Conflict and crash crunch hit the University of Nairobi

Controversy stalked the appointment last December of Professor Peter Mbithi as vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, and has followed him ever since. Mbithi has fought bare-knuckled duels with colleagues, including his deputy over control of finances, exposing a cash crunch – the university is allegedly running on a US$25 million deficit and millions of dollars in bank overdrafts.

Mbithi’s selection followed a lengthy, hard-fought recruitment process that was riddled by controversy. Allegations emerged that Kenya’s education secretary was planning to disregard the names of candidates recommended by the university council, and this came to pass.

After a second selection round, the newly selected vice-chancellor spoke tough as he detailed his game plan in running the university, perhaps seeking to reassure critics that he is equal to the task of replacing Professor George Magoha, a no-nonsense urologist who led Nairobi successfully for 10 years.

For instance, Mbithi said he would take aggressive stands against unruly students and lazy managers. Instead, for the past six months he has been in the eye of a storm as he has sought to wrest control of the university’s multi-million dollar budget.

How it all started

Trouble began last May when the vice-chancellor fell out with his deputy Professor Bernard Njoroge, who is in charge of administration of finance, in an apparent power struggle widely reported in the media.

Njoroge had raised concerns over mismanagement of university finances, which did not go down well with his boss and caught the attention of Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi, himself a former deputy vice-chancellor of academic affairs at Nairobi.

In August, the row deepened after Mbithi issued new financial control guidelines requiring that all expenditures above US$1,000 be approved by the vice-chancellor. This irked Njoroge who protested the directive, saying it was meant to ‘clip his powers’.

The vice-chancellor also announced changes that would see performance management run from his office – a departure from the past when the function was a preserve of the deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs, Mbithi’s previous role.

A month later Mbithi sacked three senior managers – chief internal auditor Peter Igiria, chief legal officer Rebecca Wairimu Ngondo, and chief finance officer Michael Karue. The three were alleged to be Njoroge’s ‘lieutenants’.

Since then, the two have been embroiled in an embarrassing public spat as they have both sought to protect their turf.

As the tussle escalated, Kaimenyi warned against mismanagement of higher education affairs. He questioned a deputy vice-chancellor of finances not being allowed to handle the money, and said nobody should manage a university alone. “You can’t breathe alone while managing by marginalising deputy vice-chancellors,” the education secretary said.

Last week the Universities Academic Staff Union warned that the image of one of Africa’s top universities was at stake, with the institution potentially being depicted as having flawed governance structures.

“The university is bigger than any individual. We therefore call on the two to resolve their differences quickly so the university can move forward,” said George Omondi, the union’s branch secretary-general at the University of Nairobi.

Kaimenyi has formed a task force to review policies on expenditure and staff transfers, as part of efforts to end the stalemate.

What went wrong?

So what went wrong at the university and why does it matter?

“What is happening at Nairobi reflects a bigger rot in Kenya’s higher education sector. It speaks a lot about how universities are run, calling for better corporate governance structures,” said a former vice-chancellor who did not want to be named.

“You see a lot of internal and external interference in the management of public universities. For this particular university to be undergoing such problems, it’s not only worrying but also a wakeup call for an audit and cleanup of institutions to rid them of mismanagement.”

The University of Nairobi is facing one of the most trying moments in its history, with a cash crunch while in the middle of several key development projects that are meant to put it ahead of rivals in Kenya’s lucrative and increasingly competitive higher education sector.

The institution is midway through the construction of a US$25 million business complex that is expected to host several conference halls, a modern library, a hotel and restaurant as well as outdoor and indoor sports facilities.

The complex is aimed at expanding the University of Nairobi’s revenue streams – a route also taken by its top rival Kenyatta University, which overtook it in terms of student numbers two years ago.