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Thursday, January 10, 2008

A campus strike is like an action movie

Hollywood at campus: With the action that goes on during a strike at Makerere University, the only thing missing is a camera to turn it into a blockbuster, writes DENNIS D. MUHUMUZA

That weekend, the reality movie shot at Makerere University was action-packed. Guns big and small sounded. Kicks were unleashed, injuries sustained and a student died. It was as if John Rambo had transferred his action from the big screen to the campus.

"Man, guys are striking," Richo, a classmate told me early that morning as I was heading to the library. "It's all hot up there." And he hurried on before I could say anything.

At Nsibirwa Hall, I found students in red undergraduate gowns blowing whistles and shouting tugende, tugende (let's go, let's go). And off they marched towards to Lumumba Hall to join another 'battalion'.

Army with amunition
This army of students waved tree branches and filled their pockets with ammunition in form of stones. One student held a trumpet which he blew to the cheer of all. Shouts reverberated from the seven halls of residence to hostels and back. Furniture, logs and heavy stones were used to mount roadblocks along every highway connecting to Makerere.

With so destructive a fury, the rebellious lot were divided into groups. One headed to Wandegeya through the main gate, others took the Sir Apollo Kagwa Road, others the Mulago route while the rest stayed within campus. The neighbouring suburbs recoiled under the power of the striking students and braced themselves for the worst.

On that fateful day in November 2005, one woman whose car was stopped was ordered to come out but she obstinately refused. So a bully banged an iron pestle on the bonnet of her car, crashing it. The woman looked at the guy and said "God forgive you for you don't know what you are doing." The strikers laughed and decided to leave the woman alone.

In another incident, students met an oldman and forced him to carry his bicycle on his head. They looted all the shops they came across, grabbed coffins from the carpenters at the Mulago-Bwaise roundabout and the battle raged on.They were protesting a move by the university council that required that a student who failed an examination paper pay over Shs100,000 to repeat it.

During this strike, students demanded to see Col. (rtd) Dr. Kiiza Besigye who was in prison at that time, when Police boss Kale Kaihura, had come out for table talk.

As the strike went on, there was this fellow who, when the rioters broke into the staff canteen, grabbed two giant bottles of Coca-Cola and proudly walked away with the most victorious smile I ever saw.

A bubbly Boxer (a Marystuart resident) with the physic and look of Queen Latifah, eyes hidden behind mega shades, shoplifted a television screen from the Guild Canteen, flung it on her head and sped to Mary Stuart hall under the protection of her 'guards.'

The situation turned gloomier when a howl of bullets permeated the sky. The sound byte, rather bullet byte, did its bit, scattering the cowardly pack who run inside their halls of residence and emptied their bowels of all the fear. But the 'valiant' stayed and staged an onslaught with the wobbly force that had been deployed to quell the commotion.

The students remembered a bit of European history: that this was not the time to solve the problems of the day by conference, long speeches and resolutions of the majority but by blood and iron. Blood in the death of Ibrahim Ssengendo and iron by clobbering every little thing they encountered.

Ferocious tear gass
And as to tear gas, well how sweet art thou! It clipped my nostrils, tore at my lungs, rubbed deep in my eyes and held me hostage for what seemed like eternity. One student joked that "teargas is not teargas but njaga (crack, opium)".

It was like the end times had come. Teargas canisters and shells flew about. Like Artaud Antonin once said, "With society and its public, there is no longer any other language than that of bombs, barricades, and all that follows." The hard line of teargas and rubber bullets against the radical rioters in 'the struggle against capitalism that is fast drowning Ivory Tower' as one student described the revolt, raved on.

It turned bitter, and those still in possession of a little sanity switched to survival mode, ducking for cover to wait for darkness before running to their abode. It took days before life at the great Ivory Tower turned normal.

Published in Sunday Monitor, November 19, 2006