Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | On January 17, 2019, Makerere University handed Dr Deus Kamunyu Muhwezi, the chairperson of the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA) an indefinite suspension.
At the time, he was a vocal critic of the university administration, representing voices of staff demanding for reforms in key areas of the institution including employment systems, the welfare of staff, academic freedoms and proper functioning of university systems and spoke against financial excesses and misallocation of resources.
It is his stance on these issues as a representative of the academic staff that a deep-seated animosity grew between staff associations and the university administration led by the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe.
Kamunyu was suspended on accusations of inciting staff and indiscipline and insubordination to the authorities following several warnings and his insistence to have the staff issues addressed. His suspension caused an uproar from university staff leading to a month-long sit-down strike by all staff causing stalemate at the century-prestigious institution.
Dr Kamunyu resumed work on November 14, 2019. He spoke to URN reporter Davidson Ndyabahika in an exclusive interview (Verbatim) of how a 43-year old Senior Lecturer in the Department of Forestry, Bio-Diversity and Tourism manoeuvred through his suspension and what awaits his return to Makerere.
URN Journalist: Welcome to URN, It’s been a full six months’ journey of silence. What is your understanding of the disciplinary process that you were subjected to in the first place?
Dr Kamunyu: I must say that the disciplinary process that I was subjected to was unfortunate. Because the real indiscipline is with those who break the laws. I possibly believe and continue to believe that I never broke any rule. I am not indiscipline in any way. I was only highlighting issues affecting us that are possibly still affecting us. And I feel that the high-handedness that was used on me is unfortunate and is also historical in the life of Makerere and MUASA.
URN Journalist: Was there any extra hand in your suspension?
Dr Kamunyu: I have been told that it had been sanctioned by several powers but I still believe that in the circumstances looking at how the institution was and how people who held legitimate authority were behaving, the lawlessness they were using up to now to the extent that some of the staff who were dismissed have no minutes to go to for the appeals and some have decided to go to the high court, the delays in handling matters at the tribunal and also when you look at the Rwendeire Committee report you really see what we were being subjected to. And as citizens, you feel that this was just a cover-up.
URN Journalist: Why do you think it was a cover-up?
Dr Kamunyu: Yeah, because those in authority were not listening. We began by calling upon them to look into the issues that we were facing in our working life. The Rwendeire committee was commissioned to do exactly that. But also we were seeing that there were key players in the whole process who were not honest enough to be on our Council and who we believe were a source of these conflicts and even exaggerating them to the extent that demoralizes members of the staff. So the Duty I had and which I was prepared to do was to make sure that we make loud these needs that we had so that those in legitimate authority come to our rescue. Maybe since then they have tried to deal with a few of them but to punish a leader for calling out on things that affect citizens and staff is very very unfortunate.
URN Journalist: Let’s talk about Makerere in its current form, where students receive suspension letters after questioning authority. You are a victim of the same. Does this mean that you will forever keep quite?
Dr Kamunyu: Not at all. I think as a leader and as an academic, I will never cede to dishonesty. Our academic freedoms are critical. You can question the process, the manner, but our freedoms are cardinal and I think crushing honest people who are calling for reforms is the highest level of dishonesty by any leader. Looking at the NRM government, which I grew up supporting and we would sit down and talk about issues and make sure they are done away with. But to see in the same life, being stampeded just because you called for a clean-up of a place where you work and a place, which impacts citizens greatly is very unfortunate.
URN Journalist: You sound bitter with this suspension. How would you have loved the animosity between staff and management handled?
Dr Kamunyu: You see, when I first went out to sort these things that majority staff were agitated about, the practices that were taking us in a wrong direction, I sought a meeting with the chairman of Council who is my employer. And you can imagine in the judgement that sent me to this six months’ suspension, my reporting to the chairperson was also criminalized. So where would I have obtained redress? Meeting my employer who by all standards I felt was a responsible man, then becomes a crime. So there was a process and I was engaging. I love engaging.
URN Journalist: So what went wrong with the engagement?
Dr Kamunyu: I love productive engagements. But where people have hard-lines to protect impunity of any kind which seems to be a very unfortunate trend in this country is what also shocked me.
URN Journalist: It seems even when you continue to question the ‘dishonesty’ as you put it from the same people you consulted prior to this stalemate, there seems to be an upper hand that continue to praise actions done on staff at Makerere, don’t you think you are fighting a lost battle?
Dr Kamunyu: Personally I don’t believe that there are alphas and omegas when it comes to issues of governance of my country. We are all citizens but we hold legitimate authority and so depending on the fashion you want to address issues, you can praise anyone and to me that’s fine. But if as a citizen and in my leadership responsibility, I am convinced that what was for is not good for our well-being as a leader then I doubt whether the praise would change my understanding and whether that leaves everything in vain, well, it’s a matter of time. It’s just simply political. My conviction is based on what we as citizens, teachers, we wish to achieve as opposed to who praises who.
URN Journalist: What was the university like while on suspension? While on suspension you were blocked from accessing your university office, was this any of inconvenience to you?
Dr Kamunyu: First of all, I want to thank the staff. They were very nice to me. They have been taking care of me, supportive so I have had a very nice time also in away meeting people in the corridors, worrying and wondering what is happening and supporting me in every way they have. My suspension has not been without mixed feelings but to a very large extent, I was also able to find out how fellow staff and those I lead think about what I stood for. And I have had chance to interact with staff who believe I did the right thing and that it was very helpful much as it took me as a sacrifice for which I also assured them I was ready for. Because for the very little change we see now, I don’t think the current council will continue to act as the previous was doing things. So we see hope and everyone seems extremely happy.
URN Journalist: When you were suspended, we saw staff coming up tough in what later turned out to be a month-long sit down strike for you. What did this signal to you at the time?
Dr Kamunyu: Ordinary leaders would for personal interests but I think I dint go for that. Because if I required this insurmountable change, then it means that is an option was what I would go for. So yes, with mixed feelings but also with the joy of seeing that colleagues are appreciative of what really happened. Most of them would feel sorry for me and many would encourage me and also many supported me directly. It was a very interesting time also to be able to count my blessing because I lead more than 1400 staff and to see a significant number involved in your life and making sure you are safe is very good and it’s very satisfying.
URN Journalist: Do you have any regrets?
Dr Kamunyu: Not at all! But possibly what I could say is I am a little disheartened by the way legitimate authority handled these matters in a way that there was protection of some kind. Even up to today we don’t see anyone taking responsibility for anything that has ever happened. That very Rwendeire report has many findings and recommendations but no one takes responsibility and that disheartens that the legitimate authority is unwilling to crack the whip on those who bring us to this dead end and they opt to undermine those who call for redress.
URN Journalist: Let us talk about the charges levied against you. The Jude Mbabali-led Appointments Board probe exonerated you of all the four counts and left you in the could for breaching any other university policies. How did you view this?
Dr Kamunyu: It was shocking but I leave it up to the lawyers because they will have to deal with it. And that is where my disheartening lawlessness comes from. I think any lawyer would be shocked that you are being charged and found guilty on the charge that was never brought to you in the first place. When I saw this, it came to my understanding that probably it was intentional. It proves the intention to harm and that.
URN Journalist: So what does being found guilty in breach of any other university policies mean?
Dr Kamunyu: It can be anything. You can be told you beat up someone when you didn’t and they purge up because some of the evidence was that I talked to the chairperson council, that I spoke to the media. And this is where they say I called the media in my capacity as a lecturer. I just laughed it off but I think at some point we will get there. Maybe it’s a process of maturing.
URN Journalist: Do you think there could have been mistakes on your side in your quest for these reforms?
Dr Kamunyu: Who knows! You are a human being and you can make mistakes but largely we were responsible for our path. We were only dealing with something that many Ugandans may not deal with. They may just conform. Because many fear and then the fear becomes part of their mode of operation. In terms of having meaningful change for my institution, I have no regrets but in terms of whether there could have been mistakes, as a human being, I don’t know whether I can be an angel.
URN Journalist: There is this conflict between management and staff associations to the extent that you were charged for doing things in your individual capacity as a lecturer and a leader? Where does this leave associations and what do you make of this notion?
Dr Kamunyu: I think partly in that judgement you will see areas where the committee rules that many things were done in my capacity as a leader. But I think they intentionally wanted to find a way of hurting me as simple as that. There is no day I ever communicated as a lecturer. I am a very honest teacher; I descend on my class I don’t talk politics in class but as a leader of MUASA I had a responsibility.
There were many people reporting to me about issues that were affecting them and the issues that were very well highlighted in the Rwendeire report and we wanted progress on them. And so the prosecution attempt to separate my leadership responsibilities and choosing to punish me as a teacher is unfortunate. It has become very normal that lawlessness can be opted for to stampede dissenting views. It is as if people are out there to use legitimate authority to discipline as a cover-up and that is not nice at all.
URN Journalist: Do you think MUASA would remain the same with your suspension even when you return? Did it in any way dent the image of the association?
Dr Kamunyu: MUASA is an organisation of very smart people. It has always self-refreshed. And my leaving, by the way, did not take away too much. My Vice-Chair remained in charge and worked hard to make sure that a few things that were a hurdles were dealt with. Of course, we have a high handed authority, quite unfortunate but at the same time we had firm leaders even when there were seeming divisions that remained aware of the responsibility any leader would have to do under such circumstances. And mine is simply an office and not an individual so the office of MUASA was very active. Remember MUASA did not sack me as the chair so I remained their chair in much consultation with my Vice Chairman and we worked on several things in my absence.
URN Journalist: You are returning to the university when the students are not at peace with university administration. What does it say to you that even when you are not there, there still is trouble at the Ivory Tower?
Dr Kamunyu: Leaving at the time where there was a standoff and maybe returning when the students are dissatisfied is a call for us to come back to dialogue and not to take stands as if they are the ultimate solutions of one man. We are an intellectual community and we must respect legitimate authority but I think also the way legitimate authority arrives at decisions must be largely consultative and decisive. But the dialogue must have all its tenets of transparency, trust, decisiveness and being sincere with each other. Quality leadership is the ultimate. Whether you like it or not you can vulgarize it, you can use excessive power but no one can undermine quality leadership as a key solution to all these challenges.
URN Journalist: Is the problem of Makerere money as opposed to leadership and or management style?
Dr Kamunyu: Resources are never enough. How you deploy these resources is very definitive. And that is my answer. Meaning there can never be enough money or little money. Priorities must be well thought out, for example, one would wonder why you would act outside the mission in dispensing the resources.
URN Journalist: We have seen students hitting the streets and perhaps staff laying down tools quite often, and yet you are the same people who call for dialogues, what has failed at Makerere in terms of conflict resolution?
Dr Kamunyu: I studied in Tanzania and I always admired the way the young people there faced with the administration to talk. They always reached a compromise even after bitter exchanges, they always had a way of dealing with issues. Therefore, young people opting for extreme methods simply because they fell they are not being listened to and then you turn around and call them hooligans, I think that is not proper. To me what is key is that we should try as much as possible to deal with these challenges in a timely manner because the moment we delay, even if it’s a dialogue you will automatically invite third parties because this is a public institution.
URN Journalist: Are the issues that led to your suspension resolved?
Dr Kamunyu: There is progress. And we will continue and like I told you, MUASA has a way of refreshing itself. It is a community of intellectuals and what you cannot successfully do is to silence them. I think it’s even counterproductive because intellectual energies must be always utilized meaningfully and I think with a new council there is progress and that is what we wanted. Moving forward, we will see more of engagement to deal with the issues that affected us. I have also been reported to by the Vice-Chairperson MUASA that a lot of positive things have being done in a way that progressively we arrive at a better run institution committed to following the law and the ideals of academic freedoms.
URN Journalist: Are you confident you won’t be suspended again?
Dr Kamunyu: I am not God to predict what an adversary wants to do but am ready to settle for greater citizenship. I am an honest teacher and I am a leader of staff. I have issues that they want me to discuss on and they cannot be defined by the challenges we go through. I envision more dialogue. In my case, well aware that I was not born with a job, and well aware that a job is a service and well aware of the circumstances in which we work, where lawlessness is now a tool, I am not a god to know what the adversary has in store for me. They could possibly do anything. And I am willing to partake what is ahead for me.
URN Journalist: Aren’t you staking your life, your family.
Dr Kamunyu: What is life? What is family? My family honestly believes in God and understands the duty that leaders have. I am not materialistic and I am a Christian. That is what I can say.
URN Journalist: So what preoccupied you during your suspension?
Dr Kamunyu: I had more time with my family, my children, I took them to school, I read more and in a diverse way. I joined my wife in her work, she works privately so we spent more time together and so it was some engaging moment. I am a convocation head of publicity, I was also involved in convocation work, I am an academic, a public intellectual and also participate in discussing the issues that affect my country and they kept me going.
URN Journalist: And this brings me to my last question when you say you read extensively, as an academic, should we expect a book?
Dr Kamunyu: Oh yeah! I have been writing. I read extensively about leadership and management across the world and so, yes, expect something like that.