Columnist Yusuf Serunkuma has in two recent articles asked an important but rhetorical question: what’s wrong with Makerere University? This is the wrong question. It basically puts the cart before the horse. The proper question is what has gone wrong with Uganda. A lot has.
Makerere is a microcosm of Uganda. It mirrors the country in many ways. It carries both the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly, inspiration and desperation, merit and mediocrity. At Makerere, there is both fidelity to high values and kowtowing to depravity, there is both serenity and messiness, intellectual richness and poverty of imagination.
There are faculty members who unfailingly stick to professional excellence and those who abuse their authority, whether scholarly or administrative. You have employees who struggle to get along financially and many who earn handsomely.
There is both innovation and decay. You will find flashes of scholarly excellence and deepening of decadence. In recent years there is a sense that things might be actually deteriorating quite rapidly and pushing the university more in the direction of decay than development, regress not progress.
For one, there is little that comes out of Makerere to address critical national socio-political questions. There is scarce sustained engagement with lifting public debate and asking the tough questions.
Uganda has countless universities. But strictly speaking, it’s Makerere that comes close to being a true national university in the different facets expected of a university including intellectual vitality and academic freedom.
In recent years, however, the leadership at Makerere appear to have turned on running a university like a secondary school. As a country, we have an utter failure of appreciating the essence of a university – as a place for pursuing knowledge and intellectual development.
This necessarily makes a university the site for critical knowledge production and free exchange of ideas, which includes speech and expression that would be considered offensive and unacceptable at other institutional sites especially in government and the private sector.
At the societal level, we generally don’t value ideas; so, we don’t regard highly the necessity of a university as space for exploration and new thinking. We generally have the knack for finding quick fixes and easy solutions. We don’t want to be bothered by abstract ideas and ‘useless’ theories.
Students attending Makerere want to acquire technical skills without being bothered with deep learning. The public wants graduates who have handy skills that are instantaneously and mechanically applicable. Government officials, starting with the ruler in chief, want the university to abolish ‘useless’ courses in the humanities and concentrate on sciences.
In this misconstruing of the role of the university and distorting the value of education, not to mention research, you get the egregious assaults and desecration that have been directed at Makerere for far too long but now seem to be getting renewed acceleration.
Makerere was for long one of the very few still standing, independent national public institutions, worth talking about, along with the Bank of Uganda. The recent probe into the central bank has exposed the decay that we know all too well is the hallmark of the entire public sector. What about Makerere?
The Museveni regime has never had a congenial relationship with Makerere. But attempts to capture and stifle it have tended to fail largely because of the failure to find a vice-chancellor who is pliant enough and can read from the same authoritarian hymn book as the rulers.
The recent appointments to the university council, the topmost decision-making body, may presage the possible capture of Makerere unless an assertive and independent-minded vice-chancellor stays the course of predecessors. At the present, there are ominous signs.
If Makerere eventually goes down like the rest of the country, there will be little surprises. We are a captive society, captured by mafia-like leadership, and at the mercy of cabals hungry for personal profiteering and greedy accumulation.
In this state of capture, there is no room for merit in public office; rather, it’s nepotism, cronyism and corruption that mediate actions and activities in the public sector. The rulers and the different groups lined-up around coercive and financial power have no interest in a functional university because such an institution neither serves their needs nor comports with their pursuits.
Instead, the university is antithetical to the status of the rulers and all who profit from the system if it is left to function properly by producing properly educated and adequately trained citizens.
The current stand-off between the university administration and staff is only symptomatic of a much larger problem. The vice-chancellor remains adamant he is implementing university policy and assuring discipline. This would make a lot of sense only if there was consistence and strict adherence to all university rules and policies.
Yet, in the same way, Uganda is a country where certain individuals are presumed above the law and certain groups of people can get away with wrongs acts, Makerere is trapped in the selective application of rules because of the stakes at play.
To turn around things will require liberating the country from capture and having people in charge of a university who value its core role in society.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.