How Prof. Nawangwe is creating a class of untouchables at Uganda’s top varsity
Kampala, Uganda | FLAVIA NASSAKA | Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe, the 63- year old vice chancellor of Makerere University Kampala has a tough job. The university is rarely without a fire he must put out. Squeezed by a cocktail of scandals, strikes, and maladministration, Nawangwe nonetheless often attempts to cut a calming pose with apt smile, neat navy blue suits, matching university stripped ties, and a close-cut to his balding head. But this ruse failed on Jan.03.
He was addressing journalists a week after he fired 45 teaching staff over offences ranging from sexual harassment of students, insubordination, fraud, and absconding from duty among others. Riled by Nawangwe’s decision, the sacked dons had petitioned the Speaker of the national parliament to get the decision reviewed, and Nawangwe was not impressed. He called a press conference and, in a move that was likely to inflame the situation than diffuse it, he revealed that lecturers he had fired over absconding duty will now also have to return salaries they earned without working.
“We wonder why they had to run to lawyers and parliament yet there’s a staff tribunal where they can appeal if they feel they weren’t fairly heard,” said the tenselooking Nawangwe, “We can’t tolerate staff working elsewhere and earning from us without any service rendered. We are going to write to them.”
The Independent has established that the government remits about Shs122 billion to the university annually to be added to collections from paying private students and donations and grants. In total, 75% of the budget is spent on salaries and 25% is used to undertake other activities.
Nawangwe said some of the beneficiaries of the 75% have not worked for it and he is ready to battle any free riders. He added that the lecturers’ reaction to his recent move is an indicator that they do not want to be accountable and are now being forced out of their comfort zone.
“What has been happening is that they can choose to be absent, release results when they want,” he said, “This can’t continue happening.”
“We used the right legal processes to reach this decision. We are ready to defend ourselves if parliament summons us,” he said.
Then he issued another warning; all staff who speak ill of the university in public will also be punished. It was not a harmless threat as some lecturers had already learnt. One of these is Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a popular activist and medical anthropologist with special interest in sexual anthropology and youth health.
As Nawangwe spoke, Nyanzi was languishing in Luzira Maximum Security Prison near Kampala on charges of cyber harassment and offensive communication against President Yoweri Museveni. The university had earlier suspended her from her job for allegedly insulting the First Lady Janet Museveni.
Dr. James Ocita from the literature department of the faculty of Arts is another victim of Nawangwe’s tough rules on speaking out. He was fired for alleged slander and insubordination.
Ocita says in reality, his troubles arose from him criticizing some leaders of the university; including Nawangwe and Prof. Mahmood Mamdani; the Director of Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) for abuse of office. Nyanzi is also from MISR.
Ocita says he and many of his colleagues were unfairly fired.
Nawangwe’s actions have had a chilling effect on debate at the university.
A lecturer in the College of Humanities who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being punished described the situation tersely.
“You can’t speak out. You can’t get justice,” the don said, “Most of the colleges are suffering in silence.”
The don referred to the case of Stella Nyanzi who had to stage a controversial nude protest out of frustration because she was not listened to when she complained about the poor leadership of Prof. Mamdani.
“I’ve realised what plagues Makerere is the recycling of these same leaders. The same people are given different positions at different times. They just keep rotating and covering for each other,” the don said, adding that Makerere as an institution needs a clean up to get rid of leaders who feel they own the institution.
Dr. Deus Kamunyu Muhwezi, a lecturer and head of the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA) agrees.
“Makerere is presided over by demigods,” he told The Independent on Jan.06 after Nawangwe’s tough press conference.
“Even the visitation committee found some of these leaders not deserving to hold these positions. This institution should be bigger than individuals but they will tell you that I will deal with you and they surely deal with you,” he said.
Muhwezi says although MUASA had recommended that one Prof. Bruce Kabasa who heads the appointments board to be dropped because of his incompetence, the University Council retained him in recent appointments.
Makerere University has a record of controversy from students, staff, and the administration. Many controversies often spill on the streets as students protest and police chase them with teargas and batons.
President Museveni in November 2016 ordered the university closed over similar issues and appointed a Visitation Committee headed by the late Dr. Abel Rwedeire that inquired into the affairs of the university and recommended setting up a dispute management system headed by persons with a clean record.
But Muhwezi says lecturers do not trust they can find justice in the tribunal. He said the tribunal, which Nawangwe wants them to run to, gave aggrieved lecturers three days to submit their appeals and yet the Employment Act provides for 14 days.
“Where is fairness there?” Muhwezi told The Independent on Jan.06. Some lecturers say to get to the bottom of their grievances, a forensic audit needs to be done and a review of all appointments. They say that’s why they sent a petition to parliament.
It is not clear how Nawangwe’s tough handling of situations will affect such behavior but it has disappointed some of those who cheered when he was named vice chancellor in August 2017.
Nawangwe had been the deputy of then Vice Chancellor John Ddumba Ssentamu, a mild-mannered gentleman who handled administrative matters as delicately as a glass dealer handling vases. Many called for Ddumba’s removal and Nawangwe’s entry because they argued, as deputy in charge of Finance, Administration, and Development; he possibly could manage the challenges at the university better.
“They were mistaken,” says a lecturer, “Nawangwe was there with a big position when all this was happening. He did nothing and he is now threatening people by sacking and yet he knows it’s not the solution.”
Many say Nawangwe should be focusing more on putting place a credible system for disputes management, handling strike triggers, and improving quality of learning instead of allowing to be used in “fighting political wars”.