Kampala, Uganda | URN | As the fighting and firing of teargas at Makerere University scales down, there’s one voice whose lone idea was ignored as the University passed the now controversial fees policy last year.
It is this policy that triggered a strike on October 22, which has since turned violent, with a joint force of the military and the police personnel raiding students’ halls of residence and battering those suspected to be part of the strike.
Perhaps all this could have been avoided had Makerere listened to one lone voice, that of Marion Kirabo, a 23-year-old student of Law at the university. Kirabo, now in her 4th year of study, may not be a household name but she has been a leading voice on the “tuition must fall” campaign at Makerere University.
Kirabo was part of the seven-member Adhoc committee of students set up with the support of the university administration and whose report adopted and recommended the controversial fees policy. Under the policy, passed in July 2018, an annual 15 per cent cumulative increment was slapped on all courses at Makerere University for the next five years. And Kirabo says it is her mandate to fight the monster that has brought chaos in the university for the past two weeks, starting on October 22 when 15 female students’ leaders mobilised their colleagues under what they called the “85th guild female caucus”.
Their arrest and subsequent serving of warning and suspension letters from Makerere University, while in police cells at Wandegeya, catalyzed the fees protest prompting the army and police to respond with what the public has regarded as highhandedness against students and journalists.
With wide condemnation of the acts by the government security agencies, and the standoff between management and students at Makerere, Parliament has been tasked to review the policy.
But one would expect a leader who reportedly supported the fees increment, whose report the University Council only approved, to be concentrating on her books since she is a finalist, but this is not the case with Kirabo.
Perhaps, her activism and resolve against the fees hike and the resistance by the students at Makerere debunks the rhetoric by the university managers and police that the students participating in the strike are self-seekers looking forward to the next guild election, high on drugs and alcohol and being influenced by elements within the opposition. At least this is what education minister Janet Museveni and her deputy in charge of higher education, Dr John Chrysestom Muyingo, said.
The Fees committee
In 2017, Kirabo was elected by the students at Law School as their representative to the guild council (GRC). This was after she had served as a first-year representative to the Makerere Law Society.
“Being in GRC was quite tough for me. I was used to a group of student leaders at law school who built comradeship around our idea of what leadership should be. And that was integrity, transparency and working for the good of all and we wanted to be good leaders,” Kirabo speaks out.
In April 2018, the Guild Representative Council (GRC) at Makerere resolved to appoint a committee to investigate the financial burden of the university and find a solution from the students’ perspective. Five people were nominated to form the committee.
Members of the guild house at the time intimated to URN that the House nominated Polly Bandola, a representative from the Council of Hall Chairpersons and Obedgiu Samuel, a GRC of the School of Agriculture whose consideration was his record of having been a prominent strike leader code-named “Strike Machine”.
were Simon Peter Ssewalya, a law student who students say was nominated to the committee because he was “Godly and Prayerful” while Frank Kamukama, a Bachelor of Medicine student was appointed to the committee because he was a Guild Minister for Students’ Affairs.
For Kirabo, students say she was nominated for being one of the most vocal female student leaders with integrity but also for gender purposes. She was then in her third year pursuing her Bachelors of Law. Of the five members, only two were fees-paying students, the rest being on government sponsorship.
The team traveled to the University of Nairobi in Kenya, University of Rwanda, and local universities such as Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), Gulu University and Uganda Christian University – Mukono. The aim was to study and understand how the administrative structures operate and the relationship between the students and the administration, with keen interest in understanding their modes of feeding and tuition structure and how it is managed.
The committee members say later after their first meeting, the then guild president Salim Were, and the Guild Speaker Isaac Kwagala, both Government-sponsored students, were co-opted as ex-officials to the committee.
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But during the report compilation, Kirabo says she and her other colleagues realized that behind their backs, there were private meetings between university officials and the Guild President and the Guild Speaker and the chairperson of the committee, Polly Bandola. It was Bandola who foiled the committee’s initial plans of tabling the report to the guild house to have input from other student leaders before the report was handed over to university management.
At this point, Kirabo was “bound by the collective responsibility and the committee decision to settle for a 15 per cent tuition increment was sealed.”
She noted: “As you may all know, the outcomes of our actions stirred a wave of controversy, suspensions and warning letters as a result of other colleagues from the student community deferring in opinion.”
Because of discontent among the students, tempers were high between June and August in 2018 prior to the opening of the new semester as they actively mobilised against the fees hike.
In response, the Vice Chancellor, Professor Barnabas Nawangwe, suspended several students for allegedly threatening to cause chaos in the university protesting the 15 percent tuition increase while several others received warning letters.
Among the suspended students at the time was Obed Obedgiu Kwokuboth Jalmeo and Daniel Kituno from the College of Education and External Studies, Kassim Njalira from the School of Veterinary Medicine, Jobs Dhabona from College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Samuel Kigula from College of Health Sciences. Kirabo received a warning letter from the vice chancellor.
“It is at this time that I realized we had done a gross mistake and the University administration was bent to coercion, blackmail and suspensions to provide a temporary solution to their fears of action from the already agitated students. I likened these actions by management with administering pain killers for a chronic illness and that is why I resigned because I couldn’t accept the injustices meted on students who were rightfully questioning why fees was increased without their consultations,” Kirabo told this publication.
In her three-page-statement to her electorate dated 28 August 2018, Kirabo offered to resign as GRC for the Law School. At the time, she had fallen out with the guild speaker, Isaac Kwagala over his proposal to by-pass the GRC.
She insists that it was the GRC that instituted the seven-member committee to benchmark and had a right to receive the findings for further debate. Her resignation did not go down well the Professor Barnabas Nawangwe-led university leadership which responded by handing her a warning letter accusing Kirabo of issuing a “damning dossier” with the aim of tainting the university.
Prof. William Bazeyo, the Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of Finance and Administration then in his warning letter reminded Kirabo that her actions were in breach of University policies and national laws giving rise to both criminal and civil liability on her part.
He quoted for her the contested Makerere University Students Regulations Statutory Instrument of 2015 which provides that no student or group of students shall print, publish and disseminate or otherwise circulate any false or fabricated of any sort; and that a student who communicates using social media, and or internet shall be subjected to regulations of the Uganda Communications Commission.
In what was referred to as first and last warning to her, Professor Bazeyo disclosed at the time that “such mischievousness” the student leader was allegedly involved in required management to protect the brand image of the century-prestigious institution as well as ensure conducive Teaching and Learning environment for scholarship. She was further warned that in case she fails, ignores or chooses not to channel official correspondence through relevant offices in the University she would be guilty of insubordination.
Come Back Fight, Enter Kateregga
Frustrated, Kirabo says together with her other colleagues Obed Derrick Jalmeo, Gerald Oyeki and others sat and strategized to identify a guild candidate to support to spearhead the fight against the policy.
It was her closeness to the suspended students and those largely affected by the new fees policy that they hatched the plan on the next guild president. She says at the time, Management had compromised the guild president and speaker and the only thing they were to do was to look for a guild president who would fight the students cause. And this is how Julius Kateregga came into the picture.
Kirabo and her colleagues branded Kateregga’s campaign as a fight against oppression and suppression and restoring the freedom of speech. “I was the chairperson task force and thank God we got into power and because of the experience we had had from the previous guild, we are quite more careful,” she says.
According to Kirabo, the guild presidency of Kateregga was mainly focused on ensuring the reinstatement of all suspended students, engaging management on a more inclusive fees policy and ensuring students have space to speak freely about the issues that affected them.
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In their first six months in office, Kirabo says the guild focused on reinstating Obed Jalmeo, who was nearly a year out on suspension. She avers that after long months of dialogue, Jalmeo would only be reinstated after students threatened to strike.
Kirabo says the 2019 guild government, in which she serves as a minister for ethics, had done almost all students’ activities including organising for them parties, but students remained disgruntled about the fees policy.
In some WhatsApp groups, students had started calling Kateregga “KJ Events” because he was popular for organising students’ activities. “He had done all those things but the students were still demanding for this one thing: The scrapping off of tuition increment but he was reluctant to hit the streets,” says Kirabo. She notes that Kateregga was still rooted in dialogue which, according to her, had been tested for months through written petitions to the administration without success.
In all guild cabinet meetings preceding the strike, this publication understands that Kateregga was withdrawn for the strike. But a mini-strike had started at School of Education, where Kateregga belonged, and students’ tempers were already high.
“We clearly told Kateregga, you should hear what students are talking about you. There were moments when the guild president would not enter his own residence in Mitchell Hall because students had threatened to beat him up for not standing against the policy,” Kirabo says.
She adds that at the School of Education, Kateregga could only enter in hiding. “Students were like, Kateregga we voted you, we were beaten during the campaign because of you and this is how you betray us! Fees Must Fall,” says Kirabo.
It was at this time that the female Caucus of the students’ guild leaders convened at Mamba Restaurant located along Akii Bua Road in Nakasero where the plan was hatched.
Kirabo says because Siperia Mollie Saasiraabo, a representative for School of Psychology and winner of the MasterCard Foundation scholarship, was a “good street politician” she took the struggle passionately.
“We agree that Saasiraabo should do the write-ups for us so I think that is why the administration started targeting her from. Because most of the communication that came from our resolutions, she was the one communicating it through social media,” says Kirabo.
Kirabo and Judith Nalukwago, the vice guild president, took it upon themselves to brief the guild president of what was going to happen and requested him to come and stand surety for the the next day because they were certain they would be arrested.
This information has been corroborated by Nalukwago who says whereas the meeting at Mamba Restaurant was not entirely about the strike, the girls were concerned about the few females participating in students’ leadership, issues affecting ladies at university including dysfunctional showers in their halls of residence and the need to have another female accommodation by the university.
“At that point we were supposed to write letters to the Vice Chancellor about our grievances affecting the girl-child and oh yeah we also agreed to write a letter to the president regarding the 15% tuition increment. But already in students’ WhatsApp groups, the strike was looming and it was awaiting a spark,” Nalukwago says.
On Monday, October 21, female leaders started receiving threatening messages from university administrators urging them to stop whatever they were planning.
One such administrator the students mention is Professor Eria Hisali, the Principal College of Business and Management Sciences (CoBAMS), who was acting deputy vice chancellor at the time. “Professor Hisali called one of my colleagues, a guild minister also. He was like ‘I know you people are planning a female-led protest you must stop it, and if you don’t stop it we are going to turn off the cameras turn off the lights and beat you in the darkness of the world,” Kirabo says.
She says she too received a call from one of the administrators who accused her of orchestrating the female protest against the tuition increment and that that was not the way to do things. “She was like why can’t we dialogue. I told her sincerely seven months of dialogue without results was enough,” she adds.
The girls say it was disheartening that, whereas the protest was a unanimous resolution, the university managers singled out Saasiraabo who was simply their communication strategist and not the architect.
The next day, Saasiraabo was reported missing and later found unconscious, without her phone. She was rushed to International Medical Centre in Wandegeya and later Mengo Hospital.
That night, soldiers raided Lumumba Hall, a largest male students’ residence on campus, and attacked the residents indiscriminately beating students, including those with disabilities, as well as destroying their property.
This galvanized the students the more who vowed not to relent unless their demands were met. The demands were halting or withdrawing the 15% fees policy, reinstatement of their suspended colleagues and de-gazetting guild electoral reforms.
Asked whether they know the repercussions of their resistance against the fees increment, Kirabo says they are fully aware and that is why they won’t stop unless their demands are met.
Kirabo currently tops the list of 26 students that the university has given another warning letter as part of the university management disciplinary action in the wake the recent student unrest and protests against the Fees Policy. This becomes her second warning letter.
Among the students whom a disciplinary action was taken for allegedly destroying university property, injured fellow students and property for businesses operating outside are Frank Bwambale, who is serving his second suspension, Siperia Saasiraabo whose crime was protesting with a placard on October 22, Rogers Mbajjo Ssebiraalo, Derrick Ojambo Wabwire, David Musiri, Ivan Kyeyune, Seiz Mutatina, Jobs Dhabona and Simon Ssenoga.