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Makerere lecturers, VC clash over ‘Among exam’

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Makerere University Vice Chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe during an interview with Daily Monitor at his office in Kampala on July 20, 2022. PHOTO | FRANK BAGUMA 

The Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa) has described as “an attack on academic freedom” a decision by the Ivory Tower’s vice chancellor (VC) to order an inquest into a Constitutional Law paper First-Year students recently wrote.

Dr Robert Kakuru, the Muasa chairperson, yesterday said VC Barnabas Nawangwe’s letter to Dr Ronald Naluwairo, the acting principal of the School of Law, is “a direct, and implied attack on academic freedom, and will severely cripple the quality of teaching, learning, and examination in the university.” 

Dr Kakuru also made it clear that the “proposed investigation committee should be disbanded with immediate effect.”

Prof Nawangwe in a May 15 letter asked Dr Naluwairo “to call an emergency meeting of the School Academic Board to investigate the [Principles of Constitutional Law II] paper.” This was after one of the questions in the paper depicted a real parliamentary session with real names, including that of Parliament Speaker and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LoP).

Dr Kabumba Busingye, who together with Prof Joe Oloka-Onyango, teach Constitutional Law at the university, referred this newspaper to an X post he authored on the fallout from the paper.

“Let me be clear, academic freedom is a right specially protected under Article 29 (1) (b) of the 1995 Constitution. It deserves and will receive jealous protection,” the post reads in full.

Article 29 (1)( b) states that every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, which shall include academic freedom in institutions of learning.

When asked for a comment yesterday, Prof Nawangwe said: “Senate has every right to check the quality of examinations subjected to students at Makerere. The letter I wrote ,I did so as the chairperson of the University Senate so there is no right that was infringed on, unless the staff don’t know their rights.”

In his May 15 letter, Prof Nawangwe asked Dr Naluwairo “to submit a report to the chairperson of the Senate for discussion at the meeting on May 21.” 

We were unable to independently establish whether the report was submitted. Our calls to Dr Naluwairo went unanswered after he had initially promised to revert to our queries. 

The paper that has since kicked up a storm was given to First-Year undergraduate law students on May 11. The examiner(s) came up with a case study on real parliamentary proceedings from which the students were to highlight emerging issues on the rule of law.

Core to the parliamentary case study was Speaker Among, who was projected to have been stung by the recent sanctions imposed against her by the UK government. The House Speaker consequently vowed to deal with those writing malicious reports about her.

The examiner(s), further in the case study, project the Speaker to be trying to mount a fightback via a “Speaker’s Bill” that she introduced in the House. The said Bill allegedly contained several provisions like: “no person shall adversely comment on the office of the Speaker and particularly about the person of Anita Among; and any person who violates the above provision, commits an offence against the people of Uganda and is liable to a five-year jail sentence on conviction.”

The parliamentary case study goes on to note that LoP Joel Ssenyonyi stood up and protested the new Bill introduced by the Speaker and its process. In response to Mr Ssenyonyi’s protest, the Speaker said: “You Joelo, shut up. Are you one of those bum-shafters who is after my life? I’m the Speaker of Parliament of Uganda, Queen of Bukedea, and Conqueress of the British Empire; in this House, I can do whatever I please.”

Parliament Speaker Anita Among interacts with Leader of Opposition in Parliament (LoP) Joel Ssenyonyi as Erute South MP  Jonathan Odur looks on during plenary on May 3, 2024. PHOTO/HANDOUT

The parliamentary case study goes on to show that when Mr Ssenyonyi persisted with his protest, he was expelled from the House by the Speaker. The said Bill was passed into law despite a lack of quorum before being assented to by President Museveni.

“That afternoon, the Speaker took the Bill to President Museveni for his assent. In response, the President told the Speaker ‘This is a very good Bill, it only misses specific mention of me as the Fountain of Honour, mama Janet, the First Lady, and all my children; let me add that clause in and sign’,” the case study further reads in part.

It adds: “The Bill was duly amended and declared to have come into force on January 26, 1986, the date on which the National Resistance Army (NRA) took over power in Uganda.”

The case study continues to allude that the “DPP received a letter from the Speaker, directing those proceedings in the SPAM be commenced against Hon Ssenyonyi as Dr Johhny Spear and Agana Agana, two social media activists who organised the second social media parliamentary exhibition in which they criticised the Speaker of her ‘profligate spending’ and ‘lack of sexual mores’.”

Accordingly, the three were arrested and were due to appear before court.

At the end of the case study, the examiner(s) tasked the students to highlight constitutional law issues raised.

The students were also tasked to critically point out their implications on the rule of law, democratic governance, and constitutionalism in contemporary Uganda

In March, Muasa condemned what they called renewed threats against their very own Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo.

Dr Ssentongo had posted on his X account how some people were trailing him to harm him.

At the time, Dr Ssentongo and other social media activists had an online campaign dubbed “Uganda Parliament Exhibition” through which they exposed massive corruption at Parliament.

 “We take strong exceptions to these threats and reiterate Dr Ssentongo’s academic freedom and other freedoms, enshrined, inter alia, in Chapter Four of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda,” Muasa stated.

Referring to Article 3 of the Kampala Declaration of Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility 1990, the Muasa demanded that Dr Ssentongo be allowed to exercise his freedom to intellectual work or opinions without any threats to his life.

“An attack on Dr Ssentongo’s academic freedom is an attack on academic freedom of all members of Muasa and other academics of the world,” Muasa’s statement read in part.

Going forward, the academic association asked the Inspector General of Police and relevant authorities to intervene and ensure Dr Ssentongo continues to do his intellectual work without being threatened or targeted.

Uganda Law Society speaks out 

The president of Uganda Law Society (Benard Oundo) has said academic freedom encompasses a series of other widely accepted human rights, including freedom of opinions, expressions, association and assembly. 

ULS president, Mr Bernard Oundo. PHOTO/FILE

He adds that these civil and political rights are enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and legally binding on states which are parties to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A.Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 UN GAOR Supp. (No.16 at 52, Doc. A/6316, 999 UNTS 171, December 16, 1966).

"Teaching and examining students about current affairs is critical in producing graduates who can effectively address contemporary problems and contribute to societal progress. Academic freedom involves the freedom of lecturers, teachers, students and academic institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference in their research and teaching activities," Oundo said yesterday. 

He added: "At minimum, academic freedom involves the freedom to involve the entire range of activities related to knowledge production. While aware that there are limitations on most most human rights and freedoms, ULS is certain that the impugned exams and others like it involved a hypothetical question within the confines of academic freedom and learning as it aimed to encourage students to think beyond theoretical knowledge and apply their acquired understanding to current real life situations. Indeed, a quick glance at other examinations reveals that this is not the first time that such questions  or scenarios would be set for a subject of this nature or for a law examination. This level of intimidation insinuated by the university authorities is a threat to academic freedom and should have no place in our educational institutions generally, but institutions of higher learning in particular."