When we arrive at Makerere University’s guild canteen after braving the afternoon drizzle, we pass by groups of people having lunch.
But one cluster stands out former guild leaders I can easily recognise are not having lunch they are rather mulling over issues. I later learn that these are members of the new guild president’s taskforce.
Minutes later, he joins me and three journalism students who insist I conduct the interview in their presence. He is flanked by a friend who leaves immediately as ‘His Excellency’ takes his seat. While he walks and talks with an air of authority, a deep scar on the left of his complexion and a bruised lower lip are visible.
Sporting his trademark grin, the tiger, as many of his supporters fondly refer to him, proceeds to register his apologies for keeping us waiting because “I respect time”.
David Bala Bwiruka was elected to head Makerere’s 81st students’ guild council, beating eight other contestants in a heated race dotted by court battles and rescheduling of the polling date. The FDC-leaning independent Bala replaces Ivan Bwowe, a DP-leaning independent, as guild president.
Confessing to have sweet tooth, he throws a few crystals of sugar in his mouth throughout the interview. “My ambition at university [besides academics] was to be guild president and I have worked towards it since my first year,” he says with authority. But Bala’s ascent to the students’ top job was not easy. First, the Electoral Commission kicked him out of the race on grounds of failure to maintain normal academic progress – he had failed exam papers.
The now fierce-looking Bala maintains that he has learnt to balance books, leadership and activism right from an early age.
“My mother bought me a watch when I was very young. I have since learnt to use it,” he reminisces, adding that he will multitask but also continue to prioritise his academics.
But Bala, who fluently speaks about five local dialects, French and English (which he says is his first language), is coy on divulging more about his parents and ethnicity.
Delivered at Mulago hospital, Bala says he was born by the Bwirukas and will not open up anymore.
“I had a troubled childhood and I prefer to keep it out of the public”. Before letting it slip that, he was brought up by a Mutooro aunt (who married a Musoga) as an orphan. He began his leadership journey as a pencil collector at Little Angels nursery school, Jinja, for his nursery education a role he is so proud of. He then went to St Peter’s primary school Nsambya in Kampala and Vic View PS in Jinja for his primary education where he was a timekeeper.
Surprisingly, many who know him as a violent young man, (he prefers to be called g-spirited – not violent), Bala attended one secondary school, Jinja College, for six years, rising from the post of school’s deputy head prefect to serve as its head prefect. He would then head the Uganda Secondary School Prefects Association in 2011 before joining Makerere the following year.
READY TO WORK WITH ALL
Confidently, he dismisses as rumours, allegations that he switched sides to the NRM and that the party’s top brass funded four days of his campaigns. He says his camp worked on a shoestring budget compared to other candidates whose parties funded their campaigns.
He says he is ready to work with the candidates he defeated and to consult past guild leaders, some of whom he accuses of being behind the move to overturn his victory.
HARDENED BY STRIKES
The second-year student of social sciences is not new to controversy. In 2013, he was expelled from Makerere, together with his predecessor and two others, for leading a strike against the 60 per cent tuition policy. He has also been at the helm of many other demonstrations against university policies on fees and welfare. However, he blames the hooliganism and violence during strikes on police.
“Police hire these non-students to break glasses,” he says, in a matter-of-fact tone. Consequently, he explains that the police fires tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
“Students enjoy this circus [because] they are young,” he adds.
Bala equally admits that students take a share of the blame for “sometimes” being rowdy. Yet, he will not rule out “demonstrations in case dialogue fails”.
Outside Makerere, Bala is an activist with the students’ brotherhood and the jobless brother-hood, opposition leaning activists. He adds that he will not stop participating in the groups’ activities “because students and young people in general deserve better”. He expects his election to give his activism more exposure, making it more vibrant.
With authorities allegedly compromising vibrant students once they become guild leaders, Bala swears never to betray the struggle.
“Those who were compromised had come out of the blue I’m a tested leader,” he brags. And to the university administration, Bala says: “We can disagree but we will work together”.
Bala says he looks up to the Kenyan anti-corruption coalition activist, John Githongo, adding that there is a shortage of role models in Uganda. An ardent believer, Bala claims he picks his inspiration from Jesus Christ who he describes as “the greatest teacher and leader”.
Describing himself as a St Franciscan (he fellowships from St Francis chapel, Makerere), he says his “activism” is rooted in the example of Jesus flushing traders, who had turned his father’s house into a den of thieves, out of the temple.
NO “FIRST LADY”?
Unlike most young men, the new guild boss claims he has no girlfriend – because that is not a priority.
“First things first. The struggle cannot be done in the bedroom.”
He rarely goes clubbing and is a fairly good swimmer. He is a committed member of the Makerere Debating Union which is why debating tops the list of his hobbies, explaining how he swayed voters to his side in four days. He also spends his free time reading.
Bala wants education institutions not to overly concentrate on academics but, rather, work to nurture talents and dreams such as leadership, instead of dismissing them as traits of violence and disobedience. He believes etiquette and other soft skills are vital in producing a holistic citizen.
With his dream of leading university students now a reality, Bala says he hopes to be head-of-state. A friend who had escorted the new leader is waiting in a seat near the walkway.
“I hope the next time we meet you will be both fatter and taller than you are. I am told the bread is leavened,” I joke, and we laugh to goodbyes and good lucks.
Source : The Observer