Researcher lays dispute over teaching bare – literally

Dr Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research or MISR at Makerere University, stripped off her clothes in public last Monday in protest against being locked out of her office. Videos of the nude University of London-trained medical anthropologist went viral and sparked a national controversy.

The drama that has engulfed Uganda’s oldest university in the past week has brought to light governance problems that have been simmering for a while.

On Tuesday Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s ethics and integrity minister, ordered police to arrest Nyanzi. If that had happened, under Ugandan law she could possibly have been charged under the Anti-pornography Act and, if found guilty, could have faced a fine or two-year jail sentence.

However, on Thursday Information and National Guidance Minister Jim Muhwezi told reporters in the capital Kampala that government would butt out of the matter as Makerere is an autonomous institution with the capacity to handle the matter.

A dispute

Nyanzi’s action followed a dispute with her boss, internationally renowned scholar Professor Mahmood Mamdani. He is Harvard trained and a prolific author who is executive director of MISR and a professor of government in the school of international and public affairs at Columbia University in the United States.

Mamdani reportedly locked Nyanzi out of her office because she had breached her contract by refusing to teach – she has insisted that her duty is only to conduct research.

Nyanzi undressed outside her office at MISR before the media and a crowd of students and lecturers in a protest action that also involved profuse swearing. She has established herself as a social activist who uses sexual innuendo to analyse political situations.

She told a television station she had rehearsed the ‘nude’ scene in front of her three young children. She was a single mother, her work was her only source of livelihood and it was under attack, she explained, adding that her children would understand when they were older.

When Mamdani was recruited by Makerere six years ago, he made it clear that he would change the focus of MISR from a consultancy-based operation to a respected research institute of global standing. He was offered the position on the basis of spending 75% of his time at Makerere and 25% at Columbia.

Under Mamdani the institute has built up a strong reputation and publication output. He spearheaded development of a curriculum for a PhD programme, which was reviewed by the college of humanities and social sciences, where MISR belongs, and by senate.

The postgraduate programme required PhD-holding academics to switch from full-time research to 75% research and 25% teaching and supervising. All over the world, he said, PhD students and post-doctoral fellows are given at least 25% tutorial or teaching load under the guidance of their supervisors.

University governance issues

After the Nyanzi incident Professor John Ddumba-Ssentamu, the Makerere University vice-chancellor, announced that a committee would investigate the matter.

Mamdani slammed the move, having concerns about whether the committee would come up with a fair solution. He said Ddumba-Ssentamu’s relationship with Nyanzi was compromised as she is a niece.

According to RedPepper, in a statement on Wednesday Ddumba-Ssentamu chastised Mamdani for provoking Nyanzi into her action.

He said Mamdani had earlier assured the deputy vice-chancellor that he would cooperate in finding an amicable solution to the standoff. Locking Nyanzi’s office “triggered the unfortunate standoff”, the vice-chancellor reportedly said.

Mamdani argued that if other lecturers had been involved in such behaviour, they would have been suspended due to “spectacular misconduct”. Instituting a committee was an excuse for inaction, he said, adding that double standards were being applied.

“Everyone knows that unless there is a strike or some kind of action, you will not get any kind of action from university administration. Nyanzi’s issue may be one issue but it is a sign of a much deeper problem,” said Mamdani.

Mamdani said he reported the issue in 2014 but it only gained attention this year, after Nyanzi’s stripping. “It is apparent Dr Nyanzi refused to take on the workload allocated to her by her supervisor, which is tantamount to abscondment from duty and insubordination.

“The appropriate university organs should have taken appropriate action when this became evident since the human resources manual is very clear on cases of insubordination and abscondment from duty.”

For his part, Mamdani has been accused of putting systems in place at Makerere that are of very high standard, ‘turning Africa into America’.

In a statement on Wednesday, Makerere University Academic Staff Association condemned Nyanzi’s action, saying it was also unfortunate that it happened while the university was “grappling with negative publicity caused by rape allegations involving Dr Chris Bakuneeta” – he has denied the accusation made by a Makerere student.

“We state, however, that these two incidents involve only two… out of over 3,000 members of staff who labour every day to educate and support over 45,000 students and perform varied functions.” The association urged people to see them as “isolated and regrettable”.

The Makerere convocation called for Nyanzi’s suspension, and for Mamdani to appear before the investigation committee, which was expected to deliver its report on Friday.