.

Putting the impasse into perspective, the committee described Nawangwe’s administration as a ‘reign of terror’, while the committee’s chairperson Jacob Opolot attributed the standoff to a battle of egos. “Let us shed off our personal egos and focus on the best we can agree on for the good of Makerere. If the staff want to run the university like they are management, let us remind them where they are, and if management wants to run it like a kiosk, let us also remind them that they should not over stretch their powers,” committee chairperson Jacob Opolot said. Opolot’s assertion sum up the leadership impasse at Makerere; a thing political historian Ndebesa Mwambutsya admits and thus advises the regulatory and mediatory bodies like the university council to stem by offering timely interventions whenever necessary. “The main authority at the public University in Uganda is the Governing Council. What is it doing now? It is supposed to mediate between different competing interests but it appears it is either helpless, clueless about the challenges at Makerere or is it taking sides? When there are competing interests between two sides as indeed it is between the VC and the associations at Makerere, then the Council which should keep some authority distance from the two should come in and mediate or act,” Mwambutsya told online publication, the Softpower, on February 14, 2019.

Mistrust

Sources we spoke to revealed that the underlying reason behind the Makerere squabbles and the egoistic fights is the mistrust brewing between a section of staffers and the vice chancellor as well as members of the old university council. The mistrust, sources say, is a spillover of similar battles that existed between Nawangwe and his then boss, Ddumba Ssentamu.

It should be remembered that in the run up to the VC elections, former VC Prof. Ddumba accused his the DVC Finance, Prof. Nawangwe of making unilateral decisions and involving himself in acts of insubordination, gross misconduct and disrespect. In a 6-page letter of caution, dated January 30, 2017, Prof. Ddumba observed that Nawangwe’s, acts of insubordination had caused him enormous humiliation.

“Your continued acts of insubordination ridicule my person and the person of the Vice Chancellor. On a number of occasions, you have been invited for meetings and you have deliberately refused to attend them without any information or apology,” Prof. Ddumba wrote.

Prof. Ddumba also accused Nawangwe of making derogatory verbal utterances and disparagingly shouting at him during management meetings. Prof. Ddumba further strongly advised Nawangwe to carefully read the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act to acquaint himself with the hierarchy of the institution.

analysts say that it is this history of alleged insubordination that are haunting Nawangwe and forcing him into taking hard stance decisions such as express suspension of juniors he perceives to be insubordinate.  Worth noting also is that in Ddumba’s letter, he also cited the then Council chairman Dr Wana-Etyem; the Chairman Appointments Board Bruce Balaba and the University Secretary Charles Barugahare as the ‘people giving him hard time’.

Now, given that the university council is the highest decision making organ of the university, Ddumba’s indictment of its members created an indelible mark of them being in cohorts with Nawangwe as his partners-in-crime. It was thus going to be very hard for them to approve any decision fronted by Nawangwe without protest from those who felt they were out of their circle. This feeling of a Nawangwe cabal perhaps explains why it has been very easy for Nawangwe to always have his massive suspensions of lecturers approved with ease. Unfortunately, this always elicited the chagrin of whoever was concerned.

A case of paranoia

Reports also indicate that during Ddumba’s reign as VC, Nawangwe was a darling to students; always acting as the run-to-guy whenever there was a strike. Worth noting was that these strikes were always violent and in them, students always vied for Ddumba’s head. Curiously however, Nawangwe was always at hand to address and calm the students without much ado. This, sources say, created suspicion against Nawangwe by Ddumba, who felt his DVC had a hand in these strikes.

Whereas The Second Opinion could not independently verify this claim, analysts opined that any grain of truth now makes Nawangwe a paranoid leader in anticipation that some other person(s) can orchestrate the same plots against him.

If true, it explains why currently, the Nawangwe administration has a very complex and widely elaborate plan against strikes.

Speaking to The Second Opinion, a student who says he has suffered consequences of this strategy says it involves a mixed bag of targeted suspensions and expulsions, a tight spy network and intimidation of students through deliberate retakes and revocation of privileges.

“The administration has mastered the art of divide and rule tactics against both lecturers and students. They have compromised a few students and lecturers who then feed the administration with information about those they expect to engage in strikes,” the student explains that it is for this reason that some lecturers were teaching while their colleagues were on strike; leading to the media confusion that ensued in regard to whether studies were ongoing at the university or not.

On top of students and lecturers, there are also police officers in plain clothes and these are stationed in all halls of residence to report anything against the administration.

Unfortunately, some of these spies are armed and occasionally get inadvertently exposed, thus leading to tension and chaos. For instance, during a on during a February 12, 2019, university staff meeting, commotion ensued after Amos Ddembe Ashaba, an Internal Auditor attached to the College of Health Sciences, was busted with a pistol.

Ashaba’s gun peeped as he was addressing the meeting, leading to protests from colleagues. It was not until police disarmed him that the meeting ensued.

However, Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesperson Patrick Onyango, defended the police deployment, saying it is normal and legal.

“Our intelligence operatives are everywhere. They (students) can only live in fear if they are doing anything illegal. The operatives are there to provide security,” he said in an interview.

On the issue of armed staff at the university, Onyango said the only question should instead be the legality of the firearm.

“The law provides that any private citizen that applies for a private firearm through the IGP and meets the requirements, that person is given license. The only question should be, is the gun legal? They (students) shouldn’t feel threatened as long as they are not involved in suspicious activities,” Onyango says.

On top of such threats, some lecturers give retakes as punishment to students they think are opposed to some of the administration’s actions. He cites two students currently nursing retakes as a result of opposing the administration.

Recently, while addressing a press conference on the controversial degree that was awarded to Miss Uganda Quinn Abenakyo, David Musiri, a Second Year Bachelor of Commerce External student also revealed that his scholarship that had been advanced to him by the Chinese government through the university was revoked on grounds that he was indisciplined. Trouble for Musiri began when he openly spoke out against the suspension of Dr. Stella Nyanzi and also vehemently mobilized students to protest against the introduction of the AIMS payment system as well as tuition fees increment. Musiri noted that he opposed AIMS because it had been introduced without proper sensitization of students on its usage yet it bore heavy financial implications on them. And indeed, many students nearly missed their exams or had them delayed due to glitches with the new payment system.

WHAT MAKERERE SAYS

In a lengthy interview with Dr. Vincent Ssembatya, the Director Quality Assurance at Makerere University, said the issues facing the university are societal; a combination of all the challenges, among them overcrowding in lecture rooms, lack of modern equipment and understaffing.

In some colleges the teacher to student ratio, Dr. Ssembatya says, stands at 1:56 compared to the 1:8 recommended by the National Council for Higher Education. The human resource is the other contentious area, and he says the university is not in position to hire professors because of financial constraints.

He, however, notes that attempts improving the situation at Makerere are ongoing despite challenges like the opposition to an increase in tuition fees to meet the costs that would go towards procuring modern equipment.

“The best product offered by a university comes at a cost which we may not have access to,” Dr. Ssembatya says, adding:  “Now you have all these issues coming up and when you add them together, they build up in different ways to form pressure points. What’s happening now, with time and with all this urge and aspirations to become an ideal university in an economy which isn’t ideal requires a lot of sacrifice.”

Looking at the issues at Makerere differently and carefully, he says the pressure on individuals is real.

He however notes that the challenges can be nipped in the bud if some people expressed restraint.

Ssembatya for instance cites that seven years ago students rejected the idea to remove boda bodas from the university, almost causing a strike.

“Yet for some of us who were here in the 80s, we walked all the way from Wandegeya or town, there was no boda boda. There was nothing to talk about. We could even walk from town to campus and we wouldn’t even feel it. The sun has not changed direction. It still heats up, maybe the dust is still there. Everything is still there but the times and the tolerance. The way people have learnt how to resolve problems has changed with time. You now have a cross generation of population. So, for me, putting them in one box is the real problem. But if people understand that it’s a resource problem, I think we should be able to move on,” Dr, Ssembatya said.

Dr. Ssembatya’s argument is supported by VC Prof. Nawangwe, who attributes Makerere’s woes to an entrenched sub-culture that many people don’t want changed. “Any change comes with resistance, whether it is for the good or for the bad. It takes time for people to appreciate what is being done. Universities are very traditional institutions, they have developed certain traditions. What is happening is that we are trying to transform some things at the university to enable the university contribute more meaningfully to the development of the Ugandan society,” he says. He adds: “A few people may not be happy with the new reforms and are used to some traditions that are not helpful at all to the university and the Ugandan society. But the administration is saying no, as the top brains of this country, lecturers are obliged to do more to help the country overcome some challenges since a lot has been invested in them.” While Nawangwe’s assertions are substantial, it is apparent that there’s a need to strike a balance and introduce the reforms gradually; otherwise, the battle of egos will persist— unfortunately to the 97-year-old institution’s detriment.

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