Day varsity union leaders slept in cold ‘lunatic cells’

Prof Korwa Adar in his earlier days. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • “The dismissal of UASU officials and other academics from their jobs ushered in a period of uncertainty for them and their families. It put their careers in limbo and their security at risk.” he recalls.
  • The role of UASU remains critical in Kenya, given the current proliferation of universities and students, and it must remain focused and apolitical. This is a daunting task, but in a situation where ethnicity is the key factor in the appointment of managers of academic institutions.

The Universities Academic Staff Union (UASU) has surely come a long way since the difficult days of its formation more than 20 years ago. The union came into being after a protracted struggle for registration by its founding officials, many who faced arbitrary arrest by the authorities, sacking and even forced exile.

As the current union officials and members savour UASU’s gains, some may not know the pains that went into its formation.

Recently, I ran into one of the leading fighters in the struggle and the former interim chairman, Prof Korwa Gombe Adar, in Nairobi. We joked about the recent drama of politicians led by a governor storming a university demanding that a member of the local community be appointed Vice-Chancellor.

Prof Adar, who teaches at USIU, was not amused and wondered where such weird thoughts came from.

“The running of universities and other academic institutions should be left to academicians and promotions done on merit. There should be no other considerations,” he said.

He says issues of academic freedom, de-politicisation of universities, quality education and the general welfare of staff were at the centre of UASU’s struggle in the 1990s.

“Allowing politicians to meddle in the appointment and running of universities is very worrying and will greatly erode the gains so far achieved,” he warns.

He remembers how they fought hard to get academic freedom and the suffering they went through.

“The dismissal of UASU officials and other academics from their jobs ushered in a period of uncertainty for them and their families. It put their careers in limbo and their security at risk.” he recalls.

CRITICAL ROLE

Some of the interim officials were Adar (chairman), Dr Airo Akodhe (vice-chairman), Dr Kilemi Mwiria (secretary general) and Dr Onyango Omari (deputy secretary general), among others.

The government put its foot firmly on the ground against the union’s registration, forcing many of the officials to seek employment elsewhere, particularly in Botswana and South Africa.

Dr Adar moved to South Africa in 1997, where he got a job at the Rhodes University and later the Africa Institute of South Africa. His security at home was so dire that he had to be escorted into and out of JKIA by UASU lawyers James Orengo and Betty Murungi.

At one point in their struggle, Dr Adar and Dr Mwiria were arrested and locked up at a police station in Nakuru. They spent the long cold night in separate cells labelled ‘lunatic cells.’ As the night drew longer and colder, an exasperated Mwiria asked Dr Adar, through a hole; “When does the cock crow in Kabarak’s lunatic cells?”

The UASU officials did not know, in retrospect, that their sacrifice would culminate in the union’s registration. At that time, academic freedom was non-existant as Kenya’s public universities were hostages of the administrative hierarchies of the universities and the state machinery.

Today the Constitution guarantees rights and freedoms which UASU and other players advocated for in the 1990s.

The role of UASU remains critical in Kenya, given the current proliferation of universities and students, and it must remain focused and apolitical. This is a daunting task, but in a situation where ethnicity is the key factor in the appointment of managers of academic institutions.

As a scholar, lecturer and beneficiary of their struggle, Prof Adar appreciates the people who supported the worthy cause, particularly the interim UASU officials who sacrificed their careers. He also remembers the team of lawyers that represented them in the numerous court cases instituted against them by the state. They included lawyers Paul Muite, Dr Kamau Kuria, James Orengo, Kiraitu Murungi, Otieno Kajwang, Pheroze Nowrojee, Kathurima M’Inoti and Gitobu Imanyara.

And what has been doing?

Prof Adar has over the years published many articles in respected journals, book chapters and a number of books. His recent co-edited volumes include African Foreign Policy, Diplomacy and Leadership: Reflections of Diplomats and Scholars, 2016; Lessons from Africa’s Past, 2015; Cooperative Diplomacy, Regional Stability and National Interests: The Nile River and Riparian States, 2011, The State of Africa 2010/2011; Parameters and Legacies of Governance and Issue Areas, 2010; Globalization and Emerging Trends in African Foreign Policy, among others.

The most recent is African Foreign Policy, Diplomacy and Leadership: Reflections of Diplomats and Scholars, 2016.

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