Uganda: Court Ends Five-Year Mamdani, Student War

A High court ruling last week delivered by Justice Lydia Mugambe finally extinguished the five-year Prof Mahmood Mamdani-versus-Yusuf Serunkuma war over supervision of the graduate student's PhD thesis.

Serunkuma, a graduate student at Makerere University Institute of Social Research (Misr), and The Observer columnist, won the court battle against Mamdani, the director.

In 2018, Serunkuma ran for remedies after Mamdani altered his doctoral committee without notice to either student or the supervisors.

Serunkuma told court that he had been supervised by Dr Ernest Okello Ogwang and Prof Abasi Kiyimba. But Dr Okello Ogwang's drinking problem had rendered him unhelpful as a supervisor.

His deputy, Prof Abasi Kiyimba, had done most of the work. When Prof Kiyimba went on sick leave in 2016, Dr James Ocita, who was co-director at Misr, took over. Both Serunkuma and Ocita worked well, and Serunkuma actually finished a second draft of his dissertation. But at the end of 2016, Ocita resigned his position as co-director at Misr. Mamdani was enraged and they fell out. Instead, Mamdani extended his brawl with Ocita to his student, Serunkuma.

He altered Serunkuma's entire doctoral committee. Mamdani appointed Dr Virgine Tallio to replace Dr Okello-Ogwang as his main supervisor with Mamdani and Dr Samson Bazabeh as members of the doctoral committee.

Later, he wrote to Serunkuma replacing Dr Tallio with Bezabeh. This, Serunkuma told court, was not only a breach of the principles of natural justice, but was also shrouded in illegality, procedural impropriety, irrationality and breach of legitimate expectation. He hence prayed that court declares it inoperative, null and void.

Makerere appeals structures

Before running to court, Serunkuma engaged all the internal appeal mechanisms inside the university including the college of Humanities and Social Sciences (Chuss), the directorate of research and Graduate Training, and the vice chancellor.

In his appeal, Serunkuma accused Mamdani of high-handedness, lacking goodwill and forgery. Serunkuma claimed that Mamdani, not only forged minutes, but had also forged Dr Okello's signatures as he wrote letters to him signed off by Okello Ogwang, yet Okello Ogwang had no knowledge of the letters.

Although the claims of forgery were not pursued further, all appeals committees (at Chuss and DRGT/vice chancellor) agreed that Mamdani was malicious, and illegally managed the administration of the Misr PhD supervision.

For example, the first appeals committee that met on December 12, 2017, and was attended by Dr Patrick Muwase, Dr Gloria Kimuli Seruwagi, Dr Lyn Ossome (representing Misr), and college registrar Vincent Ekwang agreed with Serunkuma on Mamdani's lack of goodwill.

The then deputy principal of Chuss, Dr Josephine Ahikire, wrote to the director of Misr on March 12, and attached minutes of the December 12 meeting recommending that "Mamdani should recuse himself from the work of the student."

The committee was also convinced that Serunkuma's work was at a very advanced stage, and "proposed Prof Kiyimba to be appointed as his new main supervisor."

However, this recommendation was not implemented. Serunkuma then appealed to the vice chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, who tasked the deputy vice chancellor, Academic Affairs to take charge. The Observer has learned that Prof Mamdani insisted on sitting in on the Board of Research and Graduate Training (BRGT) meetings that were discussing Serunkuma's matter.

On two occasions, it took the intervention of the director of Legal department for Mamdani to recuse himself from the meeting in a clear case of conflict of interest. In writing to the vice chancellor, Prof Mamdani accused the deputy vice chancellor, Academic Affairs, Prof Umar Kakumba, and the director of DRGT, Prof Mukadasi Buyinza, of bias for asking him to recuse himself.

He claimed Profs; Buyinza and Kakumba had "bias and personal acquaintance" with the student. Mamdani retracted his complaint after Prof Buyinza threatened to sue him for malice. Indeed, minutes of the BRGT of June 26, 2019 condemned Mamdani's actions.

At the end of the day, BRGT, Makerere's highest academic organ, also recommended that Serunkuma should go ahead and be supervised by competent academics who had no association with Misr and Mamdani.

Minutes show that Mamdani was found heavily conflicted and with a personal vendetta with Serunkuma. But to implement the BRGT's recommendations, the mantle fell on Josephine Ahikire who was the acting principal of Chuss. Serunkuma accuses her of being another of Mamdani's protégées.

"At the College Board, Ahikire allowed Mamdani to sit in and guide the Chuss Academic Board. They ended up with the same names that I had rejected from the very beginning as Mamdani's protégés: Samson Bezabeh, Lynn Ossome and Virgine Tallio, all of whom work directly and report to Mamdani," Serunkuma said.

Around this time, Justice Lydia Mugambe had asked Makerere University and Serunkuma to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. In one court session in October 2019, Dr Ahikire representing Makerere University agreed on a list of names with Serunkuma for his doctoral committee in front of Justice Mugambe.

These were rejected by Mamdani, and university lawyer Mr Hudson Musoke returned to court and claimed Chuss Board had rejected the doctoral committee agreed in court. The board had not even met for a second time. The matter was then left for Justice Mugambe to decide.

Justice Mugambe rules

Mugambe, therefore, ruled that when choosing a supervisor or a replacement, Makerere must ensure that the integrity of these processes is protected.

She said that because Kiyimba was initially part of Serunkuma's supervisory team and the supervision was going on well with him and only left the team because he was going for medical treatment, he should rejoin the team. Mugambe also noted that Serunkuma appears to have a better working relationship with Kiyimba.

"I find this replacement fair, reasonable and rational in the circumstances of this case. As a result, the Applicant's PhD team shall be picked from the following list of persons who have demonstrated to be neutral persons with no prejudice to the Applicant. These include (1) Prof Abasi Kiyimba, (2) Dr. Simba Ssali Kayunga, (3) Dr Pamela Khanakwa, (4) Dr Suzan Kiguli, (5) Professor Peter Atekyereza and (6) Prof (Sr) Dominica Dipio," Mugambe said.

"Put simply, it is irrational, irregular and unreasonable to force supervision of a PhD student by someone he has fallen out with, or any considered protégés of such a person. Supervision for PhD should be by someone he has trust and confidence in."

Mugambe further ruled, that "in the interest of justice, I hereby direct waiver of any requirement of fees from the Applicant for the years he has been on the fall out with his supervisors. Instead, the Applicant shall pay fees for only one academic year within which his supervision should be completed and if he passes, allowed to graduate," Mugambe ruled.

She also granted Serunkuma Shs 25 million in damages for the loss occasioned including legitimate expectation to graduate on time, lost opportunities, emotional and financial drain on top of the cost of the application. Serunkuma was represented by Adam Kyomuhendo of M/S. Byaruhanga & Co. Advocates.

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