On Makerere’s Suspension of NUP Students’ Leaders – David Lewis Rubongoya

SEE ALSO: EXCLUSIVE: Why Prof. Nawangwe burnt Makerere main building

Last week, Makerere University Vice Chancellor indefinitely suspended four students’ leaders.

Three of the four students- Mwesigwa Calvin Mugambwa, Bbosa Edwin Price and Katushabe Kenneth are all aspiring Guild Presidential candidates on the NUP ticket. The fourth student, Roy Rugumayo is the UNSA General Secretary and delegate in the NUP candidate selection.

The crime of the students was apparently trying to hold a peaceful NUP General Assembly at the University’s Freedom Square. The irony!

The students were violently arrested by the police and military which is now permanently stationed at the University, and then issued with suspension letters the following day.

It is extremely sad to see this going on at Makerere University, known in the past for its ability to create future leaders through guaranteeing students’ rights and freedoms.

I cannot list all the current and past leaders who were involved in guild politics at Makerere and went on to become national leaders. All of them will tell you, that never in the past, would a students’ attempt to hold an assembly lead to indefinite suspension. It is simply a high-handed, illogical and unreasonable decision that ought to be reversed.

As a former President of the Law Society and Guild Speaker, I recall that every day, students’ associations used to gather at the Freedom Square and hold their meetings or assemblies without issue. It is their right which is sacrosanct. It is part and parcel of the notion of liberty, manifested in the freedoms of association, expression, assembly and in this context, academic freedom.

How can university students be punished for holding a political opinion? It seems clear that the real intention behind these suspensions was to ensure that the NUP candidates miss out on nominations! After three successive wins of Guild presidencies, there seems to be every attempt to frustrate another victory for NUP/ PeoplePower. This is manifested in the fact that the few students who subscribe to NRM for instance, have variously held similar assemblies and processions without attracting any sanctions. The discriminatory application of the rules is questionable. It must not be the business of the University administration to engage in partisan politics in favor of one party against another.

Prof. Cary Nelson, in defining academic freedom states that the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs of politicians, university administrators, and members of the public must not be imposed on students or faculty. Likewise, students and faculty must have a right to challenge each others’ views without attracting reprisals or punishment for doing so. If students are deemed to have broken any regulations, they must be given a fair hearing and subjected to due process of law. (See https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/12/21/defining-academic-freedom).

Surely, suspending aspiring students’ leaders on the eve of nominations, without a clear date when they will even be heard cannot guarantee these freedoms. It is simply to punish them without giving them a hearing.

The critical question to be asked is this- has the repressive Ugandan state effectively taken charge of the country’s largest public university? You would expect a university to be a safer haven for rights which have been suppressed on the outside. If Ugandans don’t have a right to associate, assemble or freely express themselves on the outside, Makerere should at the very least provide a safe environment for the enjoyment of these rights. That is what it means to be a university.

The greater irony is that a few days ago, the University held a grand event to recognise former Vice Chancellor, Frank Kalimuzo who was murdered by the Idi Amin regime for suspecting him to be against the government of the day. One of his crimes was apparently allowing the students’ organisation- the National Union of Students of Uganda (NUSU), to flourish. The regime accused NUSU of working for the fall of Idi Amin. How can the same University, only a few days later, suspend students indefinitely for simply being opposed to the government of the day?

University students – more so at a public university, cannot be suppressed and forced into silence. This can only be counterproductive.

I have had the pleasure of attending and visiting several prestigious universities around the world- from Kenya, to South Africa, to Israel, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, etc. I have not seen any university which promotes such an environment of fear. Universities are always a boiling pot of ideas. Students usually have a right to demonstrate and express themselves in all manner of lawful means as long as they are not violent.

I have read the quoted university rule in the suspension letters. Although it is not applicable to the circumstances of the issue at hand because the students were not demonstrating, that rule is very draconian and unreasonable. It is unconstitutional. It requires students to notify the Vice Chancellor 24 hours before staging any demonstration, but the students must also secure permission from the police! Can you imagine this at a university? As it stands, we all know that Uganda Police under Gen. Museveni can never grant you permission to demonstrate. Effectively, therefore, the right to demonstrate for Makerere University students is non-existent!

Suffice to note, the requirement of police permission as a prerequisite to demonstrate has been nullified by the Constitutional Court in the Muwanga Kivumbi and POMA cases, and yet Makerere University still has it on its law books! It is scholars and academicians who should be challenging such unconstitutional laws and not seeking to entrench them further.

Therefore, whereas the suspended students were not demonstrating, even if they actually were, they could never deserve to be indefinitely suspended from the university.

My call is on the University Council, as the governing body of the University, to intervene in this matter and reverse these illegal actions.

As the University celebrates 100 years, the Vice Chancellor needs to make a conscious decision not to suppress the views, thoughts and ideas of budding, young leaders. It is at the University that these future leaders must find foot for their future careers. In some cases, they will make mistakes here and there as all of us have. That is part of growth. We must remember that the reputation of any university is not only based on academics and research. There are other parameters, critical amongst them being academic freedom.

Secondly, there needs to be a review of the rules governing the ability of students to assemble and associate. As all leaders who have passed through Makerere will tell you, if these rules were applied in this manner in our days, all of us, would have been subjected to indefinite suspensions or expelled from the institution. All of us organised activities such as the one for which these students are being witch-hunted. Didn’t we?

We may disagree on many things, but we should unite in ensuring that Makerere remains a bastion of vibrancy and freedom.

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