Prof Magoha was a force for better education, but he had his failings

For example, Magoha captured the public imagination when he took over the helm of the Kenya National Examination Council in 2016. This followed massive examination fraud. Sophisticated syndicates involving examination officials, school heads and teachers had taken over the conduct of examinations. This had led to massive exam leakages, to the detriment of disadvantaged schools and students.

Magoha replaced the top officials of the council, and ensured their acolytes in the field and schools were dismissed. He and his diverse team visited examination centres on inspection and invigilation sessions, often excluding council officials. At the end of his three-year tenure, the examination cartels had been vanquished and exam credibility restored.

However, Magoha's hands-on management style, while laudable, veered into micromanagement. This left many field education officers hamstrung in the execution of their duties. Rather than focus on policy initiatives and oversight, the purview of Cabinet secretaries, his visit to schools on inspection and implementation tours left field officers with little to do.

In addition, he attempted to micromanage the University of Nairobi by usurping the role of the university council in reforms and appointments. His efforts were only thwarted by the Judiciary following a mutual settlement.

Magoha's public service embodied contradictions. He showed Kenyans what commitment to educational leadership was. And what it was not.

University of Nairobi

Magoha's long career in education included teaching at the University of Nairobi's Medical School. Trained in Nigeria, Ghana, Ireland and the UK, he rose rapidly through the ranks from an assistant lecturer to professor. He held a number of administrative appointments. These included chair of the surgery department, dean of the school of medicine, principal of the college of health sciences, deputy vice-chancellor of finance and administration (2002-2005), and finally, vice-chancellor from 2005 to 2015.

Internal efficiency was his mantra. As the vice-chancellor, he transformed the institution from an inefficient, fully state-funded university to an efficient state-owned university largely funded by private sources.

Prof George Magoha. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Magoha will also be remembered for efficiently spearheading school reopening and reforms amid a devastating Covid-19 pandemic. Almost one year after closure, he ordered the reopening of schools on the recommendation of a task force he had established. He personally supervised their reopening despite protests and concern. He never second guessed his decision, stating:

"We are confident that we will remain on the right trajectory to finding the winning formula that will ensure our learning institutions are safe for learners and teachers."

Achilles heel

Notwithstanding his successes, Magoha had vulnerabilities. His extensive commercialisation of the University of Nairobi elicited questions about the quality of academic learning in self-sponsored programmes.

In early 2016, the state moved to shut down the programmes and abolish branch campuses in the university and in all public universities.

Magoha also lacked the moderate temperament required for high-profile public office. In a fit of anger, he publicly humiliated a county director of education, calling him a 'fool' and kicking him out of his entourage.

This resulted in his being stripped of his human resource powers by the Public Service Commission.

-The author, Ishmael Munene, is Professor of Research, Foundations & Higher Education, Northern Arizona University