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KENYA: Universities back in business after violence

Kenya’s eight public universities have fully resumed normal academic programmes after the unprecedented violence that hit the country in January and February this year. For the University of Nairobi, the nerve centre of academic pursuit in Kenya, peace could not be more welcome – the institution lost two staff members and a student to the violence. The university’s public relations manager, Charles Sikulu, says none of the institution’s six colleges opened on 7 January as scheduled. The first to open was the College of Health Sciences, including all postgraduate students, on 21 January. The rest of the university’s students resumed learning on 18 February.

Kenya faced the worst political crisis in its independence history after the controversial results of presidential polls on 30 December 2007 were announced. The resulting stalemate between the Party of National Unity (PNU) and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led to widespread violence, particularly in areas seen as strongholds of the then opposition ODM. By the end of the skirmishes more than 1,000 lives had been lost and more than 300,000 people displaced, mainly internally.

But all that now seems to be water under the bridge, after President Mwai Kibaki of the PNU and ODM’s Raila Odinga agreed to a grand coalition government. The two signed a power sharing deal on 28 February after weeks of mediation by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan.

“The main reason for postponing the reopening dates was the fact that our students come from all over the country, and it was impossible for many to travel to their respective campuses due to the prevailing insecurity at the time,” says Charles Sikulu.

Most of the University of Nairobi’s programmes lost up to six weeks of learning time, which will have to be compensated for to cover the 15 weeks that statutorily comprise a semester. But, Silulu says, that will be a decision for the senate. Apart from those who were unable to travel, university staff reported to work as scheduled on 2 January. However, there was little work to do at the height of the crisis.

As part of its corporate social responsibility activities, the university administration has helped to resettle some staff who have been internally displaced. The university has also formed counseling committees in all its colleges to counsel staff and students adversely affected by the violence.

University dons will have a significant role to play in ongoing peace, justice and reconciliation initiatives, Sikulu believes. Kenyan universities have internationally recognised faculty and staff whose inclusion, he adds, “will be inevitable in the various commissions and committees being established”.

For university students it is now business as usual. Though they feel that their academic calendar will suffer, students believe the decision by Kenyan universities to postpone opening dates was wise.

Janet Muchiri, a third year medical student from Moi University Eldoret – which is based in the politically volatile Rift Valley province – says that since hostilities started, all highways to and from her home in Kericho district were sealed off by marauding gangs and any form of road transport was out of the question.

“But things have returned to relative normalcy now and we do not expect any more distractions to our learning,” she states. She praised fellow students for not expressing overt political or ethnic sentiments on campus, which she says has made the atmosphere conducive for normal academic endeavours.

However, the story is a rather different for suppliers of goods and services to universities. A source in the procurement department at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, who requested anonymity, said that suppliers had lost business worth millions of shillings.

“The beginning of the year is the busiest on our campus as we requisition bulk fresh supplies in almost all departments,” says the source. To make matters worse, the prices of good and services has soared in recent months.

* Stephen Ndegwa is executive director of MediaSpeak Africa, a Nairobi-based civil society organisation.
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