Militant culture returns to haunt Makerere University

Makerere University students, mainly from Lumumba Hall, protest over poor meals in 2016. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Students are allegedly trained from their various wings on how to violently demand for their rights.

The night of July 14, will permanently be inked in the memories of friends and family members of Michael Betungura Bewatte, a second year student of law at Uganda Christian University Kampala Campus, after he was killed during final political campaigns for Makerere University guild elections.
The death of Bewatte only highlights the growing trend of violence that has characterised Makerere University guild elections for the last several decades. Makerere University had the first dose of strike in 1952 when students protested over poor quality of feeding.

Betungura Bewatti. Photo/Courtesy

While the strike was not in any way related to elections, it opened floodgates of other student-led protests that became a hallmark of the university.
Over the years, the election related violence has been aided by the formation of “military brigades” by students from different halls of residence. 
The university has a total of nine halls residence, including Africa, Mary Stuart, Complex, Nsibirwa, Nkrumah, Mitchel, University Hall, Lumumba and Livingstone. Each of these halls either form their own brigade or sometimes combine to annihilate opponents.
University sources say every year, new students are recruited and indoctrinated with ideas that aim at using violence to demand for their rights. 

The brigades include the Gongom Gun Brigade (GGB) of the Lumbox solidarity, combining Lumumba and Mary Stuart, the Northcote Revolutionary Army (NRA) for Nsibirwa Hall, Afrostone Gun Brigade (AGB) for Africa and Livingstone, the Rat Gun Brigade (RGB) for Mitchel that combines Mitchel and Complex halls, the MGB for University Hall and Garden Courts Hostel, a girl’s hostel in Makerere Kikoni.
Insiders say during university elections, every wing fronts a candidate of a certain political affiliation and are ready to “die” supporting this particular person. With such mindset, the electoral process gives ground for physical battles, which the students have embraced. 

Student says
Oremo Odwee, a resident of Nsibirwa Hall, is one of the victims of indoctrination into militarism at the campus. He says when he joined the hall, they were conscripted into a vigorous training in which they were tasked to be very violent in order to protect the interests of North Corte. 
The older students at the hall of residence have made it an obligation to fight for their dominance at the university. 
This culture, he said, is inculcated to first-year students, who  are shaped to think that they are the most powerful people and that no one can stop them from having whatever they want. 

“You find a student who lives in Mitchel does not want to meet a student from Lumumba... You find that when these people meet in the political season and all these halls of residence have their candidate, people fight on the basis of hall solidarity which is backed up by the different brigades,’’ he said.

Mr Gerald Walulya, a lecturer at the department of Journalism and Communication, expressed his worries about the hooliganism.
“A university is a place where you expect a demonstration of the highest level of civility and if you have such acts of violence then it presents a worrying trajectory,” he said.
Mr Walulya, however, added that what is happening at Makerere is a reflection of the national politics.

“When national politics become violent, student politics will unfortunately follow suit. So what we see in the university is not a mistake or an accident, it is a culmination of the culture of violence in politics and elections.  National politics is also violent, it is the same kind of atmosphere that is introduced into students’ politics,” he said.
“Unless we reform the national politics and serious solutions are devised, we are likely going to see civil campaigns in universities and schools. What happens at national stage is what eventually gets infused into the lower levels of politics, things may not be good even for the coming kind of times,” the lecturer added.

Mr Emmanuel Dombo, the director of information at the NRM Secretariat, also a former guild president of Makerere University from 1991 to 1992, blames the problem on party affiliations and what happens outside the university gates. 
He says in early 1990s, political parties were suspended under the legal notice and that their influence in university politics was very minimal.

“Back then, the political parties were in abeyance so even the candidates who identified with them did not stand for those parties much but presented ideas. Students at the time would be convinced by your ideas but not party affiliations, but now things have changed with the opening up of political space which also affects the university politics,” he says. 
Mr Dombo says Makerere must abolish physical campaigns and elections and instead embrace digital voting. 
“Makerere University being the centre of excellence needs to adopt this. For us at  the NRM secretariat here we even conducted a conference of more than 10,000 delegates online and the university can adopt the same system and conduct online elections to eliminate such violence,” he says.
Mr Dombo tasked students to concentrate on their studies other than be divided with politics.

Dr Robert Kakuru, the chairperson of the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa), says while it is good to have national politics embedded into the university politics, caution must be taken to avoid extremism. 
“Makerere politics is fundamentally influenced by Kampala politics. Any change in Kampala politics profoundly affects the nature and processes of Makerere guild elections,’’ Dr Kakuru said.
Mr Ndebesa Mwambutsya, a Makerere university historian, also criticised the involvement of youth into the culture of militarism and violence. 

To him, the problem is wider than the Makerere environment and says Ugandans need to promote the culture of civil competition. 
“In the short run, no more campaigns should be allowed at night. Each candidate should be given a campaign day and venue.  The university authorities together with police can set regulations and enforce them. Otherwise national politics will always spill over into campus politics,” he says.
Mr Mwambutsya says such issues can only be addressed when value is attached to education and critical thinking is emphasized in universities. 

“Unfortunately, this kind of student politics reflects how low education standards have sunk. This is the education system whose outcome is devoid of critical thinking and reflection skills. Devoid of empathy values because why would an undergraduate kill for no good cause. The outcome of our education system breeds zombies who don’t think and reflect, who lack civic competence to engage in competition of ideas and instead compete in hooliganism,” he says.

Some of the election related violence that have hit Makerere University over a period of time.
l In 1981, President Milton Obote banned the Students’ Guild following protests by students who believed that 1980 elections that had brought him to power were rigged.  
l December 1990: Student’s lead by guild president Norbert Mao reject a Ministry of Education-imposed Guild constitution. 
l March 16, 2010, police engage in running battles after a private guard shoots two students of rival candidates for guild presidency.
l March 25, 2010, students protest after John Teira of NRM party was declared elected after DO candidate Shaban Senkubuge was disqualified. 

In April 2015, a Makerere University student was beaten to death by students, who suspected him to be a thief. It was later discovered that his identity was mistaken. 
On June 27, 2020, Emmanuel Tegu, a third year veterinary medicine student of Makerere University, was beaten after he was suspected to be a criminal. He later died at Mulago National Referral Hospital on July 4.