The man who actualized Makerere: The Nsibirwa Story in Makerere’s long Journey

“The proposal for the acquisition of more land was supported solely by Serwano Kulubya, who, like Nsibirwa, saw education as the cornerstone for the country’s transformation. His insistence on novel ideas made him a target of attacks in the Buganda Lukiiko, and again, like Nsibirwa before him, he was forced to resign over the January 1945 protests.”

On the 6th of May, 2022, Makerere University inaugurated the Annual Nsibirwa Public Lecture. The lecture series is meant to celebrate the lives of personalities that have been instrumental in the transformation of Makerere in the last a hundred years. This particular lecture pays homage to the man that gave Makerere a footing and ensured its existence within the labyrinth of colonial-era geopolitics. 

Like the Keynote speaker at the event, the current Katikkiro of Buganda, Owek. Charles Peter Mayiga succinctly put it, Nsibirwa was a man who served his nation with distinction and who laid down his life in the pursuit of public service and the advancement of the people of Buganda, Uganda and East Africa at large.

The Katikkiro of Buganda, Owek. Charles Peter Mayiga delivering the Keynote Address at the Inaugural Annual Nsibirwa Lecture 

Martin Luther Nsibirwa was a two-time Katikkiro of Buganda: He was born in Bugerere, present-day Kayunga district, and grew up in the home of the then Prime minister, Sir Apollo Kaggwa: After 20 years of apprenticeship as a page, he was appointed formally as a Gombolola (Sub-County) Chief in Kyaggwe in 1920. Two years later, in 1922, he was promoted to the office of Mugerere – a Ssaza (County) Chief for Bugerere: From 1924 to 1925, he was acting Mukwenda, the Ssaza Chief of Ssingo. He returned to Bugerere in 1925 only to be appointed the substantive Mukwenda in 1927. A year later, in 1928, he was appointed Omuwanika (the Treasurer), one of only three ministerial positions in the Buganda government, serving for only one year. In 1929, he was appointed a Katikkiro of Buganda, a position he held for over a decade until 1941 when he was forced to resign over the Namasole affair.

It was during his time as the Katikkiro, that Nsibirwa came close to working with the colonial officials on the direction of education in Uganda. Subsequent Commissions of inquiry on the status of education in Uganda had recommended the expansion of Makerere into a center of higher education. The then governor of Uganda, Coryndon and Makerere Principal Saville saw it better to expand education at Makerere, to avoid mass radical consciousness and undesirable external influence of North American education to penetrate the colonies after many youths under the Buganda Youth Association (YBA) had repeatedly petitioned the government to avail scholarships for Africans to study abroad. 

In 1925, The Ormsby-Gore commission proposed that Makerere should be developed to satisfy African aspirations. By 1930, Makerere’s population totalled 142: medical, 9; agriculture, 6; veterinary, 6; engineering, 7; surveying, 7; general education/ vocational training, 33; schoolmasters’ course, 33; and clerical course, 44. The clerical course was to be singled out for elimination by 1932 as Goan Ugandans tightened their grip on the position throughout Uganda’s civil service.

In 1935, the Colonial Government appointed Phillip Mitchell as the governor of Uganda. Determined to elevate the status of education in Uganda, he invited the Earl de la Warr commission in 1937 to assess Makerere’s education and the possible institutional transformation from a national technical school into a regional college. The commission recommended the setting up of a higher college in East Africa and the secretary of state entrusted Mitchell with the task to implement it. 

In May 1938, he convened the Inter-Territorial Conference on higher education. Among those that represented Uganda were Buganda officials, serwano Kulubya and Y. K. Lubogo, men who shared the education and policy aspirations of Nsibirwa. The conference finalized the plans for the site, name and constitution of the Higher College. In the same year, funds were contributed and collected from the Imperial government, East African governments and pioneer districts of Uganda.  

In November of the same year, the Duke of Gloucester laid the foundation stone for the Makerere main building and the twin chapels of st. Francis and st. Augustine that were later completed and commissioned in 1941.

The Earl of Gloucester laying the foundation stone for the construction of Makerere main building, 1938.

But Makerere’s newly acquired status demanded more land, and in 1943, colonial officials sent a land proposal to Buganda Lukiiko. As Rhoda Kalema, Martin Nsibirwa’s daughter highlighted during the event, the protectorate government sought to invoke clause 15 of the 1900 Buganda agreement which proposed to allow it to take privately owned mailo land for public use in exchange for another area of government crown land. 

Ms Rhoda Kalema, Nsibirwa’s daughter giving her remarks during the Inaugural Annual Nsibirwa Lecture, organized in remembrance of the remarkable contribution of her father to Makerere’s development. 

Unfortunately, the colonial officials failed to convince the private owners of this venture partly because a similar tactic had been used in Kenya to acquire land for European settlers and partly because the reigning Katikkiro, Samuel Wamala was a conservative who sided with the private landowners to block the development of Makerere University. They organized protests which culminated in the publication of the pamphlet, Buganda Nyaffe, which criticized the colonial government’s designs on private land around Makerere. 

The proposal for the acquisition of more land was supported solely by Serwano Kulubya, who, like Nsibirwa, saw education as the cornerstone for the country’s transformation. His insistence on novel ideas made him a target of attacks in the Buganda Lukiiko, and again, like Nsibirwa before him, he was forced to resign over the January 1945 protests. 

Nsibirwa was reappointed as the Katikkiro under these circumstances. The colonial government even after changing the law to allow the Kabaka and not the government to acquire land in the public interest, the Lukiiko officials vehemently refused the proposal. At the same time, the protectorate government was considering shifting the higher college, which after the Asquith commission of 1945 had been singled out to become a center of university studies in East Africa, to Kitale in Kenya. 

Driven by sheer tenacity and a determination to keep higher education and excellence within the borders of Uganda, Nsibirwa spoke for hours in the Lukiiko in favor of the proposal, and on 4th September 1945, he signed the land acquisition law that granted Makerere enough land to transition into a fully-fledged university which it partly did by 1950, when it started offering courses leading to general degrees of the University of London. 

As his daughter, Rhoda Kalema remembers, Nsibirwa believed, quoting the Maine Senator, Margret Chase Smith, following the declaration of conscience speech, that public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and the nation. Nsibirwa pursued what he believed to be in the best interest of the country and exchanged his life for the elevation of Makerere to a university level.

On the morning of September 5th, 1945, Nsibirwa was assassinated as he arrived for prayers at Namirembe cathedral. As Katikkiro Mayiga put it, the predominant narrative was that Nsibirwa was killed for his role in acquiring land for the expansion of Makerere College. Indeed, one George William Senkatuka, an ex- King’s African Rifles serviceman, was arrested, tried and convicted for Nsibirwa’s murder on that basis. 

“Makerere University is privileged to have the Main Campus covering over 300 acres of prime real estate located only five kilometers from Kampala City Center,” said Mrs Lorna Magara, the Chairperson University Council. “This was possible only through the vision and foresightedness of such men like Martin Luther Nsibirwa.” 


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