Why Makerere University students (and lecturers) do not need or deserve special treatment
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The strike by Makerere University students over a 15% increase in fees, actually based on a recommendation by the Students Guild, has dominated media for a week. The government of President Yoweri Museveni, in its characteristic militarist fashion, sent in the army. A video of soldiers frog-matching students, kicking them with their boots and rifle butts went viral. This is the stuff that gives Uganda’s noisy elites an opportunity to exhibit their pretentious middle class human rights sensibilities.
I abhor the tactics used by the security forces and condemn them in the strongest terms. However, they were not surprising. Opposition politicians may scream their lungs out at such horror perhaps deluded into the belief that if they were in power they would act differently. Nonsense. Poor countries rely more on repression than persuasion to secure compliance with their demands. Thus regardless of the many changes of government on our continent: by electoral victory, military coup, armed struggle, popular insurrection, or death of an incumbent, the reliance on repression to secure compliance with state demands remains (alongside patronage and clientelism) the instruments of rule.
I am less condemning of these strategies recognising that they are not only cost effective and cost efficient but also perhaps the only affordable weapons of poor governments (and even poor families) in the management of power relations across time and space. In fact I have just been reading an interesting book by Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism, where he shows that poor families tend to rely more on violence than persuasion in dealing with their children. But let us reserve this for another column.
For now, we need to address the roots of the current strike at Makerere. The increment in fees cannot explain it. Our country has many private universities where students pay much more in fees than Makerere yet do not strike. Uganda has other public universities not paralysed by incessant strikes. Makerere University Business School (MUBS) at Nakawa is part of Makerere and regularly increases fees but its students there rarely strike. Therefore the issue at Makerere is not increase in the fees or even the expectation of students in public universities for free/cheaper education but rather a suffocating sense of entitlement.
Given its history as the only high centre of learning, students at Makerere think they occupy a unique place in our country, hence demands for special treatment. If government is unable to bend to their will, they hold it at ransom through strikes and protests. Thus to address the problems of Makerere University we need to strike at its gilded self-image as an institution with the right to hold the country hostage. This behaviour is not among students only but covers the academic and non-academic staff.
First, there are more students enrolled in private than public universities in Uganda. And they pay higher fees that are regularly increased to cope with rising costs. There are even more students enrolled in all the other public universities than Makerere facing similar or even worse problems. Such students feel aggrieved at their fees but do not harbour this exaggerated sense of entitlement to make them believe that their needs must be addressed – or else.
Those who defend this dysfunctional and self-indulgent culture of Makerere students argue that as a public university it should be free or cheap. But Makerere is not the only public university. The more critical issue is the belief that being at Makerere gives someone a special status above other citizens. The second justification is that university education paid for by the taxpayer is a right. A right is something enjoyed by all equally and cannot exclude others – like the right to vote or express oneself. To enter Makerere and benefit from free or subsidised education is exclusive. Therefore it is a privilege over which the country should not be held at ransom.
Makerere students and their cheerleaders in other sectors of Uganda’s public life need to wrestle with three things. First, why should other parents and students be excluded from the “right” of cheap or free university education? Second, why do students in other private or public universities, who come from the same income background and face similar expenses, not find strikes a weapon to employ regularly to advance their cause? Third, why should being at a public university entitle anyone to special treatment?
What we are seeing at Makerere is decades of indoctrination into a mentality of entitlement, victimhood, and grievance. It is a mentality that spreads across many aspects of our national life and is promoted by opposition politicians and by Museveni for selfish reasons – to win votes. This mentality has created a toxic intellectual environment among our elite. They want to get everything from the state for free or cheaply: health, education, roads, etc. and do not want to contribute anything in return. This was most evidenced during protests against the social media tax.
We have, therefore, a highly cultivated sense of entitlement without a corresponding sense of obligation. Many Ugandans want to milk the cow they do not want to feed. Many of them hide behind claims of corruption to abdicate their obligation to the state from which they demand so much. Citizens should always pay their taxes first and then demand accountability. There is also the lack of a sense of proportion to the resources available to the government to meet such entitlements that elites demand.
Many Ugandan elites – journalists, academics, pundits etc. support this dysfunctional entitlement culture because it places them on higher moral or intellectual plane than others, at least in their own estimation. It makes them feel they are championing the interests of the masses. Of course for opposition politicians, promoting a sense of victimhood and grievance among a section of the population is profitable as it brings them votes by projecting themselves as defenders of the downtrodden. For those in government like Museveni, giving concessions to such groups promises similar rewards by coming across as a generous father.
Yet this entitlement culture is economically counterproductive and socially destructive. It has created a dysfunctional dependency culture on the state, which the government cannot afford. Thus when these entitlements are not met, which is inevitable given the resources Uganda’s government commands, they create an ever deeper sense of grievance that someone else is holding the affected persons down. Hence the claims on social media that one’s success depends on the state rather than their own effort are suffocating.