KENYA: Call for 'tribal' vice-chancellors to be moved

A body formed to help curb ethnicity and boost cohesion in Kenya in the wake of a 2008 post-election crisis wants top administrators in public universities moved over tribalism. It claimed that most vice-chancellors had been appointed along tribal lines or on the basis of dominant ethnic affinities in the regions where universities were located, rather than on merit.

The higher education leaders should therefore be reshuffled to give universities a national face, argued Mzalendo Kibunjia, chair of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission.

Kibunjia said the appointment of vice-chancellors and college principals according to tribal considerations was spreading to other ranks of employment in Kenya's seven public universities, made worse by a rise in the incidence of nepotism.

The problem of ethnicity has become more apparent with the recent appointment of principals to 13 newly created colleges and campuses under the seven public universities. The new institutions were set up over the past two years to increase access to higher education.

"Most of the universities and colleges are headed by people from the communities where these institutions are based," said Kibunjia.

"This is because the recruitment process for university vice-chancellors and college principals is flawed," he added, saying his commission would soon kick off an audit to establish the depth of tribalism and recommend ways of eliminating it.

Tribal differences were blamed for politically-instigated violence in 2008 after a disputed presidential vote, when Mwai Kibaki, a member of the minority Kikuyu tribe, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, in a widely disputed election.

An estimated 800 people were killed during the violence, up to 600,000 displaced and many Kenyans fled the country as refugees.

The commission was created as one of the mechanisms to address the post-election crisis and underlying issues that caused it, such as ethnicity.

Inter-ethnic tensions persist and are said to be on the increase in universities, exacerbated by political meddling in student politics and considerations of ethnicity in appointments to key positions.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission has been highly vocal on the need to eliminate tribalism and other factors that led to the chaos in 2008. Among its quick wins was a fight against hate speech, which has landed at least five members of parliament in court over the past few months.

News that universities are fraught with tribalism in their highest offices is the most recent problem for institutions already burdened by a biting admissions crisis and a eroding credibility over declining quality of learning.

It's also a signal that Kenya is far from intregrated, with tribalism remaining deeply entrenched in public offices and threatening service delivery, professionalism and equity as well as national healing and reconciliation.

Several university vice-chancellors contacted by University World News declined to comment on the matter.

In May, higher education Permanent Secretary, Professor Crispus Kiamba, called for an audit of how top officers in public universities were recruited, to establish if the law was being adhered to. The order came in the wake of an outcry over the alleged flourishing of tribalism in the appointment of principals and senior managers at constituent colleges of universities.

Educationists believe universities should offer examples of leadership based on merit and not ethnicity. But unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. Appointments appear to bear marks of political meddling and attempts to placate ethnic communities living in the areas where institutions are based.

"If we are to detribalise the country and allow every qualified Kenyan to work anywhere, then our institutions of higher learning should be the starting point," argued Kibunjia.

Already, public offices are rushing to comply with a new directive issued by civil service boss Francis Muthaura, requiring permanent secretaries to ensure that members of one ethnic group do not constitute more than 25% of civil service jobs in any department.

"We are going to get you out of the job just because of that. We will see your line-up and we are going to sack you," said Muthaura.

Recent investigations by a parliamentary committee revealed a trend of tribal differences that threatened to tear universities apart. It warned of a politicised student fraternity and deep entrenchment of what it termed 'negative ethnicity', both threatening to shake the stability of Kenya's universities.

"What is happening in the universities is a reflection of the rot in Kenya's political system, which is torn along tribal lines," said John Njuguna, a political analyst in Nairobi.

"Politicians are reaching out for support in universities by financing student elections in the hope of securing numbers during national elections," he said, adding that in most cases this created sharp tribal divisions among students.

Such divisions have also been blamed for the increasing cases of student unrest. Last year Kenyatta University was rocked by two incidents of student protests in one month, which caused extensive damage. In May this year the University of Nairobi was shut for over a month following unrest over disputed student elections.

"What is needed in Kenya is a social re-engineering for people to accept that they are Kenyans first," stated Kibunjia.