Two security guards have been arrested as police commenced investigations into a fire that gutted Makerere University Main Building yesterday.
The director of the Criminal Investigations Directorate, Ms Grace Akullo, yesterday camped at the country's oldest university as her team tried to establish what could have caused fire at the building that houses the institution's key offices.
Those arrested are two police officers; one who should have been on duty at the entrance to the Main Building, which caught fire just after midnight, and another from the university's internal security. The third officer was still at large by last evening, according to Ms Akullo.
"We have two security officers in our custody helping us in investigations. They were supposed to be guarding but for some reason they were not there. They have recorded statements. They are with us," she said in an interview with Daily Monitor on Sunday.
At 4pm, police officers were asked to enter the office of the vice chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, to rescue documents which had not been burnt.
Efforts were also being made to retrieve some documents, including 28 land titles, kept in a safe in the legal department.
"Police inquiries have commenced. We are going to investigate and find out what happened; whether it is an arson or out of any other cause. At the moment, it is still early to say what has caused the fire," Ms Akullo said.
The university was already preparing for the centenary celebrations slated for January 2022. Although the burning of the iconic building is a setback, Prof Nawangwe assured that they will ensure it is reconstructed before the big day.
He revealed that the university chief security officer was alerted by someone who was managing the CCTV cameras that there was fire at the Main Building. By the time the fire brigade arrived at the scene, the fire had already spread through the roof.
"They were very fast. But the roof is wooden. Many of the partitions are wooden. The whole of the department of the bursar was built with steel and timber. The floor is timber and the fire started from that side," Prof Nawangwe said.
"It all burnt very fast. It became difficult for the fire brigade to put it out. When they came first, they didn't know how serious the matter was. They came with vehicles which didn't have that strong pressure. By the time they brought those big vehicles, the fire had run through the ceiling and crossed over," he added.
The vice chancellor, however, appreciated the effort of the fire brigade to save the ground floor of the Main Building.
"They tried their best in the circumstances and saved part of the building. The main hall is intact. It could have gone," Prof Nawangwe said.
There have been past fire incidents at the university and Prof Nawangwe said processes were underway to at least insure key buildings such as the Main Building, library and senate.
"We were in the process of insuring the key buildings but because we have to go through payment systems of government, the accident happened. I am sure everybody will now support us to expedite the process," he added.
Unfortunately, Prof Nawangwe explained, the university had no fire hydrants to support the police fire brigade efforts.
"That is the most unfortunate part. This university is very old. There is no fire hydrant. We have to now put hydrants around major buildings and the whole campus. We were planning to start that in 2021. It was in our budget. We will have fire hydrants on all our university installations," he said.
'Top floor gone'
Prof Nawangwe added: "The whole of the top floor is gone. The whole of finance department of four levels is down, part of the right wing, the offices on first floor and some on the ground floor are burnt. It is only offices on the left wing which didn't burn. But they are all cracked. We are not sure whether we are safe."
He said although all documents in the human resource and finance departments were burnt, they had already saved about half of the information digitally.
"All our documents in the finance department are burnt. Internal audit offices were on that level. The university secretary office was also burnt. They were able to retrieve a few documents. But most of the documents which were on shelves were burnt," Prof Nawangwe said.
He said they had worked on the wiring of the buildings to make sure there would be no electric short circuits, and wondered what triggered the fire.
"It is a bit of a mystery. The fire started when nobody was there. They were not using electricity, so there is no electricity which should spark. The police is here. They will tell us. We have CCTV cameras. That is how the police knew the house was on fire; it was the person who was seated at the police station who saw in the system that the fire was in the roof and alerted the security officer who came on ground and found the building burning," Prof Nawangwe said.
"We have CCTV cameras. The ones on the building are damaged. We never expected that this would happen. We have always had fires but they are put out quickly. He said the University Council will sit today to assess the damage and begin the process to reconstruct the building," he added.
Ms Jackie Ayorekire, the head of planning at the university, suspected a sinister motive behind the fire:
"Why now? Why finance? Why Sunday? A lot is suspected. It's a season of audit. It was ongoing," Ms Ayorekire said. "It's terrible. It is sad. It's a black day. We are hoping we get solutions. I have no idea until somebody goes in there to know the extent of damage," she added.
Ms Ronah Magara, the University Council chairperson said: "This university has raised many figures across the country and globally. It is a difficult time for us. It is very unfortunate. We don't want to speculate. The university has many rooms we can use for now."
Rev Onesmus Asiimwe, the chaplain of St Francis Chapel that is next to the Main Building, said: "Very sad moment for the university and the alumni. Certainly, this is an attempt, whether there is a human hand or not, to erase our history."
Mr Simon Sagara Mulindwa, the former manager of the University Printery, which is on ground floor of the Main Building, said for the 36 years he worked at Makerere University, the structure first caught fire in 1996.
"Again it was within the finance department where the fire started but it was extinguished," he said.
Mr Mulindwa said again last year, there was a minor fire outbreak within the building but it was managed.
Mr Walter Nono, the director for internal audit at the university, said all documents which were not digitised have been lost.
"The directorate has been in existence for 10 years. We have lost all the documents. A few were digitised but the older ones were not digitised. It's a sad day," he said.
Mr Joseph Mugisa, the director of fire and rescue services in police, said it took them four hours to put out the fire, which was fuelled by a lot of paper and timber in the building.
What alumni say
Kizza Besigye, four-time presidential candidate: "A very sad day for all Makererians. Our iconic symbol consumed by fire overnight. From what's reported, the most destroyed part includes the Finance department, central registry, university secretary's office and university store. Of course, it's too early to tell what caused it."
Janet Museveni, Education minister: "This is tragic, not just for the university but the country. For us who believe in God, we know that everything works out for our good. This is a chance for Makerere to be rebuilt, not just buildings but the culture, the morals of the people and everything that pertains to our prestigious university. Investigations into the cause of the fire have begun and then we shall start the process of rebuilding the Ivory Tower."
Prof Eli Katunguka, Kyambogo VC: This is very sad for all people who went through Makerere and those who have a passion for higher education. I fall in those two categories. My hope is that the cause of the fire will be established soon."
Dr Deus Kamunyu, MUASA chairperson: "As staff we pray and hope that this incident will be investigated quickly in order to guide our alumni, the public and the world on the cause of the fire. This will also arrest any unnecessary speculation..."
Additional reporting by Stephen Otage
Source: The Monitor