University to appeal Stella Nyanzi ruling – and 2 others

A win for all academic staff, and a stark warning to university administrators to follow correct procedures and respect its own tribunals – that is how several commentators and stakeholders are describing the recent string of separate court victories against Uganda’s Makerere University, involving two staff – including outspoken feminist and human rights activist Dr Stella Nyanzi – and one PhD student.

However, the university’s vice-chancellor, Barnabas Nawangwe, said on Wednesday the university is planning to appeal the outcomes of all three cases, and denied the university had disobeyed its tribunals.

Last week, Nyanzi was awarded UGX120 million (US$32,200) in a court case against her former employer, Makerere University. The Uganda High Court ruled that the university should pay Nyanzi for violating its own staff appeals tribunal by failing to reinstate her – as the tribunal had ordered.

The court said it was wrong for Makerere University, which set up the appeals tribunal, to disregard or circumvent the tribunal’s decisions. Justice Lydia Mugambe ruled that Makerere had an overarching duty to implement the decisions of its staff appeals tribunal and it was not within its powers to cherry-pick which ones it implements and which ones it circumvents.

Nyanzi was released from prison in February this year after being sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for insulting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in social media posts. After her arrest in 2017, Makerere University suspended her. Nyanzi lodged an appeal and was granted a reinstatement by the university’s tribunal, an order which the university ignored. She was dismissed in 2018 along with 45 staff members on the grounds that their contracts had expired.

Last week, however, Judge Mugambe in the High Court Civil Division ordered Makerere to compensate Nyanzi, promote her to the rank of senior research fellow, pay all her salary emoluments, and reinstate her in her job.

Waiting for justice

Nyanzi, who celebrated her 46th birthday this week, said she had been waiting for such justice since 2011.

While working as a research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Nyanzi fell out with Professor Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the institute, who insisted that she teach a course in a new PhD programme introduced in 2012. Nyanzi refused and when her office was closed down in 2016, she staged a naked protest outside Mamdani’s office, which led to her suspension pending an investigation by the university’s appointment board.

Mamdani, a world renowned academic, denied mistreatment of Nyanzi at the time and raised concerns in a video interview about the inaction of the university’s human resources department in resolving the impasse between himself and Nyanzi, and raised the fact that Nyanzi was the niece of then vice-chancellor Professor John Ddumba Ssentamu.

For all its ups and downs, Nyanzi’s case has captured many hearts and minds in Uganda.

Last week, people took to social media to congratulate Nyanzi on her legal victory, with some suggesting she has left a legacy for African feminists and academics.

“Stella's win is not hers only, but for all academic staff in Uganda. Her case will be referred to again and again in Ugandan legal circles. It should certainly make university administrators more careful with their decisions,” Dr Danson Sylvester Kahyana, a senior lecturer in the literature department at Makerere University, told University World News.

Kahyana said he hopes the university’s management will be asked to pay the UGX120 million from their own pockets because they acted in a “pig-headed” way.

“It was clear that the university would lose the case. In any case, they did not listen to the staff tribunal. So the university should not be the one to pay the money; the bad leaders should be held accountable for their mismanagement,” said Kahyana.

PhD student wins case

On the same day, Yusuf Sserunkuma, a PhD student in the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), was awarded UGX25 million (US$6,700) for damages relating to lost time and opportunities while pursuing a legal case. Sserunkuma was also granted a waiver of tuition fees.

In Sserunkuma’s case, the court found that there had been an illogical alteration to the supervisory committee for his PhD and that it was unfair for universities to force a supervisor – considered by the student to be biased – upon such a student.

Sserunkuma challenged the replacement of one of his supervisors on the grounds that he was a protégé of Mamdani. Sserunkuma had previously fallen out with Mamdani.

The court ordered Mamdani and the MISR to refrain from the administration, supervision and examination of Sserunkuma’s doctoral thesis.

In another case, the court ruled on Wednesday last week that the interdiction of Margaret Etuusa, the deputy academic registrar at Makerere University, was illegal and ordered compensation and damages of UGX350 million (US$94,000). It also ordered that she be reinstated to her position.

Freedom of expression

Nyanzi is seen as a champion of free speech. After her incarceration for cyber-harassment many Ugandans are afraid of using online platforms to express themselves.

Kampala lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde, who represented Nyanzi in her case of cyber-harassment, was arrested on charges of cyber-harassment and offensive communication in relation to Twitter comments about Director of Public Prosecutions Jane Frances Abodo.

Ronald Kakungulu-Mayambala, associate professor of human rights, law and peace at Makerere University, has argued that although the African Commission has acknowledged the importance of freedom of expression in the digital space and African nations are required by regional law to guarantee the right to freedom of information and expression on the internet, these rights aren’t always protected.

In Uganda the Constitution protects freedom of expression and the courts have expanded this to include free speech expressed via new forms of technology. However, the government continues to use domestic laws on electronic communication to crack down on citizens, activists and politicians who criticise the president on the internet, said Kakungulu-Mayambala.

Kahyana said despite the court findings, he does not anticipate an increase in criticism on social media.

“Even if she [Nyanzi] won 100 cases (so far she has won two big ones – this recent one and the high court's quashing of her conviction), not many people will do what she is doing. She has sacrificed herself and her family, so to speak, on the altar of fighting for a better Uganda. Not many academics and non-academics in Uganda are willing to do this, or may have the courage to do this,” he said.

“But of course there are people in Stella’s circle – the young students who kept visiting her in prison – they will be emboldened in their activism by Stella’s win,” said Kahyana.

Beatrice Lamwaka, the vice-president of PEN Uganda, said many Ugandans refrain from commenting on social media on political or controversial issues but are quick to send congratulatory messages concerning anything they consider safe. “They are afraid to express themselves in case they cross the line. They know ‘Big Brother’ is watching.”

She said Nyanzi has shown Ugandans that it is okay to fight for freedom of expression and for spaces to express our thoughts. “We can win and lose sometimes,” she said.

Unhappiness among academics

Meanwhile, at the university, there is lingering unhappiness over the treatment of outspoken academics.

“Staff who speak out on what is hurting them are traumatised by the lawless decisions of a few who don't appreciate intellectualism. They create us and sell us out as unruly academicians,” said Deus Muhwezi, the chairperson of Makerere University Academic Staff Association.

Kayhana suggested that Nyanzi’s recent court win did not mean it was now plain sailing for her.

“…The win is not conclusive yet; there are bound to be several other hurdles that Nyanzi has to overcome. Do not be surprised if it takes a year or more before she gets back her office or even receives the UGX120 million she was awarded,” said Kayhana. “Despite this, it is an important win for all academic staff in Uganda,” he said.

Kayhana’s words of caution seem apt given the vice-chancellors’ stated intention to appeal the outcomes of all three cases.

University responds

In a response to University World News on Wednesday, Vice-Chancellor Nawangwe denied that the university refused to obey the tribunals.

In the case of Nyanzi, he said, the institution has a strong case because her contract had expired so they cannot reinstate her in a job with no contract.

In the case of Sserunkuma, Nawangwe said the authority to run academic programmes remains with the senate, not the students, who are not allowed to select their supervisors.

In the case of Etuusa, he said the judge confused the two cases because Etuusa had two separate cases in a civil and a criminal court.