By Bethwell A. Ogot
On December 10, 1970, the University of Nairobi was inaugurated and President Jomo Kenyatta was installed as the first Chancellor at a colourful ceremony attended by the President of the Republic of Uganda, Dr Apollo Milton Obote, a representative of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the President of the United Republic of Tanzania, presidents, rectors and vice-chancellors of various universities from different countries and continents, who had come to share with the University the pleasure of the memorable occasion. The presence of so many university administrators from all parts of the world was a mark of Nairobi’s international status and its close links with other institutions of higher learning within Africa and overseas.
In his opening speech, President Jomo Kenyatta, as the first Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, defined a university’s place and dynamic as follows (Kenyatta, Jomo, The Challenge of Uhuru: The Progress of Kenya, 1968-1970, Nairobi; East African Publishing House, 1971, pp. 44-45.)
“Much has been said in the past about the role of any University as the custodian of truth. It may or may not be right to imply that a University has this monopoly, but I am sure that there are other vital functions or contributions as well. In the academic sense, such a body must give full expression to the mobility of the human intellect. It must be at the forefront of enquiry and ambition, on behalf of the surrounding societies. And it must certainly undertake the testing and translation of all discoveries or theories or emotional experiences, in a manner which will encourage society to evolve and keep pace with all changes in the pattern and potential of human existence.
“Some people suggest that in a rapidly developing country like Kenya, the main task of a University is to criticise whatever is observed or projected. An academic body like this is sometimes regarded as only a custodian of intellect, and it is argued that a University, therefore, has both the right and the duty to represent opposition to any existing regime. This idea in its extreme form can even cross the borderline of arrogance. Mistakenly, it is then submitted that intelligence and wisdom which are very different things are only found within the University and that the public is supposed to pay University teachers for exposing and training of national leadership. However, within a young country, it is only national leadership which has truly sprung from society that can really interpret the aspirations of our people.
“I can, therefore, state that our Republic expects from this University of Nairobi much more than criticism. There is no point, for example, in condemning our medical services as inadequate unless doctors and research workers produced and inspired by the University make [a] positive contribution to improve human welfare in this field. It is not enough to discuss any so-called lack of economic independence unless engineers and scientists sponsored by the University can promote new phases of industrial advance.
“Similarly, we want the faculty concerned to assist in developing new means of integrating customary laws with our statutory laws. We expect professors and students of political science to suggest means of perfecting structures and institutions which are relevant to Kenya and Africa. In all the Faculties of Arts, we want the University to give a lead in codifying and transmitting our African culture while placing this in the full and valuable perspective of all philosophy and artistic strivings. In other words, while never ignoring or betraying the most precious function of an academic body, the University of Nairobi must gear itself at once, and with constructive zeal, to all the needs and realities of nation-building.
“My Government and I wish to emphasize in this way that here is an institution of the highest importance; integrate it into the life of our Republic. There must in the future be no mutual isolation of the University body and the executive centres of national design and decision. There must be the fullest use of resources within the University so as to secure the fruit of intellect and technology within the framework of our nationhood. I am confident that the University will abundantly justify the hopes and sacrifices of our people. I have given my definitions of what the proper academic contributions should be, and how the University of Nairobi must adapt itself tor the future and short-comings of our nationhood. At the same time, any healthy University must govern more by freedom than by restraint. For this reason, we have enshrined within the University Act, the greatest possible autonomy in terms of organization, teaching and research. If the mind of the nation is to flower through this University, the Professors and lecturers must be free to teach their subjects while students and research workers must feel free to pursue the truth and publish their findings without fear.”
President Kenyatta was speaking at the end of 1970. By the this time and into the 1970s, the relationship between the state and the academy in most African countries had become significantly strained. The conflict between the state and the universities resulted primarily from mounting pressures on the post-colonial state from within and without. Internally, the development strategies based on imported modernisation models had not functioned effectively to eliminate mass poverty and deprivation. Subsequently, inequality in the distribution of resources increased, resulting in endemic political instability.
Soon, political instability in Africa became the norm rather than the exception. Policy-makers in the continent withdrew their support of higher education and sought policy advice from foreign experts, mostly Europeans and North Americans. Local scholars reacted with incisive criticisms of state performance. Eventually, the political leadership closed most avenues for social contest to maintain a monopoly of power.
The culture of violence spread to university campuses, as they became the only available avenues for the youth of society to express their frustration and continued political oppression. In response, the state brought repression and censorship to the universities, including the University of Nairobi, that were often closed, sometimes for long periods and faculty members arrested, tortured in police cells, detained or forced into exile. Continued political repression resulted in a massive flight of skilled professionals from Africa to the West, thus depriving the continent of scarce human resources needed for development.
On the day of the University of Nairobi’s independence, 494 graduates received their degrees, diplomas and certificates from the Chancellor. The team of University officers charged with responsibility for running the new institution consisted of President Jomo Kenyatta as Chancellor and B. M. Gecaga, as Chairman of the University Council. Gecaga, a barrister by profession and General Manager of British American Tabacco Company (Kenya) Limited had served without interruption as Chairman of the Governing Council of the former Royal College since 1963 and as Chairman of the University College Council of Nairobi since 1967. The other officers were Vice-Chancellor, J. N. Karanja, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor B. A. Ogot, Registrar Solomon Karanja, Librarian J. Ndegwa, Finance Officer Peter Chege, Dean of Students, J. Koinange.
Image: From l. to. r., Rep. of President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; Minister of Education Dr Tatia arap Towett; Vice-Chancellor Dr J.N. Karanja; President Jomo Kenyatta, President Dr Milton Obote of Uganda, Chairman of the University Council Bethuel Mareka Gecaga, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academics Prof. Bethwell A. Ogot, Finance Officer Peter Chege.
About the Author: Professor Bethwell A. Ogot is Emeritus Professor of History at Maseno University and held the UNESCO Chair for Higher Education in Africa. He has also taught at the University of Nairobi where he was the first Deputy Vice-Chancellor and also founded the Institute of Development Studies and the Institute of African Studies.
This article is based on an excerpt from the book, Bethwell .A. Ogot and Madara Ogot, History of Nairobi: 1899-2012: From a Railway Camp and Supply Depot to a World-Class African Metroplis Kisumu: Anyange Press, 2020.