Prof K’Olale epitomised academic freedom and fight for a just society

University scholar Prof Muga K’Olale has rested. It may be difficult to imagine what life was like for university scholars four decades ago, but one thing is clear, the current intellectual freedom we enjoy today, owes much his life-long struggle for academic liberties.

The 1970s and 1980s were some of the darkest periods for academic freedom in Kenyan history. Students like the late Onyango Oloo were arrested and imprisoned for five years for writing term papers considered seditious. Lecturers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o were placed in maximum security prisons for writing plays. Publisher Henry Chakava was assaulted and had his finger cut off for offering to publish fictional novels.

The intelligence service or infamous “Special Branch” even went as far as arresting or buying up all copies of Matigari ma Njiruungi (1986) to stop the public from reading them. K’Olale was first detained then imprisoned on trumped up charges that he was behind the 1982 coup d’etat. Like hundreds of others, Amnesty International conferred on him the status of a Prisoner of Conscience and called for his release.

Following his death on April 1st 2023, most have paid tribute to his principled and fearless approach to university worker rights and academic freedoms. Although popular among students and lecturers, he was not a populist. Rather than seeking to charm or entertain, he sought to empower all to demand their rights. Muga’s mature white beard, colourful kitenge shirts and eloquent tongue remained synonymous with university-based activism for 40 years until his resignation as it’s chairperson in 2021. For those still irritated or furious by the Supreme Court February judgement upholding the right of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to be registered, it is worth noting similar tensions existed prior to K’Olale’s advocacy for the registration of the University Academic Staff Union (UASU) in 2003.

Academic freedoms are currently protected by the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Kenyan Constitution, regional human rights instruments, and Kenyan law. These standards protect the right of scholars to independently and freely research, teach and debate. Campuses are protected from external interference and political intimidation, especially by the state.

Despite these laws, academic freedom has dipped for 4 billion people living in 22 countries over the last decade according to the 2023 Academic Freedom Index. Among them are China, India, US and UK. Students and lecturers are threatened with arrest, expulsion, or denial of tenure. Classes and curriculum are monitored for political or cultural content and staff and student associations denied freedom to speak and bargain for better terms.

Kenya has made insignificant progress over the last decade according to the Index. The number of private and public universities have increased dramatically. Campuses are relatively free to debate current affairs and student organising is permitted. University infrastructure has improved considerably over the last decade. However, this freedom didn’t prevent the arrests of several students or the unlawful killing of Masenno University student William Mayange before and on the March 20th maandamano protest, respectively.

Great uncertainty hangs over the future of the Higher Education Loans Board, a facility so critical for lower income students to access higher education.

Cash strapped universities are defaulting on lecturer salaries and remittances of their deductions for insurance schemes, bank and Sacco loans. Sadly, abuse of office, corruption and exam cheating threaten the viability and integrity of many of our higher learning institutions. It is these conditions that drive our intellectuals abroad or into non-educational spaces at home for survival. K’Olale was a true radical and believer in the transformative power of education.

He was also a political philosopher who chose to speak up rather than remain silent. As he transitions, may his family be comforted, and another generation of scholars inspired. May we emulate him and expand all our campuses into places of independence, creativity and social responsibility that search for a more prosperous, just and compassionate nation for all.

First published in The Standard on 22nd April 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]