The irony of Makerere University being anti-student activism

Student guilds have historically provided the training ground for the next crop of leaders and activists. Activism defines a university.

Indeed, colonialism’s reason for not establishing universities in Africa – but technical colleges – was the fear of breeding the next generation of anti-colonial activists. Between 1960 and 1974, students at the University of Addis Ababa led a movement that brought an end to the authoritarian monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie. 

Most recently, as the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa has showed us, student movements – universities more generally – are central to negotiating new regimes of power. Student activists – especially emerging out of guild politics – often ended as the new intellectuals and political elite: Milton Obote, Nobert Mao, Noble Mayombo, Olara Otunnu, David Rubadiri, Okot p’Bitek, Asuman Basalirwa, Ebaju Adeke, Charles Rwomushana, Nkunyingi Muwada, etc.

This means, there is something special about a university that encourages and motivates activism among its students.  It could range from their readings (Marx, Fanon, Soyinka, Césaire, etcetera) to their age group – in twenties full of youthful exuberance, and bravery etcetera. This then means, teaching and encouraging activism is a core part of the university.

But how did Makerere become this brutal and authoritarian, and self-destructive to the point of legislating against itself – against student activism, and staff trade unionism? That students and faculty can be brutalised and summarily dismissed for protesting against items they deemed unfair and unjust? How did we get here?

Academics at Makerere University with power need to explain themselves. They are now in bed making mad love with the merchants of the state. I will tell a story of one conflicted academic at Makerere, Prof Mahmood Mamdani.

Didn’t he recently label colleagues in Makerere University’s trade union, MUASA, a bunch of “regime change intellectuals”? Yes. His secret affair with his otherwise authoritarian contemporary, Yoweri Museveni, epitomises the crisis at Makerere. A deep NRM-blessed businessman recalls his surprise encounter on a visit to State House sometime in 2010 or thereabouts.

As he ambled his way through the corridors and lobbies of the president’s lodging, he found Mahmood Mamdani on his way out of the office laden with a sumptuous characteristic brown envelope. He was shocked to find Mamdani in these quarters for Mamdani struts his frail frame around as an anti-authoritarian intellectual. 

What was he doing here, he wondered.  Then the penny dropped after the businessman received the same envelope that he had seen Mamdani loaded with. Its contents were cash. A lot of it. The type whose sum is said to be estimated on weighing scale.

A year later in 2011, Mamdani would take the job of director of Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), one that – as Senate recently confirmed – he runs like it were a shop inherited from his father selling ice cream and chocolate. 

We all recall that upon clocking the age of retirement in 2016, Mamdani, by a presidential directive, earned himself another five-year contract, whose disguise for procedure is a story of tragicomic proportions. See, Mamdani wrote the advert for the job, which he applied for and now holds. 

Four years later, in 2019, Mamdani openly chided the university’s teachers’ union, Makerere University Academic Staff Association (MUASA), as occupied by “regime change intellectuals.”

The message – labelling underpaid labourers demanding better pay as “regime change intellectuals” – as was rightly understood despite subsequent denials, and obfuscation – was meant for President Museveni to come and intervene directly.  Museveni was meant to read the message as, “these men are occupying Makerere but their eyes are on your seat. They will soon be occupying the state.” It was such an ugly piece of writing.

As a celebrity scholar, who is also a convenience-cocotte-like friends with the vice chancellor, Barnabas Nawangwe, Mamdani’s bizarre dealings with the state tells the story of Makerere’s turn to anti-student activism and authoritarianism.  It is around this time that Makerere sought to outlaw student activism and trade unionism – with the suspension/dismissal clause.

The friendship that Makerere’s top leadership have with President Museveni has transformed Museveni’s fears in national politics onto the university space. It is as if Museveni directly runs Makerere. 

If the only real threat to Museveni’s presidency is student/streets protests, then any form of it anywhere in the country has to be dealt with brutally and decisively. Museveni’s surrogates at Makerere – Mamdani and Nawangwe and several youthful co-conspirators with power – started by legislating and actually dismissing staff, and students involved in any activism.

One fully understands this Mamdani-Nawangwe-Museveni fear, and thus the brutality at Makerere University upon learning that student protests against Emperor Haile Selassie in 1966 in Ethiopia started as simple campaigns for good education, and improved living conditions for the poor. Then the entire house came down.


The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd