Mithika Linturi

Former Meru governor Kiraitu Murungi (left) and Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi. The two will be awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Meru University of Technology. 

| File | Nation Media Group

Linturi, Murungi nominations and the politics of honorary degrees

The recent nomination of Agriculture and Livestock Development Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi and former Meru governor Kiraitu Murungi for conferment of honorary doctorate degrees by Meru University of Technology has raised questions.

Mr Linturi has been nominated for the award of Doctor of Business Management while Mr Mirungi is to be conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

The two men contested the Meru governor position last year but lost to Ms Kawira Mwangaza.

The nominations, published in the press days ago, drew mixed reactions.

A doctorate is the highest academic accolade a university can award an individual. Equally, an honorary degree is the greatest tribute a university can bestow on an individual.

However, one does not have to go through the academic rigour to qualify for the award of an honorary degree.

It is an age-old practice by universities all over the world, dating back to the Middle Ages, to honour individuals considered to have offered exemplary contributions to society or succeeded in various fields.

Also known as Honoris causa in Latin, it literally translates to “for the sake of honour”.

The first recorded honorary degree was awarded by the University of Oxford to Lionel Woodville in 1478 or 1479.

He was the Dean of Exeter and brother-in-law of Edward IV. Woodville already held a Bachelor’s degree in Canon Law.

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“The university offered to confer the degree of Doctor of Canon Law on him without the usual academic exercises. It was thus an offer to dispense with the usual requirements, but was apparently unsolicited and clearly an attempt to honour and obtain the favour of a man with great influence,” a history of honorary degrees on Oxford University reads.

“Woodville was shortly afterwards elected Chancellor of the University, a post he held until the death of Edward IV in 1483.”

It further explains that when Charles I moved his court to Oxford in 1642, the university was prevailed upon by the King to award about 350 honorary degrees (in all faculties, including doctorates where applicable) from November of that year to the following February.

“The university responded by presenting the King with a petition, arguing that conferring large numbers of honorary degrees was damaging to the university: not just to its reputation as a seat of learning, but also financially,” it goes on.

“It asked the King not to present any scholar for a degree unless he was ‘capable by our Statutes, and give Caution to perform his Exercises, and pay all usual fees’. The King agreed to the request.”

At the University of Nairobi, nomination for the award of an honorary degree goes through scrutiny by the respective faculty, institute or school and college academic boards before being submitted to the Honorary Degrees Committee of the University Council.

The university has conferred 33 honorary degrees since 1970.

Whereas some people awarded honorary degrees shy away from using the title “doctor”, others wear it as a badge of honour.

“Honours are given on exemplary achievement above ordinary. You have to show evidence of the achievement but universities now, in a rush, to make money are downgrading the value of these awards,” says Prof Gitile Naitili.

“They will make them lose meaning when they don’t uphold integrity regardless of money. We have to cite specific achievements without creating innuendo.”

He adds that the alumni, academic staff and even students should vote on the nominees so as not to introduce strangers in honour of a university.

“A survey should be conducted and the achievement published for the public to judge,” he adds.

According to the Meru University of Technology notification, Mr Linturi’s achievements include the establishment of a national farmers register with more than 5.2 million individuals enrolled, his leadership in digitising Kenya’s agro-ecological zones and equipping farmers with crucial soil and fertility information.

“Hon Linturi’s influence reverberates in international agricultural forums. As a delegate of the FAO Council and vice-chair of the World Food Security Committee, his visionary leadership fosters global coordination and policy convergence on food security and nutrition. Serving as vice chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, Hon Linturi plays a pivotal role in shaping international food safety standards,” the citation reads.

For Mr Murungi, the university cites his long political career and as a rights activist.

He was a member of the National Assembly from 1992 to 2013. Mr Murungi also served as a Cabinet minister in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration.

He was Meru senator from 2013 to 2017 and then governor from 2017 to last year.

The university also cites Mr Murungi’s scholarship at Harvard University, authorship of three books and the many agencies he is associated with.

“Hon Kiraitu Murungi stands out as an activist for human rights, an outstanding leader, a teacher, an author and an advocate who deserves to be crowned for his exemplary service and leadership,” the university citation says.

Last year, the university conferred on retired career civil servant Francis Kirimi Muthaura an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

In 2014, it awarded Equity Bank Chief Executive James Mwangi an honorary Doctor of Business Management.

In 2017, the University of Nairobi de-registered Mr Linturi as a student just days to the graduation ceremony, saying it had been discovered that he presented fake papers for admission into the law programme.

However, the High Court overturned the decision in 2018 and he graduated during the same ceremony with President William Ruto who was conferred a PhD in plant ecology.

Earlier in August, Mt Kenya University found itself in the eye of a storm when it conferred an honorary Doctorate of Laws on International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan.

Khan’s presence at the university drew protests from opposition figures who questioned his impartiality in Kenyan cases before the court.

The opposition accuses the government of human rights abuses.

During his visit, Khan held talks with President Dr Ruto who was his client during his trial at the ICC before the case was dismissed but without an acquittal.

Khan’s office later said he had withdrawn from Kenya cases at The Hague-based court to guard against conflict of interest.

“The Prosecutor was in Kenya in a private capacity to receive an honorary degree. Please note that pursuant to Article 42.7 of the Rome Statute, Mr Karim A.A. Khan KC in his capacity as the Prosecutor of the ICC has recused himself from all Kenya cases before the ICC,” read the communication.