On November 17, it will be exactly 26 months since Prof Barnabas Nawangwe became Vice Chancellor of Makerere University. However, it has been a tumultuous period in which the services of 45 members of staff have been terminated for various reasons and four others sent on suspension for different periods of time.
Last week alone, nine students were suspended in regard to students protests against the proposed tuition increment, and another 26 were issued warning letters. Others have received secret warnings through emissaries.
The atmosphere at the university has never been tense and toxic for a long time now. The relationship between Prof Nawangwe and the leaders of Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa) and that of Makerere Administrative Staff Association (Masa) has been very rough.
This, perhaps, explains why in space of just 10 months, there have been more than three different petitions sent to Parliament, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the President, calling for intervention in the university’s affairs.
The petitioners have been calling for a probe into financial management, the payroll and disposal of assets, a review of some appointments to the University Council, a review of Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions’ Act with a view of causing amendments to it, and establishing why the recommendations of committees that have previously probed the university have never been implemented.
The documents contained warning signs, which the addressees either missed or chose to ignore. The chairperson Parliament’s Committee on Education and Sports, Mr Jacob Richards Opolot, which is now probing the university, says the matter had not yet been brought to the attention of the committee.
“Some of those petitions never got to the committee. Even if they have gotten there, they should have been formally submitted. That is what our rules of procedure say. You don’t just pick business from anywhere,” Mr Opolot says.
Disciplinarian or Despot?
On January 15, during the university’s 69th graduation ceremony, President Museveni lavished praise on Prof Nawangwe for “being decisive in terms of disciplining lecturers and staff.”
However, his authoritarian approach to administration has been one of the biggest talking points at Makerere, with critics saying his tenure has been characterised by attempts to gag outspoken students and members of staff.
The spokesperson of the university, Dr Muhammad Kiggundu, declined to discuss matters related to the Vice Chancellor’s methods of work by simply saying: “Everyone has his own style of administration.”
Prof Nawangwe has been relying on Section 31 (1) and 55 (2) of the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act, 2001 and Section 6(1) (d) of the Makerere University Student Regulations 2015 to suspend both members of staff and students.
The student regulation provides: “The Vice Chancellor has powers to suspend a student from the university or to discipline him/her in any manner he thinks fit and seek approval for his actions at the next meeting of the University Council.”
However, the Bugiri Municipality MP and former Makerere University Guild president, Mr Asuman Basalirwa, says no other vice chancellor has invoked the regulation with as much abandon as he has so far done.
“In 2000, we booed President Museveni when he came to campaign ahead of the referendum. Prof [John] Ssebuwufu [former VC] chose to counsel us, but if Prof Nawangwe had been the vice chancellor, we would have been expelled because for him, what is meant to be the last is the first and the last,” he says.
“In one year, the administration has suspended and expelled many more students than the university had done in the 10 years before. That is a record in itself,” he adds.
In October 2016, Prof Nawangwe’s predecessor, Prof John Ddumba Sentamu, suspended 15 students in an effort to end indiscipline, hooliganism and lawlessness at the institution. The students had been accused of destroying property after they stormed the university hall’s kitchen and damaged furniture.
Some of the 45 members of staff who were Prof Nawangwe’s first victims have since cried foul, accusing the administration of carrying out a witch-hunt.
Whereas some of the cases are being challenged before the Staff Appeals Tribunal, others have dragged the university to court, sparking off fears that it will increase the legal liabilities, which, according to the Auditor General’s report on the university’s financial statements as of June 30, 2018, stood at a staggering Shs62 billion.
Fight against Muasa and Masa
By press time, it was not possible to talk to Prof Nawangwe for this article. He neither picked calls to his known mobile number nor responded to text messages. It was also not possible to fix an appointment through his personal assistant, Mr Gordon Murangira.
Prof Nawangwe has, however, previously defended his methods of work, saying his administration would not waive in its determination “to restore total sanity and respect for our premier university” and that he would not tolerate students and members of staff who had “made hooliganism and disruption of university activities a hobby.”
Sources at the university indicate that the battle lines were drawn when Muasa and Masa raised concerns around, among others, illegal recruitments, appointments and promotions. Other concerns were irregular amendment of the human resource manual, and alleged land grabbing by officials of the university.
Irregular appointments created a shortfall of Shs26.65 billion in the university’s wage bill for which it attempted to obtain supplementary funding, but failed.
As a result, all the 148 staff, who were recruited effective April this year, have never been paid their salaries. All staff promotions and recruitments were halted, external examinations were suspended, supply of essential teaching and learning materials was suspended, and there were delays in payment of internship allowances and a reduction in the internship period. This resulted in budgetary reallocations.
Dr Kiggundu did not comment on that matter too, saying he needed to obtain figures from the head of the human resource department.
The two associations’ attempts to call the administration to order resulted in the suspension of their leaders. The chairperson of Masa, Mr Benett Magara, and administrative secretary Joesph Kalema, were also suspended on December 21 last year for allegedly trying to interfere with the proceedings of the University Council, but the decisions were rescinded by the Appointments Board.
The Musasa chairman, Mr Deus Kamunyu Muhwezi, who was first warned, was suspended on January 19, for a litany of offenses, including alleged misconduct and making false statements. His suspension ends on November 15.
Another member of staff, Mr Isaac Anyaku, the Custodian of the College of Business and Management Sciences, who is also a vocal member of the National Union of Education Institutions (Nuei), was suspended on July 19.
Prof Nawangwe is also reported to have directed that those who he deems to be big headed are removed from the University’s webmail list. SaturdayMonitor is in possession of a copy of an August 13-letter in which he owned up to having directed the removal of the vice chairman of Muasa, Dr Edward Nector Mwavu, and chairman of Masa Bennet Magara, claiming that they were misusing the platform and that they had contravened sections of the university’s communication policy.
On August 19, the two union leaders wrote to Prof Nawangwe requesting him to educate them on how they had misused the platform and also name the specific provisions of the communication policy, which they had contravened, but he never responded. They have never been reinstated.
Sources at the university indicate that suspensions have been following an apparently similar and well-choreographed pattern. They are preceded by letters in which Prof Nawangwe claims to have had conversations with the victim. This makes it look like the victim had left the administration with no other choice. This predictability enabled Dr Mwavu, who had been lined for suspension for allegedly making “unsubstantiated claims in the media” to outsmart Prof Nawangwe.
On October 4, the High Court in Kampala presided over by Justice Andrew Bashaija, issued a restraining order barring Makerere University, Prof Nawangwe and any of their agents against continuing “any further acts of victimisation” or “enforce threats” contained in three different letters that Prof Nawangwe had written to Dr Mwavu.
Prof Nawangwe’s relationship with union leaders was at some point in January discussed by the Parliamentary Committee on Education, but Mr Opolot declines to discuss it in detail.
“We have had several discussions with students, the administration, staff, the University Council and the Ministry of Education, but I am reluctant to discuss what was arrived at because of the ongoing investigation. I do not want to bias members,” Mr Opolot says.
It will be interesting to see what kind of report that the parliamentary committee will come up with, but it is ironic that these kinds of development are occurring at the university under his stewardship.
In January 2017, Prof Nawangwe’s predecessor wrote to him, warning him against taking unilateral decisions and dabbling in acts of insubordination. He had, at the time, authorised the payment of allowances to police officers who were not employees of the university, effecting double payments to the officers and increased their allowances by 200 per cent by paying them transport allowances of an unprecedented Shs150,000 per day.
He was also accused of having opened up bank accounts without authorised signatures of either the university secretary or bursar and was under fire for mismanaging the payroll by, among other things, paying people who were no longer employees of the university.
At the time, Prof Nawangwe penned a strongly worded letter in which he accused Prof Ddumba Ssentamu of defamation. He claimed that as Vice Chancellor in charge of Finance and Administration, he reports to the University Council and not the Vice Chancellor. Today, Prof Nawangwe insists that he is the chief executive officer of the university and that everyone must answer to him.
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