KENYA: Major dispute could lead to lecturer strike

Kenya's 5,000 lecturers in public universities are locked in a major dispute with the government over the sacking of a union boss by one of the institutions and growing tribalism in employment in state universities. The tussle threatens to erupt into a strike next week, which could paralyse learning in the country's seven public universities.

A 21-day notice issued by academics to the management of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Kenya's newest and smallest public university, expired two weeks ago.

Officials of the Universities Academic Staff Union countrywide are outraged at the dismissal of their national chair, Profesor Sammy Kubasu, for declining an appointment as a departmental head at Masinde Muliro University.

Kubasu was sacked at the beginning of this month in a move lecturers saw as intended to weaken the militant trade union.

The lecturers insist they will embark on industrial action if the university does not respond to their concern by 1 November. At the expiry of the notice, Masinde Muliro promised to issue an official response to lecturers by 27 October but it has yet to do so.

"We will definitely opt for industrial action if the chairman is not reinstated in his teaching job," said the union's national trustee Joseph Mberia.

"The action by the university management is not only a contravention of the constitution and labour laws, but also a blatant violation of human rights. This sets a dangerous precedent, which leaves the union leadership vulnerable and also contravenes the collective bargaining agreement and university statutes," said Mberia.

Should the strike by the lecturers proceed it will come as a shock to the country's almost 100,000 public university students, whose classes might be disrupted. At least 18,000 students have joined public universities over the past three months as freshers.

The university has defended its decision to sack Kubasu. His refusal to take up an appointment as the chair of the biological sciences department, the university argues, amounted to insubordination.

"The vice-chancellor has the powers to appoint anybody to a managerial position, and if one declines it becomes difficult to manage the university," said Deputy Vice-chancellor Sibilike Makhanu in a statement.

But the sacking of the union chair is not the only thing worrying lecturers. They also want the government to address growing concerns over ethnic biases in hiring of top managers in public universities.

A body formed to help curb ethnicity and boost cohesion in Kenya in the wake of a 2008 post-election crisis has recommended that top administrators in public universities be 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 are 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.

"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.