When a no-nonsense Prof Magoha almost resigned from education ministry

A straight-shooting Prof George Magoha almost resigned his Cabinet position when a government official tried to yank away the human resource control from him.  [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Prof. George Magoha almost resigned from the Cabinet following a policy change pushed by a colleague.

Interviews with friends, ministry officials and educationists reveal that, that the former Education Cabinet Secretary was clear that taking away the human resource control from his docket would reduce him to a puppet.

"To Prof Magoha, whose passion was often mistaken for hubris, this was one of his lowest moments at the Education Ministry," a senior ministry official told The Standard.

The decision came after Magoha, started streamlining the ministry following an appointment by former President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Away from the ministry, where Magoha faced much resistance, he was caught on camera questioning Uasin Gishu County Director of Education Gitonga Mbaka about an apparent lack of hygiene at one school.

"This was when he visited Langas Primary School in 2020 and the following year at Baringo County Commissioner’s Office," the official recalls.

Magoha's dressing down of Dr Mbaka was met with backlash from Kenyans, with critics calling him a bully.

As a result, in November 2020, the Public Service Commission (PSC), bowed to public outcry and withdrew human resource powers allocated to the former CS.

PSC chairman Stephen Kirogo (now deceased) issued a circular to chairpersons of Public University Councils (and copied then-Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua) directing that all human resource matters would be handled by Basic Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang.

The letter delegating Magoha’s powers came at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when in-person learning in all schools had been suspended.

Educationist Prof Simon Gicharu recalls booking an appointment with the CS seeking to know why the government had closed medical schools at a time when the country was reeling from a shortage of health professionals.

"I found him in very low spirits," he recalls of the Jogoo House meeting.

"Prof Magoha was a man of high self-esteem and integrity, thanks to his many achievements, especially in academia. He simply couldn't reconcile the humiliation of a junior colleague writing him a letter and what he perceived as a betrayal by one of his Cabinet colleagues in the previous administration."

According to Prof Gicharu, Magoha told him that he believed the humiliation was orchestrated by a colleague overstepping his ministerial responsibilities.

He reveals that Magoha told him he was contemplating resigning as Education CS, rather than signing the letter confirming his being stripped of the HR role.

"In his characteristic abrasiveness, he opened up and told me that he felt the government was dysfunctional. He said it with a lot of bitterness," recalls Prof Gicharu.

Prof Gicharu recalls he asked Prof Magoha whether he had received any communication from President Kenyatta on the matter, to which he replied that he hadn’t.

"I told him rather than taking that drastic action, he would rather wait for communication from his boss, who was the appointing authority," he says.

Ministry officials say Prof Magoha never received any communication from President Uhuru Kenyatta, and he was soon back to his hands-on management of the Education Ministry – inspecting schools, calling out education officials who slept on the job, and, well, lampooning journalists who asked rhetorical questions.

"Let that nonsense stop because I will not take it," he told one official from Rift Valley. "If you want to resign and go into politics, then do so now. You must be available in the field."

On the closure of university medical schools due to Covid-19, Magoha posed this question to Gicharu: "During the time of war, do you stop training more soldiers or do you train even more?"

He later partially re-opened some universities.

Prof Gicharu worked closely with the former CS during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi (2005–2015) and when he served as a commissioner at the Commission for University Education.

Having started his professional journey into the medical field with an illness – bronchial asthma, Magoha left a legacy of ‘no-nonsense’ imprinted everywhere.

After his early education at Jina Primary School in Gem, Siaya County, Magoha moved to Dr David Livingstone Primary in Jerusalem, Nairobi, and later to Starehe Boys Centre.

He undertook his medical training in Nigeria and Ireland. He returned home in 1987 after getting a job as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi Faculty of Medicine "without an interview."

He would later become the institution's Vice Chancellor, where former Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i was his junior as a lecturer. Magoha served as chairman of the Kenya National Examination Council before he was appointed Education Cabinet Secretary.

He had recently joined Maseno University as a professor in the School of Medicine.

Magoha died aged 71, on Tuesday evening at Nairobi Hospital following cardiac arrest.

The former CS has been eulogised as a man of integrity with unmatched dedication to duty.

President Ruto described Prof Magoha as "a towering giant of our time, a great man who stood tall in the academy, where he excelled in learning, teaching and research, as well as in administration, where he led robust turnaround interventions at the University of Nairobi and the Kenya National Examinations Council."

"Prof Magoha also famously served as the Cabinet Secretary for Education. He demonstrated unwavering integrity and a dedication to upholding high standards in public service throughout his tenure, according to Ruto.

"I have been privileged to know and work with the late Professor in many capacities, from the university where I completed my post-graduate studies, to government, where he served with distinction as the chair of Knec and later as my colleague in Cabinet."

Opposition leader Raila Odinga described Magoha as a transformational leader, an illustrious scholar, a dedicated public servant, and a distinguished medical doctor who left an indelible mark on our country's education system.

"We will remember him for his incredible intellect, wit, and ability to inspire and challenge us to do our best," Raila added.

The Standard
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