Law teachers at Uganda’s Makerere University have taken a brave step: in the name of academic freedom, they have declared their unanimous support for colleagues who set a controversial constitutional law exam. The paper requires students to think critically about several current rule of law and judicial independence problems in Uganda. One parodies a real-life situation playing out in parliament and another asks them to critique a factual ‘directive’ to the Chief Justice, issued by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, in which the CJ is required to ‘review’ a judicial decision. Criticism of Museveni and other highly-placed officials is often punished in Uganda, so the exam questions shocked many and led to the university’s vice chancellor ordering an ‘investigation’ into the paper.

Constitutional law exam paper: Makerere exam

Record, emergency law school meeting: Makerere law school record

Uganda’s constitutional court recently approved a law enshrining some of the most extreme anti-gay measures on the continent, including the death penalty for certain infractions. In addition, public dissent and protest against government policy is often severely punished. So, a university law exam question that required students to grapple with both the behaviour of the speaker of parliament, Anita Among, including her use of anti-gay jibes, and with ongoing actions of the country’s president that call judicial independence into doubt, was always going to be politically controversial.

Among is allegedly involved in serious corruption. She has been sanctioned by the UK and the US under their respective anti-corruption sanctions regimes, meaning she’s subject to travel bans and asset freezes, not to mention reputational damage. But she denies any wrong-doing and recently spoke in parliament to blame homosexuals, whom she called ‘bum shafters’, for the claims made against her.

That phrase, correctly attributed to her, was used in a May constitutional law exam set by teachers at Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University law school. Along with further questions testing students’ understanding of the rule of law and other constitutional principles, the Among hypothetical led to a furore, and the vice chancellor called for an emergency meeting of the law school’s academic board.

Hypothetical problem

Part of the question dealing with Among’s comments quoted verbatim from her outbursts in parliament, and part was made up to create a hypothetical problem for candidates to deal with in the context of what they had learned about the provisions of Uganda’s constitution.

Other sections of the three-and-a-half-hour exam tested students’ knowledge further, requiring that they ‘critically respond’ to live issues. These included the directive by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, sent to the chief justice earlier this year, saying that the CJ should review a judicial decision made by another judge.

Yet another question, again requiring some thought, perhaps even guts, in their answers, asked that students critique the constitutional court’s decision upholding the Anti-homosexuality Act, 2023. Responding to these and other questions, students were required to highlight the implications for ‘the rule of law, democratic governance and constitutionalism in contemporary Uganda’.

Minimum standards for a ‘premier university’?

Apparently anxious about the impact of publicity given to the exam, Makerere’s vice chancellor, Barnabas Nawangwe, wrote to the acting head of the school of law, asking for an emergency meeting of the school’s academic board to investigate the exam paper. Did the paper ‘meet the minimum academic standards of Makerere as a premier university’ and were there ‘ethical issues that fall below expected standards’, he asked.

The past three papers, set by the examiner responsible for the one under discussion, were also to be ‘investigated’. The head of the law school was ‘required’ to submit a report to the chairperson of the university senate in time for the senate’s next meeting, Nawangwe said.

The exam and the investigation ordered into it must be seen against the background of great pressure on the judiciary and the rest of Uganda’s legal profession from Museveni and other top officials. For example, the chief justice has been receiving instructions from Museveni on ‘reconsidering’ or ‘investigating’ decisions made by Ugandan judges with which Museveni disagrees, or against which he has been petitioned by individual litigants. The CJ, in turn, has not spoken out against this trend, but – on the rare occasion when he has addressed the issue – says that it is part of a normal dialogue between the heads of different arms of government.

‘Profound concern’ about violation of academic freedom 

There are also other areas in which the rule of law and judicial independence appear to be victims of political pressure.

Given these difficulties, the record of the law school’s emergency meeting is a revelation. Rather than backing down in the face of criticism, the legal academics stood their ground and supported their colleagues who set the exam question.

They closed ranks and ‘strongly protested the very idea of being required to investigate an examination of a paper set by colleagues, in effect to question their competence’, despite the fact that they are ‘internationally recognised experts’ in their area, who have taught at Makerere for decades.

Further, they expressed their ‘profound concern’ that the meeting effectively violated the constitutional right to academic freedom.

Participation ‘under protest’

They were also concerned that such a meeting would ‘poison the teaching and learning environment’ and would undermine the status and credibility of teachers. Above all, they said, it would have a ‘chilling effect’ on academic life.

While they had considered not going ahead with the meeting, they had ultimately agreed to do so ‘under protest’ and resolved that, in future, they would not participate in meetings that were ‘inconsistent’ with the right to academic freedom.

Acting head of the public and comparative law department, where the disputed course was located, said he had reviewed the exam question. Benson Tusasirwe said he had also studied key Makerere policy documents on academic integrity, quality assurance and academic policies, as well as Uganda’s constitution, the law on universities and the outline for the course being examined. He studied international policy documents related to the responsibility of university faculty including the Kampala Declaration and the Lima Declaration, and had a discussion with the lecturers responsible for the disputed paper – Joe Oloka-Onyango and Busingye Kabumba, both Harvard post grads.

He found that the exam paper did not violate the standards outlined in the university policies and the course outline. There was no violation of internationally established ethical standards on exams, he said. Nor did the exam deviate from the structure and content of past exams in this course unit.

Course involved ‘complicated real life issues’

Finally, in their unanimous response to the ‘investigation’, the law lecturers said the course involved ‘complicated real life issues’, like the exercise of governmental authority and confrontations between government and citizens, and that these realities had to be reflected in the teaching and examination of this subject.

On the disputed question involving Among, it was made clear that it was hypothetical, but the factual background was already in the public domain where it caused intense public discussion and students needed to engage with it by applying legal principles.

They concluded that while academic freedom wasn’t absolute, limitations were constitutionally defined, and that any situation where academics had to inquire how a lecturer taught and examined students ‘inevitably undermines academic freedom and could not serve the long-term interest’ of the university and the country.

Academic freedom required that examinations be censored only where they violated some central principle like plagiarism or fraud or where they showed some incompetence. But in this case, they declared, no such principle was violated.

Principled individuals supporting key democratic values

What to make of the uproar over this examination? Broadly speaking, human rights are under serious threat in Uganda, and the fiasco over the paper isn’t done yet.

But readers concerned about the situation should read the exam question and the record of the law teachers’ meeting for themselves.

My own conclusion after doing so is that all may not be lost. They remind me of the brave stands taken by some university teachers at certain universities in South Africa during the apartheid years, a time when serious punitive state action was a constant likelihood. They speak of something many outsiders might not expect to find at this time in Uganda – a group of principled individuals prepared to stand together in support of crucial democratic values: academic freedom, human rights, constitutionalism and the rule of law.