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Have regime change intellectuals captured Makerere?

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Added 7th February 2019 11:23 AM

Ask what is at stake and you are likely to be told that it is the freedom of staff and students to express views and to organise.

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Ask what is at stake and you are likely to be told that it is the freedom of staff and students to express views and to organise.


Mahmood Mamdani

Professor and Director, Makerere Institute of Social Research

Ask a resident of Kampala what the fuss at Makerere is all about and you will most likely be told that it is a confrontation between the Vice Chancellor and MUASA, and that the students have now entered the fray on the side of MUASA.

Ask what is at stake and you are likely to be told that it is the freedom of staff and students to express views and to organise. 

From the perspective of one who has been attending one meeting after another, the picture looks more complicated, with the lines of division not just between staff, students and top management but inside each of these constituencies. 

The first visible crack was among the staff. Disenchanted with a MUASA leadership that seemed to excel in brinkmanship and had brought the campus on a knife’s edge, a group began to call for a change in direction.

They wanted a toolkit that would involve more than just one weapon, the call for a general strike, and a move away from a growing personality cult that was beginning to confuse the interests of academic staff with that of individual leaders in MUASA.

 These dissenting members came together on February 1 under the rubric Concerned Academic Staff.

When the MUASA General Assembly met on February 4, their members were in attendance in full force.

The General Assembly had been preceded by negotiations between the MUASA leadership and the Vice Chancellor.

An agreement had been brokered and the VC came to the General Assembly to publicly indicate his willingness to explore a middle ground. Both sides made conciliatory statements.

There were smiles all around. Then the Chair introduced a member of the Law Faculty as the Legal Counsel to MUASA.

This learned gentleman had a different message: if the strike is suspended or ended, he warned, negotiations could drag on for years. 

Many of the Concerned Academic Staff stood up asking for the floor, at first raising hands. But when not a single hand was recognized, some stood up to insist on the right to speak. All were ignored. 

The next day the media reported that the Assembly had resolved that the strike continue for another few days.

But no such resolution had been put forward before the Assembly, nor seconded. Indeed, no such resolution had been debated. Nor had such a resolution been put to vote where those opposed could register dissent. 

Made to believe that a compromise had been reached, the Vice Chancellor was left voiceless for the rest of the meeting. That same day, his office received a legal notice to the effect that the Chair of MUASA had entered a court case against him and Makerere University. The MUASA leadership continued the strike and added a chant to it: Give Peace a Chance!

Two days later, in what must be considered the most bizarre development, students entered the fray.

Having already given an ultimatum to the two sides (but really to the VC) to reach an agreement within a few days, the student Assembly voted to join the strike. Why? So as to end the strike! Makerere began to resemble an Orwellian world: Strike to end the strike! 

Should the Vice Chancellor not have resorted to suspending the staff association leadership? Had he conferred the status of victims, even martyrs, on these leaders by doing so and instead put himself in the dock? That line has been advanced by the MUASA leadership. 

The same learned gentleman who had appeared in last Monday’s General Assembly as MUASA’s Legal Counsel had a few days earlier appeared as the lead petitioner of a list of respectable and seemingly neutral chorus of law lecturers who argued that the academic rights of MUASA’s leaders had indeed been violated. 

What were these rights? Certainly, MUASA’s leaders have the right to critique management. They also have the right to mobilize their members, including for strike action in pursuit of those demands.

But do they have the right to defame the character of those with whom they disagree?

Publicly to allege fraud and corruption on the part of the university’s leaders without first presenting evidence, whether before university tribunals or before courts of law outside?

To claim defamation of character of those with whom you disagree as a right is to claim impunity. No leader should be allowed to get away with such a claim.

The interesting thing is that MUASA leaders are now demanding a procedural right they had been unwilling to extend to the Vice Chancellor, the right to be charged, tried and judged, before being accused.

Should it matter that MUASA leaders were the first to sling mud publicly, including in parliament, at their adversaries? Could these leaders have been restrained without suspension?

There is no doubt that there is more than one side to the Makerere situation. On one side, we have a failure on the part of Makerere’s top management to take their case to the media and the public.

And on the other side we have an academic staff leadership that has played the media to the hilt. Steeped in political experience, indeed intoxicated with politics, they can be easily mistaken for politicians on the make rather than intellectuals or scholars. 

The MUASA leadership seems to have set a role model for the Guild leadership. At the February 6 meeting of unit heads, there was ample evidence that intimidation of those holding different views has spread from staff leaders to student leaders.

In the most outrageous case, the School of Agriculture cannot have classes on the main campus because of threats of intervention from pro-strike activists who have in the past taken to breaking windows and beating up fellow students, but the same School of Agriculture has 100% attendance in classes on its Kabanyolo campus.

A similar narrative could be heard from a number of other schools. When intimidation rules the roost, the first casualty is academic freedom and scholarship.

The strategy championed by the MUASA leadership has carefully sidestepped the possibility of internal reform. Rather, their aim has been to make the campus ungovernable.

They have bypassed all other internal centers of power, including the Council, with one goal in mind: to call for external intervention – which they hope will bring regime change. 

Alas, to regime intellectuals who have habitually supported whoever is in power, Makerere can now boast of another group, regime change intellectuals, who just as habitually oppose whoever is in power. Neither side seems interested in critical scholarship.


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