If I am implementing policies efficiently, you can’t call me a tyrant - Prof Nawangwe

Makerere vice chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe 

What you need to know:

Despite protests from sections of academic and non-academic staff, Makerere vice chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe reckons he is the best person to kick-start the institution’s next 100 years. In this interview with Frederic Musisi, Prof Nawangwe talks about tenure, challenges at the institution and what needs to be done.

What’s the course for the next 100 years?
The university council approved a strategic plan for the next 100 years and the main thing that plan seeks is to make Makerere a research-led university. Making and consolidating it a top research university in the world and that is a departure from the last 100 years where emphasis was human resource development. We pride that we have developed human resource, not just for Uganda, but for the entire region and beyond. As you know, the public service of all East African countries at independence came from Makerere University, and even afterwards through the years we have been producing human resource to manage the economy of our country. We want to continue that, but we don’t want it to be the thrust of our university because as you know we are not the only university; there are other universities which can continue with the development of human resource as we focus on research and innovation.

Talking of research, when you came you promised to make it the thrust of your tenure, and although it is paradoxical to score yourself, do you think you have moved an inch?
I have seen you here several times coming to cover our research. So I ask you, have I made a contribution? Before that, what was Makerere characterised by; staff and students strike, the university closing every semester, but for five years the university has not closed any single day as a result of a strike. We only closed due to Covid-19. People are concentrating on what they are here to do, but not peripheral things. Research at the highest level. Covid-19 showed us the potential of research; in a short time people came up with products to fight the disease. Establishing new research units; we have two World Bank centres of excellences here, ranked at the highest level. Those are issues we must tackle as a university. 

True, but the saying goes that peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind and what I gather here is there is a storm of unease and anxiety over your ‘tyrannical leadership’. People fear to speak out on this and that. Others say you handed over the institution to where the State wants it
I think you have been seeking out people whom you wanted to talk to. I cannot hand over this university to the State because the university already belongs to the State. This is a public university owned and run by government on behalf of the people of Uganda. Now, if you are saying maybe I have stifled freedoms, there is nothing that can be further from the truth because I see Makerere dons making commentary in the press, some against government. There are a few people who confuse academic freedom and academic hooliganism; those are two different things.

Academic freedom means a lecturer disagreeing with a certain line of thinking and no body follows up. That a student can disagree and they are not penalised for disagreeing. But when you have people who use their privileged positions to damage people’s reputation, that is hooliganism. The word ‘tyranny’ is misused here: a tyrant is somebody who makes his or her laws; suppresses freedoms, and so on. I don’t make any single policy here; there are bodies which make policies, my job is to implement. And if I am implementing the policies efficiently, you cannot call me a tyrant. You can only call me a touch manager.

Well, it is a matter of perspective. For instance, I think you will go down in history as the VC who suspended or dismissed most students. And one can say meddling in student issues; how they behave, etc is a small thing for a VC to mind about
It cannot be perspective because I have told you the definition of tyrant, unless you disagree with the English. But let me tell you, surprisingly I am the VC who has suspended the least number of students during my term. Because these days a lot of people have interest in Makerere for some reason that I don’t know. Every suspension is put in the media, but in the past, people were suspended and no body followed this up. I’m also the VC in whose term no student has been dismissed.

Fair enough. But the academic staff too are not happy with you. For instance, what explains having many high level positions not filled substantively?
One thing I didn’t say is that most of the administrative positions, for historical reasons, have been advertised around the same time, so they fall vacant around the same time. They have been advertised and people have been recruited around the same time. Some have been filled, and some the board didn’t find suitable candidates. The position, for instance, of director for quality assurance has been re-advertised three times and the appointments board uses objective criteria. I was amused when I read in the papers, some rowdy staff saying the positions are ring-fenced. For who? If they were ring-fenced, what I would do is that I would pretend that I am going to do interviews but I know the one I want. This one we have advertised three times and have failed to get a suitable candidate, so whom are they advertising it for?

Don’t you find it peculiar that a whole institution can advertise a position thrice and fail to land a suitable candidate? You advertised the director of legal thrice, and when you finally landed someone in 2021, you moved quickly to terminate him. Something is amiss, and to my understanding, his issue relates to trying to clean the dirty house in which dubious deals were a common place.

First of all, you must present evidence that they were dubious, and that the one who came in was trying to clean the house. Either way, the director of legal is a different issue. The council, two years ago for reasons they had seen when we recruit people, decided that all people at that level of administration must undergo a probationary period. If a person doesn’t pass probation, they are not confirmed, and that’s what happens with the two positions you are talking about (directors for legal, HR). So it is not true that we advertise across and fail to get people; for those two positions we filled them but they didn’t pass probation. Please remember we are talking about Makerere, a top global university. You don’t go on the street to pick people to work here. It might take a year but we want to fill it with the right people.

But the director of legal scored highly in probation…
You are now asking many questions… I don’t want to go into those details, but yes he scored highly and was given the job but somehow the appointments board said, ‘No, he is not doing what we thought he should be doing’ and they decided that they were not confirming him.

The Rwendeire report proffered some diagnosis on the university’s problems, and you see in this country, history repeats itself and since you’re the verge of reappointment and with all the disquietude simmering here how do you ensure a few years down the road there is no other commission?
The Rwendeire report gave recommendations on a wide range of things and some for the university to handle and majority were for government to handle. Those what the university could handle have been taken care of and those for the ministry of Education, you are aware that a committee was established and it was since come up with a White Paper, which was supposed to be taken to Cabinet, but I don’t know at what stage it is.

How do you describe your relationship with the council? There is a feeling that a pliant council and a pliant VC is the perfect gift for the State; subjugate voices, cower or beat people in line
I have served under two councils. The first time they said there was fusion between management and council but the tenure of that council ended. Then came a new council and they said at last there is a council that is not fused with management; now the very people are complaining. 
That’s why I am telling you that a criminal looks at things with one eye; for them when things are not done the way they think they should be done, which means the two councils are following the law and making it difficult for the law breakers.