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Politics, money tear teachers’ union apart

While the teachers have partly achieved their demand of salary increment following a nationwide strike last month, (Parliament says they should get an immediate 20% increment), their umbrella body, the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU), remains deeply divided.

Officials blame politics and money for the divisions within UNATU which brings together primary, secondary school teachers, tutors of teacher’s colleges, technical or vocational colleges and lecturers of Kyambogo University.

Formerly the Uganda Teachers Association (UTA), the body transformed into a trade union in 2003.
It has over 82,000 members, more than half of the number of teachers on government payroll.
A senior executive of the newly appointed Kampala district UNATU branch says lack of accountability has been the major source of acrimony in the past five years.

“Most branches cannot even account for the contributions from their members and the union has never presented any audited books of accounts,” he notes.

Each UNATU member contributes Shs 2,000 a month. This means that UNATU collects an estimated Shs 164m monthly in membership charges. This money, plus contributions from partners like government and the Irish Development Agency, is supposed to help UNATU realize its objectives that include promoting teachers’ rights, improving working conditions and social welfare.Ironically, teachers remain the worst paid civil servants in the country.

In the run-up to the recent nationwide strike in July, primary school teachers earned Shs 260,000 each every month. They are demanding a 100% increment, although government has promised to raise the salaries to 388,000 in the next financial year.

According to UNATU structures, district branches are supposed to be supervised and guided by the national executive secretary general, Teopista Birungi Mayanja. But her peers accuse her of failing in the role, citing “lack of monitoring and coordination from her office.”

“The fact that the new constitution is not available at every branch shows that there’s minimal supervision,” remarks William Musaazi, a teacher at Nakasero Primary School and executive member of Kampala Central district branch.

Kaganizo Mutesasira, a secondary school teacher in Bushenyi district and leader of the break-away Uganda Liberal Teachers Union (ULTU), fiercely criticizes UNATU’s national executives. Mutesasira accuses both UNATU chairperson Margaret Rwabushaija and secretary general Birungi of “misrepresenting teachers’ interests and recruiting members to the union selectively.”

“They have personalized the union activities.
“When it comes to bringing in new members, they’re selective. They intentionally leave out secondary school teachers and university lecturers because they fear being questioned,” he said.

As for ULTU, Mutesasira explains, it will ensure “non selective representation of real classroom through democratic processes.”

While Rwabushaija and her executives claim to have made a breakthrough in the aftermath of the July strike, some of their critics reveal that the UNATU bosses didn’t even support the initiative to lay down tools.

A member of the Kampala central district UNATU branch executive who didn’t want to be named recently told The Observer of how UNATU bosses dragged their feet on the strike last month.

“They had planned to have the strike in case negotiations [with government] had failed but we forced them to declare it immediately,” he disclosed.

According to this member, some of the top UNATU executives are ‘politically tied’ and backing the decision to strike painted them in bad light with the ruling NRM party.

“They feared because they’re due to meet the President and under such circumstances the union cannot be a powerful lobby forum,” he said.

The delicate balancing act of pursuing UNATU interests and serve the ruling party is turning into a major distraction in the teachers’ union leadership. For instance in 2004 during its first serious course of action to advocate salary increment, UNATU national bosses were rendered helpless when their junior, Joseph Ssewungu Gonzaga, then the Kampala branch chairperson called a countrywide strike.

However, Rwabushaija defends her executive, insisting that they have been as transparent as possible.
“If it’s about money matters, the secretary general has all the figures and books available for everyone to see,” she said.


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