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Let Magoha take responsibility for preventable school tragedy

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha.

The media accused the government for failing to assure the safety of the children which they said was the reason for the accident at Precious Talent Top School, where eight children met a tragic death last week. Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, however, deflected the blame elsewhere, first to the parents of the children, in effect saying that their choice of an unsafe private school was the reason why their children had met their death, and then to the owner for erecting an illegal storeyed building which then collapsed on the children.

Prof Magoha prevaricated when informed that there were not enough public schools in the area, asserting that there were enough schools before saying that if this was not the case, the government would take immediate steps to build a new school.

Magoha defended the government from accusations of a regulatory lapse, and was not prepared to admit that the failure to do something about an illegal structure that endangered the public had anything to do with the tragedy. While saying that the government has more than 1500 quality assurance officers whose job was to address safety issues in schools, he observed that the tragedy occurred because these officers are in charge of more than 30,000 schools so something like this could have slipped through their hands.

The truth of the matter is that arrangement that should have assured the safety of the children at Precious Talent School failed and the failure led to the death of eight children. Magoha remained non-committal on the consequences of the failure only saying that the government should be allowed time to investigate what had happened.

Confrontation

Magoha’s encounters with the media are often the occasion for confrontation in which he intends to emerge as the winner. This was the case again last week. Even in those most tragic circumstances, the Education Secretary bullied the media, maintaining the arrogant and high-handed demeanour with which his public life is now associated. Clearly a long-term bully, Magoha has refined ways of putting people down.

Among the favourites is his tendency to pick hair-splitting issues with questions asked by the media, which he then rephrases before answering them. This habit is calculated to put the questioner down, to demonstrate how clever Magoha is and that the questioner is not even able to ask a proper question. Magoha also came up yet another of his tricks, the contempt he has for the public, of whom he said “Kenyans like to dramatise things.” 

While Magoha is undoubtedly arrogant, his troubling public performance is also a reflection on the quality of the media in Kenya. In a recent interview published by The Observer, the unnamed interviewer could not have enjoyed the interview with Magoha. The interview opened on a wrong note with the interviewer mistakenly referring to the Cabinet Secretary as “Jacob Mogoa,” an error from which the rest of the interview never recovered. While the interviewer was naïve and painfully unprepared, it did not help that Magoha remained so cocky through the interview, responding to questions with questions of his own, and turning the interview into a quarrel. While the interviewer was obviously ill-prepared, Magoha also failed to realise that through the interview, he was speaking to a larger public of whom he needed to be respectful.

Whatever the shortcomings of the media, an interaction with the media is ultimately a service to the public. If Magoha cannot respect the media, he should respect the public, the ultimate consumer of news. Magoha’s contempt for the media is ultimately contempt for the public and shows that, for that reason alone, he is singularly unfit for public office. Public office requires an attitude of service, a capacity to explain, to justify and to convince. 

Prosecute the owner

The performance of the Education Secretary is a reflection of a wider problem with Kenya, where officials must always win and where no level of failure is big enough to humble them. In this clearest of situations where the government failed in its regulatory duties, leading to the death of eight children, Magoha has attempted to find somebody to whom to pass the buck. However, such a person does not exist. While the government has already promised that it will prosecute the owner of the school, it cannot be the end of the matter.

Someone must take political responsibility for this very preventable tragedy. That person is Magoha. As the Secretary for Education, he is under duty to ensure the safety of all the children in all the schools in Kenya. Where, as happened in this case, there is a failure of that duty, the official responsible must be held to account. For that reason, Magoha must also resign his office and if he is not, parents and the larger public must apply political pressure to force him out.

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]