Academics emerge as key players in upcoming elections

As Kenya goes to the polls in August this year, university lecturers are playing central roles in the heated electoral process.

While some dons are offering consultancy services to political parties, others are serving in political think-tanks or actively overseeing political campaigns for different presidential candidates in a manner not seen in Kenya before.

Academics have made frequent appearances on television screens, educating the public on various issues surrounding the general elections, while others have transformed into political activists campaigning for their candidates and parties of choice on social media.

Some lecturers are also themselves vying for positions in the national assembly as legislators; others are aiming for the top spot as president.

While there is consensus that the Kenyan intelligentsia has a right to associate with political parties like everybody else in society, their motivation for doing so and their impact has been in contention.


“The involvement of the Kenyan intelligentsia cannot be said to be based on ideology or a desire to contribute to building a better Kenya. It is driven to a large degree by local factors such as tribalism,” said lawyer and social justice activist Suyianka Lempaa.

“Like ordinary Kenyans, the majority of academics who affiliate to parties do so to win personal favours, clinch state appointments or merely to earn money,” said the outspoken former journalist and lecturer.

He said academics hoping for leadership positions offered no new “ideas or direction” to the country.

University of Nairobi political science lecturer Adams Oloo is heading the election campaign secretariat for opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and his National Super Alliance, or NASA, coalition. The lecturer is working for the opposition alliance on a full-time basis, having taken leave from his teaching duties.

Also on the Odinga team is David Ndii, a leading economist and former University of Nairobi lecturer. Ndii is now director of consulting firm Africa Economics and is leading the economics advisory team for the opposition alliance.

Legal services

Offering legal services to the opposition is Makau Mutua, a law professor at State University of New York at Buffalo, United States.

Mutua has been assisting the campaign with complex legal and constitutional matters, in addition to helping with fundraising in the United States and the diaspora for the opposition candidate’s presidential bid. He has offered his services for free.

The opposition also has in its ranks Kibisu Kabatesi, a University of Nairobi literature academic who is head of liaison for the opposition campaigns nationally.

According to a source at NASA, numerous other university lecturers are involved with the opposition, offering consultancy services concerning various aspects of electioneering, including communications, mobilisation and logistics.

A similar situation has emerged on the side of the ruling Jubilee Party where political scientist Macharia Munene of the United States International University-Africa, based in Nairobi, has been working for president Uhuru Kenyatta’s party on a consultancy basis.

The professor has been doing consultancy work for the party and the previous government of Mwai Kibaki since 2003. His long association with the ruling elite has meant he is seen by some as part of the country’s leadership.

His close ties with the country’s leadership is rivalled by that of Peter Kagwanja, chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute, a security and governance consulting think-tank. Kagwanja is also a visiting scholar at University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies.

The role of academics in politics is the subject of debate.

‘Perfectly in order’

Conducting consultancy work for political parties or any other entities is perfectly in order, according to Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer at Kenyatta University’s School of Agriculture and Enterprise Development.

“Doing consultancy work is part of the functions of academia, besides teaching and research, and is totally different and has nothing to do with activism,” he told University World News.

“Every intellectual does consultancy work from time to time and this does not in any way contradict their teaching and research functions,” he said.

According to Mbataru, each university has its own code of conduct relating to how employees can politically engage, but as long as their engagement does not compromise the discharge of their duties, universities do not interfere with lecturers’ freedom of association.

“More importantly there is academic freedom in every institution and again there is the code of conduct that guides all public service and that is all that matters,” Mbataru said.

On-the-ground campaigning

In addition to those doing deskwork for political parties, another category of intellectuals has emerged who are involved in campaigns on the ground.

Prominent among them is Tom Namwambah of Kenyatta University who is leading a group of professionals from western Kenya in campaigning for the ruling party.

The creative and critical-thinking lecturer is leading Kenyatta’s campaign in his native region where the majority of voters lean towards the opposition.

Another set of intellectuals have transformed themselves into online political activists, making numerous post on social media, actively defending and supporting the parties of their choice.
In this category is Mukiri Wa Githendu, another Kenyatta University don who is known for his online posts attacking the opposition and defending the governing party, mainly on Facebook.

The seed technology scientist withstands daily insults and criticism from youthful social media users, commonly known in Kenya as 'online warriors', thanks to the volume of abuses they hurl at each other, either in support or against Kenya’s polarised political blocs.

And finally, there are those running for political seats with various chances of success.

Individual candidates

Independent presidential candidate Michael Wainaina, while not well known among the common voter, hopes to be Kenya’s next president.

If the professor’s chances of attaining the seat are slim, the same cannot be said of Lilian Gogo of Egerton University, who is only a step away from clinching a parliamentary seat in the western Kenya constituency of Rangwe, having won in the bitterly contested party primaries in April.

The food technologist is almost assured of getting elected and making history as the fifth ever elected, female politician in her Homa Bay County. If so, she will join the ranks of others like Agnes Zani, formerly of the University of Nairobi and now a senator and secretary general for the opposition Orange Democratic Movement.