Makerere Strike: Why Students Should Understand Political Process as a Social Milieu

In 1990, the guild contest at Makerere was between Nobert Mao and Nobert Mayombo. In many ways, this contest defined and shaped student activism politics at Makerere University.

In 1991, following violent student protests caused by government’s scrapping of ‘transport allowance’ in favor of ‘book bank’ and faced with an ever-burdening cash crisis; Makerere University introduced the Private sponsorship scheme. This would see 300 new privately sponsored students studying alongside those supported by the state.

Also, by 1991, Makerere University, which relied 100 percent on public funding for both tuition and living expenses for all its students, was the most underfunded University in the Eastern and Southern African Region.

Its gross unit cost in 1984 stood at U.S.$345 when the average unit cost in the region was U.S.$2,000. A university professor earned U.S.$30 per month. The financial squeeze manifested itself further in deteriorating buildings, constant power failures, and breakdowns in the water supply system. Journal subscriptions declined to zero as had the purchase of chemicals, textbooks, and science laboratory equipment. Research publishing dried up.

In 1995, the university council sanctioned evening courses for all departments that were ready to mount them. To promote this new entrepreneurial approach to University management and University education, Makerere University formulated its first strategic plan (1996–2000).

The admission of private students, which started in a tentative way, was followed by initiatives such as the introduction of the semester system and an updated curriculum to make courses more marketable. Other changes included the decentralization of authority—including the area of finance. Finally, the legal foundations of the university have also been revised.

It is against this backdrop that Prof. Nawangwe’s administration last year (July 2018) engaged Student Guild leaders to discuss the necessary fees increment for privately sponsored students wishing to join the University for academic years 2019/2020 – 2021/2022.

“A new fees policy for the University came into effect in July 2018. The policy was approved following a report of the Special Committee of Guild Representatives, which provided for a new fees structure with a 15 percent adjustment on all undergraduate programmes starting with the 2018/2019 first year intake” reads a communique from Makerere University’s Acting Vice Chancellor Dr. Umar Kakumba.

Why then did a section of student’s decide to “protest” starting October 22nd? What could be the motive behind these “violent protests”?! In puzzling over these questions, it emerged that many leaders of this unrest are actually on government sponsorship, or indeed as in the case of Ms. Molly – are on scholarship courtesy of MasterCard Foundation and or are direct beneficiaries of State House scholarship scheme. Others are beneficiaries of the Higher Education Students Loan Scheme.

Indeed, backing a trend that goes back to Democratic party (DP)’s Al Hajji Nasser Ssebagala’s Kampala Mayoral elections of 2001, it is now normal for opportunist political groups especially those loyal to the opposition to ferry in “paid protestors” to Makerere University.

Clearly then, as has been collaborated by Security agencies including Uganda Police, Violent Student Political Activism with an eye in part at the upcoming Guild Elections as well as simultaneously disrupting Government of Uganda is the primary motive of these protests.

Dr. Kakumba asserts thus: “It is important to note that the university experiences cyclic student unrest around October in the sense that some students use it to depict themselves as “strong defenders of student interests and good mobilizers” which would help their political ambitions as they position themselves to contest for different leadership positions in the students’ guild. Students also use this platform to attract funding from external actors for upcoming guild election campaigns.”

As we are all aware, Uganda is a young democracy. Students must understand our political process. Political Process is a matrix of complex activity in making public decisions for society (Uganda). It involves the interaction of organized political structures such as interest groups, political parties, executives, legislatures and the judiciary (Courts). Politics is an interplay of all these components in devising public laws and policies, selecting and rejecting rulers and shaping public opinion.

Students need to learn that all action within a political system is influenced by a cultural milieu of local and national actors – Political culture. A wrong culture often will therefore have dire consequences!

For its part, the university as a whole and the schools, institutes, and colleges need to become more cost-conscious and adopt a business planning approach in course design and determining fees. Prof. Nawangwe’s administration has shown great dexterity in understanding this.

I commend the Security forces that have managed to quell the catastrophe of student opposition ignorance of political process. I commend the University administration, including Council for seeking the views of student Guild leaders.

The Writer is a Communication Assistant at Government Citizen Interaction Centre (GCIC), Ministry of ICT and National Guidance.