Student politics and multiparty politics in Uganda : a case study of Makerere University
The study of student politics in Africa has evolved in the last decade from a focus on non-institutionalised student activism and student movements to institutionalised student political participation in institutions of higher education. Thus it followed a development route in which student leadership had to find new ways in which to organise their movements in institutional, national and continental political organisations to influence policy and remain relevant in students’ lives. Since this study focuses on one particular dimension of this change, the study seeks to understand the relationship between student leaders in Makerere University, Kampala, and political parties in Uganda. The specific focus of the study is on highlighting the reasons for establishing and maintaining the relationship; the arrangements necessary for the relationship to exist, and how the relationship impacts on the ability of student leaders to represent students’ interests. Following an analysis of the relevant literature in line with the topic, it was decided that a mixed methods approach would be suitable for the study. Hence in-depth interviews were conducted with student leaders and leaders of national political parties and an online survey targeting all undergraduate students at Makerere University was done (as part of a larger study). Theoretically, the study adopted a framework originally proposed by Schmitter and Streeck (1999), and adapted it to study the relationship between student leaders and political parties, drawing also on the insights of studies that had previously used adaptations of the same framework to study student leadership in other contexts. The study found a continuing historical relationship between student leaders of Makerere University and political parties in Uganda. It found that a significant number of students are members of a political party, whereby student leaders are most likely not only to be ordinary party members, but party leaders. Political parties use the student guild elections to recruit new members. As part of being members of a political party, student leaders tend to be more influential in weak political parties, in contrast to a ruling party which is more influential in student politics given its ability to provide access to government resources. Moreover, the relationship is such that student leaders from Makerere University are most likely to end up in powerful political positions in the country (e.g. Byaruhanga, 2006; Mugume and Katusiimeh, 2014); this situation corresponds to the reasons that student leaders give for establishing relationships with political parties in the first place, as most student leaders have future political ambitions. The most influential organisations in student politics appear to be political parties, followed by cultural groups on campus. The study also highlights weaknesses in formal institutional governance structures given that student leaders believe their problems are better addressed in personal networks with members of university management staff than through the committee system. The relationship between student leaders and political parties generally leads to positive developments such as student leadership training in democratic politics; consequently they are even able to satisfy their personal interests in the process. It is further argued that students who are not in leadership positions mostly gain indirectly from the benefits that student leaders may derive from their relationship with political parties. For example, student leaders may govern their organisation better. However the evidence also strongly shows that such indirect gains are highly compromised in cases where student leaders have future political ambitions, as they may sacrifice the students’ interests in order to maintain their good reputation in the party. Since most student leaders aspire to be politicians in future, the study concludes by acknowledging that the relationship between student leaders and political parties has some positive consequences to students not involved in leadership, but they are outweighed by negative consequences. Hence it is argued in the conclusion that, taking into account the scope of this study, the relationship is largely a distraction to the student leaders rather than assisting them in enhancing their ability to represent students’ concerns.