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Kyambogo University’s Mr. Fix it

By Joan Akello

Prof. Ndiege seeks to reconcile an institution haunted by its past

Prof. Isaiah OmoloNdiege, the vice chancellor of Uganda’s second biggest university, Kyambogo, has the unenviable task of running a combination of former technical college, a teacher training institute, and a school of special education like a modern university.  Kyambogo University (KYU) was created in 2003 by merging the former Institute of Teacher Education, Kyambogo (ITEK), the Uganda Polytechnic, Kyambogo (UPK) and the Uganda National Institute of Special Education (UNISE).

The campus itself is a mangy mix of tiny prefab blocks with peeling paint that look like farm houses, bigger storied office-like blocks apartment, and an imposing new multi-storied administration block withthe shiny glass façade now in vogue in Kampala. Ndiege’sjob is one that even the most experienced education administrators acknowledge was never going to be easy even in the best circumstances.

Yet Prof. Ndiege is not really an experienced administrator.

His last posting before being appointed VC of Kyambogo in January 2009, was dean of a faculty at a university in neighbouring Kenya for about two years. It is also the only administrative position he had held since graduating with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemistry from the University of Nairobi in 1985. Before that he had worked as a secondary school teacher.   But what he might lack in managerial experience, Ndiege appears to make up in charisma, street smarts, a peculiar work ethic, and pragmatism.

Soon after he was appointed VC, he enrolled for a Post-graduate Diploma in Management at the Uganda Management Institute in Kampala where he emerged top of the class. He easily concedes that managing Kyambogo has proved to be quite challenging for him.

“I tried to use my knowledge. But I think it is not a normal environment, with a bit of conservatism, egotism, defiance, fear and apprehension.  “As somebody from outside Uganda, there was a bit of rejection.  So things did not go smoothly.”

He, of course is referring to the long-running and highly publicised stand-off between him and some lecturers and support staff at the university that has paralysed the university for most of this year.

Rejected by staff

Lecturers opposed to Ndiege accuse him of poor management, corruption, and treating staff disrespectfully. In August 2012, they went on strike and refused to return to work for a month in spite of pleading by President YoweriMuseveni that their grievances against the VC would be looked into.

After the closure, the university Council sent Ndiege on six-month forced leave from September 15, 2012 to March 18, 2013 The University Council attempted to reinstate him but another strike erupted and Ndiege was again sent on forced leave; this time indefinitely, from July 11. He filed a law suit seeking judicial review on what he dubbed illegal forced leave.  He won this battle on Oct. 21.

The court ruled that recommendations of Kyambogo University Council to remove Ndiege from office without giving him a fair hearing and the subsequent decisions to keep him out of office on forced leave indefinitely were unfair, unreasonable, and unjustifiable.

Although staff at the university ran to the court of appeal, the decision was upheld on Nov.6.

Still, the lecturers and staff refused to return to work until a furious minister of Education ordered them to either head back to class or face the sack. They went back to class and Ndiege returned to his post. The relationship remains tense.

Conciliatory mood

When we spoke, Ndiege had been in office for just a few days, and the atmosphere was still tense. This time round, the students were backing him against their lecturers in a latent stand-off. The timing of the court and University Council’s decisions to reinstate Ndiege was just two months to the end Ndiege’s first five year term at the university expected in January 2014.

The students were anxious to go ahead with their examinations that were slated to start in later November. Those who had completed were keen to graduate in December. They appeared keen to steer clear of strikes.  Ndiege too appeared to be conciliatory mode when we spoke.  “After 13 months on forced leave, the message I have is that there is no winner or loser but in the process, we have learnt a lesson. Anybody who has not is not fit to be here,” he said.

Genial-looking, with a contemplative look behind small fancy rimless spectacles, the 54-year old professor wore a stylish-looking suit and bright tie and spoke softly; choosing each word carefully. Only his laughter surprised me by coming unexpectedly at the beginning of his replies to my queries.

“I did not come to Kyambogo for a job,” he said, “If I had, I would have gone long ago. I came to rectify the problems of the university.”  Those opposed to him dispute that. They point at the Shs13 million salary he earns (approx. US$5000) minus allowances and benefits, which is almost three times that of other heads of universities in Uganda, including bigger ones like Makerere University.   One of them who spoke to The Independent but requested anonymity over job security says Ndiege is “a smooth talker but difficult person to work with”.

“He comes off as a very brilliant professor when he speaks to you but woe unto you if he is your boss.  You will want to dodge him at all times,” the lecturer said.

I had also been told Ndiege has a peculiarly undesirable penchant for barking commands. I did not see any of that.

Instead, from the moment he arrived at his office at 10:45 am, Ndiege appeared to be a busy, punctilious, but genial man.

As soon as his car stopped, a man clad in a black suit and pink shirt, possibly his personal assistant, run towards it, picked bundles of newspapers from the back seat and hurried after the professor who was already cheerfully greeting a group of students that had been waiting for him.

At the reception, he beckoned a man who had been waiting and vigorously shook his hand. Then he turned to three women who also were waiting to see him. Ndiege is clearly a man of some people and although he appears to count his being a “foreigner” from Kenya among his biggest handicaps at Kyambogo, most people do not mention it when discussing his weaknesses. In fact, Ndiege appears to have got the job primarily because he is a “foreigner”.

Records indicate that when the chairpersons of Kyambogo University Staff Association (KYUSA), Charles K. Twesigye,Jackson Betihamaha,and MadinaLunkuse on May 13 wrote to President Museveni, they said initially they thought his foreignness would make Ndiege neutral.

“A lot was expected from him since it was believed that the merging of ITEK, UPK, and UNISE was the problem and that a neutral person like him would be the solution,” they wrote.

That was not to be, they said.

They said Ndiege “became so disrespectful to the staff members by barking at, intimidating and harassing them creating an environment that is very stressful.

“The Vice Chancellor has been using a clique of some members of staff to witch-hunt the rest of the staff that were found to be independent minded,” they added.

Ndiege has been blamed for all sorts of  things; including  failure to  initiate  procurement,  collect house  rents, late release of  results, lack of water, dirty toilets, delayed  payments,  cross-checking  vouchers,  low staff morale, sexual  harassment, reprimanding  errant staff, sponsoring  negative  articles in  newspapers, intimidating  staff, and dirty classrooms.

Most of these problems result from the growing number of students at the university without matching increase in staff and facilities.  From 4,534 students in 2001/2002, and 14,000 in 2008/09, the university has over 24,174 students.

“The sewerage system is now stressed. Buildings are dilapidated and there is need to remove asbestos roofs, which are an eyesore and a health hazard,” says Prof. Abdu Kasozi, the former executive director of National Council for Higher Education (NHCE) which oversees universities. He wrote a report on the Kyambogo University problem.

Admired by students

But instead of deflecting blame, Ndiege appears determined to face-up to criticism.

“In the process of undertaking disciplinary action, some people had personal differences with me probably because they were not used to my management style,” he says, “In the process I stepped on many toes. When you step on several toes, they find a refuge and come together on what to do. I am not saying I am prefect but I realise I’m not used to inertia. Things must move but people want to question, resist change, something I am not used to.”

Ndiege can be quite convincing. Members of staff and students, even those who oppose him, agree on that.

Ivan KimeraMutebi, the Speaker of the Students’ guild is an Ndiege admirer. Mutebi, who says he is a devoted Christian, says he has prayed for the university.

“I fasted for this university for 18 days and I have learnt that God does not use the majority but a few people to make a change,” he says, “Prof. Ndiegeis one of the few people.”  Mutebi also cites Prof. VenansiusBaryamureeba, the Vice Chancellor of Uganda Technology and Management University (UTAMU), as a mover.

Someone who has observed both administrators likens Ndiege to Baryamureeba.He says both are result driven persons and often disregard bureaucratic systems to achieve goals.  They are seen as movers and shakers and many people, especially staff resented their changes. Some fear for their jobs. Baryamureeba and Ndiege are also said to share notes.

Coincidentally, Baryamureeba is one of Ndiege’s referees on his updated CV that some fear he may use to reapply at Kyambogo.  Baryamureeba lost his job as acting Vice Chancellor of Makerere University in 2012 amidst friction between him and some staff who accused him of failures similar to Ndiege’s. He, therefore, appears to be the perfect person to talk to about Kyambogo and Ndiege.

“The institution is bigger than individuals,” he told The Independent, “Change has to affect somebody or else there is no change.”  Baryamureebablames the composition of university councils, the supreme body of public universities where members of staff comprise more than 50 percent, to be making it difficult for VCs to run universities.  “I’ve never worked at Kyambogo but there is no way the VC could have barked at over 7,000 staff.”

Setting dangerous precedent

Baryamureeba commends Ndiege for returning to the institution despite the fury of staff. He says that doing otherwise would have set a dangerous precedent for Ndiege’s successors.

Ndiege agrees:

“LutaaloBbosa left because of staff,” he says, “What is the guarantee that the next person will not undergo the same situation? I have been dragged through sewerage and I have to clean myself so that people do not do it again to the person who comes after me.”

Ndiege joined the university after a year of turmoil when his predecessor, Prof. Lutaalo Bbossa was sacked in mid-2007 after staff mounted pressure on the University Council citing gross mismanagement of its finances and other resources, failure to remit statutory contributions to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), Pay as You Earn (PAYE) and fraudulent appointment of himself as VC.

It took almost a year for the search committee to forward the three best contenders for the job to the senate.

Ndiege scored 76 points beating two others; Prof John AsiboOpuda who got 70 and Prof. HanningtonSengendo who garnered 65 points.   In what some people say was mistake number one; the appointing authority made Prof. Opuda the deputy Vice Chancellor for academic affairs.

This many say, immediately divided the staff into those who supported Prof. Ndiege and those for Prof. Opuda.

At the beginning of his woes, Ndiege told Members of parliament who sit on the Education and Sports Committee in September 2012 that Opuda who competed for vice chancellors position in both Makerere University and KYU and lost is bitter.

“He lost in Makerere but believes he won in Kyambogo but was short changed, which could be the source of his arrogance and insubordination,” Ndiege says.

Ndiege blamed eleven members of top management for contributing to Kyambogo’s problem due to their incompetence, unethical or unprofessional conduct, insubordination, and arrogance.

Foolish perceptions

Some observers say, however, that Ndiege or any other administrator cannot resolve Kyambogo’s problems because they are structural.

“There is a foolish perception that a change of an individual vice chancellor can alter the structural problems of public universities; thus at Kyambogo, Lutaalo Bbossa was replaced for Ndiege… But these removals and replacements have not improved the governance of that institution,” saysProf. Abdu Kasozi.  Kasozi says Kyambogo’s problems originate from the merger of three incongruent institutions that was rushed and should be reversed.

“The partners were very different in nature and cannot make a harmonious family within one generation. The relationship should be loosened or dissolved.”

“Kyambogo University lacked common binding bonds, vision and purpose, and therefore, could not serve the public good.  I failed to make a dent towards achieving what I thought was correct. It is my conviction that the various units that make up Kyambogo University can perform best when more financial, governance, and curricula powers are devolved to them.”

The Visitation to Public Universities Committee of 2006-7 (the McGregor Committee) advised the government to either disaggregate the University back to its former institutions or to allow for a much slower merger.Kasozi blames government for refusing to implement this recommendation.

He says each unit lost its former niche in the market while the new institution did not have the internal strength and the capacity to focus on even one of the services each of the merged institutions was famous for such as the production of high level technicians from UPK, specialists in special education from UNISE, and good lower secondary teachers from ITEK.

Several reports note that not everyone was happy when the ministry of Educationappointed the original Governing Board of ITEK as the first council of Kyambogo University.  The dissatisfaction became more apparent with the appointment of the majority of ITEK staff in key positions of the university and Prof. LutaloBosa, who oversaw the merger, appointing himself Vice Chancellor.

Kasozi says many members of staff of the founding institutions were not qualified to become university teachers and strikes and court cases started when efforts were made to remove them.

Ndiege agrees that absorbing all the lecturers from the three units is one of  the root causes of Kyambogo University’s problems.  But he appears to prefer focusing on the future rather than dwelling on the past.

“I believe the government understands the institution better than before. They had been talking about the merger as the problem but that is not it.  I cannot tell you the historical problems of the institution because we are undergoing a reconciliation process,” he told The Independent.

“All solutions to Kyambogo are found in Kyambogo not outside. It was a problem for us to wash our dirty linen in public and now some people know Kyambogo more than us.”

“We should have sat as a family but we reached a point where we were talking at each other not to each other. But it is good the court and government have made us unite whether temporarily or permanently to sit as a family and resolve these issues,” he says.

His focus is on the ongoing investigations in the offices of the Auditor General, the Inspector General of Government, and Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Directorate (CIID). He believes their reports will decide on his fate, and hopefully give a permanent solution to Kyambogo’s problems.

“It has taken me over 30 years to build my reputation. I cannot allow anybody to soil it,” he says. Ndiege says he cannot say whether or not he will remain at Kyambogo after his contract expires in January 2014.

“I have to sit with my family to see whether to resign from all this stress because at the end of the day your life is more important than the stress.”

Prof. Ndiege: A brief bio (Born May 28, 1959)

  • Started out as a secondary school teacher in 1981 in Kenya.
  • Became an industrial intern at Quality Control Laboratory, Dawa Pharmaceuticals Ltd in 1983.
  • By 1987 he was a management trainee at Coates Brothers (E.A.) Ltd, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • He joined Kenyatta University as a lecturer in 1995.
  • Rose in the ranks to senior lecturer, associate professor, Dean, School of Pure and Applied Sciences and Professor of Organic Chemistry (Chemical Biology).

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