Makerere suspends guild elections after student stabbed to death

Makerere University guild presidential candidate for National Unity Platform (NUP) Lawrence Alionzi being carried by one of his supporters during campaigns. PHOTOS/ COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The student identified by colleagues as Michael Betungura Bewatte died at around 8:30 during final political campaigns ahead of Friday’s guild elections.

Makerere University Council Thursday night suspended the students’ governing body, the Students’ Guild, and indefinitely deferred polls due Friday to elect its 88th President after a student was killed in a clash during last-minute campaigns.

The deceased was late Thursday night identified as Betungura Bewatte, a second-year law student at Uganda Christian University (UCU) Kampala Campus in Mengo.

Betungura Bewatte. Photo/Courtesy

Police and witnesses said an altercation broke out between supporters of the leading Guild presidential candidate, National Unity Platform’s Lawrence Alionzi, alias Dangote, and Justus Tukamushaba of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party.

The heated race in which Alionzi was the biggest crowd puller had attracted up to sixteen contenders, including the ruling National Resistance Movement’s Ibra Hussein.

“The ongoing elections for the 88th Makerere University Students’ Guild leadership are suspended indefinitely [and] the Makerere University Students’ Guild is suspended with immediate effect. This suspension includes the Guild Caretaker Government and the Students’ Common Room [representatives],” University Council chairperson, Ms Lorna Magara, noted in a statement, citing violence and death of Bewatte.

Police Spokesman Fred Enanga, in an account corroborated by Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, confirmed Thursday night that the victim was a UCU student.

Detectives were investigating how he was involved in the campaigns of another university and caught in the melee.

Bewatte’s final WhatsApp status update appeared to suggest he was a supporter of FDC’s Tukamushaba, and was on campus to drum up support for him.

“Gallant Makerereans. #JUST US (an adulteration of the first name of the FDC Guild presidential candidate). We’re hosting a rally at the Rugby Grounds today, we shall set off from Northcorte (Nsibirwa Hall) @3pm. Wear your blue and come on (sic) out to support your next 88th guild president,” read one of his last status updates.   

He shared a Blue Fest photomontage of prominent FDC party officials, including its former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, who were reportedly expected for the final rally but did not show up.

There are different accounts of how the mayhem began. Some witnesses said members of the rival factions clashed at a final rally at the Rugby Grounds behind Nkrumah Hall, hurling stones and bottles at each other before an unknown person suddenly pounced on and cut Bewatte’s neck with a broken bottle.

Blood gushed out, and well-wishers rushed him first to clean up at Nsibirirwa Hall. The uncontrollable bleeding soaked the piece of cloth used to tie the wound. A video clip shared shortly after the incident showed a pool of blood in a room, and it was unclear whether of a hall of residence or hospital.

Ms Lillian Ayot, a witness, said “we were in the Rugby Grounds when supporters of FDC candidate started throwing stones and broken beer bottles at us”.

Police, she said, on arrival lobbed teargas canisters at the rowdy student crowd, forcing them to scatter.

According to Ayot, many students mobbed each other and were injured, some trampled upon by fleeing colleagues or cut by on-campus fence wire.

Mr Ronald Amanya, another witness, said everything unfolded so quickly, turning animated final rally into a bloody battle ground and one fatality.

FDC's Justus Tukamushaba (centre) and his supporters during campaigns 

“What happened and what I saw [was] that during the scuffle, this boy was in the NUP camp, but he kept exchanging words with some people from the FDC camp. So, from nowhere, someone just came and stabbed him with a broken bottle in his throat and it even got stuck there and the [attacker] disappeared in the crowds,” he said.

Good Samaritans, and Mr Amanya said he was among, rushed Bewatte to University Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

“He lost a lot of blood, the bleeding was a lot and when we reached hospital, and before doctors could do much, he passed on,” he said.

Mr Cyrus Omara, the Makerere University’s chief security officer, said the deceased met his death during the scuffle between the supporters of FDC and NUP Guild presidential candidates.

He said supporters of FDC flag bearer had just arrived at the Rugby Ground, which is near the police station on campus, to start their campaigns when the NUP supporters started hurling stones at them.

The Guild leadership renewal is ordinarily a students’ affair, but many of the contestants run as flag bearers of established political parties in the country, inviting external lobbying and resourcing at the university.

The Guild presidency is itself a coveted position as it places one in-charge of advancing the agenda and welfare of more than 30,000 students as well as apex engagement about the institution’s leadership and governance.

Due to these varied and often politically charged interests, external interference with guild polls has persisted, on occasions sucking in state security and intelligence operatives.

In a statement issued Thursday night, NUP candidate Alionzi, more popularly called Dangote, claimed that supporters of his FDC rival attacked his followers unprovoked.

“After my campaign event at Northcote (Nsibirwa Hall) parking lot, I invited my supporters to join me for a rally organised by the [Guild] Electoral Commission at the Rugby Grounds,” he noted.

Musician Eddy Kenzo (right) performs at one of the political rallies of NRM's Hussein Ibra (left)

Mr Alionzi spoke at the rally and aimed to storm nearby hostels to get undecided voters to turn up in record numbers to vote for him today, before the University Council put the vote off indefinitely.

“On our way out of the Rugby Grounds and in full glare of all, my campaign team and supporters were attacked by Mitchell Hall students that were moving with the FDC camp. They went ahead to throw stones and bottles [at us] for reasons unknown to us … [and] violently disperse[d] everyone at the grounds,” he wrote.

We could not independently verify this account, including accusations that law enforcers present simply looked on.

Makerere University Council is due to hold an emergency session today to discuss the campaign lawlessness on campus that resulted in the death of a student of UCU.

As news of the chaos spread, and fears grew of more anarchy, the military raced to reinforce police on the ground. The security forces in the immediate aftermath only allowed access to campus to university ID holders, but relaxed the restriction after restoring relative calm by 7:30pm.

Columns of soldiers could be seen patrolling streets at the university, and sizeable numbers of the combined forces massed at halls of residences where it was feared trouble could brew in the dark.

In a statement, UCU Law Society Speaker for Kampala Chapter, Mr Bill Kumbaine, described the deceased Bewatte as a “friendly soul, brilliant mind and a promising lawyer in the making”.

“To many, he has been a friend, a brother, a classmate and a [brother’s] keeper,” he wrote.

Yesterday’s final rally was dubbed high stakes and well attended in part because top city musicians were expected to headline it.