The ongoing student demonstration at Makerere University over tuition increment has created its fair share of student heroes and heroines, or villains depending on the side one falls.
Dubbed Fees Must Fall, the compelling aspect is that SIPERIA MOLLIE SAASIRAABO, a female student, mobilized the protest while ABBAS LUYOMBO, a disabled colleague, coordinated it.
Roy Rugumayo and Frank Bwambale delve into what drives them to the extreme in spite of the huge risks involved. In the ongoing demonstration at Makerere University, there has been a shift from the traditional leadership norm.
Oftentimes, it is the strong, physical young men who lead from the front to express their dissatisfaction but this time, it was a group of female students that kick-started it on October 22.
At the centre of it all is Siperia, a 23-year-old Industrial and Organizational Psychology student who earlier in the day led fellow female students to display placards against the 15 per cent cumulative tuition increment at the main entrance.
Later footage of police arresting her became symbolic to the student protests yet this was not the first time for Siperia to keep the university administration on tenterhooks. In January, she led the Makerere University students to stand in solidarity with staff and students that were suspended by the administration and in one moment of solidarity with Dr Deus Kamunyu, the then suspended MUASA chairman, Siperia played down the administration’s move as an infringement to the freedom of expression.
“We are serving this cake to the professor [Kamunyu] and to all people that have had these suspensions. We are saying that a suspension is simply a piece of cake,” she said.
Having known Siperia for nearly three years, I feel the necessity to throw more light on her personality and beliefs. The last born in a family of 19 children, Siperia has been an orphan since her seventh birthday.
She went to Kiswa primary school and Kanyabwanga SS in Mitooma district. She emerged top of her O-level class and joined Bweranyangi Girls on a BRAC foundation scholarship. At A-level, she attained maximum points to emerge as one of the top-performing students in 2016, a feat that caught the attention of the MasterCard Foundation scholarship-awarding committee.
The New York-based charity pays for Siperia’s full tuition and accommodation, a laptop to facilitate her research, monthly stipend of Shs 800,000 and medical insurance cover worth Shs 150 million renewable annually, among other benefits. In spite of those privileges in an increasingly selfish and cynical world, Siperia instead chose to showcase the plight of her less-privileged colleagues.
“We couldn’t have wished for a better protest leader to champion our cause yet she is not directly affected,” said a law student who preferred anonymity for fear of consequences from the administration. “She is atoning for the faults of the previous guild that gullibly consented to the increment.”
Her concern for the general good compelled her to rise up together with her colleagues in the female caucus of the 85th Makerere Students Guild against the new tuition policy that she believes threatens to deprive thousands of her peers from attaining the highest educational standard possible.
It is a uniquely personal and unquenchable craving for justice. Rather than wallow in perpetual grief and self-pity as an orphan, or bask in the glory of recent gifts and accolades, Siperia has constantly gone out of her way to fulfill her potential and break barriers to improve the condition of the girl-child.
During her O-level at Kanyabwanga SS, Siperia beat A-level candidates to become the head girl. At Bweranyangi Girls, she was the dormitory captain for senior one and senior two students in order to protect them against bullying.
At Makerere University, her classmates know her for always rallying them to collect tuition balances for their less fortunate colleagues in crunch time. She is the Makerere University campus director of the Millennium Fellowship, a UN programme aimed at mobilizing youth globally for the the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In her second year, Siperia was elected as a representative of the school of psychology in the Guild Representative Council [the students’ parliament]. She is also the chairperson of the female caucus in the students’ parliament, and it is in this capacity that the mantle was bestowed upon her to draw a line in the sand and lead the female students of the 85th guild in a peaceful protest against what they call an “unthoughtful, selfish, inconsiderate and uncalled-for” tuition increment policy.
In a hard-hitting official communication of the female caucus that Siperia signed off on October 19, she makes an impassioned plea for the impugned policy to be recast so as to include the rights and interests of the girl-child, the single mother, the street vendor, and many other parents who sleep on a hungry stomach because they have to send their gifted children to the university with paltry installments of tuition just so the family can get at least one educated person.
“Of those that sat to pass this policy, who knows what a single mother goes through to raise only Shs 50,000 which now only equates to a surcharge for delayed tuition payment? Do they even know how many girls ‘sell’ their bodies so as to complete campus? Do they?” Siperia wondered.
This patriotic impassioned appeal was considered an intolerable attack on the university administration. Siperia and her co-protestors were also arrested and detained at Wandegeya Divisional police station.
Meanwhile, the administration reacted further by issuing Siperia a suspension and recalling her from the National Students’ Council of the Uganda National Students’ Association, where the Makerere University students’ parliament had sent her as its delegate.
Colleagues who marched arm-in-arm with her, literally facing down the barrel of the gun at the main gate, were issued warning letters.
PAYING THE PRICE
At 7pm on Wednesday, October 23, the Fees Must Fall protest leader appeared on NTV where she expressed worry due to threatening text and WhatsApp messages issued to her by the Makerere University vice chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe.
These messages, she said, would be valuable incriminating evidence in her pursuit of justice against unfair suspension. Later that evening, she informed some of her colleagues that she was being trailed by unknown men at Complex hall inside the university.
For over an hour thereafter, Mollie’s whereabouts were unknown to anyone until she was discovered by another student about two kilometers away from the university in Kasubi, a dormitory town for students. But Siperia does not reside in Kasubi. She was delirious. Her clothes were covered in mud, and her phone was missing.
By press time, even with the best emergency intensive medical care paid for by her tuition sponsor, The MasterCard Foundation, Siperia remains in a poor condition. When news of Siperia suspension and abduction went viral, many condemned the brutish Makerere University administration for the barbaric acts against the ‘girl’, a harmless ‘woman’ and defenseless ‘student leader’.
Clearly, the nation knows very little about its latest female victim of abduction and sexual assault.
Incidentally, Siperia’s activism transcends the university and the Fees Must Fall protest. Her Facebook page shows her as the convener of a social enterprise known as Women of Lead (WoL). This group visits schools of deprived and disabled children to inspire the youngsters to remain in school and ‘fight on to the very end’.
Having witnessed firsthand the hardships girls go through due to menstruation and related challenges, at the beginning of the year, Siperia steered WoL volunteers and benefactors to collect and distribute pads to needy schoolgirls.
The group’s latest project is ‘Sew A Pad’. The initiative aims at skilling girls in the making of their own sanitary towels using widely available materials. If Superia successfully recovers from the current ordeal, she is expected to represent Uganda in the Mandela Washington Fellowship class of 2020.
It remains to be seen how she recoups but Siperia’s fearlessness has catapulted her to become the unlikely student hero leading Makerere’s Fees Must Fall strike.
Visually-impaired Luyombo defies odds to lead from the front
By Frank Bwambale
It was the sort of footage that drew ire on social media and defined the student demonstration against tuition increment: a suited-up blind student speaking in rebuke as he addressed the media about the plight of his colleagues. Moments later, police swings in action to arrest him but the now helpless student gets shielded by colleagues to thwart police’s efforts.
This is 22-year-old Abbas Luyombo, a visually-impaired third-year law student who doubles as the Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister in the students’ guild. Luyombo’s is all the more remarkable because he is a government-sponsored student but he says he cannot sit back as the future of less privileged students is put into doubt.
“I was encouraged to be part of the cause because I saw a lot of wrong things taking course. I couldn’t wait to be affected as an individual; so, I had to join the cause. Today it is affecting someone else and tomorrow it is affecting you,” Luyombo told The Observer.
“Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. So, one has to come out and stand up for justice.”
Luyombo contends that it is risky since harm can be inflicted on him at any point. This, however, cannot override his belief.
“There is always a price we pay for what we believe in. If there are some values you believe in, things you cherish, then you must pay the price for them to stand,” he adds. “I knew and we knew that there is something possibly greater and if anything bad could happen, then that is the price to pay for the struggle.”
On the prevalent standoff with the university administration, Luyombo says the next course of action is the persistent push for the peaceful demonstration to express their discontent with the system.
“We shall go on till our voice is heard. It matters not how long it takes, what matters most are the results and that’s what we are pushing out for and we are not stopping till that has ceased,” he says. “I am visually impaired. I was motivated to join law school because of the desire to exercises and execute justice and I look forward to engaging in activism to crusade for global equity,” he concludes.
Who is Luyombo?
Luyombo has spent most of life defying odds after losing his sight at six years in 2003. He never lived a normal life since and he had to study in special-needs schools starting with Salaama School for the Blind before joining Iganga Secondary School, where he attained the maximum 20 aggregates before joining Makerere Law School.
Beyond guild duties, Luyombo uses his legal advocacy for the inclusion of people with disabilities (PWDs) in all government policies and also volunteers at the Uganda National Paralympic Committee, where he sensitizes PWDS about the need to use sport as a tool of empowerment.
Roy Rugumayo is former president of the students’ association at the School of Psychology, Makerere University.