Prof Magoha: The ‘buffalo’ who tamed university students

Friday May 26 2017

Kenya National Examinations Council chairman George Magoha.

Knec Chairman George Magoha. The administrator and doctor’s biography details his journey from the surgeon’s theatre to the helm of UoN and Knec, Textbook Centre, University of Nairobi Bookshop, Prestige Bookshop, Savanis. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP. 

By DAVID ADUDA
More by this Author

Title: Tower of Transformational Leadership

Author: George Magoha

Publisher: Kenway Publications

Year of publication: 2017

Available: Textbook Centre, University of Nairobi Bookshop, Prestige Bookshop, Savanis and other bookshops countrywide.

Prof George Magoha is a towering figure literally and figuratively. Although a medical doctor by training and practice, in fact a top-notch surgeon, his well-known public persona is that of an educational administrator. For, it is in educational management that he made a mark and for which he earns a footnote in history.

Prof Magoha is best remembered for turning around the once lethargic University of Nairobi and making it a great institution again. Financial impropriety, shadowy procurement deals, staff and student indiscipline, falling quality of teaching and learning, had become the order of the day. But it took the mettle, courage and tenacity of Prof Magoha to turn it round. Today, the university consistently ranks among the best on the continent in various ratings by international groups.

REDEEMING KNEC

More recently, Prof Magoha has been credited for redeeming the Kenya National Examinations Council (Knec) that was on the verge of being gobbled up by cheating and corruption. Knec, he says, had become a labyrinth of chaos. All quality and security systems had collapsed and the sale of exams and marks turned into a big business.

Prof Magoha has bared all this in the new book, Tower of Transformational Leadership, which will be launched on June 14 at the University of Nairobi. The book provides insights into his early education locally then in Nigeria, United Kingdom, Ireland and his successful academic and medical practice. It highlights his tribulations and triumphs at the helm of Kenya’s oldest university.

But his most shocking experience was at Knec, where he saw first-hand how the setting, administration and processing of national exams had been thoroughly compromised. It took determination, diligence and firmness to cut out the exam cartels and restore sanity at the council.

Even though he has made an indelible imprint in education through sterling leadership, this trajectory was by accident. His passion early in life was to study medicine and practice it to save humankind; and really not manage anybody’s academic institution.

His fascination for medicine was itself triggered by personal tragedy, where he was diagnosed at a tender age with asthma and had to be shifted to Nairobi, from his rural home in Gem, present day Siaya County, for specialised treatment. And it was his kinsman — Dr James Angawa — who treated him and implanted in him the desire to save lives.

EXCELLED IN SCHOOL

Due to the condition, he had to live in Nairobi henceforth with his elder brother, John Obare and wife Agatha Christine, and that saw him join Dr David Livingstone Primary School in the city. It is here that he excelled and joined Starehe Boys Centre for secondary education; which institution shaped his character and built in him an enduring capacity for excellence and discipline.

“Starehe therefore played one of the most pivotal roles in defining my formative years, and in shaping my future academic, professional and social life. I shall always be grateful to the centre, its leaders and ethos,” he says.

He then proceeded to Strathmore for his advanced level studies, excelling and later obtaining a scholarship to study medicine, initially at the University of Zambia, but which was changed through trickery, to University of Lagos, Nigeria.

Prof Magoha’s entry to university leadership was by default. He found himself appointed chairman, dean and principal in the College of Health of Sciences and later deputy vice-chancellor in quick succession and very unpredictable circumstances.

The Narc revolution of 2002 not only changed the political landscape in a way never seen before, but it also dramatically transformed various sectors, key among them, education. The most remarkable transformation was the abolition of fees in primary schools and allowing children to learn. But there were equally radical changes at other levels of education.

WIND OF CHANGE

Mwai Kibaki, a hands-off politician, ceded his role as the titular head of public universities. Instead, he appointed substantive chancellors to run the universities; a major break from the past when the President doubled as the Head of State and ceremonial chief of public universities. This breathed a wind of change in the management of public universities.

Joe Wanjui, a renowned industrialist and entrepreneur and Kibaki’s old golf buddy, was appointed the chancellor of the University of Nairobi in 2003. Shortly thereafter, he decreed that the university must be managed professionally. The position of the VC, then occupied by Prof Crispus Kiamba, an accomplished and very diplomatic administrator, had to be advertised locally and internationally so that it could be filled competitively. Curiously, Prof Kiamba went out to persuade Prof Magoha to apply and, although initially reluctant, having served as deputy vice chancellor for just two years, he put in his papers.

A go-getter, Prof Magoha emerged tops at the interview, outshining some other illustrious academics, and was duly appointed the vice-chancellor in 2005. That catapulted Prof Magoha to the highest academic office and, although insufficiently prepared for the task, he got into the job with a gusto that saw his colleagues mockingly nicknaming him buffalo, a reference he may not know about, but which those of us who patronise the Senior Common Room at the university are familiar with.

Prof Magoha took over the university leadership with a missionary zeal. The starting point was to develop a strategic plan for the university, the first in the institution’s half-century history. This became the compass that was to guide the university for years.

Next was to acquire a modern financial system to rid the institution of the old processes that were vulnerable to abuse and delayed payments. He moved to reorganise the finance department, appoint new managers and instill fiscal discipline. The results were impressive: the university made significant savings, improved fees collection and enhanced efficiencies.

MOST REMARKABLE ACHIEVEMENT

But the most remarkable achievement was instituting discipline among the academic and non-teaching staff and students. Apparently, the university had reached a stage where staff members never worked, lecturers missed classes and, worse, some lost student exam marks. Student strikes had become a permanent feature and had damaged the institution’s reputation.

Prof Magoha methodically went out to rout this by opening his doors to students to discuss their issues, creating a safety valve for ventilation and preventing them from rioting. So for the 10 years he served, the students never went on strike.

University of Nairobi had been neglected for years. Buildings were old, facilities inadequate and equipment obsolete. Science and technology-based courses were under-resourced. Lecturers did not have offices and students were congested in the lecture rooms. For Prof Magoha, therefore, the challenge was rehabilitation, renovation, expansion of the facilities and completing buildings that stalled in the 1990s.

Leveraging on incomes from fees paying students, the university was able to repair and upgrade many facilities, complete the stalled projects and finally put up the University Towers, a modern 22-storeyed building that totally changed the face of the university. 

The book also explores Prof Magoha’s life as a medical practitioner, lecturer and regulator. Currently, he is the chairman of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board.

Broadly, Prof Magoha’s is a journey of faith, determination, commitment, selfless-service, integrity, firmness and fortitude.