About 540 teaching and non-teaching staff of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) unanimously resolved in their joint general assembly to lay down their tools on May 2 citing maladministration. They agreed to maintain emergency services in the Faculty of Medicine and Security department.
They wrote a petition to the MUST Council chairperson, Dr Ben Mbonye accusing the vice chancellor, Prof Celestine Obua of mismanagement. They complained of deterioration in the quality of teaching, learning and community engagement as a result of the management decision to prioritise non-academic and administrative functions, which they claim consume the largest percentage of university resources.
The staff also noted that there has been unprecedented poor working relationship between the vice chancellor and junior staff. Dr John Emenyu, the chairperson MUST academic staff association (MUSTASA), says the vice chancellor only yields to pressure.
Among other issues the striking workers accuse the Obua-led administration of, is mismanaging university resources and setting up bank accounts without authorization by the university council.
They claim that illegal bank accounts have been created for Mbarara University Research Training Initiative (MURTI), Mbarara University Research Ethics Education Program (MUREEP) and Mbarara University Health Professional Education Partnership Initiative (HEPI) project funds.
“The vice chancellor solicited and irregularly procured M/S BDO Audit firm as external auditors to re-audit project funds, which had already been carried out by PWC. We believe this action needs clearance and recommendation from the office of the Auditor General,” the staff note.
The vice chancellor is also accused of ordering the change of signatories to project fund accounts - paving way for non-university staff to sign for university monies. In his August 28, 2018 letter to the university secretary, Melchoir Byaruhanga, Prof Obua proposed the appointment of Edith Wakida as a signatory to the Research Training Initiative project account.
The staff however say, Wakida is a non-staff member and doesn’t qualify to be signatory on the university account, adding that the university has continued to manage funds under structures that weren’t approved by the council.
According to the staff petition, Prof Obua has been drawing his monthly salary both on the government payroll and off-payroll, which they say is a deliberate scheme to avoid taxes. They say this is likely to expose the institution to financial loss since all employees are supposed to receive consolidated pay. In addition, they contend that the vice chancellor has continued to receive an irregular pay.
“Prof Obua received Shs 9,778,986 as part of salary enhancement arrears for non-teaching staff in February 2019 despite the fact that his salary was already enhanced to the top bar of Shs 15,000,000 since July 2016 as approved by the ministry of Public Service,” reads the petition.
At its 61st meeting under minute 9.2.11/61/2016, the MUST university council agreed to top up the vice chancellor’s salary to Shs 15 million per month effective 1st July 2016. The increment was communicated by the university secretary in his July 26, 2016 letter to his deputy to effect the directive.
According to documents seen by this reporter, the staff accuse Prof Obua of irregular transfer and management of project funds from the Grants Office to the Office of Research Administration.
In his August 28, 2018 letter, Prof Obua directed the transfer of the funds for Research Training Initiative following an audit that found the unit was under high risk due to continued poor financial management, incorrect entries amenable to manipulation and poorly maintained books.
“This will be reflected in the audit report which definitely will not give confidence to the funders regarding how financial management is handled at MUST. They (auditors) have strongly recommended that we must purchase QuickBooks accounting software to handle our accounts as a matter of urgency,” Prof Obua argued.
Staff say it was irregular to transfer project funds to another project due to weak controls instead of strengthening the projects office to sort out the arising issues. On March 25, 2019, Julius Atugonza, a finance manager in the grants office offered to resign from university service but staff want the circumstances leading to his decision probed.
“I thought I would be given an exit interview to share my unfair experience and conditions that compelled me to place in an immediate resignation and how best to run MUST Grants Office for the benefit of whoever comes in,” Atugonza said in his March 28, 2019 letter.
VC absence from duty
The staff are also up in arms against the vice chancellor saying he is often away from the university.
“We also request the council to look closely and audit his (vice chancellor’s) purported foreign travels in his alleged spirit of public relations of the university. These huge foreign travel allowances have escalated administrative costs relegating funding for teaching materials and equipment,” the staff argued.
He is also accused of not heeding to council directives, flouting the university transport policy, influence peddling and breaking procurement and disposal guidelines.
“Prof Obua has written altering his original terms of employment with interests of influencing his reappointment without following procedure,” the staff claim.
A December 18, 2018 letter to Dr Mbonye, Prof Obua expressed interest in serving a second term as vice chancellor. In the letter, Prof Obua acknowledged that while his five-year term of office was coming to a close on October 24, 2019, he was entitled to re-appointment without a search process in case council members were pleased with his successful performance.
“We have found out that the position of VC (vice chancellor) in other public institutions were only advertised when a search process for a new VC was necessary. This is therefore to express my willingness to serve as the VC of MUST for one more term upon expiry of the current term. I humbly request you to assess my performance over the past years while I served as the VC,” Prof Obua said.
In his response, Dr Mbonye disclosed that after seeking a legal opinion from the solicitor general on how to proceed with the reappointment of a sitting vice chancellor, the MUST council was allowed to assess his performance and reappoint him.
“Following the solicitor general’s guidance therefore, I am compelled to communicate to you this position and to inform you that it is now not necessary for a search committee to proceed until council advises otherwise,” Dr Mbonye said in his January 11 letter.
Flouting procurement procedures
Staff have equally complained against the numerous court cases arising out of flouting procurement guidelines and ignoring advice from technical units. They point to the recently concluded procurement process from the on-going construction of a student’s hostel and the faculty of computing and informatics block that were delayed by administrative reviews involving M/S Khalsa Development Ltd, M/S Steam Investments Ltd and M/s Yanjian.
“We strongly believe that the offices of the vice chancellor, university secretary and legal officer should have been investigated to the final conclusion to clearly understand the roles they all played in the entire process,” the petition states.
Adding that; “We were disappointed to learn that the university council opted to accept an apology from them instead of carrying out a thorough investigation and have final conclusion on who was responsible for the delays. This time, the university lost time in terms of project implementation however we could have even lost the money going back to the treasury because it was not spent.”
Council appeals to staff
At an emergency meeting between the chancellor professor, Charles Mark Lwanga Olweny, MUST council chairperson Dr Ben Mbonye and staff representatives at Roots restaurant along Akii-bua road in Kampala, staff were asked to call off the strike as the council makes consultations on how the accused persons step aside.
Staff representatives however say this is also wrong. They cite the university human resource manual, which allows forced leave in case there are allegations against staff, saying the decisions arrived of staff members cannot simply be trashed by the council chairperson.
“We are going to convene a meeting with the executive [last week] to see what to do. But basically members made resolutions to go on strike, sent us to negotiate their demands with council but we have so far got nothing tangible to present to people. To call them for an assembly will be just too bad for them,” Julius Taremwa, the academic staff association general secretary said.
Prof Obua speaks out
In a phone interview with URN, Prof Obua said the allegations levied against him by staff are devoid of truth and riddled with tribalism and malice. He told URN that he has never lobbied to become a vice chancellor of Mbarara University and as such will not lobby for re-appointment.
“Nobody understands their issue. Maybe they are playing tribal politics because if you are accusing somebody, you should have concrete proof to say this man has stolen this money, this man has done and mismanaged this and therefore he can go. So accusing somebody and yelling on top of your voice doesn’t make what you are saying right. They have not provided evidence,” Prof. Obua said.
He said when the staff presented their petition to council; it was made clear to them their accusations would be investigated through an audit, which he says is underway. According to Prof Obua, staff are trying to blackmail the university council to force him out.