Galogitho to Mak students: Regain your space in agitating for rights of Ugandans

Stephen Renny Galogitho 

What you need to know:

  • On October 24, 1996, Makerere University suspended 34 students and expelled guild president Stephen Renny Galogitho over a student protest against government’s plan to introduce cost-sharing. He spoke to Jacobs Odongo Seaman about his ordeals and picking up the pieces.

First, the name Galogitho, what is in the name?

Stephen Renny Galogitho. Galogitho means taking time to die.  

You were admitted to Makerere in 1991 and yet by 1996 you were still a student?

I am a very proud alumni of one of the greatest institutions on earth. I carry Makerere University in my heart and the news about the burning of the Ivory Tower in 2020 pierced my heart with the ferocity of a dagger driven by the most ruthless of creatures.

I was admitted to Makerere in 1991, I was the 24th student admitted that year. Reg. No. 91/24. I sailed through the pre-clinical years of my medical studies seamlessly.

I joined Makerere when there was a toxic atmosphere following the murders of the two students, the two Toms, Okema and Onyango during the previous year in the guild presidency of Norbert Mao.

In my third year, a personal disaster befell me when I lost my brother, Fred, to a deadly snake bite. At the time I was doing paediatrics and travelling to bury my brother made me to miss some critical course works which cost me a year. The strictness those days demanded that I redo the whole year.

I was the indomitable guild minister for cognitive affairs (academic affairs) during the guild presidency of Issa Taligola in 1994. I served as the speaker of Lumumba Hall in 1995, and then was overwhelmingly elected guild president in 1996.

By the time darkness at noon descended upon Makerere Hill on October 24, 1996, the day I was summarily expelled, I was in the final year of my study of MBChB, a few weeks shy of completion.

What exactly happened?

This is such a long tale. Probably not all who participated in expelling me understand the origins of this struggle.

Sometime after World War II in 1947, two economists; Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman founded neoliberalism as ideas associated with free-market economy. These policies stressed reduction in government spending, especially in social services to increase the role of the private sector.

These policies grew until the IMF and World Bank prescribed reforms called structural adjustment. At Makerere, they were calling it “cost sharing.” Cost sharing with who? When the taxpayers are actually footing the whole thing?

By the mid-1980s, the neoliberal febrility had caught up with most African countries. In late 1980s guild president Wilbrode Owor, had a brush with the university administration and government over the issue of cutting student allowances.

Issues reached a head and two students were killed. Their guild speaker then, Jacob Oulanyah, was brutalised, ruptured a spleen. Every student regime continued grappling with the nuisance of neoliberalism until we arrived at the scene.

In 1994, guild president Taligola together with student leaders of other tertiary institutions in and around Kampala organised a peaceful demo on May 10 to protest. We were met by brutal force on our march to Parliament. My friend Ivan Tibenkana sustained a dislocated spine from police brutality that hurts him to this day.

Mr Taligola, a very brilliant classmate, was expelled from university a few weeks later.

This cost-sharing, it was viewed as commercialisation of tertiary education which would soon become a preserve of the rich in a country rich with ethnic diversity but one where poverty was stinking to the heavens. To resist this, the student body [I led] called a general assembly on October 23, 1996, at 3pm and resolved to protest peacefully.

The next day the university council to which I was a member, abused their powers and summarily expelled me along with other students without any hearing. This travesty of injustice committed against me, my family, my parents, my benefactors, my clan and my generation were done to stifle the voice for the poor.  

Did you seek legal recourse at the time?

Many times in this world and in the world I have belonged to, to access justice you need money. I’ve been a poor man for a very long time.

Some Makerere alumni were asking that the university pardons you

I, Stephen Renny Galogitho, expelled from the university by a group of people who never even bothered to follow any known laws, I ask them to pardon me because they committed an illegality in the first place? Ha!

If justice works that way, then this reminds me of a book that I read titled Justice in Erewhon by Samuel Butler. It talks about the type of situation I would not wish for anyone – a dystopic society where everything works backwards and is spelled backwards.

The real type of pardoning I would ask of Makerere is to join me in advocating for a pull-back on some of the neoliberal policies that have impacted negatively upon education in Uganda.  

Do you have any regrets, like how your leadership action possibly affected other students?

I don’t know whether [it is right] to call it my action. I was talking about where neoliberalism started with the philosophy of Hayek and his friend Milton. My leadership disposition was for all the students of Uganda, extending beyond the confines of Makerere.

So do I have any regrets? For standing with and for the poor people of this country, I have no regrets. I ended up being treated the way I was, that is only part of the sacrifices each one of us is supposed to make for the common good.

The two Toms, Onyango and Okema left their lives in the Freedom Square that others may live, the late Jacob Oulanyah left his spleen in the Arts Quadrangle, I left my promising medical career so that others may access tertiary education.

I am disappointed living in a country where dreams are extinguished, where a university frustrates intellectualism instead of facilitating it. How do they explain the infamy of throwing away a medical doctor? I will regret that those I would have healed didn’t get a chance. 

Is it possible that the students pushed the legality of their protests into illegality?

The Constitution of Uganda guarantees the freedom of expression at least by word. This was a moral imperative to agitate for equitable access to higher education to all.

Years later, the expelled were allowed to complete their studies. Why didn’t you take it?

There is a terribly deliberate misinformation that I haven’t been trying out my chances to continue with my education. The then Makerere administration seems to have harboured a dark vendetta against me. They continued with these schemes even much later.

In 2007, an Australian couple was willing to sponsor completion of my course from University of Nairobi. As an admission prerequisite, Nairobi wanted my results transferred from Makerere so that I proceed from third year. Makerere frustrated this transfer and I lost the sponsorship.

Never in my life had I come face to face with the most vicious of men. Some of my fellow students went back to study, which is good, but I don’t know on which conditions and to what effect.  

Were you associated with national politics at the time of your guild tenure?

First of all, by the time we were campaigning there was no multiparty dispensation. Political parties were outlawed. Then, as students’ leaders, we were pushing back against the steel walls of neoliberalism. We didn’t need to belong to any political party to see the injustices. 

In the current setting, which political party would you belong to?

Wow! I have never considered that. But a political dispensation which would not extinguish people with dreams…one that could correct the ills which made me to be expelled from Makerere. 

So you wouldn’t consider a career in politics?

Wow! Everybody in my family has suffered because of politics but when your mother drowns in water would stop drinking water or bathing? In any case, in Africa you can never see the value of politics. Right now I am trying to look at an institute of social justice. 

If you faced the current administration, what would you tell them?

I would tell the vice chancellor that the university reclaims its space of nurturing intellectualism and freedom. Makerere as a centre for intellectual research must engage in innovations not as mere talks and should help the country to catch up with more developed nations.

Ah, you are talking about the administration, what about the student leadership? If horses knew how strong they were, no man would ride them. I would tell the students this so that they also regain their space for agitating for the rights of Ugandans.

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