Makerere Law School at 50: The journey so far, future

Saturday November 3 2018

 Makerere University School of Law. As th

Makerere University School of Law. As the school celebrates its 50th anniversary, it still faces a number of challenges. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA.  

By Ivan Okuda

It is a golden jubilee at Makerere Hill. The atmosphere there oozes the freshness that comes with turning 50 (life starts at 50, they say) for the School of Law of Makerere University. No mean feat for a country which last month toasted to its 56th independence anniversary.

The School of Law continues to bear the traces of its historic journey. There is a generous supply of dilapidated structures, with stuffy cubicles which, for lack of better description, bear the title of lecturers’ offices.

Perhaps, let it be said here and now, that no one has captured the struggles the school has gone through with more eloquence and passion than the Deputy Chief Justice Alphonse Owiny-Dollo who, in his closing remarks at a public debate on October 11, at the university Main Hall, reminded the audience why a pat on the back of women and men who have contributed thus far is deserving.

Justice Owiny-Dollo joined the institution in 1980, at the height of the Uganda People’s Congress and Democratic Party electoral tensions heightened by a belligerent Yoweri Museveni of the Uganda Patriotic Movement, at the time promising gun violence should the election fall short of being free and fair.

The Deputy Chief Justice shared: “Makerere Law School has come a long way. We joined in 1980 when literally it had just attained age of reason (12 years old). But like all institutions in this country, the School of Law in the previous decade had fallen on evil days when it was still a toddler struggling in the wings of University of Dar-es-Salaam and in came Idi Amin with his economic war and we know what this country went through. It did not spare the School of Law.”

The historical, socio-political context of the time, according to Justice Owiny-Dollo, affected the institution in innumerable ways.

When he, alongside other eminent alumni such as Prof John Jean Barya (law don at Makerere) and Prof Justice Lillian Tibatemwa (Justice of the Supreme Court) joined, “the likes of Prof Abraham Kiapi (first dean of Faculty of Law), who were the authorities, then you had the Dani Nabudere students who, for the whole term, were on political economy, Karl Max… it was intimidating for people who were not used to this type of thing”.

“It was also the unwritten rule that in the Faculty of Law, there was nobody brilliant enough to get a First Class (degree) and that is how people such as Prof [Joe] Oloka-Onyango were denied a First Class degree because of that mentality. So the school went to hibernation, but in the 1990s, it sailed and stabilised to this point where we can congratulate ourselves,” Justice Owiny-Dollo added.

If there is a point so potent in the Deputy Chief Justice’s recollection of the journey thus far, it is that the School of Law is everything but a constituent member of the Ugandan.

As the school stands tall atop the hill of its journey, reflecting on the footprints of its past dotted in the slopes, it should peep into the future, its 100th anniversary and set out a clearer vision of what that future must look like.

Part of that reflection has started, or at least has been energised with the school on October 11 convening scholars, alumni, development partners, students and the greater academia to reflect on the place of the School of Law in advancing human rights, rule of law and good governance in Uganda and beyond.

In a key note address while addressing this question, Justice Tibatemwa broke down that role into what is expected of lawyers, the academia and judges.

Quoting Tanzania’s founding leader Julius Nyerere, Prof Tibatemwa shared to those who have the privilege of school education: “Those who receive this privilege have the duty to repay the sacrifice others have made. They are like a man who has been given food by the village in view that he may get strength and get more supplies from a distant place. If he does not bring help to brothers, he is a traitor.”

Ideally, the School of Law must reflect on its role in the past, present and future in contributing to a society where “rule of law as opposed to rule of power, what government does, is authorised by the law, power is used for the benefit of others, leaders have courage and humility to self-control and put checks on their authority and all these values are the norm not the exception”.

This is particularly important in respect of the School of Law considering that lawyers have largely shaped Uganda’s constitutional, political and consequently economic state of affairs and schools of law, as breweries of those who find themselves in the marketplace of decision making that affects generations, can neither take their role for granted nor over-emphasise it.

The Judiciary and Parliament, two arms of government, are led by lawyers, while the Executive has a lawyer for a Vice President with a coterie of lawyers in influential positions in the private and public sectors.
Prof Tibatemwa, tongue in cheek, noted that whereas dwelling on the reputation of lawyers in the eyes of the public is a lost cause, it is critical to ponder over the frontline role lawyers must play in the governance of the country.

It is certainly too idealistic to expect or assume that law schools can be the single most critical factor in the governance equation. Absolutely not. Politics is a complex art of military, business, geopolitical and international interests but, when all is said and done, it is not too idealistic to push forth the argument that a society where the rule of law, respect of human rights and good governance are valued and engendered is good for us all.

It is good for the peasant farmer in Acholi as it is for a real estate magnate at Kololo or a multinational oil company from Europe whose business thrives on an accountable and predictable law, justice and order sector.

And yet, the law schools in Uganda continue to churn products whose integrity is not currency you can take to the bank.

Prof Oloka-Onyango, in response to criticism that the legal profession suffers an invasion of crooks in the bench, bar and academia, noted: “When I joined law school in 1979, we had Mr Kiiza, who was in charge of exams; a single individual for about 4,000 students but you did not hear a whisper of leakage, not a whiff of scandal.

“Today, there is nothing you cannot buy. You can buy a land title; I don’t know if you can buy a judgement, there is nothing that is not for sale. Even character is for sale, we have alumni heading the highest institutions in this county except one (Executive) but do not expect change if there is no change in the Executive. There is a crisis of governance affecting Uganda and every institution. The law school is only a microcosm.”

If the crisis of governance is as serious as Prof Oloka-Onyango passionately shared, then the law school’s journey is one whose road path is not only a construct of these dynamics but also a subordinate element of the same.


A case in point is funding for public education institutions and compensating academic staff a competitive salary to reduce inevitable moonlighting, consulting opportunities, and projects whose spirit is largely topping up the meagre pay from the university.

The symposium, for instance, was sponsored, by the Democratic Governance Facility, an indictment on the university and its commitment to strengthening constituent aspects of the same.

The Law school walks with its head high about achievements such as the Public Interest Law Clinic, whose umbilical cord from formation to date is attached to the donor. If the donor woke up with a tooth ache tomorrow and is in the mood of rechanneling funding priorities, the staff and students under the programme would either pack up or start crafting another clever proposal to a different donor.

Without donors
Without donor support, a good many projects at the School of Law and indeed the wider community can only be destined for the graveyard, yet donors cannot be relied on for eternity as funding priorities and interests change, sometimes with the mood swings and personal relations of the officer running the donor project, who has the last say.

We woke up a few weeks ago only to learn that the Swedish government was rolling back funding in excess of Shs25 billion to science research projects at the university.

Prof Tibatemwa called on the law school to engage in more research while students such as Mr Begumisa Rushongoza appealed for more solution-oriented approach to teaching of law, bringing the curriculum in sync with the changing socio-economic needs of the world such as science and technology.

That costs a fortune yet government will not meet the bill in full as it pleads “competing priorities”, donors fund as and when the research or project objectives are aligned with their interests and there is not an endowment fund to write home about except one only in its infancy.

The future
These and more challenges, many of them aligned to the wider governance context of Uganda and the plight of the education sector, will determine the altitude of the law school so that students like Mr Rushongoza, aged 23 today, who will be 73-years-old when law school marks 100 years, look back at the past (today’s present) with not only pride but also satisfaction.

As the law school celebrates 50, however, the alumni who are being rallied to contribute to the Endowment Fund, a funding model that has worked wonders for Western universities, are radiating doubt, their energy subdued by their own life struggles in a country with a rising cost of living and one of the highest dependency burdens in Africa.

The government continues to exude indifference to funding of public education, paying lip service to commitments it has made in Vision 2040, National Development Plans 1 and 2; policy documents anchoring the strategic policy direction of the country with human capital development ranking among top priorities.

Government on the spot
Government hopes and education institutions have been conditioned to appreciate and live by this reality, that donors can after all fill the gap.

But with leaders such as US president Donald Trump and Western politics increasingly getting polarised around right and left wing extremes whose point of convergence is securing of national interests, institutions such as the law school can no longer rely entirely on donors to fund ground breaking research, innovative programmes such as the newly introduced extractives course that make law graduates globally competitive.

As long as the governance questions remain unresolved and the funding needs of academic institutions receive lip service, relegating human capital development to the back banner, the law school can for now live through each day as it comes, hoping, as the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, wait for a signal from above.

Way forward
Going forward, the law school will have to reflect on whether it wants to continue with a reality captured by the law don Oloka-Onyango, who said, “…90 per cent of what we have achieved has been by accident and only 10 per cent by design.”

Whichever direction it takes, there are consequences with trans-generational impact. But the glue that binds all the rays of optimism, aspirations and visions of many stakeholders is that which the school has in the last 50 years exhibited, an inexorable spirit of resilience, golden tenacity and astuteness that knows no bounds.