When Dan* learnt he was to join Moi University in 2016, he was excited about the four-year journey of higher learning and exposure that awaited him in one of Kenya’s oldest and largest universities.
His joy, however, faded as soon as he joined the institution when he met encountered an unwritten hurdle—stinking ethnicity in the university’s staff complement.
“I once went to the accounts office at the administration block seeking to have a receipt stamped. Together with some colleagues, we were asked to wait for the authorised officer, whom we were told had stepped out. To our surprise, a fellow student from the dominant community as the staff shortly walked in and after exchanging some words in the local dialect, left two minutes later with her receipt stamped,” Dan recalls.
“I really felt out of place. I felt like an unwelcome stranger. We watched helplessly as the habit flourished. This was the life throughout my four years at Moi University.”
Welcome to Kenya’s “village universities”, institutions that ought to have exhibited apex levels of civility by representing the face of Kenya and exposing students to global standards of thinking, but which have fallen captive to ethnicity. Their loyalty to tribes and political demands is shocking.
Audits are now flagging these institutions for employing close to 80 per cent of staff from a single community, with 18 universities—mainly those started in counties through lobbying of local political leadership—being the biggest culprits. Some universities that have been in the game for longer also feature in the list of those held back by the yokes of ethnicity in employment of staff. The institutions were reported to employ between 40 and 77 per cent of staff from a single community.
At least 10 current and former students in different universities who faced the ugly side of ethnic imbalance of staff have told the Nation that at some point they felt demoralised by poor services as staff sank to using the local dialect in the workplace. The effects are most felt outside lecture halls, in the hostels and in administrative services.
Prof Laban Ayiro, the vice-chancellor (VC) of Daystar University, warns of an academic capture in Kenya’s public university education, which has eliminated merit in appointments and given room to mediocrity.
“Doing away with meritocracy invites unqualified individuals to demand positions. Just like politicians talk about state capture, we have institutional and academic capture. Because of ethnicity, we don’t meet the threshold of who should lead a university,” Prof Ayiro says.
The Daystar VC, who faced strong hostility from North Rift politicians who stormed Moi University to object to his appointment as acting VC in 2016 for being an “outsider”, notes that there is little learning and research going on in some public universities because of “mediocrity and ethnicity”.
“Students are supervised by people from their ethnic communities to get masters and doctorate degrees. They can’t win grants or write competitive proposals. Donors want to look at your credentials before they commit their money,” Prof Ayiro says.
Today, despite being among one of Kenya’s oldest institutions of higher learning, Moi University ranks highly in the Auditor-General’s list of shame, with 61 per cent (1,622) of its 2,661 staff being from a single community.
Managements of these universities claim that they inherited staff from colleges that were upgraded, but audits have identified that even in recent appointments, many still largely employ from communities where they are located.
In 2019/20, the Auditor-General flagged Kirinyaga University for having 77 per cent of its staff from the dominant ethnic community in the county. This is the worst case reported in any public university. At Kibabii University, the Auditor-General found 331 of the 440 workers were from the majority community in the county.
Dedan Kimathi University of Science and Technology (DeKUT)—started in 2012—had 372 of its 556 staff (67 per cent) from the dominant community in the county. Prof Peter Kioni, the VC, attributes this to most of the staff being inherited from the former Kimathi Institute of Technology and Nyeri being an unattractive destination for people from other regions. He says the university has been running an affirmative action policy to grow the number of employees from other regions and communities.
“We introduced a graduate assistant programme. So as a student you come and study here whether you are from Luhya land, Nyanza, Kisii or Kitui. Since you are already used to this environment, if we give you a job you will not go. That is how we are addressing the issue and we have found it to be a very effective route,” he says.
In Meru, Prof Romanus Odhiambo, who just recently escaped an ouster by the Meru University of Science and Technology Council, also holds the view that inheritance of staff from a former college and unattractiveness of the university’s location have caused the imbalance in ethnic staff diversity.
The VC argues that employment of too many staff from one community cannot hinder education. “The university does not consider this a hindrance because we employ qualified and competent staff for various positions.”
Kenyatta University, one of Kenya’s top institutions of higher learning, has 40 per cent of members from one community being in its council, senior management (45.4 per cent) and permanent staff (40.7 per cent).
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) Act, 2008 requires that “All public establishments shall seek to represent the diversity of the people of Kenya in the employment of staff. No public establishment shall have more than one-third of its staff from the same ethnic community.”
NCIC Commissioner Danvas Makori notes that ethnic staff balance is a problem many public universities continue to battle.
“The people who entrench this are the politicians from those regions. They are the ones who, when staff or senior management officials from other regions are recruited, come out to champion for locals to be employed. The politicians empower these institutions to continue with that practice and protect them from accountability,” Dr Makori says.
He says the commission is currently conducting an audit and could take some of the institutions to court if found not to be making remedies. “In principle, when diversity lacks in universities, there is no strength. You are limiting your students to a limited pool of talent and exposure, with a parochial view on issues.”
Among established universities, those stuck in the mess include Moi (61 per cent), Maseno (64 per cent), Masinde Muliro (68 per cent), Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (45 per cent) and Kenyatta University (40.7 per cent).
University of Nairobi VC Prof Stephen Kiama notes that university administrations must make deliberate efforts towards inclusivity. He adds that pressure from local communities to have most jobs “ploughed back to them” gives upcoming universities a headache in attempts to achieve ethnic diversity, with most of the universities having been established courtesy of lobbying by local leadership.