It was planned as the strike to end all strikes. Two weeks ago, the non-teaching staff vowed not to return to work, unless all their demands had been met. However, as CHRISTOPHER TUSIIME reports, the staff are back to work, with just a promise.
A week ago today, the Education Minister, Janet Kataaha Museveni summoned the striking non teaching staff leaders to a meeting to iron out their grievances.
Arriving into the expansive conference room at the Office of the Prime Minister, Museveni had asked the angry protestors to make their presentations and be done within the hour, so the room would be occupied by another meeting.
But the rambling went on for four hours, starting at 11am, before an exasperated minister had to intervene and break up the session. However, this was not before she appealed to striking workers to be patient as she worked the wheels of government to secure their promised salary increment by October (in the second quarter of the year).
Not content with her assertions, the Public Universities Non-Teaching Staff Executive Forum (Puntsef) angrily dismissed her appeal, in a subsequent session. In her absence, Puntsef chairman, Jackson Betihamah railed against the first lady and insisted that they had a promise from the president to increase their pay immediately.
“We shall not return to work until the president ensures that our salary is enhanced and our arrears are paid,” Betihamah declared.
Nonplussed, the education minister held several meetings with university management teams and finance ministry officials, to resolve the crisis. She secured promises from officials from Makerere, Gulu, Kyambogo, Busitema, Mbarara University of Science and Technology (Must) and Makerere University Business School (Mubs) to resume work.
Indeed by Wednesday evening, more than 4,600 non-teaching staff members at these public universities were ready to suspend a sit down strike that was threatening to creep into a third week. Some universities like Makerere hired temporary staff to help out with some administrative duties, including cleaning.
FRESH COMPELLING PROMISES
But things took a new direction when president Museveni summoned the Puntsef executive to State House on Tuesday.
This meeting included Betihamah, Bruce Twesigye (Puntsef member from Makerere), Prof Barnabas Nawangwe (deputy vice chancellor Makerere), Amos Ddembe (Makerere), Hajatti Fatumah Nakatudde (Makerere) and Amos Tukamushaba (Makerere) and a few others.
According to some of those who attended, the president was in an uncompromising mood, continually lambasting Betihamah for attempting to push his hand.
“The president kept calling out my name like 15 times … asking me whether he had ever failed to keep a promise,” a chastened Betihamah said later.
Just like the education minister earlier, the president made what Betihamah called a fresh compelling promise.
“The president requested us to suspend our strike and resume working on grounds that money for salaries enhancement and arrears was to be paid in three months from Aug 16 when we met with him,” he said, to Makerere staff last Wednesday.
“He said that he has never lied to us and that we should take his word as gospel truth. We then called for a Puntsef meeting, and agreed to suspend the strike and give the President some more time.”
Betihamah, who had turned the ‘no money, no work’ phrase into his mantra, told the Makerere staff members that he had finally realised that the President “doesn’t like being pulled by the collar” in order to effect his promises.
And to prove his point, unlike the last time, the president pointedly refused to put his promise in writing, despite pleas from the puntsef executive.
According to the secretary of the Makerere University Senior Administrative Staff Association, Vincent Abigaba , which is part of Puntsef, the president was unaware of their preferred basis of payment which was using a consensus note.
“We were shocked to find that the president didn’t know anything about the consensus note which was prepared by the ministry of Education and approved by ministry of Finance,” Abigaba said.
He added: “The president also said that during these three months, he will carefully look at our consensus note and see how possible it was to use it to harmoniously pay us. Members agree with me that we have come from far with this struggle and let us go back to work as this issue gets sorted.”
The meeting agreed with him in a unanimous vote. The president, Betihamah said, also promised to set up a committee to review the consensus note and implement it after.
After the suspension of the strike on Wednesday, Makerere University Council announced the opening of the campus for a new academic year.
“First year students shall report on Saturday Aug 20, 2016. All continuing students shall report on Sunday Aug 21, and semester one academic Year 2016/2017 shall end on Dec 17 instead of Dec 10 as earlier scheduled,” said Charles Wana-Etyem, the chairman Makerere university council. All the other universities were due to formally open today.