He is the newest vice-chancellor in the country but currently the most well-known.
Prof Stephen Gitahi Kiama’s improbable name recognition is not because he sits at the helm of Kenya’s oldest, biggest and most prestigious public university. It is simply because, despite his smallish frame and soft-spoken demeanour, he took on the burly Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha and won.
He has only been the University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor for less than two months, but those short weeks have added new credentials to his otherwise long and quiet scholarly career. He is at once aggressive, combative and fearless — all hidden behind his quick smile and a permanent twinkle in his eye.
Prof Kiama was appointed VC on January 5 by the university’s council, reported to work the following day, and his installation was promptly scheduled for January 21.
But shortly after midnight on January 17, Prof Magoha revoked his appointment, degazetted the council, recalled Prof Isaac Mbeche to continue acting as the VC, and wrote to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) demanding investigations into the recruitment process.
“I was just heading to bed shortly after midnight when my phone beeped with a news alert. My short tenure as VC had been rudely ended. I simply went to bed and in the morning I decided I will not just sit back and let things take their course. I decided to give Prof Magoha a chance to explain to Kenyans and the world why he had acted that way,” says Prof Kiama in his office on the 18th floor of the elegant University of Nairobi Tower.
A defiant Prof Kiama reported to work on Monday January 20, on the eve of what was to be his installation day and fired two memos to students and staff, insisting that he was the legally appointed VC and warning imposters against pretending to make decisions on behalf of the institution. He emphasised the point in an advert in the national dailies. He also went to court challenging Prof Magoha’s orders and battlelines between the two were clearly drawn. The Employment and Labour Relations Court promptly halted Prof Magoha’s orders and reinstated Prof Kiama. As if on cue, Prof Magoha rushed to the same court challenging the reinstatement.
Says Prof Kiama: “I found it comical, to say the least. I think the system was having challenges getting used to a competitive and independent recruitment process coming from a tradition of arbitrary and unquestioned appointments by university councils, Education ministers or even Presidents. I am the first VC to be recruited by the Public Service Commission and that, in itself, brought in an element of surprise to the system which it found hard to swallow.”
Prof Kiama says the reason he chose to challenge the authorities quickly is because he firmly believes he was recruited transparently, competitively and fairly.
“I am not a politician. I believe in following just rules and, when I do, I expect a just result. I’m prepared to die for truth and justice but, even in dying, I will not die quietly. I will die speaking out and I expect that of every discerning Kenyan,” he says, adding that what offended him most about the whole circus was Prof Magoha’s admission that in revoking his appointment, he was simply following directives whose sources he could not reveal.
The Nyeri-born 56-year-old father of two says that even as the cases were pending in court, Prof Magoha’s demeanour towards him further confused him. “I continued working as VC despite the huge court cloud hanging over my head but Prof Magoha was friendly and respectful to me during meetings. You wouldn’t have known we were battling each other in court since our working relationship was cordial and professional.”
He says that on January 29, Prof Magoha called him to his office and told him he wanted to withdraw his legal case and settle the matter out of court.
“He called me to his office and we had a candid chat. He said he wanted stability and calm in the university and that he wanted to end the legal battle and that was it. Meanwhile, I continued working as VC and last Thursday, the court affirmed my position," he said, adding that despite Prof Magoha’s invitation to the EACC to investigate the recruitment process, he was never questioned nor summoned by anyone.
Prof Magoha’s capitulation in the whole saga was uncharacteristic of a man who is known to bulldoze his way when he believes he is pursuing the truth.
“I think he sensed the court cases were going nowhere and, being the gentleman that he is, he decided to retreat,” says Prof Kiama, adding that being a stickler for rules, he was determined to pursue the legal route to the end.
Lecturers and students who have interacted with him during his previous position as the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of human resources describe him as firm, fearless, open and impatient.
“He is a bundle of contradictions because he takes life rather too seriously and yet he is approachable and always ready to laugh and smile. He has a passion for the environment and I don’t think he could have become anything but the scholar he is,” says Mr Joseph Muiruri, a secondary school principal and a doctorate student at the University of Nairobi.
“He is impatient and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He is a policy wonk who plays by the rules but I think he needs to try and maintain a cool head in the face of pressure. Overall he is respectable,” says a senior lecturer at UoN who did not want to be named discussing his senior.
Prof Kiama, a professor in veterinary anatomy, says the intrigues around his appointment are behind him and that he is rushing to make up for lost time by beginning a reform process that will cement his legacy at the university.