Magoha ‘the buffalo’: Towering giant who eliminated 'stupid As' from exams

Former Education Cabinet Secretary Prof George Magoha. 

Photo credit: FIle

The devastating and sudden death of Prof George Magoha comes at a time when he had commissioned a book to document his achievements at the Education ministry, where he had served for three years.

It was as if he had a premonition that his time was nigh and that he needed to put down in writing his experiences and accomplishments in the education sector where he had made a splendid record.

Talking to this writer last week, Prof Magoha intimated that he did not want to exit the scene without documenting his experiences especially in managing the education sector under Covid and implementing the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), which became his pet subject.

Accordingly, one of the proposed working titles of the book was: “Weathering the storm: How we managed education sector under Covid.”

He had put together all the notes and the writing was to commence soon after burying his younger brother, Prof Richard Magoha, who died in the US and was to be buried this coming weekend.

The book was to be a sequel to the earlier title, “Tower of Transformational Leadership”, published by East African Educational Publishers Publication in 2017, which chronicled his journey from Gem to Starehe Boys Centre and to Nigeria, where he studied medicine and later to the University of Nairobi where he rose from an assistant lecturer to Vice Chancellor.

A professor of medicine, Magoha arguably goes down as one of the most effective education ministers of all time. He took over the Education ministry at a time when the sector was going through rapid and tumultuous reforms.

First, Dr Fred Matiang'i, who had been Education minister before him, had tapped him in 2016 to chair the Kenya National Examinations Council to clampdown on runaway exam cheating that had made Kenya a laughing stock among the comity of nations. He did so with vigour and fervour.

Two years later, after Dr Matiang’i had moved to Interior ministry, former President Uhuru Kenyatta brought in Prof Magoha to continue with the former’s sterling performance at the ministry. And that paid off.

Exam cheating was eliminated, and he popularised the mantra: “No more stupid As” - a pejorative reference to the previous years when thousands scored higher grades after cheating in the exams.

At the Ministry of Education, his first agenda was to set up a task force to advise on the implementation of CBC that was hurtling from one crisis to another due to lack of decisive leadership.

The task force, chaired by Kenyatta University then deputy vice chancellor Prof Fatuma Chege, completed its work and handed over the report to President Uhuru Kenyatta in February 2022. 

The report provided guidelines on CBC implementation and remains a reference point for the Presidential Working Party on Education Reforms that was appointed late last year by President William Ruto.

Prof Magoha, a go-getter with little patience, made an indelible mark wherever he went. His towering leadership was manifest at the University of Nairobi during a turbulent transition from the Kanu regime to the Narc administration in the early 2000s. He made history as the first competitively appointed vice-chancellor of a public university.

His major achievement was addressing the deteriorating quality of teaching and learning and managing lecturers and students, who in view of the expanded freedoms, had revived their unions that had been banned under the Kanu regime years ago.

He was able to calm restive students and aggressive lecturers through a mixture of firmness, ruthlessness, courage, consultations and decisiveness, earning him the nickname, “buffalo”.

In 2003, President Mwai Kibaki, who had rode to power in 2002 on the Narc wave of reforms, ceded the role of chancellorship of public universities and instead appointed individuals, jettisoning an autocratic practice where the Head of State sat as the titular of head of the institutions.

Mr Joe Wanjui, a renowned entrepreneur, was appointed chancellor of the University of Nairobi and his first act was to declare the competitive appointment of all positions, starting with that of vice-chancellor.

When the position was advertised, Prof Magoha, who had hardly worked as deputy vice-chancellor, applied and went ahead to floor a team of veteran academicians and administrators to clinch the job. He was to serve for two terms, from 2004 – 2014.

Prof Magoha loved medicine. Both as a VC and a minister, he continued to teach at the University of Nairobi Medical School and supervising graduate students. He chaired the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board for many years.

So, it is not surprising that last week, he was appointed a professor of medicine at Maseno University and his role was to provide mentorship to young academics and supervise postgraduate students. It was more of a voluntary job that he had accepted to take up to help nurture young and upcoming medics.

His sudden demise is a major blow to the education sector, universities and the medical fraternity.  The towering Magoha has left behind a towering legacy.

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