By Professor Mahmood Mamdani
Academics have often debated the question of power and knowledge. We have been wary of regime intellectuals, of those who bend to the will of institutional authority in return for favours, in government or in the university.
The intellectual, it has been said, must speak truth to power. The MUASA leadership seems to have subverted this motto: instead of speaking truth to power, they seek to take power! Instead of holding those in power accountable, they seek to displace them.
As a result, we now have a new category of intellectuals in charge of MUASA. I call them regime change intellectuals. The regime does not have to be a government; it can be an institutional authority.
Regime change intellectuals are mirror opposites of regime intellectuals: both are dazzled by power. If regime intellectuals function as unthinking allies of those who run the university, regime change intellectuals would like to run the university themselves.
The closure of the university has been the main and the original objective of regime change intellectuals who wanted to make it ungovernable.
Making South Africa ungovernable was the ANC's motto during the township uprising of the late 1980s.
It made sense because the ANC's objective was to take power. The FDC embraced the strategy in the new millennium for that same reason.
Though it led to a split in the party, the strategy made sense for a political party asserting its claim to govern. But does it make sense for MUASA to embrace this strategy unless its leadership has come to think of the staff association as also a political party?
Someone visiting Makerere these past six weeks would have had a hard time figuring out who is running the university, the central administration or MUASA?
Part of the problem was that the only body that could have answered this question with authority and without ambiguity, the University Council, was not yet operational.
The MUASA leadership arrogated to itself the role of that oversight body, challenging the authority of the Vice Chancellor and his team to run the university.
Faced with a staff association whose leadership had become the tool of academic politicians preoccupied with the question of power, the Vice Chancellor became preoccupied with discipline.
This situation set the stage for the current standoff between two groups.
In the process, MUASA morphed into a new structure, devoid of accountability.
General meetings of MUASA were replaced by emergency meetings of a body called the Joint Staff Association Emergency General Assembly, claiming to represent all staff, academic and non-academic.
Yet, there is not a single provision in the MUASA constitution regulating such a body.
The joint assembly functions without the provision of a quorum. No attendance is taken at its meetings. Nor is there a way of verifying the identity of those attending.
For example, roughly a hundred attended last Friday's assembly. A hundred is four percent of roughly 2,500 academic and non-academic staff at Makerere. Can an unelected four percent claim to decide for all?
No resolutions are formally introduced or seconded. There is no voting and thus no opportunity for anyone to record their opposition. The Chair and the Legal Counsel determine the consensus.
Finally, no minutes are taken, ratified or circulated to members.
MUASA's current leadership is establishing a new tradition. It recalls the record of single party regimes that ruled large sections of this continent in the post-independence era. When compared to authoritarian presidential regimes in a multi-party setting, as the one in Uganda, the record of MUASA is even worse. There is not even a formal tolerance of divergent views or respect for rule of law in its proceedings.
This, indeed, is the example that MUASA has set for student assemblies.
What is amazing is that the university has no shortage of scholars who have been the most vocal and courageous in criticising departures from the rule of law in the country at large and in the Makerere administration. But they have remained silent in the face of this mob-style rule in MUASA. Is this deliberate or is it a consequence of a practice that has come to sanctify opposition to institutional authority? Has an oppositional attitude become part of a culture, ruling out a critical perspective? To grasp this development is to understand the making of a regime change intellectual.
This new culture should help us understand why no one has so far dared raise the question of the legality of these emergency assemblies.
The Board of the School of Law issued an opinion on the Joint Staff Association Emergency General Assembly of February 4. The opening section (A) claimed that resolutions of this Assembly are binding on all staff.
When the opinion was circulated in a forum of Makerere academic leaders, I asked: Were any resolutions presented at the Assembly? Was there a vote? How many voted in favour and how many against? I requested that minutes of the meeting be circulated. Surely, without these minimum provisions, the continuation of the strike is illegal and binds no one. There was no response.
There have been three other legal opinions on this matter from different parts of the School of Law: The Legal Counsel of MUASA, a long line of eminent petitioners led by the same legal counsel and, finally, the Centre for Legal Aid.
None of the above opinions examine the legality of procedures by which MUASA and the Joint Staff Associations have reached decisions to continue the strike.
Unlike MUASA, none of the other associations represent academics. Not surprisingly, the joint assembly has shown no interest in the question that ought to be of central concern to academics, that of academic freedom. That the first casualty in a strike is the process of learning seems to be of little concern to the joint assembly.
The University Council is right to insist that due process and procedures should be followed for outcomes to be considered legitimate.
To be an effective anti-dote, this principle should apply to all statutory bodies in the university, not only the central management, but also MUASA and other representative bodies.
Above all, the Council will do well to clarify the question of power and knowledge.
Who runs the university? What are the limits of power at each level, whether of the Vice Chancellor, the Academic Staff or students?
Are MUASA leaders right to claim that because they are established by the same law, they are equal to the Vice Chancellor? Is this not a call either for sharing power or for exercising a veto on power?
Then there is the question of knowledge. Unlike any other places of employment, the justification for a university lies in the pursuit of knowledge. How is each group - students, academic staff, administration - supposed to contribute to achieving this goal?
Students are here to learn; they cannot grade themselves. Academic staff are here to teach and do research; they cannot take over the running of the university. The Administration is here to run the institution, but only so long as they ensure an optimal environment for teaching, learning and research.
The right to strike cannot trump the right to learn. The right to strike is a necessary evil, but only to be used as a last and not a first resort. To strike makes sense only when the process of learning has been undermined. The day strike becomes part of business as usual at Makerere, and is celebrated as a part of the culture of Makerere, that day we shall see the beginning of the end of a great institution.
This is the danger that Council needs to keep in sight as it deliberates over the month ahead.
The writer is a professor and director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research