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Politics of the belly has turned many of our universities into ethnic enclaves

Monday August 31 2015

Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi. FILE PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE |

Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi. FILE PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP.

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In the recent past, media reports have emerged of rising tribalism in both private and public universities.

Cabinet Secretary of Education Jacob Kaimenyi, the former Prime Minister and the Deputy President have all in the past few days expressed concern over the re-tribalisation of our universities, where senior appointments, promotions and enrolment are done with the tribe in mind.

There is legitimate fear that if the trend is not checked, the hallowed status of the university will be severely compromised. However, in the ensuing debate, we have missed a discussion on the relationship between our political culture, State-civilian relations and what scholars of African politics call “politics of the belly”.

French political scientist Jean-François Bayart used this phrase, borrowed from Cameroonian political discourse to describe the patron-client relations in Africa, in his book.

Indeed, the idea of satisfaction of personal and group interests via the State system is a defining feature of Kenya’s power-politics. It emerged in the pre-independence era where those intermediaries who operated within the colonial system were allowed to gain concessions from their positions, both for themselves and their specific tribes.

This trend went on in all Kenya’s post-colonial regimes. As chancellors of universities, previous presidents have often used the “award of university charters” as part of State goodies, either to reward or court loyalty from specific ethnic communities. Thus, the ethnicisation of our universities began as a strategic political action by senior politicians.

As universities became tools through which political capital was harnessed – ethnicity, power politics and universities created a curious trinity.

Local politicians would often petition the ruling elite for the “upgrading” or the “provision” of a university, and the calls would be heeded come election time. Examples abound.

In Nyanza, the steamy romance between Moi’s Kanu and Raila Odinga’s NDP was rewarded by the creation of the region’s first university. In Western Province, the elevation of universities was partly seen as Kibaki’s gesture of winning back the Luhya vote in a looming tight poll.

The same applies to virtually all the universities that have sprung up at the Coast, in North Eastern Province, Eastern Province and so on.

Their establishments did not begin from the natural organic processes that a university should follow; rather, most began from lobbying by politicians, an eye on the ballot, and pronouncements framed as a “moment for the community to chop” from the State.

Naturally, it was expected that a prominent member from the community would head the newly established institution and further percolate the reward process downwards.

To this day, the positions of the heads of the university institutions are seen as a way through which the wielders of political power reward particular communities.

In the same breath, local communities view the creation of universities as evidence of political inclusion.

Matters have become complicated with devolution. Politicians with parochial ethnic imperatives have emerged as active players in university affairs, often with disastrous consequences.

In the counties, there is now a heightened and worrying sense of entitlement of universities by local communities. But as student enrolment from host communities increases, universities are fast losing the ethnic diversity that was common a few years ago. As such, any competitive process such as management appointments or students’ elections often take an ethnic dimension.

It is, therefore, a contradiction when senior politicians make public denunciations of ethnicity in universities when they themselves lobby for the creation of universities to build political capital with particular ethnic constituencies.

It beats logic when politicians condemn ethnicisation of universities and, at the same time, use ethnic logic to influence holders of senior positions in universities.

If we are to put an end to the ethnicisation of universities, then politicians must respect the academy, and must not seek to use universities or middle level colleges, as platforms for cajoling or appeasing the electorate through “politics of the belly”.

Dr Omanga is head of department, Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University’s School of Information Sciences ([email protected])