For years, a culture had been cultivated at Northcote Hall of residence, turning the occupants into an outfit, calling themselves ‘generals’, that ‘unleashed terror’ on fellow students in other halls, in what they referred to as ‘operations’.
Disturbed by their mobilisation skills that pointed to potential anarchy, the administration at Makerere University in the mid-90s began to look into ways of demobbing a group of students on the campus.
For years, a culture had been cultivated at Northcote Hall of residence, turning the occupants into an outfit, calling themselves ‘generals', that ‘unleashed terror' on fellow students in other halls, in what they referred to as ‘operations'.
The operations involved the students attacking other students with whom they disagreed on various matters at the university. They also mobilised fellow students against university policies that they did not agree with.
They were bound together in comradeship in what they called a ‘spirit' symbolised by a drum that was sounded to unite the students in times when they needed to stand together.
Each resident of Northcote took an oath that bound him to the spirit and to solidarity as well as to a code of secrecy that none could tell on another.
Built in the late 40s Northcote was originally two blocks that currently are Nsibirwa and Nkurumah Halls. However, as time went by, it became harder to bring to order students from two blocks. This then drove the university administration in 1960 to split Northcote into two halls, Nkurumah as the breakaway and Northcote.
Rather than solve the problem, the split instead created a rivalry that lasted well into the late 90s, later being referred to as the cause of the closure and subsequent renaming of Northcote.
While Northcote and Nkurumah rivalled, other halls with male residents formed partnerships with halls with female residents, Mitchel Hall coupled up with Complex, forming the Mitchelex partnership, Lumumba partnered with Mary Stuart, commonly called Box, forming the Lumbox solidarity, while Livingstone grabbed Africa from under the noses of both Northcote and Nkurumah to form the Afrostone solidarity.
On realising that they had been outwitted while fighting the wrong enemy, the Northcote generals turned their guns, launching an operation against any arrangement that existed between the coupled halls.
One fateful evening, as Afrostone planned a celebration of their partnership, the generals planned to disorganise it. Frederick Byaruhanga, in his book ‘Student power in Africa's Higher Education: A case of Makerere University' narrates the events:
The Northcote Saga started around mid-day on May 4, 1996, when the Students of Livingstone Hall were in the heat of preparing for their traditional buddy party with the female Africa Hall. The celebration is commonly known as the Afrostone Day.
Their rival Northcote Hall students, carrying their Hall flag and garbed in camouflage gear, invaded the Livingstone Hall kitchen where the food was being prepared, and poured pepper and broken glass pieces in the two cooking pots full of matooke (green bananas).
Fortunately, the cooks were present to watch the heinous act and were able to forestall a tragedy. Northcote Hall had gained a traditional reputation of being vociferously rambunctious in behaviour, a behaviour that was enshrined in its belligerent culture.
Following the Afrostone event, the university disciplinary committee convened a meeting, whose purpose was to assess the situation and make recommendations to the university council.
The committee denounced Northcote's culture of untoward hooliganism and recommended that the Hall be closed and all its students become non-resident.
In the light of the disciplinary committee's recommendation, the university council held its own meeting (August 12-14, 1996) and corroborated the committee's recommendation to close Northcote Hall.
The council's decision was predicated on not only Northcote's long-time and well-known prankish behaviour, but also on its students' obduracy in refusing to name the Afrostone culprits.
As a measure to curtail Northcote's historical behaviour, the council passed a resolution to the effect that non-resident students attached to other halls of residence were free to apply and become residents of Northcote. And the 720 Northcoters would become non-resident."
When the academic year began in October, the former Northcote students returned to a university that was reluctant to accommodate them.
Even managers of the non-resident hostel accommodation were very hesitant to offer them residence, maintaining that they were not ready to inherit the Northcote problem.
In the meantime, some of the students met on Saturday, October 5, and resolved to seek and provide information leading to the Afrostone culprits.
Such information would be surreptitiously passed on to university authorities, hoping that their forthrightness would cast off the web of suspicion and resentment. As a result, 16 names were provided and some were apprehended.
However, the council's decision to close Northcote was never rescinded, and the hall was designated as Hall X. It was later renamed Nsibirwa Hall."
Northcote's closure, obviously, did not sit well with students, especially its former residents. At their Wednesday, October 23 general assembly, students revisited the Northcote question and demanded that the hall be reopened.
In exasperation, a number of students dashed and forced their way into former Northcote Hall, grabbed the keys from the custodian, causing a pandemonium, which resulted in some damages.
Meanwhile, as the students kept vigil at the hall, police were called in, and by the following day, Thursday, October 24, 1996, an epidemic of rioting had spread all the way to Lumumba Hall, where the students had a brawl with the police.
By October 25, the dust had settled and classes had resumed, but not without consequences: 35 students including the guild president, his vice president, Northcote Hall chairman, and Northcote Hall secretary for interior, were arrested.
At an emergency university council meeting, which was held on Thursday, the culprits were expelled from the university, and the rest of the students were ordered to return to class or face expulsion as well.
On Saturday, October 26, the guild parliament held its own meeting in which it resolved to end the strike. At the meeting, student leaders acknowledged their culpability and decided to seek pardon from the President Yoweri Museveni, as well as the university administration.
[End of extract]
Tom Ndema, a former chairman of Northcote, who participated in the raid on the Afrostone dinner, has a contrary recollection of the events.
What he is sure of though is that the raid and adulteration of the food for the dinner happened while he was in his first year, long before he became hall chairman and yet the closure happened after he had completed his studies and was awaiting graduation. In an exclusive interview with New Vision, he recounts thus;
"The events that led to the closure of Northcote are grossly distorted. The incident of adulterating food happened when I was in my first year and yet Northcote was not closed until after I had left Makerere and was waiting to graduate.
The closure of the hall happened when my friend called Nyeko was the chairman. Many events piled up that led to the University administration taking the decision to close Northcote on grounds of indiscpline.
However, the particular incident of lacing food with salt happened when we were stopped from marching. That evening there was an Afrostone event and we also had what we referred to as an operation against Afrostone.
Normally for any event to happen at Makerere, the event organisers had to consult with Northcote residents to get ‘permission'.
However, we were not consulted about the dinner and so we launched an operation to disrupt the event. Our boys then raided the kitchen at Livingstone and poured a lot of salt in the food, making it inedible. While at it, there was a scuffle between the cooks and the attackers, during which some bottles of soda were broken.
When the organisers of the dinner got wind of our successful disruption of their event, they cooked up a story that would convince the Dean of students to take action against Northcote residents.
So they decided to drive the false narrative that we had put broken glass pieces in the food in the hope that this would be considered criminal and, therefore, summary action be taken.
To their disappointment, however, the Dean, George Kihuguru, commonly called Uncle George, instead launched an investigation that led us to face the disciplinary committee. But before we could face the DC, we told Kihuguru, who himself was a father to one of the girls that were attending the event that they should let us eat the food to prove that we had not put broken glass pieces in it.
At the disciplinary hearing, our lawyers argued that there was no logic in putting glass in food. Also, our accusers had not prepared their case against us properly so it collapsed. They had hoped that by saying we had put glass, there would be summary action but due to lack of evidence the matter was put to rest.
It was practically impossible for any student at Makerere at that time to think of putting glass pieces in food. We had colleagues, brothers and sisters as well as girlfriends attending that event. So to think that we would do something that would end in fatalities was not possible. Most of the things we did were just ‘kavuyo' nothing serious. There was no law, no logic.
There were in fact a number of other operations we carried out after that, one of them being what we called a biological attack on Livingstone Hall, which was considered the most deadly. However the operation against the Afrostone dinner was not related to the closure."
Ndema points the closure of the hall to politics between the state and the university.
Without going into details, he says that the university administration got fearful of the mobilisation capacity of the students in Northcote and as such began to hatch plans to close it, citing indiscipline. He adds that the state had begun to work with a number of students in the Hall, using them to mobilise fellow students for activities.
One such activity he recalls was when the university administration stopped students from attending a campaign rally at Kololo Airstrip that was being addressed by President Yoweri Museveni, who was vying against then Democratic Party president Paul Ssemogerere.
With the leadership of the Northcote generals, the students broke out of the closed off university and marched to the rally. This incident, Ndema says endeared the Northcote generals to Mr Museveni, who during his rally at the university that same year instructed that they be allowed to take up front seats dubbed in their camouflage attire.
Named after Sir Geoffrey Northcote, who served as chairman of the University Council from July 1945 to 1948 when he died, the hall is said to have picked up its character after the person it owes its name to, who is said to have been a no-nonsense, principled leader.