A look back at ugliest protests that rocked Makerere University

Sunday November 10 2019

Strike. An illustration of Makerere University

Strike. An illustration of Makerere University students protesting. ILLUSTRATIONS BY IVAN SENYONJO  

By Henry Lubega

For about two weeks, students of Makerere University recently engaged in running battles with security forces as they demanded a revision of the 15 per cent tuition increment. The protests left some students wounded, hospitalised or behind bars.
Makerere students clashing with authorities has been a common occurrence throughout the university’s history and they have varied from students’ welfare to politics of the day. We look back at some of the ugliest clashes.

When it was created as an independent university by an Act of Parliament in 1970, the same Act gave the sitting titular role of the university to the Head of State as its chancellor.
Under the Act, Milton Obote was on October 8, 1970, inaugurated as the Makerere University chancellor, the only inauguration to be witnessed by three sitting presidents.
They included president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. On the same day, Frank Kalimuzo, the only non-academic vice chancellor of Makerere University, was inaugurated.

Unfortunately for both, a few months later they were out of office following the January 1971 military coup by Idi Amin. In March 1971, Amin was also inaugurated as chancellor of the university. Though there were no foreign heads of state, the occasion was as pompous as the one of his predecessor.
Dissent among students started almost immediately during the first graduation Amin presided over. Due to linguistic challenges, Amin had a hard time pronouncing some English words.
For instance, he said: “I confer apponi you the degree of Bachelor of Kagirikacha” (I confer upon you the degree of Bachelor of Agriculture).

He was mimicked by students, but little did they know that security agents were noting the offending students.
Those caught mimicking him were arrested. And in response, students started absenting themselves from graduation ceremonies. Amin then ordered the university to rescind the degrees of those who didn’t attend the graduation ceremony.

In 1972, Mr Olara Otunnu, then guild president, says at the time there was no political opposition in the country and the student leadership took it upon itself to speak out on government excesses. During an interview with this newspaper in 2013,
Mr Otunnu said: “We started talking openly against the ills of the regime. As the guild president, I was like the face of the opposition in the country, appearing on TV and radio talking about the killings and disappearance of people. This put me at loggerheads with the government.”

What had started out as silent dissent escalated in 1976 following the death of Paul Serwanga, a law student who was shot dead by an army captain who was interested in Serwanga’s girlfriend.
Students took to the streets and demanded the resignation of the chancellor. What was a university issue soon took a national dimension as they asked for the resignation of government officials.
Writing in Managing and Transformation of an African University, former Makerere University vice chancellor, Prof John Pancras Mukasa Ssebuwufu, says: “By calling for the resignation of the president, the students had overstepped the line. This was treason. The army retaliated with unprecedented brutality.”

Halls of residence were not a safe haven anymore. The army stormed the halls and beat up students. Others were made to crawl on their bellies for long distances to their halls of residence.
It was also during that time that Esther Chesire, a Kenyan student residing in Africa Hall, disappeared from Entebbe airport as she tried to go back home.


This raised tension among the students population. With pressure from the Kenyan government, a commission of inquiry into the student’s disappearance was set up.
The situation was made worse when the warden of Africa Hall, Theresa Nanziri, was picked up from the university a day before she was due to testify before the commission on the disappearance of the Kenyan student.
Her body was later discovered on the shores of River Sezibwa riddled with bullets. This instilled fear among students and calmed them down.

Following the invasion that toppled Amin in 1979, there was relative peace within the student’s community despite the tense political atmosphere in the country.

An illustration of Makerere University academic
An illustration of Makerere University academic staff protesting.

However, it was the 1980 General Election that threw Makerere students back in the fray of mainstream politics.
In 1981, the student’s guild leadership led by Opiyo Oloya challenged the results of the 1980 elections.
Edward Galabuzi, then general secretary to the guild, said: “As student leaders, we were challenging government on the elections which we believed were fraudulent. We were also concerned about the abductions and disappearances at campus of both students and lecturers.”

But pro-government youth wings in NUSU and NUYO, were used to counter the student leaders’ anti-government efforts. The protests culminated in the banning of the students’ guild with four of its members fleeing into exile. Security became a point of concern to the chancellor that in his second term Obote never entered the chancellor’s office. Graduation ceremonies were also relocated from the Freedom Square to the Science Quadrangle.
It was much later during the Yoweri Museveni regime that graduation ceremonies returned to the Freedom Square, also partly because of the increased number of graduands.

In 1986, Makerere University got its eighth chancellor -- Yoweri Museveni. On his first graduation ceremony, soon after his inauguration, Mr Museveni made his opinion of having someone else as chancellor known.
“He made it clear that he did not want to serve as chancellor for too long. In his opinion, a prominent person in society and not necessarily the Head of State was best suited to occupy the position,” Prof Ssebuwufu says.
Almost 20 years later, his wish came to pass when the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act was amended and it allowed for any other person other than the Head of State to be the chancellor of any public university.

But Museveni’s first challenge at Makerere University came in 1989 when the academic staff laid down their tools in demand for improved remuneration because of the hyperinflation at the time.
The government engaged in protected discussions with the academic staff under their umbrella organisation. Then a member of the organisation’s executive, Prof Ssebuwufu says the mantra for the industrial action was “We have had enough! Our patience has run out. After all, Museveni came to fix Uganda’s problems, why not fix ours too?”

It took a late night meeting at State house to have the staff go back to the lecture rooms. Even the 24-hour ultimatum to hand over the keys of the university houses they were occupying had failed to break them.
But the first serious clash between the students, university administration and the Museveni government followed an announcement by then Education minister Amanya Mushega stopping financial payment to students then commonly known as boom.
The allowances were given at the beginning of the semester to cover transport to and from the university, textbooks and stationery. It also included a special faculty allowance which was based on individual student’s course requirements.

The Mushega’s announcement was based on one of the recommendations of the 1987 Education Review Commission which was headed by educationist Prof Senteza Kajubi.
One of the commission’s recommendations was “government should stop meeting non-instructional costs in tertiary institutions”.
Under the leadership of Wilbrod Owor, students protested for almost two weeks as they demanded the reinstatement of the allowances. Now it had become a right, not a privilege.

With the two sides standing their ground, government decided to close the university. In the history of the institution, first as a college and later as a university, it was the second time Makerere was being closed because of a students’ strike. The first time was in 1952 during a strike led by Abu Mayanja (RIP).
Upon the reopening of the university, the students’ guild conducted an election and Nobert Mao, a law student, was elected new guild president. His leadership reignited demands for reinstatement of the abolished allowances. Under his leadership, students were encouraged to converge at Freedom Square and express their anger over the government’s action.

On Monday, December 10, 1990, students converged at Freedom Square to hear from their leaders, only to be met by police who dispersed them from the square.
In the process, two students, Thomas Okema and Tom Onyango, where shot. One died instantly and the other died on his way to the hospital.

The aftermath of that shooting forced the government to close the university again. Students had become uncontrollable. Their wrath was not confined to the university alone, but also the community surrounding the university.
The closure was towards the Christmas break. And when the university reopened after Christmas, business started normally, with government not giving in to the students’ demand, and the latter settling down for academics.

Change of the law

In 1986, Makerere University got its eighth chancellor -- Yoweri Museveni. On his first graduation ceremony, soon after his inauguration, Mr Museveni made his opinion of having someone else as chancellor known.

1981 protests
In 1981, the student’s guild leadership led by Opiyo Oloya challenged the results of the 1980 elections. But pro-government youth wings, NUSU and NUYO, were used to counter the guild efforts.