I’ve been a student at Makerere University Kampala (MUK) since September 2004 and have experienced at least one strike for each of the five semesters. So, since I landed on this ‘Ivory Tower’, I’ve experienced students’ strike after strike after strike.
The most recent one, where the dons put down their tools and the students rioted expressing their desire to have lectures, has lead to the premature closure of the shadow of one of Africa ’s icons of Academia.
In my exciting time at MUK, I’ve been a resident of Mary Stuart Hall (Box), the better half of Lumumba Hall, which is the epicentre of any student uprising. Like our guys at Lumumba say, ‘We’re the watchdog – we fight for the students’ rights.’
While at secondary school, career guidance teachers predicted a lot of doom and gloom about Makerere University in particular. They urged us to keep away from all men who one called, ‘snakes’, ‘wolves’,…and the other warning was to get the first taxi away from Makerere at even the slightest rumour of a students strike.
Well, I don’t know about the first warning but as for the second, curiosity, the love for thrill and the snoop/scribe in me has always made me stay put in the middle of the fire, tear gas, itchy water, flogging and arrests. It has paid off; now, I can bring you an authoritative account on the way things work when we, read MUK students, riot.
I hope the police wont sermon me for a statement – this will be enough.
For starters, if we, the student of this great University (I still think it is great!!), have grievances like having our rights tripled on, overlooked… we normally start with diplomacy. The Guild President and her/his team do the talking while we wait, with ‘Plan B’ on standby. ‘Plan B’ is synonymous to ‘a peaceful demonstration to Parliament of Uganda’. Demonstration means riot and no, we never reach parliament.
Rule number one: A successful strike (that’s relative depending on whose concerned) cannot start at day time. Period. ‘When police are waking up, we’ve already looted’, one guy said.
Rule number two: whatever you do, never get arrested.
So, when diplomacy fails, as is normally the case at MUK, the brewing of ‘plan B’ starts at Lumumba hall with a meeting. Why? They have the reputation of being the hooligans and the geography of the Hall favours them more then the anti-riot police. (There is a convenient exit plus the police vehicles can’t safely park too close to the main entrance as they would be sandwiching themselves between the boys armed with stones and God knows what. Also, there are many shrubs and bushes behind it – a good hiding place just in case the police smoke the guys out with teargas).
What’s more, just a stone throw away, they have the readily available emotional support from the girls at Mary Stuart hall (Box), who shout their lungs out in support, from their eight storied tower overlooking Lumumba. Finally, Lumumba is near Sir Apollo Kagwa road, where there are several hostels which offer reinforcement from predominantly Kenyan students who have ‘imported chaos from their compatriots at Nairobi University ’. All those ‘advantages’ would be null without human resource.
You see, Lumumba hall has a culture of being aggressive in ‘fighting for the student’s cause’. In fact, if one of the members wants to be a student leader, it is a campaign strategy to be a riot ringleader.
To begin the strike, Gongomes is carried to join Gongom at Lumumba Hall (those are female and male metallic statues respectively, unique, symbolic and kind of revered in both halls). A bonfire is set and porridge is made over it. Of course, it’s not a silent sombre mood; there are jocks and singing of revolutionary as well as lewd songs. Where does the sugar and flour come from? The store. You either give them or ...
The girls of Box are invited but they normally decline. Occasionally, they may be represented by their culture minister, depending on the regime.
After the porridge comes the booze – cheap booze availed by insiders and those harnessing support come the next students’ elections. Soon, it’s daybreak and the boys are chanting while tipsy or drunk and psyched up.
At this point, depending on the ‘struggle’, events can take two turns. They either go to the eight other halls in the University to mobilise support – ‘gathering quorum’, or just kick-start the riot themselves. Of course, by this time, the Kenyans along Sir Apollo road have already been tipped off by the heralds who keep coming to ask ‘has it started?’ A herald, and not a mobile phone is used to eliminate error.
As soon as the response is ‘yes’, the new normal is to go for breakfast. That, in MUK riot language means loot breakfast for energy to perform. They break into the Guild and Staff canteens, targeting the fridges with their eyes on the booze, wines, and soft drinks because the bottles will then be weapons against ‘the police our murderers’ as one song goes.
‘Aren’t the fridges locked? How do you manage to break in?’ I asked one guy.
‘It’s simple, you just have to break the glass!’ he said.
They also target phone airtime. This time, they looted ladies’ panties and hung them along the fence of one of the canteens!
Note that the looting is simultaneously occurring in the university and the neighbouring commercial centres of Wandegeya, Bwaise and along Sir Apollo K. road and the police haven’t yet turned up.
In all this, there is division of labour involved. Before you know it, all the main University roads have been barricaded with a bonfire of burning logs and or car tyres. This is a tactic to delay the police and to let the public know that they can’t come in because we have issues. After that, it’s shouting and chanting for whatever the grievance, in eager anticipation of the anti-riot police, for the action to begin.
They used to come with sirens but now they know better than to announce their arrival. In the second last strike, they came ‘commando-style’, crawling, emerging from the bushes behind Lumumba hall! That coincided with the ‘Black Mamba’ saga at High Court.
That time, they starved the students of ‘action’ for a long while.
I remember that journalists were all over the place, and many of them, including a KFM female reporter was treated to looted Fanta! The news was breaking on all the FM stations from about 7am but the police turned deliberately delayed.
‘Where are the police?! When they come, we know that our message has reached,’ I remember one student fervently saying last semester. Well, the police eventually showed up at 10am and we engaged in our usual running battles.
I commend the police for smartening up and finally doing their homework because for the previous strikes they had acted oblivious the brewing of student riots. After they turned up at 10am and quelled the situation with their superior weaponry, they surrounded Lumumba Hall, and heavily bombarded with teargas canisters all night. That cut out the porridge and booze festival and hence moral. Effect?
The next day, other halls like Nkuruma tried to put up something but no one can do it as well as Lumumba. It was besieged for another night by armed to teeth anti-riot police. We lost a first year student due to bullet during that strike. The unfriendly policy of exorbitantly hiking the retake fees was suspended and Lumumba remained besieged for about a week. That strike ended.
In last weeks riot, the Police turned up earlier than usual but too late for students also started the chanting after the porridge and booze as early as 5am and were through with looting before 7am. Bayaye (ruffians) from nearby slums also took advantage and joined.
Commendations to Police Boss, Kale Kaihura because the police are getting wiser by the day! Our boys in uniform barricaded Sir Apollo K. road with tankers and uniformed men in single file, effectively starving the students of much needed reinforcement from across. What’s more, in MUK, students are thrilled by teargas and running battles with the police and Bwana Kaibura’s team seem to have finally figured that out.
They hardly used teargas, preferring to spray tear gas and itchy water which had no effect. One student, when interviewed on radio, sighted corruption, saying the water and teargas were expired as they were not irritating enough. ‘Where is our money going?!’ he yelled.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear students screaming, ‘We want more!’ referring to tear gas, and ‘Don’t go’ when police drove by. The fact that the police weren’t actively engaging the students who were hurling both insults and bottles robbed the riot of ‘action’. The police are probably unaware of it but it poured cold water on the fire and many students abandoned the ‘struggle’, finding safe passages away from the campus. The unlucky minority were arrested and sent to Luzira Prison. The majority are waiting for the next strike. Do we have to riot in order to be taken seriously?