A cloud of restlessness swirls around Moi University, Kenya’s biggest institution by student numbers, after the selection of a vice-chancellor was raucously opposed by senior local politicians. Their problem was ‘tribal’ – Professor Laban Ayiro, appointed in an acting capacity in September, was an ‘outsider’.
He was being rejected for not belonging to the dominant community where the university is based – the Kalenjin ethnic group. Ayiro, who still is in office, comes from the Western Kenyan tribe of Luo.
Students at the university who spoke to University World News last week expressed fears that the growing politicisation of management was threatening to tear institutions apart.
“Ethnic undertones continue to dominate conversations around the management of Moi University,” said a student leader who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation.
“Our biggest fear is that this politicisation could degenerate and hurt cohesion among students as politicians drive the ethnicity wedge. The situation is worrying and it’s widespread across all Kenyan universities.”
Several other universities, including Maasai Mara University, have in the recent past been hit by ethnicity-based crises, forcing them to temporarily close.
At the University of Nairobi, ethnicity is said to have reared its ugly head during a recent student election, with the main duel being between candidates from Kenya's three main tribes, which have dominated politics since independence – the Luo, Kikuyu and Kalenjin.
The fallout over Ayiro's appointment saw top politicians face off in an ugly show, revealing how deeply ethnicity is hurting Kenya’s public sector, in this case public universities, where the quality of learning continues to falter amid this and a myriad other challenges.
Ethnic and diversity audit
The rot in public universities was last week laid bare in a new report from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission or NCIC – a state body mandated to forge unity in Kenya – titled the 2016 Ethnic and Diversity Audit Report of Public Institutions.
The audit, conducted in all commissions, parastatals and counties, aimed to enhance equal opportunity, reduce discrimination on the basis of ethnicity in the recruitment of staff for public institutions, and promote affirmative action in public employment for excluded communities.
The National Cohesion and Integration Act of 2008, which governs the agency, requires that no public institution should pick more than 33.3% of its employees from one ethnic tribe.
Public universities have been cited as the biggest defaulters of this directive, with the report showing that of 31 public universities and constituent colleges in Kenya, 83% – 26 universities – have not stuck by the legal requirement and the Act in promoting cohesion.
The audit shows that Kenya’s six largest ethnic communities – the Luhya, Kikuyu, Luo, Kisii, Kalenjin and Kamba – control at least 66% of all jobs in the country’s 31 public universities and constituent colleges.
The six tribes occupy 20,000 of 28,935 jobs available, said Francis Ole Kaparo, the NCIC chair, at the report’s launch. The remaining 36 tribes must share a measly 7,200 jobs in universities.
Government statistics show that there are 42 communities in the country. Employees from the Kikuyu community – the largest by numbers – are the biggest beneficiaries of university jobs, taking up at least 23% of available slots (6,600).
The percentages of employment in universities and constituent colleges of the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, Kisii, Embu, Kenyan Europeans, Kenyan Asians, Nubi and Taita communities are higher than their national population ratio (2009 population census), the audit shows.
The communities whose representation in university employment is less than their population ratio include the Somali – with the highest underrepresentation, at 6% – and the Kamba, Mijikenda, Turkana and Maasai.
The audit also reveals that most staff in public universities and constituent colleges come from the communities within which institutions are located. The spread of universities in Kenya excludes the northern part of the country, with most located in the capital Nairobi and its environs.
Tackling the jobs problem
“Kenyans seem to perceive the university as a job creation enterprise for the community within which the university is located. It may be with this perspective that some regions agitate for the establishment of public universities in their area,” says the audit report.
“Despite the fact that universities are national, drawing their students from all parts of the country and, in spite of the fact that their recruitment for regular programmes is national as well, locals can be employed mostly to undertake subordinate duties as part of the extension services of the university to the surrounding communities.”
The data reveals that the representation of the majority of senior staff at universities and constituent colleges is consistent with the representation of the majority ethnic community at the institutions.
NCIC Chair Kaparo said the commission intends to engage the management of the Ministry of Education, universities and constituent colleges on ethnic imbalances in institutions, with a focus on their areas of strength and weakness.
Universities will be asked to make deliberate efforts to comply with the constitutional requirement on ethnic diversity in public institutions and the National Cohesion and Integration Act.
Also in response to the worsening state of tribalism in Kenyan universities, in September following a meeting with vice-chancellors, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered that public and private universities will in future be required to offer a mandatory cohesion course.
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