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Nawangwe’s Makerere mess

Makerere students at a previous protest

Does Makerere university need a CEO instead of a vice chancellor?

Kampala, Uganda | FLAVIA NASSAKA  | Since he was named vice chancellor of Makerere University Kampala, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe has cast himself as a no-nonsense, no compromise manager. His style has earned him several nicknames. The latest is `Ostrich’ – for his denial of obvious truths in the midst of a strike by staff of the university.

The strike was announced on Friday Jan.18 to commence, for maximum impact, on Jan. 19; the day students returned from the Christmas holiday to start the second semester. But even as the strike entered Day-3, on Jan.21, Prof. Nawangwe took to his social media handles with denials. First he described reports of an on-going strike as `fake news’ created by the media.

“I welcome our students to the start of the semester. This is to inform all students that lectures started today and they should report for lectures according to timetables” he wrote on Jan 21 adding, “I thank the Makerere lecturers and staff for a smooth start to the second semester. We will together raise MAK higher.”

He ended it with a warning: “Say NO to unprincipled strikes!”

The last line confirmed that Nawangwe had not missed the start of the strike – even if he was said to be abroad on leave – because it was announced by the three top staff associations of academic staff, non-teaching staff, and the National Union of Educational Institutions.

Nawangwe’s approach was also unusual because, in the past, whenever strikes occurred at the university, the administrators would mount a public relations campaign explaining in a series of media conferences each step they are taking in resolving the situation. Usually it was to persuade another group; the students, from joining the strikers.Promises would be made of better things and, in extreme cases, the institution would be closed and students sent home. Not this time.

Instead, what was witnessed was Nawangwe engaging in what scholars call the `ostrich effect’; the tendency of some managers to deny uncomfortable facts or reality by deliberately thinking in error. It is a dangerous occurrence which, according to some researchers, is a factor in at least 25% of sackings of managers around the world.

But before they are fired, the researchers say, such managers build a culture of denying facts in the organisations.

In an interview with The Independent on Jan.25, the Makerere University Students Guild President Papa Were Salim described how the conflicting information added to the confusion of the strike.

“We were caught up in the ping pong between administration and lecturers. The VC told us to go to class, we went but there was no one to teach us. He insisted there was no strike but lecturers were telling us that they were on strike,” he said.

“We have never felt this suffocated,” Salim said and described how, as someone who served as a guild representative in the era of the previous Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ddumba Ssentamu, he notices that Ddumba was more receptive than Nawangwe of alternative views.

He said Nawangwe’s administration had not given them, as student leaders, any official notice about what was going on with lecturers strike despite several attempts by them to seek answers. He said that left them with no alternative but to give the administration an ultimatum to answer students’ questions or they would go on strike.

Salim added he was not sure of what the consequences of talking to The Independent would be on him.

The VC has issued a warning that no one should make statements to the public about the university without authorisation.

Court cases pile up

Nawangwe had, at a Jan.03 press conference, said controlling the flow of information was his way of “restoring sanity in the institution”. He said members of staff who make statements about the university without authorisation “endanger the institution’s image”.

Days later on Jan.17, Nawangwe fired Deus Kamunyu Muhwezi, the President of the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA).

Nawangwe has cast himself as a no nonsense, non-compromising administrator; especially with those that do not agree with his ideas, something that has pitted him against his juniors and students.

In the suspension letter, Nawangwe accused Muhwezi of misconduct and insubordination and said security reports had revealed Muhwezi incites other staff to disrupt university activities. He added that in order to protect the reputation of the institution, its activities, personnel and property from his disruptive activities, he had made a decision to suspend him.

But Muhwezi was the 46th lecturer to be suspended from the university by Nawangwe in a month. The 45 others had been fired in December over either similar cases or amidst accusations of sexual harassment of students, fraud, and absconding duty. Many of the lecturers deny the charges. Some have sued Nawangwe and the university.

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