How Makerere failed in its attempts to become university

Graduation day at Makerere University in 2013. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Makerere’s failed attempts to become a university are historical. Buganda had learnt from envoys from the Ottoman Empire that the greatness of Europe was knowledge. So between 1919 and 1920, Buganda declined a World War I memorial ground at Wandegeya and asked for a university. 

Makerere University will hold centenary cerebrations in October. Remarkably, the programme asserts and historicises Makerere as a university.

But how is Makerere a ‘university’? By 1970, Makerere was a university college under the University of East Africa when Parliament politically proclaimed it a university. 

The title university did not automatically translate the university college to a university. Further, Makerere has since not advanced from a university college to a full university. 


A university is different and higher than a university college, which is higher than a college polytechnic, which is also above other affiliated graduate degree-awarding institutions. 

A university has several levels of subordinate institutions. For intelligibility, Oxford University has 39 affiliate university colleges and polytechnics. None of these claims to be a university. 

At Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), seminars were conducted covering the university concept and status of Makerere. 

The scripts were Prof ABK Kasozi’s book on whether National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) can bureaucratically constitute universities, and his research on the Makerere 1952 Chartist Strike when students rejected the college, demanding a real university. 

Other resources included Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s Research University, Research at Makerere and Scholars in the Marketplace.

The contrast between a university and Makerere is that while the core mission of a university is constructing knowledge, that of a subordinate college is schooling knowledge. 

A real university, unlike Makerere College, has three core and three fringe definitive features; poiesis, philosophers and archive, and panopticon, parrhesia and auxiliaries. 

University poiesis, which is knowledge creation, is different from Makerere College research which is knowledge reproduction. University philosophers who generate knowledge are different from Makerere professors who preach knowledge. The university archive registers knowledge ontologies while the Makerere College library stocks literature on knowledge. 

University panopticon engages in knowledge oversight while Makerere is in knowledge dispersal. While university parrhesia champions knowledge, Makerere makes knowledge outreach. University auxiliaries maintain affiliated subordinate units like the university college, the polytechnic college and other degree granting institutions.

A university features only disciplines such as Mathematics, Political Philosophy, Anthropology, etc. while a university college engages on sub-disciplines such as Political Science, Statistics, Sociology, Population, etc. and a polytechnic college on professions and trades such as social work, surveyors, medicine, architecture, accountants, etc. 

Makerere is currently both a university college and lower polytechnic college, but certainly not a university.    


Makerere’s initial attachment to a university was from 1950 to 1952 when after becoming a polytechnic, it was affiliated as Makerere College of London University. 

Later in 1963, it transferred affiliation to Makerere College of East Africa University. In 1964, Makerere College became a university college when it acquired a research institute. The then East Africa Institute of Social Research (EAISR) transferred to Makerere and became Makerere Institute of Social Research. 

The main difference between a university college and a polytechnic college, both affiliated to a university, is the research role. The polytechnic college, like Makerere in 1950-1964, does not include research while research is a core function at the university college. 

Whereas for a university college each discipline course unit concludes with a research, Makerere provides one research for an entire programme. So Makerere is short of university college status.

Research at a university college, like Makerere, is a praxis which creates epistemologies of the knowledge of the university of affiliation or of different universities under multiversity. So Makerere’s claim to university status through research is superfluous. 

Failed attempts

Makerere’s failed attempts to become a university are historical. Buganda had learnt from envoys from the Ottoman Empire that the greatness of Europe was knowledge. 

So between 1919 and 1920, Buganda declined a World War I memorial ground at Wandegeya (present-day Public Service ministry up to the police barracks) and asked for a university. 

In 1921, Kampala Technical Institute was granted, but Buganda refused. In the exchanges, the technical institute offer was withdrawn and a lower vocational trades training centre offered. The title was rejected and colonial governor, Sir Coryndon, in 1922 renamed it ‘Makelele’ College. 

The title Makelele (from Mulele), a Luganda derogatory term for ‘replacing work with noise’, or ‘producing noise instead of substance’, was also rejected. Finally, Makerere, from a Swahili word for the noisy (kelele) was imposed and the issue closed.        

In 1924, the US intervened to limit Makerere to trained African labour. The US was also discriminatively limiting the schooling of its Africans to trained labour. Advancing Africans in other countries to higher levels would destabilise USA (1924) discrimination of its Black citizens.   

In 1926, Buganda Kingdom closed Makerere College for teaching in Luganda and focusing on training artisans, trades, technicians instead of intellectuals. 

Makerere reopened in 1927 under the colonial government which in 1938 promised a university status by 1950, and in 1945 Buganda released extra land for the projected university. 

But before the planned Makerere University by 1950, establishing new universities in emerging countries was reserved due to German universities strengthening of Hitler in World War II. 

Outside of the Western world, the university was reconceptualised from higher knowledge to higher education.

A British colonial policy, the ‘Inter-University Council for Higher Education in the Colonies’ proceeded to ensure that colonised territories develop only to the university and polytechnic college levels appended to full universities in Europe and North America.   

At Makerere, in July, August and September 1949 several steps were taken to halt the university. 

European head teachers of leading secondary schools in East Africa, such as Timothy Cobb of Kings College Budo and Carey Francis of Alliance High School (Kenya), advised the inter-university council against university status for Makerere. 

Unesco advised the Inter-University Council for Colonies to defer university status in Africa until the scheduled 1950 conference in Paris on the suitability of African brains to university knowledge. 

Then principal of Makerere College, Dr Lamont, his deputy Dr Batten and all academic staff favouring university status resigned (were dismissed). Also resigned (dismissed) for his position on Makerere becoming a university was the Uganda Protectorate Director of Education (now minister), Mr JR Cullen.

The newly constructed centre for knowledge creation for the envisaged Makerere University was transferred to the East Africa Governors Council and named EAISR (now MISR). This closing of knowledge creation totally sealed university prospects for Makerere.   

The leadership of the largest native Africa ethnicities, including Buganda, were invited to Makerere in August 1949 and briefed on reversal of the university project and the proposed alternative of the college affiliated to London University.     

Two public lectures for students and the (European) public, on ‘Neo-Darwin Theory of Evolution’ were held at Makerere; revealing that earliest anthropoids (ape humans) were in East Africa but the species that evolved to humans migrated (to Europe), leaving humanoids (semi-humans) behind. These Africans were unsuited for a university.

Under the terms of the Ratification of the 1941 US-Anglo Treaty, the USA Consular General to East Africa, Mr Edward Miller Groth, came to Makerere and stopped extension of university status to Africans. It was then announced that Makerere will follow the US Polytechnic College form rather than the classical university. 

A 1949 Makerere Students Council member, Mr JD Mapoma, from Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), who now lives outside Lusaka City, witnessed this racism.   

Finally, Makerere became a college of the University of London in January 1952, but the students who thought they were at university were not satisfied. 

From 1951 to 1952, a millionaire geologist, Dr John Thorburn Williamson, linked to the South Africa apartheid De Beers diamond mines conglomerate, donated advanced technology, physics and geology building and laboratory to the Makerere University project. 

Stopped equipment delivery

The building was completed in May 1952, but the colonial government stopped equipment delivery due to indecision on science knowledge for African students.

However, in June 1952, Dr Williamson arrived at Makerere College to open and handover the unequipped laboratory building. The students’ guild leadership delivered a message accusing him of racism and killing Africans and objecting to his visit and donation. This type of politics affected Makerere development to a university.         

In August 1952, a students’ charter rejected the polytechnic college mode, demanding a full university. 

The students’ guild council passed the resolution; the Executive drew two petitions. One for improving the food menu, the other rejecting the mediocre university. 

The food menu petition was quickly signed by the entire Makerere student population; their signatures were then appended to the chartist ‘Mammoth Petition’ rejecting the mediocre university.   

Among others, the mammoth petition specifically rejected Political Science that it is a civics course in USA. Also rejected was BA Sociology and BA English; Sociology is community welfare and English a Language of communication and not forms of knowledge. Students rejected the BSc courses for teaching, only applied without pure Science.

What caused the closing of Makerere in August 1952 and foreclosed possibilities of becoming a university were the virile political demands which outnumbered the academic ones. 

The categorical political statements in the mammoth petition included; 

(i) Reject Makerere College Council chairman, Sir Reginald Robbins, for anti-African racism and being chairman of Kenya White Settlers who were killing Mau Mau Kenyans, 

(ii) Renounce House of Commons July 1952 support of White settlers right to stay, take-over and govern Kenya, 

(iii) Reject Sir Reginald Robbins for East Africa Union via East African High Commission where he was commissioner, 

(iv) Tanganyika students, as trust territory, rejected the East Union under Kenya White settlers, 

(v) Reject Sir Reginald Robins for advancing projected East and Central Africa Federation for eventual independence with Africans ruled by Kenya and Rhodesia White minority; 

(vi) Reject Sir Reginald Robbins for backing Mr Michael Blundell and Sir Godfrey Huggins to lead East and Central Africa Federation, 

(vii) Reject Governor Sir Andrew Cohen of Uganda for establishing/imposing the Central Africa Federation before becoming governor, 

(viii) End of Biology tutor Wasawo pro-colonial MCCC activities, 

(ix) Condemn apartheid South Africa violence and expresses support for Africans defiance campaign launched on June 26, 1952. 

Later in January 1960, four Makerere student leaders, including guild president Simon Gor and vice president Benjamin Mkapa, flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a conference opposing second-rate universities in Africa.

The colonial government instead routed them on a flight to Hawaii where they stayed until the Addis Ababa conference ended. 

When UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld visited Uganda in January 1960, Makerere students invited him over the mediocre college status. The colonial police prevented the meeting where Bernard Onyango was to make the submission. 

Surprisingly, Onyango was soon after employed by Makerere as an assistant registrar where he then admitted students to the same university and the same courses he had formerly denounced as shallow.         

The 1964-1970 Uganda debate on Makerere and the University in East Africa focused on the role of higher education in national (social and economic) development over the fundamentals, form and standard of the institution. The 1970 public discourse and submissions to the Makerere Visitation Committee lacked conception of the university.   

Besides the university concept, and the past and present faulting’s of Makerere, the MISR Seminar considered that NCHE cannot create a university through its bureaucracy, and thus that there are no universities in Uganda.