How fight to keep Makerere in Uganda panned out

One of Makerere’s oldest structures, which is still standing, is situated between the College of Education and Complex. PHOTOS | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • When the colonial administration wanted to expand Makerere College to establish the University of East Africa in 1945, some Baganda land owners were against the allocation of more land on Makerere hill, until Katikkiro Martin Luther Nsibirwa stirred things up, writes Blanshe Musinguzi.

“If I may make a suggestion, before it’s finally decided to move the college to Kenya, other places in Uganda should be given consideration,” a Munyoro from Hoima wrote in a letter published in The Uganda Herald, a colonial government-owned weekly newspaper.

It was June 6, 1945 and the Munyoro was wading into a debate on the future of the Makerere College that was on a path to become a university. 

Founded in 1922, Makerere University is celebrating 100 years. In its centenary journey, the institution has gone through many critical moments. One of them was acquisition of land needed for expansion to cement its path to becoming one of the continent’s premier higher education learning institutions.

Makerere was an institution born under a lucky star because before it celebrated its first decade in 1932, long-term plans were already underway to expand it. The first concrete step was taken in 1936 when then Secretary of State, Sir David Ormsby-Gore, appointed a commission chaired by Earl De La Warr, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for colonies to, inter alia, study the possibility of transforming Makerere into a centre for higher education in East Africa.

The commission’s report set pace for infrastructure developed such as the main building, whose construction started in 1938 and was completed in 1941. But most importantly, it noted that more land was needed in the near future.

When the institution opened in 1922, its grass-thatched structures were concentrated along the western side (Bombo road), as well as the side of the main gate. 

One of Makerere’s oldest structures, which is still standing, is situated between the College of Education and Complex. Its foundation stone was laid in 1923 by Sir Geoffrey Francis, then governor of Uganda.

The land adjacent to Sir Apollo Kagwa Road—from where the university ground is located up to the College of Engineering—was in private hands. And that is the land which was needed for expansion of the institution. However, the owners, many of whom were part of the Buganda chiefs, were quick to oppose the request as early as 1938. They argued that it was a sell-out. Buganda Kingdom, they added, had already given the institution a lot of land on which it was sitting.

Detailed designs

The debate dragged on until 1945 when a decision had to be made. Between November 1944 and January 1945, William Newton, a British architect, was at Makerere laying out extensive and ambitious plans and making detailed designs of buildings that would meet the needs of the university for the next half a century. The plan covered the entire Makerere hill, including land which was under private ownership.

“He was much impressed by the beauty of the site, but convinced that the area now owned by or promised to the council is insufficient to accommodate a university which is intended to be the centre of higher education for East Africa,” a report published in The Uganda Herald of July 1945, reads.

The expansion plan and design were discussed and approved by Makerere College Council on April 11, 1945. The council had representatives from both Kenya and Tanganyika [Tanzania]. The two countries were also contributing financially to the institution’s expansion. It was the Tanganyika council members who thought that if difficulties of land acquisition persist, the college should be transferred to Kenya.

“A motion concerning the site of the college, introduced by the Tanganyika members was discussed at some length. This proposed that in view of difficulties of acquiring African owned land…steps should be taken to examine possible new sites outside Buganda, perhaps in the neighbourhood of Nairobi,” a report published by The Uganda Herald on May 13, 1945, reads.

The council admitted the possibility that the college might be forced to move for lack of suitable land for expansion, the report further noted.

Give it to us

It is this proposal that let all hell break loose, triggering consternation from the Munyoro earlier mentioned. “I have one place in mind,” he wrote, adding, “Now that the war in Europe is over, I think the Polish Camp at Nyabyeya, Masindi would be a suitable place as the site for the future University of East Africa.”

The Munyoro also thought “the name Nyabyeya College would sound more musical than Makerere College.” Nyabyeya being close to Budongo Forest was deemed to be a suitable site for the school of forestry and school of agriculture.

A Mutooro wrote in the edition of The Uganda Herald of June 20, 1945, in support of the Munyoro friend. The Mutooro too said thus: “Tooro, with its most temperate climate, would, with outstretched arms, welcome the college within her boundaries.”

Ham Mukasa, a prominent Muganda at the time, also wrote a long article in The Uganda Herald of July 25, 1945. He argued that it was unimaginable for Buganda to let the college go. He also appealed to the chiefs, peasants and the Kabaka to give the needed land for expansion.

The college’s transfer to any other territory whether inside Uganda or outside, Mukasa argued, “would bring upon us all, Baganda, a sense of shame and disrespect.”

He added: “It would be a confession of failure on our part if we allowed it to go…And instead of being praised and respected, we should be despised and looked down upon by all.”

In the future, he warned, time will come when the self-centred and narrow minded landowners, who were refusing to give their land, “will regret the decisions they made.”

Enter Katikkiro Nsibirwa

The picture, however, changed drastically, thanks to Martin Luther Nsibirwa. Revered and reviled in equal measure, Nsibirwa first served as Buganda Katikkiro from 1929 until 1941 when he was forced to resign over the Namasole affair—allowing the king’s mother to remarry a commoner.

katikkiro Martin Luther Nsibirwa

However, he was recalled from retirement on July 7, 1945 to steer a Lukiiko (parliament) that had been deeply divided since his departure.

In his first message after his re-appointment published on July 25, 1945 in The Uganda Herald, Nsibirwa noted that the kabaka’s government was going to recommend that an independent arbitrator be appointed to “advise on the price, which would be paid for the land at Makerere, which was needed for the expansion of the college.” In computing compensation figures, he said they would request that the protectorate government takes into account the future value of the land.

“I also think the protectorate government be asked in this matter of land at Makerere to consider exchange for land elsewhere if the owners so desire,” Nsibirwa added.

The Makerere land acquisition debate is said to have climaxed with Nsibirwa’s murder on September 4, 1945 at Namirembe Cathedral. This followed Katikkiro Nsibirwa’s arrival for morning prayers. Nsibirwa is said to have signed a law authorising Makerere’s acquisition of the land a day before his assassination after a heated Lukiiko session.

“A buoyed Nsibirwa spoke for hours in support of the law and, in spite of the stiff resistance of the Lukiiko, he carried the day…,” Mr Apollo Makubuya wrote in his book, Protection, Patronage, or Plunder? British Machinations and (B)uganda’s Struggle for Independence, adding, rather poignantly, “…but paid the ultimate price as a result.”

Mr Makubuya was referring to the debate that happened a day before Nsibirwa’s assassination.

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