What began as a low-level intra-departmental conflict with his pioneer student of the 2012 PhD programme has escalated, pitting Prof Mahmood Mamdani against university authorities.
Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research (Misr), a department headed by Mamdani, is once again torn by conflict. Mamdani and the university are in conflict over Yusuf Serunkuma.
In his final year in 2016, Serunkuma disagreed with Mamdani over the administration and supervision of his PhD work. When internal negotiations failed, Serunkuma appealed to the top administration of Makerere University including the College of Humanities and Social Sciences [Chuss], and the vice chancellor. He complained about alleged “abuse of office” by the Misr director.
On December 12, 2017, the Examinations, Malpractices and Irregularities Committee of Chuss met to hear Serunkuma’s appeal. In his letter dated October 6, 2017 to the principal of Chuss, Prof Edward Kirumira, Serunkuma outlined four charges against Mamdani. These included arbitrary alteration of his PhD supervisory committee with some major changes coming in 2016 after the second draft of his dissertation.
“It is around this time that Mamdani added himself on Serunkuma’s committee and became even more powerful than the main supervisor,” the appeal letter reads.
Other charges include the mismatch and miscommunication between his main supervisor and Mamdani as director.
Serunkuma also accuses Mamdani of forgery. To substantiate the charge of forgery, Serunkuma claims he received letters from Mamdani’s office bearing the signature of his main supervisor yet Dr Okello Ogwang was unaware of these letters.
The student narrates that because of his alcohol problem (which also attracted caution from Prof Abel Rwendeire Visitation Committee of 2016), Dr Okello-Ogwang was lacking in confidence. So, Mamdani made it a habit to harass and compromise him.
In an earlier letter dated August 16, 2017, the student asks Mamdani and Okello-Ogwang to recuse themselves from his work. Although the duo conceded to this demand on September 5, 2017, the student complained further that Mamdani refused to work with the Directorate of Research and Graduate Training (DRGT) to give him competent supervisors.
Serunkuma’s confidence in his work was bolstered by positive reports from two senior members of his supervisory committee who continued to work with him even after Mamdani arbitrarily dismantled this committee in late 2016.
These reports were filed by Prof Abasi Kiyimba and Dr James Ocita. A third report was from a self-sourced area specialist on Somalia/Somaliland, Dr Markus Höhne from the University of Leipzig in Germany. Serunkuma’s PhD is on Somalia and focuses on the breakaway region of Somaliland.
The student requested for four interventions. One was that the office of the principal take over full administration of his work to completion by appointing new supervisors. He noted, “Prof Abasi Kiyimba and Dr James Ocita are my preferred choices since they have invested their time and energy into my project.”
Kiyimba had been Okello-Ogwang’s deputy and Ocita had come in to cover the vacuum created by Okello-Ogwang’s drinking problem. Serunkuma also demanded that Misr administration be directed to meet the costs of his continued stay on the programme.
Requested by the college principal to file a response, Mamdani wrote back on November 5, 2017. He never responded to any of the accusations. Instead, he emphasised his observations about the student’s project.
Among other things, Mamdani noted that Serunkuma had not spent enough time in the field and thus had to return to the field to complete the time required.
Mamdani claims that Misr students are required to spend 12 months doing field work. In his fourth year as a PhD candidate in 2015, Serunkuma did fieldwork in Somaliland, Somalia and Kampala.
However, there is no indication that his supervisors, Okello-Ogwang and Kiyimba, found his fieldwork insufficient enough to stop him from continuing to the writing phase in 2016.
Students at Misr are required to demonstrate good academic standing so as to continue to the next stage. Mamdani’s other concern about Serunkuma’s work was that the student did not have the language competence to carry out a project on Somalia.
Again, it is unclear how the supervisors let the student continue this far without pointing out this seemingly substantial challenge.
Appeals Committee recommendations
The appeals committee met on December 12, 2017. It was attended by Dr Patrick Muwase, Dr Gloria Kimuli Seruwagi, Dr Lyn Ossome (representing Misr), and college registrar Vincent Ekwang.
Dr Mercy Mirembe Ntangare chaired the hearing on behalf of Prof Kirumira, the college principal. In a letter written by the deputy principal of Chuss, Dr Josephine Ahikire, to the director of Misr on March 12 minutes attached indicate that the committee agreed with Serunkuma that Mamdani was malicious.
Thus, the committee recommended that “Mamdani should recuse himself from the work of the student.”
The committee was also convinced that Serunkuma had his work at a very advanced stage, and “proposed Prof Kiyimba to be appointed as his new main supervisor.”
On the language question, the committee directly faults Mamdani, noting that “it is a normal procedure for a researcher to state the shortcoming experienced while doing the research.
This should not be a point of reference to stop the student from progressing with the work,” the letter reads.
The minutes of the meeting were signed by everybody including the Misr representative and Mamdani’s deputy, Lyn Ossome.
When Mamdani received the letter, a source familiar with the issue said, he flew into a rage. He immediately demanded that Ossome withdraws her signature from the minutes, something she duly did.
“He also telephoned Ahikire demanding to know why she had sent him such a hostile letter,” the source said. After several backdoor negotiations, Mamdani wrote to the college on May 23 demanding that committee members be called back to revise their recommendations.
Mamdani’s sticking point was that his PhD students cannot be supervised by people who are not teaching at Misr, despite being Makerere University members of staff.
Note that Makerere University regulations encourage PhD cross-department supervision in respect of competence and student preference. Students are never transferred to departments where their preferred supervisors are based.
Intent on ensuring Mamdani got his way, Ahikire took the matter upon herself and called a meeting on July 5 attended by Mamdani himself, Ossome, Dr Badru Bukenya and Patrick Muwase.
On July 9, Ahikire wrote to Mamdani announcing the positions that they had adopted. The minutes attached recommend that Serunkuma should be moved to the Department of Literature since the student’s proposed supervisors are based in Literature.
Although the July 9 minutes claim that there had been close consultations with DRGT and the School of Languages, Literature and Communication, the Department of Literature denies that it was consulted.
The department met on July 23 and declined to take the student. Minutes from their meeting note that the student is registered for a PhD in Social Studies at Misr to which the department of Literature has never been a party, and did not participate in the discussions that came up with the recommendation of transferring him.
“There are many precedents in this university and elsewhere of students being supervised by people from different units, without the students being transferred to the units where the supervisors are based,” the minutes read.
The department recommended, “since the issue is one of an administrative and not academic nature, the principal’s office should directly administer the case and facilitate the student to complete the PhD in Social Studies for which he is registered.”
Makerere University regulations require that once a student appeals to the university to mediate between him and a university member of staff or unit, and a committee is constituted to hear the appeal, the student must be communicated to after ten working days from the time of hearing.
The Appeals Committee in Serunkuma’s matter heard a hearing in December 2017. To this day, he has not received any official communication about his case. Out of 10 students who enrolled for the Misr PhD in 2012, only two have completed. All the others fell off the programme, allegedly owing to complications with the director.
Resort to court
Serunkuma has now run to court challenging Mamdani’s actions, and Makerere’s acquiescence. A case filed in July is before High Court Judge Lydia Mugambe. Mamdani declined an extensive interview on this matter. In a short email to The Observer, he said the matter had been discussed internally.
He referred this writer to the director of DRGT, Prof Buyinza Mukadasi, who also declined to comment.
On July 1, a local daily reported about two students, Judith Ikiring Obore and Vincent Nuwagaba, who have also dragged Mamdani to court over abuse of office. Two members of the academic staff, Dr James Ocita and Dr Virgin Tallio, have also separately dragged Mamdani to court.