UCU students’ demonstration flops

May 24, 2015

Barely two months into office, Uganda Christian University’s guild president Arthur Baliruno, is already at loggerheads with the vice chancellor, Dr John Senyonyi.

Last week, Dr Senyonyi blasted Baliruno for petitioning police for permission to demonstrate before informing the university administration. Baliruno brought the issue to the attention of Mukono district police commander, Abrahams Tukundane in a letter dated May 13, 2015, which The Observer has seen.

“In regard to Article 7 clause 1 (c) of the students’ guild constitution which guarantees students freedom to assemble and demonstrate…peacefully and unarmed, we hereby let your office aware that the students’ body…would like to have a peaceful demonstration,” the letter reads in part.

Baliruno indicated that he wanted the demonstration to include a call to the university to reduce tuition fees and remove the annual percentage increment, which he says is at five per cent annually. Other issues included work on the dusty and muddy roads on the compound, and serving students with quality food at the university dining hall.

He further called the national parliament to intervene and reduce taxes that are levied on private institutions which has proved to be a burden to both parents and students. The issue of tuition, according to Baliruno, has forced many students to have dead semesters/years, while others drop out before they could graduate.

Baliruno also wants the university to provide security lights along the streets outside the university. Dr Senyonyi complained about the matter during community worship on May 19, 2015. He told the congregation, which consists mainly of UCU community members, that Baliruno should have consulted university officials before reporting to the police.

“According to the UCU rules and regulations, demonstrations are supposed to be reported to the dean of students such that the dean reports to the VC [vice chancellor],” Dr Senyonyi said, with finality. “We believe in solving students’ grievances, rather than riots. Any student who will participate will be acting against UCU code of conduct and will be handled accordingly.”

He added that following terror alerts released earlier this year, UCU had since closed all other gates, except the main one. But Baliruno wanted the other gates opened. To this, Senyonyi argued that the guild body had ignored weekly security meetings which made them ignorant of security issues at the university.

Following Dr Senyonyi’s communication, police deployed heavily at the university’s gates, including the closed ones, and moved to end the demonstration. Addressing the media, UCU’s deputy vice chancellor for Development and External Relations, David Mugawe, said the university administration had “a late night meeting [on Tuesday] with selected guild officials and we sat down to really understand what issues they have at hand.”

“Every semester as cabinet, we do have an arrangement where we meet with the guild officials and they share with us the issues they have among students,” Mugawe said. “Early June, we have set another meeting at which we shall discuss in detail those issues they raised.”

He added that the university management believed dialogue was the best option and not demonstrations. Explaining the flopped demonstration, Tukundane told The Observer that the strike was called off due to an understanding between the administration and the guild leaders.

But an adamant Baliruno complained about the police action, before saying it would benefit the administration and students if the administration addressed students’ issues, as agreed during the meeting.

Chaos mars UCU alumni elections

May 18, 2015

A former candidate for chairperson of the Uganda Christian University Alumni Association (UCUAA), Phillip Baitwa has petitioned the institution’s vice chancellor, arguing that the polls, that saw him defeated, were rigged.

Baitwa lost the April 24 polls to David Alira amid mayhem. After the protests, the returning officer reverted to the results slip, announcing Alira the winner with 108 votes, Baitwa with 46 and Travis Bogere in third place with five votes. Two votes were declared invalid.

As the results were being announced, Baitwa, a former UCU guild president, grabbed the tally papers from the electoral commission chairperson before results were read to the electorate, prompting protests.

But in an April 28 petition, Baitwa wants the poll results annulled. Among other reasons, Baitwa claims the UCU electoral commission did not inform the agents of the candidates when distributing the ballot papers. Baitwa adds that the electoral commission also did not provide a voters’ register to verify voters.

Baitwa’s action has attracted criticism from several quarters. The outgoing chairperson, Paul Amoru, condemned Baitwa’s behaviour.

“He didn’t even qualify to run. We compromised thinking we have a former guild president who is reasonable,” Amoru said. Amoru explained that Baitwa had never paid the requisite membership fee for the association.

In his defence, Baitwa told The Observer that he would not consent to the results because he suspected rigging.

“I requested them [electoral commission] to recount because the results were not tallying with the number of voters. I requested again and they insisted to announce the results.”

However, the electoral commission chairperson, Sylvia Kyobe, told The Observer that the rigging allegations were unfounded.

“The chaos was just emotional because they [aspirants] had agents in all posts and results were recorded with no dispute,” Kyobe said.

The association’s administrative assistant, Julius Oboth, said Baitwa would not have had the right to vote or be elected if the assembly had not suspended article 12 clause 6 of the UCUAA Constitution, which specifies that only paid-up members can contest any office.

Instead of acting on Baitwa’s petition, Amoru thinks the UCUAA should take disciplinary action.

“We know we have standing orders; we have the code of ethics. We are also going to evoke other codes of ethics within the university to see what could be done to him. He could be expelled as a member, suspended, or forgiven. What he did is even a police case,” Amoru added.

But Baitwa said he would go to the High court if the university failed to act on his petition.

“We are ready for negotiations. Even if we have a by-election, the constitution is still [has] loopholes. The whole thing is to nullify and suspend the activities of the association and review the constitution,” he said.

But UCUAA members are unmoved. “As far as we are concerned, we are now in high gear preparing for handover,” said Amoru.

Commenting on the petition, Julius Oboth, said they are waiting for a response from the vice chancellor, but this would not stop the association leadership changing office.

South Sudan children struggle to feel at home in Adjumani, Uganda

An over-crowded classroom at Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centre in Ayilo II refugee campAn over-crowded classroom at Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centre in Ayilo II refugee camp

Driven out of her country by a bloody conflict, teacher Halima Mustafa Abdallah finds herself in a dusty patch of land surrounded by rivers sucked dry by the searing sun.

It is at 8:30am but the sun is already fuming at Ayilo II refugee settlement in Adjumani. Children, aged between three and six years, are running towards their ‘teacher’ who is asking them to make a circle in a dusty compound. Some are crying, others fighting over a pair of sandals. Several others are walking towards the visitors, paying no attention to their care giver.

These are children of South Sudanese refugees and this is an Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) centre. Here they are given to the equivalent of pre-primary education. Despite having basic textbooks, youngsters are taught numbers, oral literature, reading, outdoor and activities such as football, and molding.

In the centre of this particular class of 558 is Abdallah. Two years ago, Abdallah  was teaching at a nursery school in Yei, before moving to Juba with her husband.  But then in December 2013, war erupted, displacing hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese. Now, like the children she is taking care of,

Abdallah, a mother of four, is a refugee in Uganda.

“We ran from Juba because of the war. My husband remained there because he is a soldier with SPLA. I am not sure whether he is dead or alive because ever since we came, I have not heard from him,” Abdallah narrates.

TENT CLASSROOMS

Abdallah does her work with zeal. She smiles, jumps and sings with the innocent, jolly toddlers before they head for lessons in white tents designed as classrooms. Due to the big numbers in a single classroom, small fights are inevitable. Other children keep crying, maybe due to hunger or thirst, because there is no food and water given to them, at least at Ayilo II ECCD centre.

Pupils studying from under trees  at St Egidio primary school in Nyumanzi settlement campPupils studying from under trees at St Egidio Primary School in Nyumanzi settlement camp

When the ECCD centre opened in January 2014, fighting among children was more rampant.

“If two children fought, they could rush home, call their elders to come and join the fight. Fighting could go on and on, until we started sensitising mothers on how to resolve such cases,” says Abdallah.

Parents are also encouraged to provide porridge to the children every morning before they head to the ECCD centre because there are no food items at the centre.

Due to the hot weather in the district, children are at the centre until 11:30am. Responding to the refugee emergency in the area, Plan International Uganda, a child-centred development organisation, has set up nine Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) within 12 ECCD centres. In the CFSs, children are given kits and play materials to help reduce traumatic experiences faced during the South Sudan crisis.

Speaking to The Observer, Plan International country director, Fikru Abebe, revealed that Office of the Prime Minister requested the NGO to respond to the emergency.

“We quickly mobilized our internal resources and established offices in Adjumani,” he said last week. “Now, the biggest challenge is that the refugees’ influx is increasing, but international funding is drying.”

Forty-eight trained caregivers, both locals and South Sudanese, are facilitated to attend to the children in the ECCD centres. At Nyumanzi refugee settlement, more than 600 children are enrolled in another ECCD centre.

In the neighborhood is St Egidio primary school, which was established by Arua diocese in partnership with office of the Prime Minister. With classes between P1 and P5, St Egidio has a population of 1,200 pupils studying under trees and donated tents.  On the day we visited, about 200 pupils of P3 had squeezed into a tent, threatening to push the teacher through the chalkboard.

But more than space, a major challenge here is water.

“We have only one source for drinking water which we use as refugees and the community,” says Issa Abuni, the school head teacher. “We also lack textbooks and classrooms from where we can teach the children.”

DIFFICULT TIME

Despite efforts to bring education to the children, mothers won’t stop lamenting the difficult life they are living.

“We are given very little food; Just 11 kilograms of sorghum for a month is not enough,” laments Nyandeng Machar, a 50-year-old mother of six who arrived in Uganda in January 2015.

Moreover, the sorghum they get in the camp is worse than they used to eat in South Sudan .

“There is no milk, no sugar for our children. These are the things they were used to. We also have few clothes,” she says.

Nyandeng painfully recalls walking with her children for five days from Jonglei state to Juba. She talks of spending nights in the jungles from where they could feed on seeds of sorghum and dry fish until they reached Juba, from where United Nations trucks brought them to Uganda.

In a press statement, Plan boss Abebe explains that children remain the most vulnerable group during emergencies – with both physical and emotional scars.

“ The long-term impact of their exposure to traumatic events can be debilitating if not addressed, ” Abebe says.

The Office of the Prime Minister’s deputy refugee desk officer (RDO) in Adjumani, Pascal Ajusi, told journalists that 75 per cent of the population are children, with about 20 per cent women and barely five per cent men.

By February 28, the population in the camps was at 93,000 people, with the a daily influx of 30 people for the last four months. All camps are in Dzaipi and Pekele sub-counties.

He also reveals that of the 23,000 children of school-going age, 16,000 are already enrolled in schools.

“Many more rooms are needed, funds are not enough yet,” Ajusi says. “For the last one year, we have beaten our target of maintaining standards, with education at 75 per cent, a lot on health and something on livelihood.” Plan Uganda has also trained 120 mothers in early childhood practices as a way of building their capacities to adequately care for their children and train fellow mothers in the camps.

To maintain standards in the camps, partner organisations are zoned and apportioned different settlements. Health service providers reach out to all. There are standard guidelines followed by all organisations while delivering services. Weekly consultative meetings are conducted by every organisation to evaluate performance.

Inter-agency meetings are also conducted monthly where reports are shared in order to scale service delivery levels. At least each household in the camp is given a 30-metre 30-metre piece of land for settlement. There are, however, permanent structures being erected in most of these refugee settlement centres.

PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE

“We intend to integrate services given to refugees into development plans where the refugees will exist peacefully with the host communities,” Ajusi says.

“When they [refugees] leave, ownership will roll back to host communities.”

Refugee children playing at a Child Friensly SpaceRefugee children playing at a child friendly space.

Besides education, Plan  has distributed other non-food items, including 2,989 kitchen sets, 10 boreholes, 4,000 jerrycans, 4,040 pieces of soap, 100 ropes, 600 mosquito nets, 200 pick axes with handle, ten 10,000-litre water tanks, 400 spades, and 220 tents.

Organisations responding to the emergency situation include United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Unicef, Plan International Uganda, World Vision, Save the Children, Oxfam, Danish Refugee Council, Norwegian Refugee Council, Welt Hunger, and Lutheran World Federation, among others.

Despite a ceasefire agreement signed by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel commander Riek Machar on February 2, there are no signs of the war ending soon.  For Abdallah and her children, returning home is still a distant dream.