Makerere University needs a Paul Serwanga statute now more than ever

I don’t know who Paul Serwanga was, except that he died. Which, honestly, you can know about anyone. I neither know what course he pursued at the university nor the position he held in the guild.

I don’t know if his parents waited on him that evening of 1976. I don’t know exactly where it was that he was killed but what I know is that, in the iconic descriptions of how brutal Idi Amin’s regime got, Serwanga’s murder sits squarely in the centre.

The story goes that in an attempt to quell student protests at the hill of Makerere, Amin sent his son Taban to carry out a ‘stop-and-resuscitate’ operation on the university. The papers then wrote, however, that the operation was conducted under the operative and watchful eye of the then education minister Brigadier Kili, a soldier no less.

In the ensuing violence, Paul Serwanga was shot and killed. The then Guild President Olara Otunnu led a strike that paralyzed the city.

Former UPC president Olara Otunnu (centre) was an active student leader at Makerere University who led a strike

In many biographies and works of scholars, this incident birthed the new and credible challenge to Amin. Students then like Kizza Besigye, Henry Tumukunde, Tinyefuza took to the bush, others like Otunnu and Oulanyah stayed in active politics.

In another world, Paul Serwanga would have had his own statue. It would have hang right next to ‘gongom’. It would remind the University administration of the adverse effects of violence.

There would be an annual lecture, possibly done by Otunnu, Mao or even a retired Museveni and it would, after 43 years, have had 43 different speakers, 43 different themes and 43 different reminders on why violence, particularly that of the state, has no place in an institution of higher learning.

But here we are.

Society breaks down and repairs itself – other times, the damage is irreversible.

The script from the one-week armed operation inside of Makerere reads like a horror script. It reeks of all the warning lights of state breakdown and bears the marks of the brutality Amin’s regime came to be associated with.

For those of us who were not yet born, it is also a new low to see.

By yesterday, at least 38 students were still in detention – despite a court order issued for their release, three students are still in hospital and hundreds more living outside the university for fear.

The repetitive cycle of violence is an indication to a university that prides itself in being ‘The Harvard Of Africa’ or Africa’s best research university to stop, reflect and generate knowledge on how they always end up here.

A Paul Serwanga lecture and statue might be the first and easy place to start.


This Op-ed was first published on the nile post and can be viewed here 


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