On January 14 this year, more than 13 000 students graduated from Makerere University in Kampala. All were draped in the institution’s black graduation gowns, with their famous red and green trim on the sleeves. That the graduation proceeded smoothly was a minor miracle.
Just days before, the Ugandan company contracted to provide the gowns had delivered less than half of the necessary garments, and had told the university — one of the most prestigious on the African continent, and often dubbed the “Harvard of Africa” — they would not be able to deliver any more.
Makerere’s administration was furious. The management threatened to seek legal action, and were further incensed because the gowns that were delivered appeared to have been made in China. This violates the government’s Buy Uganda Build Uganda policy, which encourages public institutions to support local businesses.
Eventually, Makerere made a plan to provide its students with gowns — by recruiting local tailors and devising a system to share the garments — and the graduation went ahead as scheduled.
The administration really did not need the negative headlines generated by the “gown crisis”, as it was described by local media. It has been a torrid few years for Uganda’s top university — ranked 11th in Africa — and this is just the latest in a series of scandals that has put its management and staff under unprecedented scrutiny.
Two incidents stand out in particular.
Most recently, in October, student protests against fee hikes were brutally suppressed by police, who came on to the campus and used tear gas and live ammunition. This led to 11 students being arrested and others being hospitalised. There were also reports that police raided student residences, beating and arresting students.
Following the unrest, education minister Janet Museveni — who, as wife of President Yoweri Museveni, is also Uganda’s first lady — blamed opposition parties for fueling the tensions at the university.
In a letter written to the students — published on Business Focus website — Museveni alleged that some of the people who were part of the protest were not university students. “Therefore, I address this article to all our young people, but especially to those at Makerere University and other institutions of learning, to advise them to desist from being used by unscrupulous people who do not care about what happens to them now or in the future, and who will abandon them as soon as they have achieved their mischievous purposes,” she wrote.
The university is also being sued by the academic Stella Nyanzi, who says she was wrongfully dismissed from her research position at Makerere. She is seeking 1-billion Ugandan shillings (about R3.9-million) in compensation. Nyanzi is a prominent critic of Yoweri Museveni, and she is currently serving an 18-month jail sentence after being convicted of insulting the president — a conviction that has been widely condemned by rights groups as an attack on free speech.
But far from supporting Nyanzi, one of its longest-serving research fellows, Makerere has been criticised for constantly undermining her: first by blocking her from accessing her office — allegedly because she was not teaching enough lectures — and then by dismissing her.
Despite these controversies — and chronic overcrowding, which has been a complaint of students for years — the university continues to provide a fine education for its 36 000 undergraduates and 4 000 postgraduates. As it approaches its centenary in 2022, however, Makerere’s proud tradition will be under the spotlight, and these questions about freedom of expression and academic integrity will only grow louder.