We endorse a candidate who will ‘heal’ our universities

University lecturers demonstrate along Nairobi streets on June 6. They were demanding Sh10 billion agreed upon in their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). [File, Standard]

By this time next week, Kenya might be having a new president, re-elected the incumbent or preparing for a runoff. In the past few months, Kenyans have witnessed campaign blitzes from political parties as each candidate appeals to voters. The contest for most appropriate signs and symbols in the media has escalated.

Among thousands of elective seats available, Kenyans have an option of picking from eight presidential candidates. While the Third Way Alliance has emerged as increasingly impactful in setting the electoral process agenda, the other candidates outside the two leading coalitions are simply clowning also-rans with little chances of going beyond having their names on Dubai-printed ballot papers. The NASA or Jubilee outfits will, barring a cosmic rapture or an unforeseen disaster, give us our next president.

In both symbolic and material terms, the presidency is largely powerful and whoever wins will most likely influence the texture and poise of university education for the next five years. In my previous articles, readers will recall how, on two instances, we attempted to project what a presidential win for a specific political coalition represents for universities in general. In doing so, we dissected the manifestos of these coalitions and, as intellectuals, gave what we thought is an honest appraisal of both.

Being intellectuals with little economic or social capital except our knowledge drawn from a fascination with ideas, it is our task to expose prejudice, untruths, speak to power and clarify ambiguity for the purpose of awakening society. We agree that to better fulfill universities’ mandate of being socially responsive, it begins with us intellectuals, being socially and politically engaged. It is principally for this reason that this article is penned at this time. We argue that the outcome of next week’s poll will have far-reaching consequences for universities and the wider public as well.

In our analysis of higher education in Kenya, readers might already have noticed a specific recurrent tone characterised by candour, a critical outlook and a little irritation. This was both deliberate and necessary. The past few years might as well have represented some of the lowest moments for universities in Kenya. The problems affecting this sector have been well explained, sometimes with a tinge of hyperbole. Not to amuse, but to shock.

Buy support

For the record, we have since assessed Jubilee’s coalition legacy on higher education as both inspiring and anti-intellectual. It is during the Jubilee regime that the dignity of dons was guillotined and dragged through fresh dung. There is no better demonstration of this than how the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Universities Academics Staff Union (UASU) was handled. In brief, for four years the government simply ignored the welfare of lecturers and paid them only 10 days to the election. While dons are now smiling to and from the bank, they are keenly aware that the move is not too dissimilar to attempts to buy their support in the forthcoming poll. We consider this to be an affront to the dignity of the intellectual role played by dons.

This, alongside a drastic decline of funding of universities, a disruption of university autonomy and the attendant intellectual freedom, tribalisation of university campuses and the worrisome trend where universities have now become the latest targets of tenderpreneurs and acquisitive politicians, makes us doubt Jubilee’s capacity to provide leadership in the higher education sector.

Our understanding of our role as politically engaged intellectuals draws from the generic role of universities to society. We are persuaded that universities play both ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ roles to society. The hardware roles position universities as crucial national assets in addressing policy priorities such as sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking; providers of skilled personnel and credible credentials; contributors to innovation and attractors of international talent and investment. In this regard, we feel that nearly all previous governments, Jubilee included, have largely supported the ‘hardware’ role of universities at nearly the same levels.

It is the ‘software’ role of universities that should worry us. Here, universities and intellectuals are supposed to be agents of social justice, contributors to social and cultural vitality; agents of truth, and co-creators of the nation through argument, debate and exchange of ideas. In so doing, our task, most exemplified in the thrust of this article, is not bound by journalistic principles of ‘balance’. Indeed, we consider such ‘balance’ suspicious, if not a dereliction of intellectual duty. Socially engaged opinion that is honest and which seeks meaningful change is critical, interested and often implicated.

As intellectuals whose vocation is characterised by debate, and who believe that a greater truth emerges out of rigorous deliberative action, we consider President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to skip a presidential debate as a public demonstration of a lack of accountability. Further, we see it as part of the continuing culture of anti-intellectualism that in many ways undermines the ‘software’ role that universities ought to fulfill to universities. Also, we perceive such action as undermining our fledgling democracy.

Agents of truth

The decision to implement or not to implement the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation commission (TJRC) report will indirectly affect universities’ ‘software’ role as agents of truth, platforms of national identity, and spaces of cultural exchange. It is not possible for universities to purvey truth when the government is living a lie. We do hold that Kenya is a country constituted through pain and trauma. While we have had seasons of bliss, successive governments have resisted a national discussion of who we are, what we want as a country, and how to deal with the many wrongs we have inflicted upon each other. As a country, we are a dysfunctional family. Only a truth and reconciliation process can broker a proper national healing. As universityteachers, we are often pained to see students across the country turn down an admission or seek a transfer to another university on account of its perceived ‘hostile location’. We agree that only the political formation committed to a truth, justice and reconciliation process deserves our endorsement.

We are thus confronted with important choices for next week’s election. We observe that among the lesser fancied candidates; the Third Way Alliance led by Ekuru Aukot has availed intellectual value by punching way above its weight. However, we judge that the immediate political destiny of universities is bound up in the two leading alliances. With a lackluster résumé on higher education, the Jubilee Party is also not interested in a national healing process. While we are convinced that none of the political divides will fundamentally change the ‘hardware of universities’ as they are, we are, on the basis of their manifesto, persuaded that the National Super Alliance (NASA) has deliberate plans on national healing and restarting discussions on the Kenya we want. Thus, we, the public convened through this piece, take an intellectual position to endorse them in next week’s plebiscite.

- Dr Omanga is lecturer of Media Studies at Moi University

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