Meru University VC Prof Romanus Odhiambo on early life, career, ouster and reinstatement
He joined Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST) in August 2018, at a time when the institution was riddled with unending student strikes that at one point resulted in the killing of a student leader.
And his departure from the helm would have been characterised by chaos as students took to the streets to protest his removal — before the decision was dramatically reversed.
In a saga that captured the nation’s imagination, after serving as the Vice-Chancellor for four years and seven months, the MUST council gave its verdict: that he had performed dismally and had to go.
Served with a sense of finality, with this pronunciation, his fate was seemingly sealed. But to some, the decision had everything to do with politics and ethnicity, not performance.
What was meant to be Prof Romanus Odhiambo's farewell speech was brief. Hearty. And candid. The words were laced with heavy emotions, evidently coming from the tongue of a man feeling so downtrodden and crushed.
"If my performance at Meru University for four years is below expectations, then as a Professor of Statistics, I invite you back to my class," he said a fortnight ago following a not-so-generous review of his tenure at the helm.
This was it, the end of his career, he must have thought. But his message turned his fate around. His spirit dampened, he was leaving a man haunted with lots of questions lingering in his mind: Had he genuinely underperformed? Was it politically instigated? Or was it just time he called it quits?
Prof Odhiambo was clear in his conscience that he had performed well. He said that even the most recent State Corporations Advisory Committee report had rated his performance at 89 per cent. But the council's word was final.
But as the students took to the streets and his other supporters demanded his return, things took a dramatic turn of events. Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu announced his reinstatement and the term of the council that had kicked him out ended shortly after that.
The Vice-Chancellor returned just in time to preside over the 10th graduation ceremony. It was yet another chapter in the life of the decorated academic and administrator.
Yet were it not for a calamity that struck their home when he was 13, greatly shaping the trajectory of his life, Prof Odhiambo, 61, would not have been an academic.
Growing in Suba near the Kenya-Uganda border where he was born, Prof Odhiambo would have easily engaged in the thriving smuggling business, but he says he concentrated on looking after his father’s cattle and burning charcoal.
But on December 25, 1975, the course of his life— and that of his siblings — changed immensely. He recalls with nostalgia how his father’s only source of wealth, which the young Odhiambo was confident he would inherit, disappeared in minutes.
“They stole everything and we were left so poor that we had to start all over again, from scratch. I was in class four and that changed our lives because we started taking our studies seriously,” he says, adding that were it not for the calamity, he would probably have married at the age of 17 and led the life of a herder.
For him, recent events that almost led to his ouster at the university after only five years in the job were a baptism by fire in his 30 years of his profession.
When we settle for the interview and ask him about the riots at the main campus, he takes us back to his early life, narrating how he endured hardship. But none of these experiences, he says, prepared him for what would have tainted his stellar career.
Upon completing primary education, he says, his parents could not afford to pay school fees at Cardinal Otunga High school in Kisii, where he was admitted, and his primary school teachers had to contribute money so that he could secure the slot.
“Going to Cardinal Otunga shaped my life…during holidays I used to burn charcoal and sell a bag for Sh4 and by the end of holidays make at least Sh100. Then I would walk for about 13 kilometres to Migori and take a bus to Kisii,” he says.
Along the way, he does not remember when exactly but between his primary and secondary education, he discovered that the priests liked his first name Romanus. He says his parents were Catholics and in 1964 he was baptised ‘Ramanus’, which he later changed to ‘Romanus’.
A lover of Mathematics, Prof Odhiambo went on to acquire a PhD in statistics at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and started lecturing at the age of 30.
He says, as he was growing up academically, he identified a few people who were his mentors, including Prof Mabel Imbuga (the then VC Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) and Prof George Magoha who inspired him with his leadership model that transformed the University of Nairobi. He added Prof Magoha as his referee when he joined Meru University.
Unknown to many, the Vice-Chancellor is the husband to the former Migori County Woman Rep Pamela Odhiambo, whom he fondly speaks of. Together, they have seven boys and four girls.
“She is a great woman who has achieved more than I have", he says. This, the professor adds, is “despite me insisting on giving her a child every other year”.
But asked whether, like his wife, he has ambitions of joining politics when he leaves academia, Prof Odhiambo says: "I support my wife in politics, but I am not planning to contest for any seat. Politics is so gruelling that I prefer to support her so that our family can remain stable. If we all go into politics it will hurt the family.”
In the living room of his house at Kenya Re estate in Meru, there are pictures hanging on the wall, but one portrait with all family members stands out.
There is Denis Odhiambo, a tutorial fellow of financial mathematics; Emmanuel Odhiambo a medical doctor; Tony Odhiambo, a mechatronic engineer; Humphreys Odhiambo, a civil engineer; Sanne Odhiambo a computer and informatics scientist; Doji Odhiambo, a law student and Grace Odhiambo, an architecture student.
Others are Benjamin in Form 4, Victor in Standard Eight, Joy pioneer junior secondary Grade 7 pupil and Kawhi in Grade 4 at Juja St Peter's School, where all his children went to school. For high school, they joined Alliance Girls and Boys.
In what was like a premonition to the tussle that would befall him days later, Prof Odhiambo recalls that during the Vice-Chancellors’ meeting at the Coast in February when Prof Fred Simiyu Barasa, his friend and Taita Taveta University VC, told him something "very intriguingly disturbing and interesting".
“He called me aside and said, ‘Prof, two nights ago I dreamt that we were standing outside, and it was raining heavily. The funny thing about this rain is that we were not getting drenched…’ So he asked me, ‘what is going to happen '? I told him I didn't know and that we should leave it to God. Little did I know there was fire coming my way,” he tells Lifestyle.
The ‘rain’ that came was a letter from the council ordering him to proceed on leave and not carry out any “capital projects in the university”, student protests and his eventual reinstatement. Masses of students trekked to welcome him back to the institution.
Speaking a few days after his reinstatement, he said the council's not-so-generous review pained him because it was not honest, he believes. They said he had underperformed during his five-year tenure.
“By saying I should not transact on any capital project at the university, they insinuated that I was corrupt, which is not the case. But for all that they said about me, as a devout Christian I have forgiven them,” he says of the council's decision.
He goes on: “When they told me to go, I said, well, these jobs don’t belong to anyone and as a Christian, I know the jobs are given by God. I said if God has used the council to communicate to me that I am not fit to continue so, be it. I was ready to quit and go back to my teaching job."
The council rating, he says, reverberated across the world. After years of teaching at JKUAT, he had a network of former students and colleagues globally. These are the people who called him, he says, inquiring what was wrong.
“There was an uproar. People called and said the man being described by the council was not the Prof Odhiambo they knew. They assured me that they knew I am a performer and urged me to be strong and soldier on,” he says.
The don says his sacking was "political", adding that good relationship with students is what saved him.
“It has never happened anywhere in this country, and it taught me that the government also listens to the public. The CS and President William Ruto listened to them, and I am glad to be back. To tell you the truth I was gone. It's the students and members of the community who demanded that I come back,” he says.
"The students walked more than 20 kilometres from the main campus to Meru Polytechnic, where he stays, and back. I was also shocked because they did not throw a single stone. People say that I buy them, which is not true. Where would I get money to give all these students?”
But why does he think the students went out of their way to demand his return given that most university administrators are usually not popular? Prof Odhiambo says it lies in empathising with students and treating them well. He explains it involves talking to them and sharing moments, including attending their meetings, walking around with them and listening to their problems.
“When we were in the university you would never get a chance to talk to the VC. They were like gods placed somewhere on a pedestal that could not be reached by some lecturers and even today there are those who behave this way," he says. “The two incidents I came close to my VC was during the audition addresses and the graduation. But things have changed and we have to be close to these children so that we understand them. It convinced me that students can be the conscience of society."
He faults the system where VCs don't interact with students. He says it creates an aura of making them appear like 'gods' who are somewhere high at a level they should not even talk to students.
His walking at the campus with students, attending departmental meetings and going to church with students has endeared him to them, earning him the moniker "the students' darling".
“The university farm, which was idle, is now a beehive of activity. We are building a graduate school of agriculture and have established the miraa research institute,” he says, adding that despite the financial difficulties facing public universities, Meru University pays workers and suppliers on time.
“Perhaps one of the problems is that I do my projects in a transparent manner since I am a Christian and I don’t engage in corruption. Perhaps the mistake I made was to advertise the tenders and ensure that they were awarded in a transparent manner. I don’t cut corners and I will never. If that is what people want I will never, I would rather pack and go sell omena in Migori, where I come from,” he says.
The professor adds: "My business is to make Meru the best university because when I came in 2018, we had 4,500 students and currently we have 11,000 with a target of 20,000 students in the next five years. A year ago, we were number 27 but now we are at position 19 and I want the institution to be ranked top 10 by next year. For a small university, which is 10 years old, those are milestones that we have to count.”
He dreams of growing the university to a level that Nchiru market, which neighbours the university, becomes "a city" just like he witnessed Juja town grow.
“I will work with political leadership so that the nine MPs in the county can support at least 100 students every year with bursaries from the National Government Constituency Development Fund kitty,” he says.
And, on the university fees, he echoes sentiments that the fees were too low, saying the capitation of Sh16,000 was fixed in 1989 when he completed his first degree and that it was “crazy” charging the same amount over 30 years later and expect universities to deliver on their mandate.