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How brave Prof Onyango turned around Maseno from mediocrity

By Duncan Omanga | Updated Sat, May 20th 2017 at 00:20 GMT +3
Former Maseno Vice Chancellor Professor Fredrick Onyango.  [Photo: Courtesy]

 “I will have to make changes but first, I need to get rid of these thieves!” declared newly appointed Maseno University Vice Chancellor Prof Fredrick Onyango, pointing both hands to stunned senior academics and administrators sitting nervously behind him.

The deafening, ecstatic roar from students at Harambee Hall nearly drowned his second shocker. “And if they resist change, tutachapana!” the Physics Professor thundered, staring menacingly at his beleaguered colleagues as he pranced in a mock boxing spar with an imagined opponent.

To suggest that a new VC had officially taken charge of Kenya’s sixth university would be understating the enormity of the moment.

Prof Onyango had just descended upon Maseno University. The year was 2001.

We woke up to exciting news that the new VC would host all students for breakfast and later a Kamukunji at Harambee Hall. The breakfast was a treat for students used to the barest of meals, but it was nowhere close to the drama that was Onyango’s speech.

For every phrase punctuated with wild applause from the throng of students, the university bosses at the rostrum would increasingly fidget at what was turning out to be a public humiliation.

As we left the hall overflowing with optimism at what we felt was a turning point for the university, the university chiefs, soaked with cold sweat and suffused with disgrace, scurried to their cars. Prof Onyango, now deceased, would later spearhead one of the most audacious transformations at Maseno University. Prior to Onyango’s appointment, Maseno was a microcosm of the messy KANU government power hierarchy.

For students, the place was as mystifying as was the virtual absence of its principal, the late historian Prof William Ochieng’. He would be in campus about once or twice in an academic year.

Tough decisions

After the mandatory official welcoming of first years to campus, it was considered a great privilege to see the enigmatic don. Ochieng’ was a busy man. Being Principal of Maseno University College was a ‘side hustle’ to his substantive job of Permanent Secretary of State in the office of the President.

His absence in campus not only created a lacuna that scattered power to the oddest of places but had also bred the most appalling corruption. Power and authority were not located in high offices but in the perceived closeness individuals had with Ochieng’.

Nondescript individuals were more powerful than the usual senior university officials. Once, in a lecture hall, the linguistics lecturer notified us that he had just approved construction of students’ hostels after he stumbled on cheap timber.

It is this asymmetrical power dynamics that Prof Onyango would later disrupt.

Weeks before Prof Onyango reported to his new job, the university administration was putting up a highrise makuti dancing hall at its College campus.

It was designed as the place where senior academics would unwind after long lecture hours as they sampled the finer things in life.

The tallest structure in the university was emblematic of the misplaced priorities and poverty in leadership at a time when basic amenities like furniture and hostels were in extremely short supply. It was common to sit on the same chair in three different lecture halls across campus since we had to carry chairs from one lecture hall to another.

The edifice promptly came down the moment Onyango walked in.

Born in Migori in early 1943, Prof Onyango was the product of the ‘bromance’ between KANU and NDP, popularly known as ‘cooperation’.

As part of the many political rewards that would come Raila Odinga’s way, Maseno University College was granted autonomy from Moi University.

Locals were ecstatic. As is our troubled custom, many believed that a having VC from the host community would be the ideal icing for a long withheld cake. Those who thought Onyango will worship at the shrine of the ethnic god were grossly mistaken.

Trained in Upssala, Sweden and plucked from Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology where he served as a deputy Vice Chancellor Onyango was totally blind to tribe. The cleansing sword he unleashed on Maseno spared no one, not least the majority Luo.

With a sagging Sh200 million debt, maladministration and confused priorities, Onyango inherited a university tottering to near collapse.

Hard decisions rolled fast. Travel was severely limited, sporting events cut down, and the customary funerary trips limited to the closest of kin.

A memo was issued directing that university expenses in excess of Sh200,000 needed the VC’s personal approval. He ordered a financial audit that laid basis for a purge and which sealed loopholes in the finance department.

Malfeasance was promptly punished. Soon after, a number of accountants who had been high fliers began to live like mortals, again. Two Deputy Vice Chancellors were immediately relived of their duties. In a move not contemplated in any other university to date, the entire security department was sent home and the services privatised. Internal pilfering, common at the time, became impossible. In three short years of a ruthless control characterised by many fall outs, Onyango had hauled Maseno out of debt.

He launched a construction blitz of much needed lecture halls and hostels, appropriately naming one of the biggest hostels ‘Tsunami’.

Previously converted and vandalised staff quarters were renovated and assigned back to staff. Maseno acquired the former Hotel Royale in Kisumu and co-opted it as a top-notch training and entrepreneurial facility for hospitality students. Unlike his peers, Onyango resisted the expansionist hysteria and opened campuses after the most careful of considerations. His acquisition of the Kenya-Re Plaza in Kisumu and ability to honour financial commitments endeared him to many financiers.

Suffer fools gladly

His perceived arrogance lost him friends but it achieved desired ends. “You do not belong here, you should go teach across the fence,” he would often tell lecturers who had no PhDS.

The university shared a fence with Maseno High School. Onyango was way ahead of his time.

He would tell post-graduate students to walk out of class if the lecturer assigned to them had no PhD.

As a result, Maseno University developed one of the most efficient PhD programmes for both staff and students. Onyango’s was a Manichean world made of fools on one side and professors on the other. He did not suffer fools gladly. He perceived dissent as an open challenge to his authority and while he nurtured many youthful PhDs, he lost a number of professors.

For him, the fulfillment and completion of tasks trumped social relationships. Unlike some of his more acquisitive peers, he resisted unlawful attempts at prolonging his contract beyond the 10 years.

By the end of his term in 2011, Maseno University was punching way above its weight.

A year later, surrounded by family, Prof Fredrick Ngawo Onyango breathed his last.

He was 69. When history will hold to account the legacy of Vice Chancellors in Kenya, Onyango’s will be judged the bravest.