As Makerere University readies to celebrate its centenary in two years’ time, its whole life can be summed in one word – resilience.
It may surprise many who only hear news of Makereres (recent) student strikes to learn that the university usually ranks among the top five on the African continent, recently actually being Number 3. The high place in universal ranking is due to Makerere’s remaining true to what a university role as a knowledge centre of excellence through research.
But since its founding as a technical institution in 1922, Makerere has faced bigger existential threats than students-military clashes.
In the 1940s for example, its upgrading to a university was almost stillborn when local landlords on Makerere hill refused to sell to the colonial government for the project.
The daringly progressive Buganda kingdom prime minister Martin Lurther Nsibirwa pushed a forceful acquisition of the land and Makerere survived, to start offering University of London degree courses.
With a consolidated estate of 300 acres for the main campus and 50 acres for its school health sciences at Mulago, Makerere started its golden two decades to become the academic Mecca of Africa.
Those who passed through Makerere then and don’t need introduction include VS Naipaul, Julius Nyerere, Peter Nazareth, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mwai Kibaki, Ali Mazrui, Benjamin Mkapa, Nuruddin Farah, David Rubadiri and John Ruganda.
Less publicly acclaimed but very important are Makerere’s scientists in medical and agricultural sciences who over the years contributed to humanity through globally acclaimed researches.
A constituent college of the University of East Africa (alongside Nairobi and Dar es Salaam) from 1963, Makerere became Uganda’s independent national University seven years later, with its official name taking on ‘Kampala’ to replace ‘College’ at the dissolution of the University of East Africa in 1970.
Then military rule in Uganda came immediately after in January 1971, ushering in the worst decade for Makerere. The first Vice Chancellor of independent Makerere University, Frank Kalimuzo, was soon murdered ‘in style’, his disappearance and presumed death being pre-maturely announced on national radio before it was carried out.
He rang President Idi Amin who apologised over the mistake, and a few days later they came for him, never to be seen again.
Even in the dark 1970s, Makerere continued growing as an academic institution, awarding its first academic doctorate to lecturer – poet, now Professor Timothy Wangusa.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Makerere kept producing professionals who went to staff neighbouring countries’ social service sectors.
Makerere’s post 1986 problems since Yoweri Museveni took power are associated with the “democratising” access to the prestigious university.
Upto 1986, the total student population wasn’t much more than 4,000, all fully government-sponsored after being admitted on attaining very high grades at A’level.
Lowering the entry points started to allow more students to access Makerere and soon it became impossible to pay for all of them – though the government still foots a bigger part of the university budget. Numbers soared to 36,000 students today. Strikes over fees became frequent and the current one won’t be the last.
But all the same, we can say with optimistic certainty, that Makerere will not only soon celebrate its 100th anniversary, but it will soldier on to its 200th when all of us alive today will have gone.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. Email:buwembo.gmail.com