The events of March 25, 2003 will forever remain etched in the mind of Prof Ratemo Michieka, the founding vice-chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
The university was scheduled to hold its graduation ceremony the following day, March 26, 2003, to be presided over by President Mwai Kibaki, who had been in office just for three months having ascended to power in December 2002 through the historic National Rainbow Coalition revolution.
This was to be President Kibaki’s inaugural function at a university, presiding over a graduation as chancellor of all public universities, as was the practice then.
However, on the eve of this momentous occasion, Prof Michieka was sacked as the VC and diplomatically given a soft landing as Director-General of the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema).
What was cut out to be a colourful moment in Prof Michieka’s long-tenured academic life was painfully punctured by a shrift announcement from State House, tossing him out of an institution he had nurtured for 13 years from a constituent college to a full-fledged university.
All this happened just hours after he had had a long sitting with President Kibaki at State House, briefing him about the protocols of the ceremony. In the countdown to the graduation, Prof Michieka spent several days at State House, discussing details of the ceremony and working with the officials on logistics, among them the President’s official gown for the occasion. Nothing unusual happened.
There was not a whiff of a tsunami in the horizon. Everything was all set until that eventful afternoon, at four o’clock, when a terse announcement struck. Prof Michieka had been axed from the plum job at JKUAT and sent to cool his heels at Nema, then a struggling environmental agency.
“I had a good moment with Kibaki. Besides briefing him about a number of university issues and readiness for the event, we also had a light moment discussing his earlier trip to Kisii where he had attended the funeral of my uncle, James Nyamweya [a political heavyweight of his time],” says Prof Michieka.
This is one of the puzzling episodes in Prof Michieka’s autobiography, Walking the Promise, published by Moran Publishers, which was launched mid-this month.
“When I left State House for JKUAT, I received an urgent telephone call that there were some changes in our administrative hierarchy. President Kibaki had removed me from JKUAT and posted me to head the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), with immediate effect, yes, mara moja. Prof Nick Wanjohi had been appointed to take over as a vice-chancellor of JKUAT,” the author adds.
But Prof Michieka was not deterred. He went ahead to preside over the function the following day, as had been scheduled. He reasoned, and perhaps, history will judge him favourably, that it was injudicious to throw tantrums, leave in a huff and cause disruption to an event that had been meticulously planned over a long period of time.
This incident served to illustrate several things. First, it demonstrated Prof Michieka’s resilience, sense of duty and capability to handle difficult situations.
Second, it encapsulated the bad and the ugly in national politics; how selfless and dedicated public servants are hounded out of office while schemers that trod the inner sanctum of power craft devious plots to clinch top jobs.
Professionals, technocrats and career civil servants are never assured of stability in public offices, what counts, oftentimes, is politics.
After the graduation, Prof Michieka dutifully exited from the university to start a new career at Nema, where, through passion, he turned an erstwhile backwater entity into a powerful environmental watchdog that pushed through a raft of regulations to eliminate nature degradation and meted sanctions on violators.
Upon completion of his tour of duty at Nema, Prof Michieka returned to the University of Nairobi’s College of Agriculture and Upper Kabete, which is where he had started his teaching career in 1980.
Again, the events at Upper Kabete Campus were episodic as they were hilarious. The College of Agriculture had stagnated, just like other campuses of the University of Nairobi. Facilities are inadequate and those available are in a terrible state.
Professors share dingy rooms in the name of offices, forcing some to work from their cars. Students compete for little sitting space in lecture halls and laboratories. Quality teaching and learning was untenable in the circumstances. Learners hardly receive the education they deserve.
“When I resumed my duties at the end of my national tour of duty, I again conducted my final lectures in the same halls [I had taught in the early 1980s] to the final-year students. The halls were dark and congested, with peeling paints and poor acoustics. Little, if any difference, was visible. This is where I was going to teach and mentor students as I prepared for my exit from active public life,” says the author.
Prof Michieka’s experience upon return to the UoN provides a perfect mirror of the poor state of public universities, which are a crying national shame. More than 50 since Kenya set up its first full-fledged, The University of Nairobi, the number of institutions have grown in leaps and bounds and student population soared, but the quality has nosedived.
This is a sobering reflection from a scholar who lived through the formative and glamorous years of Kenya’s higher education, and in turn, a call to authorities to re-engineer university education to make it globally competitive.
The autobiography is both a personal journey and a treatise on nationhood. It offers a rich narrative of the socio-cultural and economic conditions in pre-independence Kenya, independence and the promise of nationhood and prosperity, and the subsequent betrayal as leadership changed hands at various pivotal moments in the nation’s history. Exponential expansion of higher education, social and economic challenges, including unemployment, are clearly articulated.
Based on his specialisation, the author canvasses issues on science, technology, agriculture and environment, with emphasis that these should be prioritised to foster sustainable national development. Globalisation and evolution of digital technology together with pandemics, particularly Covid-19 that ravaged nations, are robustly presented, giving the reader diverse perspective of a society in quick transition.
Like many of his generation, Prof Michieka started life in the village and climbed the social ladder essentially through sheer hard work. He traces his roots to Nyamagesa village in Nyaribari Masaba Sub-County of Kisii County, his early schooling at Ibacho Primary School, Kisii School and later Rutgers University in the US where he undertook undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, ending with a PhD in weed science.
Interspersed with his academic and professional credentials, Prof Michieka autobiography provides anthropological and historical narratives that elucidate the events that shaped his life and that of Kenyan nation. At a personal level, Prof Michieka holds the family and religion quite dearly and aspires for a society that prioritises equity, discipline and fair play.
Upon attaining the retirement age, 70, in 2020, Prof Michieka gracefully exited from the University of Nairobi to pursue other productive engagements, including mentorship, social work and writing.
The autobiography is a vital addition to the growing list of publications by outstanding public figures documenting pivotal elements in recent history. In itself, the autobiography is a call to academics and other public figures to share their life and experiences and create a repertoire of knowledge for future generations.
- David Aduda is NMG’s Consulting Editor and Education Specialist. [email protected]