Sunday, October 16, 2022

Last week Makerere University concluded centenary celebrations that ran for one year marked in social pomp as thousands of alumni, staff and current students across the globe paid accolades for the journey travelled. At the close, President Yoweri Museveni, who, in 1967 chose not to join Makerere in preference for the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, gave a speech at which he admonished and also implored Makerere to rediscover the true mission of a university education in finding solutions to society problems through teaching, research and innovation rather than jubilate half-glory.

Makerere opened in 1922 which during immediate post-independence mainly churned out exclusive elites. Thirty-six years ago when I joined under reg. no. 86/1197, faculty of Social Sciences, we were about 4000 students combined. Law, engineering, statistics, agriculture, human and veterinary medicine hardly took in 100 each. Today the number is slightly over 35,000 across tens of programs and courses, majority privately sponsored which didn’t exist in my generation. At the time everyone in the surrounding suburbs knew a Makerere university student from a distance. “Uncle” George Kihuguru, the Dean of Students, and Bernard Onyango-the Academic Registrar, knew almost every student, and vice versa. Together with Tanga Odoi, Felix Kulaigye (Brig), Gume Ngobi (minister), Emmy Katabazi (ISO), Norah Njuba, Asan Kasingye, Kabakumba Matsiko, and Kefa Nangeso (Maj Gen) among others we fought NRM’s nascent political battles within Makerere urged on by then Col. Kahinda Otafire, Maj. Amanya Mushega and Capt. Kale Kayihura to neutralise the UPC rearguards.

In a sense, Makerere is no longer the “Ivory Tower,” for exclusive elites. Its allure now subdued by over twenty other public and private universities.  Then, came the rise of student hooligan culture that for a while ran out of control.

The last three decades of global economic turbulence hit the university community hitherto shielded from the outside to falsely believe that the world owed them a living, and so couldn’t accept to swallow the bitter pills that majority of Ugandans were swallowing under the World Bank structural adjustment program. Prof. Apolo Nsibambi, Abel Rwendeire Carasco all deceased now, and Fredrick Jjuko menacingly demanded from government a non-existence ‘food basket’ for lecturers.

Feeding into the economic hardships Uganda went through, Makerere spiraled into managerial incompetence and corruption that reached crisis levels. As a result, non-payment of incentive arrears for staff, pensioners, suppliers, utility bills, and deterioration of residential, administration and teaching facilities went out of control and endemic. Food quality served to students became wanting.

On academics syllabus completion, setting and marking tests, coursework, examinations, and timely release of results became problematic. There was an increase in student retakes, failures, bloated student numbers, and staff absenteeism which conspired against quality. Makerere reached a point it couldn’t even accurately account for student and revenue collected from private programs yet it teaches mathematics, economics, statistics, computing and management. 

Makerere student community became synonymous with violent hooliganism in Wandegeya, Kikoni, Nakulabye and Kivulu neighbourhoods where they ransacked groceries, making it difficult differentiating them from hoodlums. Academic staff turned untouchables as the bug of indiscipline disguised as struggle for better welfare became a badge of honour to hold everyone hostage. Meanwhile, the good lecturers part-timed in Makerere University instead of giving full-time service as they moonlighted at private universities, consultancies or NGOs.

The once cherished Makerere graduates began to be treated with doubt. As Makerere reached a crisis point, Nawangwe, a Russian trained architect, who had been a faculty head, and DVC came in and seemed to have understood maladies eating up the university.

The malaise continued to fester in accumulated non-payment of statutory obligations like salaries, PAYE, NSSF, pensions, and incentives. At Makerere, physical infrastructure like libraries, lecture rooms, staff and students residences were left to waste away for a long time. Delayed, or often non-payment for supplies including food, teaching materials, ICT and utilities have led to acute or perennial shortages leading to poor services. Visiting the Law School main auditorium, the walls are so dirty with paint peeled off, one electric bulb, and cobwebs greeting you. 

Since 2017 when Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe became the vice chancellor, Makerere University hitherto rocked by perennial violent strikes staged by students, academic and non-teaching staff often with prolonged shutdowns is begging to experience relative calm. 

This calmness from redundancy, destructive politics and anti-social behaviour has ensured that Makerere can once again start to engage in healthy public discourse and focus more on teaching, research, and innovation to become the catalyst for socio-economic transformation.

Nawangwe immediately and rightly so, removed his gloves, tamed the rampant student strikes and boisterous academic staff. Without mercy, many found to be contagious were expelled. Nawangwe has stood his ground and has refused to carelessly renew employment contracts for doggy and troublesome staff even when Makerere stood pay monetary compensations.

There is now visible progress as Makerere refocuses towards teaching, research and innovation. Makerere continues to expand and transform its infrastructure and human resources. The once rotting halls of residences are undergoing renovation. Let Makerere conquer another century with innovation.