KENYA: Former universities minister cleared of fraud

Kenya's Higher Education Minister William Ruto (pictured), who was suspended from cabinet last year over graft allegations, is set to return to his docket after a court cleared him of fraud charges, the government's spokesman has said. But Ruto still faces other allegations.

Spokesman Alfred Mutua said the former minister was only awaiting formal communication from the president to resume duty after he was acquitted earlier this month, for lack of evidence, of Kenyan Sh43 million (US$513,000) land fraud charges.

The return of Ruto, mastermind behind a raft of plans aimed at improving Kenya's higher education, is seen by some analysts as potentially unblocking a stalled reform agenda in the sector.

Ruto had kicked off a plan that would increase access to university education by enrolling all eligible students immediately after leaving school, to give Kenya much-needed high-level human capital to drive its growth target of becoming a middle-income economy in the next two decades.

Since Ruto left office the government has uttered no word about the plan, raising concerns that the project was a populist policy that could be too costly for the state to implement and could therefore fall victim to faltering political will.

"Ruto seemed so enthusiastic about the reform agenda in higher education and it would be interesting to see if he would return to this docket and whether he would conclude such plans," said a lecturer who sought anonymity.

Another Ruto brainchild is Kenya's plan to admit at least 40,000 extra students to higher education by partnering with private institutions, to help clear a decades-long backlog of places. This project has also been battling financial strain.

The Kenyan government is facing a financial squeeze in the wake of increased public expenditure arising from unplanned expenses, in an environment where revenue collection has come under intense pressure. This has left little room for investing in new plans.

The admissions backlog has grown since 1982, when universities were closed because of strikes following a failed coup, and it worsened during a countrywide university strike in protest against the introduction of fees and a pay-as-you-eat meal programme in June 1991. School-leavers have to wait for a year before they can enroll in a public university.

The plans were being refined in September last year and were set to kick-off early in 2011. Their delay has raised questions over the government's commitment to ending Kenya's higher education crisis.

Announcing the suspension on 19 October last year, President Mwai Kibaki said Ruto would have to leave office and wait for the fraud case to be concluded. He appointed East African Cooperation Minister Professor Hellen Sambili as acting higher education minister.

But Ruto has another fraud case that could complicate his reappointment to the cabinet. He has been sued by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission over an alleged council plot in Eldoret municipality.

Ruto is also among the six suspects named by the International Criminal Court for allegedly masterminding Kenya's deadly 2008 post-election violence.