BY NICHOLAS OPOLOT AND AGATHA MUTEBI
In a historic twist of events, two students of Uganda Christian University (UCU) have become the first applicants to win a court case against the university.
The students, Simon Semuwemba and Yasin Sentumbwe, petitioned the High Court in Mukono in 2016 against their dismissal.
This had been purportedly executed by the Students’ Disciplinary Committee in an expulsion letter by the Vice Chancellor on April 19, 2016. The resolution had been passed on May 5 and 16, respectively.
However, the court’s findings were that the Students’ Disciplinary Committee had improperly exercised the power that it did not have by recommending to the Vice Chancellor to expel the two students.
So on January 17, the expelled students appeared before Lady Justice Margaret Mutonyi at the Mukono High Court for the final judgment.
UCU was represented by A. F. Mpanga and Company Advocates as the respondents while the students represented by Counsel Isaac Ssemakadde of the Centre for Legal Aid.
The tough ruling
The court cited the evidence which was adduced against the complainants as unreliable and insufficient. This was on grounds that the affidavit evidence which was submitted by UCU’s legal counsel contained material irregularities.
For instance, the date of the expulsion letter revealed that the decision which was taken to expel the students was signed before the alleged demonstration took place.
“Therefore, this outrightly shows actual bias and prejudice in the decision that was made,” the ruling read in part. Justice Mutonyi further said that the decision the University Administration took was unfair –to the disadvantage of the expelled students.
“This decision is ruthless, unchristian, inhuman, degrading and unparental to the complainants whose future hangs in balance,” she stated amid cheers from the jubilant full-house courtroom.
Justice Mutonyi urged universities and other institutions not to treat expulsion as a casual decision and that they must subject it to national principles of fair justice.
She added that the expulsion was high-handed, destroying the future of UCU’s very own students and also creating fear among the student community.
In consequence, the court awarded the students Shs 20 million as general damages and compensation for the undue physical, emotional and intellectual stress and embarassment.
This is to be payable at an interest rate of 8% per annum until payment is done in full.
Court further ordered that UCU should re-instate the expelled students.
Another order of quashing UCU’s expulsion of the students in reference to the letters dated April 19, 2016.
Furthermore, an order of prohibition against any further disciplinary action was issued against the university from enforcing a decision victimizing the applicants in any way.
Joy filled the courtroom after Justice Mutonyi read out the final judgment.
Sure that they were likely to win the case, Sentumbwe and Semuwemba had entered the courtroom with confidence written on their faces.
When court announced the complainants’ victors and ordered that they be compensated as well as being re-instated in the university, celebration started with students singing songs praising God.
The students who flooded the courtroom came from different universities.
Semuwemba, after the ruling, knelt down at the door to the courtroom as a gesture of thanking the Lord for the great milestone.
The students then matched to the university’s Main Gate in Mukono with a band that had been lobbied by the Makerere University guild government.
Jemima Kisakye, a fourth-year law student and former classmate of Sentumbwe, said that the complainants deserved the victory and a lot more.
“The judgment was very fair only that I think they got little money in compensation, considering the time they lost while attending court,” she said.
“The university should learn a lesson or two about how to handle the students and listen to their opinions because ideally we are their bosses.”
Martin Mukumbya, a third-year law student from Makerere University, said that the victory attained by their fellow students should serve as an example for other UCU students to be able to come out and speak against whatever is affects them.
“I believe this victory will give more UCU students the courage to come out and speak rather than keep quiet in fear of facing the University Disciplinary committee,” he said.
“There should be a fair opportunity for an accused person to be heard,” Pius Kitamirike, a UCU student, said.
University speaks out[caption id="attachment_1129" align="alignnone" width="600"] Simon Semuwemba with his monther.[/caption]
UCU’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for External Affairs, David Mugawe, told this newspaper last Monday that the university was waiting for the full judgment to decide on the next step.
“We take the court judgment in good faith but we would also want to say that we were not given chance to fully testify in the matter. I think we have an opportunity to appeal,” Mugawe said.
He explained that the university is here to serve students and ensure that they accomplish what they are here to do so there is no deliberate intent to victimize anybody.
He said that the kind of punishment they gave the two students was the best they could. “The students were given a chance to explain themselves and also appeal if they so wished. That is why some of their colleagues were actually pardoned, meaning that they would also have been pardoned if they were found innocent,” Mugawe said.
The University Legal Officer, John Toa Bahemuka, also said that as a law-abiding institution, they respected the decisions of the court, but were not contented with some parts of the ruling.
The university has a total of 14 days to consider filing an appeal.
The two UCU students were expelled for being ring leaders of a demonstration against a 12.5% fees increment on April 20 without authorization from the Vice Chancellor, Rev Dr John Ssenyonyi.
The students were alleged to have violated the Code of Conduct Handbook as a result of which the image of the university is said to have been damaged.
Through the Centre for Legal Aid, their counsel Isaac Semakadde sought court’s intervention to quash the decision the grounds of which were “prematurely unjust, unfair and irrational.”
“They weren’t given a fair hearing to file their defence as required by Article 42 of the Uganda Constitution which provides for judicial review in line with the principles of natural justice,” Semakadde said. “The Code of Conduct is non-existent and unenforceable since it wasn’t gazetted as required by law,” he had said in earlier hearings.
He prayed court to quash the yearly publication of the Code of Conduct, Handbook and nullify rules 6(v), 8(iii), 8(v) and 8(vi) of the code 2015/16.
These rules stipulate, among others, that no student shall utter words or behave in a way which damages the reputation of the university.
Semuwemba was alleged to have used abusive language against the VC at Principal’s Hall on the day of the demonstration, thus constituting an offence.
They also provide that approval must be sought from the VC regarding any planned strike or demonstration, of course with the permission of the police.
The expelled students had been further accused of insubordination of the instructions of the University Disciplinary Committee as per regulations 6(v) and 8(v).
Lady Justice Mutonyi ruled that the handbook is outdated and that therefore the UCU legal team must make amendments to ensure that it conforms to national principles of law and natural justice.
Her argument was laid out on grounds that the Code of Conduct Handbook did not clearly prescribe punishment for a minor or major offence committed.
Court also found that the Code of Conduct is highly wanting in many particulars.
It does not apportion power to university officials proportionately.
Thus it is capable of various misinterpretations by university officials to understand it fairly, lawfully and reasonably, she said.
Sanctions or punishment, she stated, must be clearly outlined in ordinary language so that students can easily abide by the proper conduct to avoid uncertainty. This is in line with Article 28 of the Uganda Constitution which stipulates that offences have to be prescribed and sanctioned for.
The case was also heard at the Jinja High Court before the file was sent to Mukono High Court where the case had previously been heard by Justice Eva K. Luswata.
Since expulsion, the two students have been out of university awaiting their fate from court. At one point, they applied to Mukono High Court for a Certificate of Urgency to have their case heard.