But even as I endured this humiliation, I always knew that the one place to ask questions in Kenya was the university. Yes, I knew that Micere Mugo, ES Atieno Odhiambo, Willy Mutunga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and many others had suffered for exercising intellectual freedom. I knew that university students had been jailed and killed for demanding democracy and authentic education. I knew that police hated students and would beat us at any chance.
The strength of that dream remained relatively unshaken for my first ten years as a post-doctoral academic in Kenya. I got frustrated, though. I was one of the younger ones, so I thought that maybe it was my age and experience abroad that made me frustrated. But as time went by, as bureaucracy increased, as my programs stalled, I started to realize that it wasn’t just about me, and I started to look at what was happening in the Kenyan landscape.
And even then, my default position remained that the Kenyan university was the place for debate and discussions. I invited speakers. Hosted lectures. Few people attended, but I thought it just needed more time. After all, there were slivers of hope in the Kenyan landscape that kept my hope alive, specifically the growth of the arts, the increase in spaces for spoken word and the Kwani? and StoryMoja festivals. I believed that intellectual space was finally returning to its glorious days of my imagination.
For nine years, I also sincerely believed that academic administrators in Kenya, all the way to the then Commission for Higher Education, knew what they were doing. I had serious reservations about the Bologna Process which was imposed on Kenyan universities, but even though the answers to my questions were opaque, I thought it was a sign that I did not understand the language of the market, of quality and of benchmarking. In other words, I thought that the problem was me.
So I did what I know how to do: I read more, researched more to catch up with the Kenyan academy. That was how I found out about this animal called neoliberalism that had been, and still is, terrorizing universities in the English-speaking world. I found out about the war on public education. Although I was starting to sense that the same dynamics were at play in Kenya, I still asked myself: “what do I know? I am not an educationist, nor a professor. Students don’t want to take my classes because the humanities are 'irrelevant.'”
When I got my first invitation to a TV station to discuss the new education system, I was nervous. I was just a teacher, not an education expert, meeting the gurus of education on national TV. To get prepared. I called my friend to ask what bases I should cover. I printed out sections of the curriculum framework in case I needed to refer to any details.
But as I participated in media discussions for the next two years, I noticed a trend. Government documentation showed up late or never. None of the questions I asked about the research or on technical issues was answered.
Instead, the responses were often avoidance, denials or pulling rank. I would arrive at different media houses expecting share a platform with KICD officials, only to be told they changed their mind when they knew I was coming. KICD kept talking of its “mandate” and warning the public against listening to critics of the new education system, despite promising the public that the new system would allow children to question teachers.
With the help of the media, the goverment maintained the conversation on the new system on the narrow government themes of money spent, number of teachers trained and availability of textbooks. The press asked the same single question for two years, and one time I had to impress on journalists that my issue with CBC was its fundamental integrity. The institutional hiccups were just bonga points. But any time it became clear that the case for the competency-based approach was weak, the fall back question was often “are you saying we stay with 8-4-4?”
I have now learned that that is how public debate in Kenya goes.
Public "debate" in Kenya
Any public issue that requires some technical expertise is reduced to a debate between power and reason. And power always wins because the contentious policy is implemented anyway. This has also happened with SGR whose challenge was spearheaded by David Ndii, and “wildlife consumption” spearheaded by Mordecai Ogada. Each time the intellectuals raise questions about public policy, the government experts go incognito, and the intellectuals are left facing a helpless public which basically says “We appreciate what you’re saying, but how can this be fixed?”
This pattern presents a problem for democracy and raises questions about professionalism in the country. Policy must be subject to democratic debate because it affects the public and has long-term and wide-scale implications. However, the public may sometimes not be privy to the technical details of the policy and are at risk of being blindsided by bad policy decisions.
The response should not be to deny the public a chance to debate the policy because they cannot understand the technicalities. That was the paternalistic attitude with which the colonialists justified imperialism, arguing that Africans were too immature to understand what was good for them. Reserving decision-making for those who know best (epistocracy) and for technical experts (technocracy) is a form of tyranny because it leaves out the political questions about the impact of decisions on the public.
Ideas and practice of professionals must be subject to public discussion, not simply because the public has the right to know, but also because, as David Runciman argues, experts are not exempt from bias and groupthink. Their ideas are potentially dangerous if shielded from debate.
Ideas of professionals must be subject to debate, no matter how technical they get. A good professional should be able to explain their craft to a five year old. And this demand for public engagement should should come as no surprise to professionals who are already subject to peer review, for example in professional associations, in academic conferences or publishing. When the public may not be privy to the technical details of a policy, they should have access to public forms of review, for example through a moderated debate between professionals in front of the public.
What is happening in Kenya, however, is that academics who facilitate government policy shield themselves from such public engagement using the instruments of the Kenya state. Such academics and professionals pull rank, avoid public forums where they will meet their peers, suggest that the public cannot understand the technical details of the policy, and use public resources to launch the policy with blitz, as happened with the spectacular and expensive launch of the competency-based curriculum which was attended by the president himself.
The same principle applies to the Kenyan clergy who have bullied and blackmailed the pulic for raising questions about the clergy’s theological training or the clergy's acceptance of gifts from politicians, while the same politicians bleed the public purse. The public is told not to question the clergy or the will of God. One significant episode of Side Bar on NTV, which hosted a rare debate between clergy, left Kenyans embarrassed. The three Kenyan clergy present evaded taking a position against the offerings, while a bewildered Nigerian cleric, who seemed not to be familiar with the Kenyan elitist culture of bad faith, found himself alone in taking a definite theological position against offerings from the political class.
The dynamics I’ve described so far suggest that autocracy in Kenya is not driven by politicians alone but also by the educated and professionals in Kenya, because members of this group 1) use their professional standing and expertise to facilitate government autocracy, 2) use their professional titles to bully members of the public who do not possess the same expertise or standing, and 3) are not held to account for their ideas.
In other words, titles in Kenya such as “Rev,” “Prof” or “Dr” also mean “ask me no questions.”
This withdrawal of educated Kenyans from the public is reflected in our institutional culture. Kenyan institutions have become toxic, abusive and rooted in ideas and practices which belong to the colonial era, because senior professionals retreat from the public but also actively subvert opportunities for public interaction.
In universities, for example, conversations on ideas are rare unless at academic conferences, where the overarching purpose is not to discuss ideas but to meet criteria for promotion. Contesting ideas is taken as a personal attack. Similarly, senior faculty terrorize students, women and younger faculty for asking questions or offering opinions. In some university departments, post-graduate students are caught up in deadlock over thesis supervision because students supervised by younger faculty fail at their defense if the older faculty are hostile to, or unfamiliar with newer ideas. And how can senior faculty not be familiar with new ideas, where there are few public debates or lectures, or when universities have adopted the timidity and evasion tactics of the government?
And this is the same intellectual practice Kenyans are confronting with BBI. The professors and clergy who wrote the report do not participate in debate with peers in order to expose the ideological and theoretical underpinnings of the process. The few who appear on the media are not placed to debate with peers but with the public and avoid these theoretical questions by suggesting that members of the public may have not read the entire report.
Accusations of not reading the document appears to be a popular tactic of deflecting questions. Even I was repeatedly compelled to affirm that I had read the government reports on education whenver I discussed CBC on TV.
This quality of public debate under the current government contrasts that of debates preceding the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, when we saw clergy and Christians debate the constitution from a theological standpoint. By contrast, what we get with BBI are sermons from people saying that BBI is a gift from God because it mentions morals, and we get no platform for clergy or Christians who disagree.
The same goes from academics who refuse to entertain a discussion on, for example, the relationship between BBI on one hand, and autocracy and corruption on the other. Other major questions avoided include: what does it mean when politicians offer forums for the public to present views on BBI while at the same time say at rallies that the public has no say in the final outcome? How about the president’s weaponization of the war on corruption to arm twist the governors into signing off on policies that are clearly an implementation of the BBI, like the handover of Nairobi County to the national government, even as politicians and bureaucrats tell the public that the proposals are not yet final? How can the process of implementing a document that claims to improve society and involve the public also be so autocratic?
The public needs to hear a more complex political debate about succession politics, democracy and the political economy as relates to BBI. Instead, their contributions are being reduced by the media to asking for items to be included in what is already a flawed and autocratic process.
Kenyans deserve debates between technocrats and peers on BBI and any other matter of public concern. This would also improve public debate, because it would cultivate in the public a culture of debating that focuses on issues rather than exclusively on personalities and identity, a goal which, ironically, BBI claims to be pursuing. Democracy requires that even professionals and intellectuals subject their ideas to technical scrutiny on a public platform, especially for professional participation and ideas which have a direct impact on policy and the public.
Today's post is dedicated to Pius Adesanmi, my friend and colleague who would have turned 48 years old today, and who lost his life in the ET302 flight last year. Pius was especially committed to strengthening the culture of intellection in Africa, and was pursuing this dream when he boarded the ill-fated flight to Kenya.
We miss you Pius.