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Power struggle rocks NCHE as Okwakol rejects Katunguka

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National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) head offices in Ntinda, Kampala. Universities in Uganda risk facing a crisis stemming from power struggle within the top administration of NCHE. PHOTO/FILE

Universities in Uganda risk facing a crisis stemming from power struggle within the top administration of the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE). 

NCHE regulates all higher institutions of learning in the country. 

Currently, the members of the National Council, the apex body that makes decisions at NCHE, are divided after Prof Mary Okwakol, the body’s executive director, rejected the reappointment of Prof Eli Katunguka, the former chairperson of the Council. 

The Council, which meets four times a year in January, April, August, and November, held its last meeting in April this year. The Council, among other duties, approves assessed programmes submitted by the higher education institutions. 

This newspaper last month reported that the universities were stuck with more than 1,600 yet-to-be reviewed programmes. Should the wrangle among the top officers at NCHE persist, the Council’s business might stall, risking accrediting and reaccreditation of universities and other tertiary institutions programmes due for review. 

President Museveni, who is the appointing officer, in a May 6 letter seen by Monitor reappointed Prof Katunguka for a second term as the chairperson of the NCHE.  

“I have received your letter recommending Prof Katunguka for reappointment as chairperson of the National Council for Higher Education. I have no objection to his reappointment given his experience and the services he has rendered to the education sector,” the letter reads in part.

Another letter written by Ms Irene Kauma, the personal secretary to the First Lady, on behalf of the Ministry of Education permanent secretary, also cleared the re-appointment of Prof Katunguka. 

“The First Lady and the Minister of Education received the attached letter from Prof Katunguka, the vice chancellor of Kyambogo [University], requesting the renewal of his appointment as the chairperson of the NCHE. The minister has no objection to Prof Katunguka’s reappointment. This is, therefore, to forward the letter to the President for his attention,” the April 2 letter from Kauma addressed to the President’s Private Secretary read. 

However, sources privy to the NCHE operations have indicated that Prof Mary Okwakol, the executive director, has rejected the reappointment of Prof Katunguka as the chairperson of the Council. She cited the long-standing bad blood between the two top officials that cannot permit them to work together for the next five years. 
 
In a recent internal communication dated July 4, Prof Okwakol, informed Council members that the Attorney General advised that Prof Katunguka’s term as chairperson of the NCHE expired on March 21. 

Prof Okwakol stated that Prof Katunguka was no longer authorised to act as chairperson of the Council until he was officially reappointed. 

The letter also cited the irregularity of a chairperson directly writing to the President to seek tenure renewal, indicating that in the absence of Prof Katunguka, his deputy will act until a substantive chair is elected. 

“In the absence of a substantive chairperson, the vice chairperson of the Council shall preside over the meetings of the Council in accordance with Section 10 (2) of the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act,” Prof Okwakol said. 

She also noted that following the guidance provided, the President has directed that due procedures must be followed to fill the vacancy. 

Prof Okwakol said these procedures include the election of a representative from the senates of public universities, a constituency previously represented by Prof Katunguka and that the NCHE Council must recommend two of its members to the President, from whom he will appoint the new chairperson. 

President Museveni in a May 6 letter reappointed Prof Katunguka for a second term as the chairperson of the NCHE.  PHOTO/FILE

Status quo
Prof Okwakol indicated that Prof Katunguka is currently neither a member of the Council nor its chairperson. 

“For clarity and avoidance of doubt, the advisory stated that to be eligible for appointment as chairperson of the NCHE, an individual must be a current member of the Council and recommended by the Council, along with another candidate, to the President for consideration,” she said. 

Prof Eli Katunguka 

The Public Universities Forum has, however, dismissed the above information as false and has accused Prof Okwakol of frustrating the reappointment of Prof Katunguka.

Dr James Nkata, the vice chairperson of the Public Universities Forum, in a January 31 letter addressed to Prof Okwakol, notified her that they had elected Prof Katunguka as their representative on the NCHE in January before his first term in office expired. 

“The vice chancellors of public universities have reappointed Prof Eli Katunguka, the VC of Kyambogo University, to be the University Senate representative on the National Council for Higher Education from the date of expiry of his appointment,” Dr Nkata said. 

However, on February 2, Prof Okwakol rejected the reappointment of Prof Katunguka, saying it was illegally done and directed the public universities to redo the process. 

The NCHE executive director noted that Section 7(e) of the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act stipulates that the NCHE shall include, among others, one representative of public universities’ senates, elected from among themselves and that an election involves a formal and organised choice by vote for a person to hold the position. 

Prof Mary Okwakol

Prof Okwakol laid down the procedures that public universities should follow to elect a representative of their senates to the NCHE. 

She said the procedure requires that the NCHE executive director, who serves as the secretary to the Council, must write to the chairperson of the vice chancellors of public universities, notifying them of the need to nominate a representative of the senates to the Council. 

Prof Okwakol said the Forum chairperson is then required to convene a meeting of representatives from the senates of all public universities and the Senate representatives elect their nominee to the Council, a process that includes candidate presentations and a secret ballot election. 

She indicated that the Forum chairperson is then expected to write to the executive director of the NCHE to communicate the name of the elected nominee, and the executive director then issues a letter of appointment to the nominee, officially designating them as a Council member for a specific period. 

“We have learnt that a member of staff of Kyambogo University, one Evas Tumusiime, sent an email to all VCs seeking their views on the reappointment of Prof Katunguka as a representative of the Senate of Public Universities to NCHE. She then followed it up with calls to individual VCs urging them to respond to the email,” Prof Okwakol said.

“It appears it is the responses of the VCs to this email that informed your communication to me, informing that the VCs have reappointed Prof Katunguka as your representative. Regrettably, the process you took does not conform to the procedure outlined above and accordingly, the results of that process are rendered null and void,” Prof Okwakol wrote. 

She asked the Forum to convene a meeting of representatives of the Senate of all public universities to undertake the nomination as outlined above.   

However, the public universities rejected the procedure Prof Okwakol laid down, saying they are not prescribed in the Universities and Other Tertiary Universities Act. 

Dr Nkata, on February 19, wrote to Prof Okwakol insisting that the procedures set out in her letter are not grounded in the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act nor the NCHE procedure manual of 2021. 

“The Vice Chancellor Forum has internal mechanisms to regulate its own procedures as to convening of meetings and election of representatives. In the instant, the Forum followed the same and nominated Prof Katunguka,” Dr Nkata said. 

When contacted last Saturday, Dr Nkata said President Museveni has made it clear and reappointed Prof Katunguka as the chairperson of the NCHE. 

“We have nothing much to say because as public universities, we elected Prof Katunguka to represent us on the NCHE. He is the one on the Council and he is a member as long as we are concerned,” Dr Nkata said. 

About the Act
While the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act stipulates that the National Council shall recommend two members from among themselves from whom the President shall appoint the chairperson, the law is silent about how reappointment is supposed to be done. 

Some Council members who spoke on anonymity over fears of being penalised said the NCHE officials do not have authority on how various constituencies elect their representatives. 

“How constituencies select their representatives, the NCHE does not have a mandate. Their role is to receive the name. The minister of Education also usually sends her representative to the NCHE but no one knows which procedure she uses to select that person,” one of the Council members said. 

Another Council member said the bad blood between Prof Okwakol and Prof Katunguka started last year in October during the Council meeting when Prof Katunguka inquired how the secretariat spends its funds. 

“Prof Okwakol cannot say no when the constituency has selected their person. She is just working towards rejecting Prof Katunguka from coming  back as the chair because he tried to call her to order on how the secretariat spends the money and other things,” another Council member said. 

Meanwhile, the Council members have accused Prof Okwakol of calling for a Council meeting irregularly and leaving out some members. 

The sources said the ED called for the meeting on July 10, which they said was supposed to be called by the chairperson or the vice chairperson in the absence of the chair.

“The routine Council meeting was supposed to be conducted in August but we were shocked when the ED called for an extraordinary meeting when she does not have the mandate. We suspect she has her agenda since her term is expiring in July. Why did she even leave out some Council members?” a source said.
 
Prof Katunguka speaks out
When contacted, Prof Katunguka said Prof Okwakol notified Council members that he is not a member or the chair of the Council despite the correspondence regarding his nomination to continue representing senates of public universities on the Council, as supported by Dr James Nkata, vice vhair of the Forum of Public Universities. 

Prof Katunguka said Section 7 of The Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act outlines the composition of NCHE, including vice chancellors and senates of both private and public universities, students, and religious organisations, but it does not specify the procedure for identifying these members. 

“Representatives are sent to the Council by their respective organisations, and Prof Okwakol has no role in this process. Dr Nkata has emphasised that I remain the nominee to represent senates of public universities, and this will not change. The executive director should stop interfering with these constituencies and trying to influence Council membership,” Prof Katunguka said. 

Prof Katunguka also said the law specifies how the chair of NCHE is appointed but not how the contract is renewed. 

He said he wrote to both the minister of Education, and President Museveni, requesting for the renewal of his contract and the two did not object.

“The renewal of the NCHE chair’s contract is handled by the President and does not follow the initial appointment process. This was the case for previous chairpersons, Prof Fredrick Kayanja and Prof Pen Mogi, setting a precedent,” Prof Katunguka said. 

“The conduct of Prof Okwakol is not surprising, given the many complaints against her from Council staff,” he added.  

Prof Katunguka said a four-member ad hoc committee was set up by the Council to investigate the complaints, and their report was shared with all Council members.  

The report, dated February 26, 2024, was sent back to Prof Katunguka, then chairman of the Council. 

“These issues arise as I work to ensure adherence to procedures and guidelines. Prof Okwakol seems to want to usurp all Council powers, a conduct that must end for the sake of our higher education system,” Prof Katunguka noted.

Education ministry
Whereas Monitor could not independently address the complaints labelled against her, Prof Okwakol said the issues are at the presidential and ministerial level so she could not comment on them. 

“These issues are before the President and the Minister. People have their motives and I will not indulge,” Prof Okwakol said on Monday.

Dr Denis Mugimba, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education, said he was aware of the two letters from the First Lady’s Office and President Museveni reappointing Prof Katunguka, but said he was not aware of Prof Okwakol rejecting the reappointment.

Attorney General’s view
Mr Kiryowa Kiwanuka, the Attorney General,  on Monday said the appointment of the Council chair is done by the President on the advice of the National Council of the NCHE, which recommends two names. 

“If the law does not set out the procedures for reappointment, you follow what exists,” he said. 

Composition of the Council
1. A chairperson of the National Council.

2. A vice chairperson of the National Council

3. One representative of the vice chancellors of public universities, elected from among themselves.

4. One representative of the vice chancellors of private universities, elected from among themselves.

5. One representative of private universities’ senates, elected from among themselves

6. Two students, one representing university students and one representing tertiary institutions students, with one of them being female.

7. Four members of religious non-degree awarding institutions, appointed by the minister. 

8. Three representatives, one each from the commerce, industry, and agricultural sectors.

9. Four persons representing other sectors of higher education, at least one of whom shall be a woman, and one person with a disability, appointed by the minister.

10. The officer-in-charge of higher education or their representative from the ministry responsible for education.

11. The executive director.

12.  One person from the public, appointed by the National Council. 

The law does not spell out the procedures for how the above representatives must be appointed.