Makerere University academic staff return to business today, nearly two weeks after a section of them agreed to suspend their strike.
However, as CHRISTOPHER TUSIIME & BAKER BATTE LULE found, not all is going as expected. The staff have now turned the guns on one of their own over a decision to halt the strike.
For many, a message emerged out of the blue, inviting the academic staff to an emergency general assembly in the university’s main hall on December 15, 2016. According to the registry passed around, at least 400 dons attended this meeting.
However, to those who had been following matters, the chairman of the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa), Dr Muhammad Kiggundu, had called the session to order to end the strike.
Dr Kiggundu was somewhat aware that there would be resistance, a month after the lecturers had elected to set their tools down, over arrears in allowances.
But if he had known, the Muasa chairman was unprepared for outburst from the irritated lecturers, when he explained that they were in the meeting to endorse a call to end the strike. Prior to this, a university council meeting had agreed with Muasa to end the strike once they had agreed to a one month salary and one month of allowances arrears.
“I couldn’t base my decision on what council is offering, it is belittling, unacceptable and a cowardly act to hold onto people’s salaries and manipulate them to make a decision that you want,” screamed Dr Deus Kamunyu Muhwezi, Muasa spokesperson.
“These are not the kind of people we can trust as our leaders.
“Many of them are self-seekers and they have no heart for the university and the nation.”
Several stood up to support Dr Muhwezi before he continued. “The only hope that will get us out of this quagmire is the visitation committee and the visitor of this university.”
But it was left to Dr William Tayeebwa to set the meeting on fire when he questioned Dr Kiggundu’s motive in insisting that they call for a vote on the motion to suspend the strike.
After this, the lecturers, by now angry at what they saw as betrayal by the Muasa executive, started shouting and later moved out. At that time, Kiggundu could have called the vote but was numbed by the accusations of betrayal and chose to call it off.
After this meeting, members took their fury to their different social media platforms; Mak intranet and on WhatsApp groups. A sneak pick into a thread of intranet conversations between the staff reveals accusations and counter accusations of bribery, arm-twisting and blackmail among members.
Professor Jacob Godfrey Agea, Muasa welfare secretary, described the December 19, 2016 general assembly as a betrayal and “the darkest and the blackest Monday” at Makerere.
Quoting Psalm 41:9, Agea wrote, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.”
This feeling of betrayal was also captured by Robert Byamukama who went further to state that the Muasa general assembly had lost meaning. Another of Muasa’s top members, Dr James Ocita, observed that some of their colleagues were trying to position themselves politically.
“A number of our leaders have betrayed us by using this crisis [our pains] to position themselves favorably in the eyes of the powers that be, for their selfish reasons at our expense,” wrote Dr James Ocita, one of the five Muasa members that were appointed as members of the strike management committee.
“A number of us have pointed this out to them but we’ve done this internally without fear or favour. I was disturbed that our chairman chose to ignore all this and, instead, chose to attack those of us who expressed dissent, as jostling for positions on the Muasa executive,” Ocita wrote.
“My position is and has been that it is premature to call off the strike. Part of the reason nothing works well in this country is that nothing is ever well-thought through, and we don’t seem to learn from history.”
Like Ocita, Dr Giregon Olupot, also spoke out against the way Kiggundu steered the meeting.
“I would like to suggest that we do not allow the Muasa chair and his deputy to chair that EGA [Emergence General Assembly] but that we actually appoint a neutral person to do so. They are top-class traitors!” Olupot wrote.
Fast forward to December 19, 2016 and a fraction of the lecturers – 134 were back in the same main hall to vote on the matter. Word doing the rounds on social media indicates that lecturers attending the second general assembly were selectively invited, with preference for those who would vote to suspend the strike.
According to Dr Muhwezi, the association has over 700 members but only 137 turned up to vote in the second meeting. Of these, 81 voted the strike be suspended, while 56 opposed the idea. But the result had infuriated even more dons, who again accused Dr Kiggundu of bribery. When The Observer talked to Dr Kiggundu about the accusations of being compromised, he dismissed them flatly.
“I don’t work by compromises and history will have to tell. Everybody has a right to talk but the truth is always discovered in the end,” Kiggundu said.
On why it was only 137 Muasa members out of several hundreds that voted, Kiggundu said this was a normal thing.
“In the Muasa constitution, it's only 30 people that constitute quorum; what we did was legal. Secondly, the framers of that constitution knew that you cannot have academicians at the same time in one place.”
However, James Ocita is unconvinced. “I didn’t agree with the meeting in the first place,” Ocita said. “In the first meeting [held on Thursday, December 16] the general assembly had spoken very clearly and our position was that council had not given us anything worth discussing.”
He cites a letter reportedly issued by the Makerere University council chairman Eng Dr Charles Wana-Etyem, in which he resolved that lecturers actually demand for five months of incentive arrears, and not nine as some had wanted.
The matter prompted Dr John Fisher from the college of Humanities and Social Sciences (Chuss), to agree with Ocita that it was real betrayal for Kiggundu to call a general assembly and push for suspending the strike because they didn’t achieve what forced them to lay down their tools.
“How could you call off a strike when there is no agreement on paying arrears for four months?” Dr Fisher asked. “By the time we went on strike, we were demanding incentive arrears for nine months, that is from February to October. Council said they only know from February up to June.
Why would you call off the strike in such circumstances?”
To Fisher, Kiggundu’s insistence on suspending the strike was improper as the visitation committee that was put in place to solve the mess at Makerere will now lose its rigour and pace of probing since the university will be open and everything thing moving on well.
Then Ocita raised what he says is a common sentiment on the intranet and WhatsApp groups for Muasa members.
“It’s not that the majority of the teaching staff were in favour of [suspending] the strike … but what is the point of continuing with a strike when your leaders are betraying you?”
But Kiggundu is adamant he has not been bribed by anyone to support the suspension of the strike, but deemed it necessary as an individual and with the Muasa executive.
“The visitation committee was very clear that for it to do its work more effectively, there was need for us lecturers to actually call off the strike; so, we had to give them a conducive ground for them to do their work,” he says. “As lecturers, we even know that you cannot use only one method to teach the same thing to students. When one method fails, you actually change to another one. The strike was not yielding any results.”