The name Vincent Nuwagaba is associated with controversy. A renowned social critic on social media, he has engaged in several altercations with many of his onetime close friends in the academia.
Prominent among them is his woes with Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR). Many have rushed to conclude that Nuwagaba has a mental disability and deserves all the troubles that have befallen him. Others have argued that he is a victim of mismanagement of MISR that Makerere University has failed to tame.
In the first of a two-part series, Sulaiman Kakaire digs into the issues, in part as a review of MISR after the 2016 troubles [which peaked with Dr Stella Nyanzi's nude protest] and, in part, reflecting on the management of mental disability in the country.
When you walk to any of the big offices at Makerere University and mention Vincent Nuwagaba’s name, officials associate it with disorder, chaos and destruction. Indeed, one of the senior persons in the office of the academic registrar noted that every time Nuwagaba enters their office, they move out.
“What if he enters with a knife. Please don’t even mention my name in your story. He will come for me,” this official conditioned before accepting an interview for this story. In this office, they do not want to hear anything concerning Nuwagaba.
For a long time, Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR) had the heaviest deployment of all Makerere University offices, with both black-uniformed and regular khaki police. All of these are guarding against one student, Vincent Nuwagaba.
Whereas there is fear for Nuwagaba’s character by some people, there are other people, who have closely related with him in the past who think this is not an accurate representation of his character. One such person is Dr John Jean Barya, a lecturer of law at Makerere University, who supervised Nuwagaba at his Masters of Human Rights.
“I supervised him for his masters and I have worked on research projects with him at Centre for Basic Research, but I found no problems with him. He is intelligent and that is why he can even write commentaries in the papers. He becomes uncontrollable when subjected to some level of stress and oppression,” Barya said.
Nuwagaba and MISR
Four years ago, Nuwagaba received a rare phone call from Dr Barya, who Nuwagaba claims to be his mentor and friend.
“I thought that this is like one of those phone calls. To the contrary, it was not. It was inviting me for something special. When I went to his office, he convinced me to join the PhD program. He said that I can be of better use to my country than by doing law,” Nuwagaba noted about how he came to apply and later join the inter-disciplinary PhD programme at MISR.
This decision required him to end his studies at School of Law since, as per the Makerere University policy guidelines, a student cannot be enrolled for two academic programs running concurrently.
“If dropping out of law school was the opportunity cost, I was ready to do it. I did an introspection and did conclude that I am meant to be a scholar,” Nuwagaba noted.
Nuwagaba could have been right to have assessed himself as a potential scholar since it is the same view held by those who have related with him since his childhood days.
Indeed, when he applied for the programme, his application was highly ranked for admission. Nuwagaba has a bachelor of social science degree and a masters of Arts in human rights, all from Makerere University. He has previously lectured at some universities including Uganda Christian University and Kampala University.
Basing on his application and previous qualifications, Nuwagaba was admitted for the academic year starting 2014. All successful applicants were informed in August to suspend or resign from any jobs they were involved in and prepare for the start of a rather intense PhD.
Loss of admission, 2014
In November of 2013, the MISR director, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, wrote an email to Nuwagaba saying that his academic fellowship had been suspended pending the decision of the MISR Graduate Teaching Staff. The email was not clear as to the reason why.
When the reporting period approached in January 2014, Nuwagaba also turned up as Mamdani’s email was not conclusive enough. The Academic Year started on a very heated note as Nuwagaba forcefully demanded to attend classes. There had been no official communication to him except Mamdani’s email.
It was around this time that extremely stressed Nuwagaba used all the tools at his disposal to demand his place. He became violent and MISR deployed heavily to deter him from accessing the premises. Then one day, Nuwagaba chanced Mamdani who had avoided him for long.
“He [Mamdani] told me that my scholarship had been given to a one Judith Ikiring. But, Mamdani promised me that I will be reinstated in 2015.”
Why did Nuwagaba’s admission get cancelled and was the right procedure followed?
While MISR heavily deployed and stopped Nuwagaba from accessing MISR premises, and indeed, his stress increased making him even more violent, throughout this time, Nuwagaba did not know the reasons why his scholarship was cancelled.
But The Observer has established from documents obtained from MISR’s Academic Staff committee that “he lost the fellowship in 2014 due to mental health-related issues he developed in November 2013.”
This information has legal consequences: What was the basis of MISR making this conclusion? Was there a medical report from either Butabika Hospital and Makerere University Hospital? We have not landed on any information to answer those questions, something that Nuwagaba says avails him a claim.
“MISR has not told me the basis for reaching that conclusion. And most importantly, they did not avail me a fair hearing as a person,” Nuwagaba said.
Prof Ben Twinomugisha, the former dean of faculty of law (now school of law) at Makerere University and a specialist in health and the law, told us that currently, there is no policy and regulation of mental illness, which has been recognised by the international community as a disability.
“What we have is an old law [The Mental Treatment Act] that not only uses derogatory and discriminatory language against people with mental disability, which is contrary to international law and human rights of people with mental disability, but it does not address the elaborate procedure before one is declared a mentally-disabled person,” Twinomugisha said.
When it comes to Makerere University, Twinomugisha, one of the leading researchers on law and mental disability says, there have been attempts to come up with a policy, although such efforts got stuck at Makerere University Council level.
“We have advised that there should be an elaborate policy and regulatory framework on mental disability. This is intended to cater for cases like that of Nuwagaba and others that go unreported. The idea is to have a regulatory framework that provides for a procedure of declaring one to have a mental disability and affording protection to such a person or what are the accompanying benefits for their welfare,” Twinomugisha said, adding that the policy, regulatory framework and implementation strategy can be formulated by a committee comprising practitioners from public health, legal and medical fraternity.
Nevertheless, Twinomugisha argues that MISR violated Nuwagaba’s rights.
“They did not follow any procedure and Nuwagaba was not heard. Besides, mental disability does not make one being denied access to education. The right to education is for all as per article 30 of the constitution and when it comes to people with disabilities, the state is required to make possible efforts to see that they enjoy rights like anyone else,” Twinomugisha said.
In the second part we shall continue with Nuwagaba’s search for justice and how his fate was almost sealed by the board of DRGT.