Saturday, February 9, 2008


Are our universities being tribalised?


We are generating emotions and tensions in Kenya which before long may require a whole new vocabulary. Are we on the verge of producing a form of inter-ethnic distrust which may be called Kikuyuphobia? Have other Kenyans begun to identify a form of prejudice which may be called Luophobia.

A Kikuyuphobe is a person who is profoundly distrustful of the Kikuyu-a form of negativism which is partly based on a stereotype. The Kikuyu are seen as manipulative, exploitative and inclined towards ethnic nepotism and tribal favouritism. The Kikuyu are seen as brilliant in commercial aptitude and other economic skills, but often at the expense of other groups. Kenyans should be careful not to reduce whole communities into such negative stereotypes. Such prejudice tends to dehumanise the targeted groups.

Luophobia is a form of distrust and prejudice shared by rival ethnic groups. While supporters of Raila Odinga are often prone to Kikuyuphobia, ardent supporters of Mwai Kibaki often manifest forms of Luophobia.

In both directions Kenyans should distrust their stereotypes, seek to contain their particular versions of “pride and prejudice”, and seek to cultivate instead some kind of “sense and sensibility”. The English novelist, Jane Austen, is assuming a new form of political relevance in the unfolding drama of Kenya after the December elections of 2007.

What is likely to be the impact of both Kikuyuphobia and Luophobia on higher education in Kenya? While the Kikuyu as a group have been politically and economically triumphant almost nation wide, the Luo have been disproportionately triumphant in the academic domain and among public intellectuals.

While in creative literature the Kikuyu have led the way with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo and others, the Luo of Kenya have led the way in the study of history, in the social and natural sciences and in the study of African philosophy. Some have argued that while the Kikuyu are brilliant economic entrepreneurs, the Luo of Kenya have had an edge in academic and intellectual performance. Nevertheless, Kenya’s first Nobel Prize Laureate for Peace is a Kikuyu.

But what is likely to be the impact of our post-election crisis on higher education in Kenya? Even before the December election there was already an ethnic presence in classrooms on Kenyan campus. While professional promotions in Kenyan universities were already affected by ethnicity before December 27, 2007, grades for students were still ethnic-neutral on the whole. But the threat of ethnicising exam grades has become real since the beginning of this year.

At the University of Dar es Salaam after the Arusha Declaration of 1967 students were very conscious of the ideological orientation of their lecturers but seldom conscious of the racial or ethnic affiliation of their instructors. When Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo were lecturers at the University of Nairobi, students were more conscious of the left-wing ideologies of such instructors than of their ethnic affiliation.

What we now fear on our campus is greater ethnic consciousness of each other rather than greater sensitivity to intellectual nuances. Universities are supposed to be arenas of universal values and intellectual fraternity. It would be a pity if our campuses deteriorated into beehives of tribalism.

The post-election violence has begun to trigger academic ethnic cleansing. Members of vulnerable ethnic groups in violence-prone university towns are now looking for jobs in ethnically more friendly campuses. When President Mwai Kibaki made me Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, he was making a statement about the universality of knowledge. First, he himself stepped down from the chancellorship and thereby depoliticised the office. Secondly, he chose a Kenyan in the Diaspora to be Chancellor of a university at home thereby emphasising the links between Kenyans at home and Kenyans abroad. Thirdly, the President honored a Kenyan from a small minority Swahili group at the Coast--- instead of someone from the more powerful communities of Kenya.

President Kibaki also opened academic doors for me which had been closed during the era of Daniel arap Moi. Under Kibaki I could give lectures in Kenya after years of being ostracised by Kenyan universities. My television series The Africans: A Triple Heritage (BBC/PBS, 1986) could at last be shown on Kenyan television after years of being banned by the Moi regime. I could also freely write for Kenya newspapers regardless of whether my views pleased President Kibaki or not.

The five years of Kibaki’s administration (2002 to 2007) helped to maximise academic and intellectual freedom on Kenya campuses, though not without some degree of tribalism and corruption in some of our activities.

Then came the elections of December 2007. Are the doors of academic freedom beginning to close? Are Kenyan universities retreating from universalism? Is the fog of tribalism beginning to descend on our campuses? It is not too late yet. Just as we sometimes call upon a doctor to heal himself, let us call upon intellectuals and academics to liberate themselves. Let us help our country to lick its wounds, and heal the body politic.

Prof Mazrui is the Chancellor, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

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