The occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of Moi University, former President Moi was the chief guest. The invitation was natural, as the university not only bore his name, but was founded by his foresight and political will.
I was just recently employed at the university. It was December 2014. The university had invested resources and energies to the week-long event that included a catalogue of social and cultural events. The highlight was the keynote speech by Moi. There was excitement, as everyone looked forward to the speech and the luncheon that was to follow. As expected, Moi kept time, and after 10am, he arrived. The choir did their melodious bit. But he was not in his best of moods.
To the chagrin of the university, his orderlies sent word around that he would only stay for no more than an hour. The programme was cut short, and Mzee was invited to speak. He narrated how it all started. “There was need for a second university and there was a dilemma on where to locate it. I realised I had my 3,000 acres in Eldoret which I wanted to do commercial farming as it was endowed with rich soils.
The more I thought about farming, the more my heart went on Kenyan children and I surrendered my land,” said Moi. He did not hide his disappointment when he spoke directly to the prevailing state of affairs. And neither did he mince words. “Speed yenu iko juu sana,” (you are moving too fast) he mourned, disappointed at the universities’ expansionist programme across the country. In his typical husky voice, he warned, ‘nenda pole pole, msiteleze!’
The warning was not just to the immediate audience, but to the hyper-commercialisation, and the unhinged culture that saw many a university establish satellite campuses across the country, and where higher education was being massified at frightening velocities. The former President recounted how Moi University was conceived, and how he had meant it to be a substantive campus, consolidated in its expansive acreage. “I gave you a complete campus,” Moi lectured, every now and then pausing to allow the words to sink in. Meanwhile, professors were fidgety, and the university leadership were bent over, visibly troubled at the dressing-down.
Later, I learnt that when invited at academic institutions, Moi would only linger if he thought that a sense of excellence had been established there. Around the same time, Moi would honor a similar invite to his alma mater, Kapsabet Boys High School. Same script. Organisers were informed that he would stay no more than an hour at the function. However, so pleased was he, at both the leadership and general progress of the school that he lingered there for hours, throwing the school’s management into a brief logistical panic.
If there was anything that Moi bequeathed this country, it was a commitment to accessible yet excellent education. Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta inherited a colonial education system whose aim, especially at the higher education level, was the creation of a tiny crop of elites. Kenyatta was content with a single university despite concerted pressure from senior scholars that Kenya needed to expand its higher education infrastructure. Education scholar Kithinji Mwenda, in his newly published book that investigates the historical development of higher education in Kenya, observes that the transformation of university education from 1978, when Moi took over from President Kenyatta, was ‘dazzling.’ Despite huge economic headwinds and other competing needs, Moi asked the University of Nairobi to expand enrolment and innovate university programmes. He would go on to do much more.
The Mackay report, which soon established Moi University and overhauled the education system, was possibly the most consequential transformation of education in Kenya. There were important lessons to be gleaned from this experience. First, President Moi valued the use of expertise before changes in the education structure were executed.
Moi University was symbolic of Moi’s desire to democratise higher education, and ensure universities were more responsive to the communities around them. Moving away from the elitist perspective of Kenyatta, where higher education was for the privileged few, Moi ensured that as many qualified Kenyans as possible had access to higher education. Today, Kenya is still plagued by many challenges, but the sheer availability and capacity of its human resource allows the country to punch way above its weight, all thanks to Moi. Kenya’s high literacy rates in Africa, only once rivalled by Zimbabwe, is one of Moi’s notable legacies.
The label of Moi as a ‘dictator’ is not exactly accurate, and most reputable academic journals would consider it extreme in describing a leader who ascended to power without force. Moi should be judged in his own political and social context. Moi’s peers were Idi Amin Dada, Mobutu Sese Seko, Julius Nyerere, Mengistu Haille Miriam, Robert Mugabe, Jerry Rawlings and the multiple military regimes in Nigeria, the Apartheid regimes in South Africa among an assortment of deplorables. In all these countries, there was unrepentant autocratic and sometimes murderous regimes. Compared to any of these countries, Moi was almost saintly. Moi inherited an imperfect, bubbly, adolescent nation which was only 15 years old. The literature on nationalism shows that it is often at similar stages that nations collapse or are forged-usually in fire. The historical moment did not give Moi latitude to play Santa-Claus.
Last year, while going through immigration at the Edinburgh airport, the immigration officer took particular interest in me upon realising I was Kenyan. ‘I love your country’ he said, ‘I visited to play golf there nearly every year in the 80s and 90s,’ he went on, while stamping my passport, ‘but not anymore.’ I asked why. “Under President Moi, I felt very safe moving around Kenya,” he explained. As I gathered my documents, I reflected on some of the security challenges prevailing in the country. I could not help wondering how we often took basic feelings of security for granted back then. Moi was the quintessential commander in chief.
Nonetheless, Moi’s most significant imprint was, and still is on education. And no wonder institutions bearing the name ‘Moi’ are often associated with academic excellence. It was perhaps why the gloves were off when he visited Moi University way back in 2014. For, despite being in retirement, he cared for quality, especially in higher education.
-The writer works for the Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn ([email protected])