University education is in a dark hole, and law schools are spiralling to death

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By Sharu Muyesu

While the average Kenyan can only dream of an appearance on TV, news editors scramble to have Babu Owino on their platforms; for prime news no less! Whilst some may wonder why, it’s not difficult to see why the man pulls such a crowd. For starters, he is SONU chairman – the student leader of Kenya’s oldest and, arguably, best university.

The man’s also pursuing an LL.B besides the BSc in Actuarial Science he already boasts. But, most importantly for this vain generation, he not only has a few coins to spend, a decent ride, a “profitable business” and an army of subjects willing to die for his cause – whatever that is – he is also blessed with the chiselled frame of a Roman god.

Like many, I should doubt his credentials, and assume that Babu’s is a typical case of a tortoise on top of a tree. “Unfortunately”, my initial knowledge of him disposes me of any such right I may have. I have seen him work his craft. The man’s no doubt an astute mathematician, a brilliant fellow yet one that’s wholesomely unintelligent.

He reminds me of a certain Jean Bedel Bokasa – the “everlasting emperor” of the Central African Republic. A man whose most illuminating speeches consist of large words glued into imperfect sentences or statements like “mafisi kibim” is a public embarrassment that the top honchos at the University of Nairobi may well do without. Yet that’s easier said than done, for such is the grip that Babu has on the institution’s affairs (allegedly).

As some would say, far from mediocre, Babu could simply be an astute politician. Perhaps, that is so, yet I refuse to believe that he is the progressive type. He’s simply another politician who doesn’t deserve mention within intellectual discourses – a scandal in waiting.

Poster boy of the system
Unfortunately, Babu isn’t alone. He is but the poster boy of a university system that has gone horribly awry. Gone are the days when universities were the epicentres of intellectualism, when union leaders influenced opinion, even suffering in jail or exile as a consequence. I speak of the days of James Orengo, Owiro Karl Marx, and the good Professor Anyang Nyong’o et al, when deaths and expulsions were normal, and not for supposedly skewing elections but rather for the government’s fear of the intellectualism and political morality they portended.

In those days, lecturers and professors alike had no qualms risking their lives and careers in pursuit of democratic freedoms and the rule of law. In the place of Micere Mugo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the late Ali Mazrui and Willy Mutunga, we now have a union leadership devoid of political ingenuity, uprightness and independence. When should-be inspirational student leaders are not overreaching themselves on TV, there is the public humiliation of a thorough chastening at the hands of law enforcers who, somewhat understandably, could no longer stomach the folly of a petty university election squabble that had spilled to the streets leaving destruction in its wake.

The generation of my good teacher Elisha Ongoya (who wrote the Moot Court Formula while simply a 2nd year student at the University of Nairobi), Gitobu Imanyara, Makau Mutua and others has been replaced by an intellectually impotent horde whose only good is to perfectly reproduce information. Little is done to, say, refresh John Stuart Mill’s Hedonism, Tocqueville’s Liberal Democracy, Kelsen’s Constitutional Supremacy or Hobbes’ Theory of the State – not even when Kenya flounders in her pursuit of the ideals that pillar her democracy.

Beyond grades, the reordering of formative jurisprudence to suit Kenya’s tastes ought to be the daily occupation of a working legal mind and the eternal pursuit of universities as research centres. By petitioning Parliament, pursuing public interest litigation, writing, worthwhile demonstrations and press releases – even a Facebook or Twitter post – it is for the budding intellectual to reorder the Constitution, protect it if need be and provide permanent cures to Kenya’s leadership problems. Instead the university generation acts oblivious even as union leaders hawk themselves for political nominations.

Unless it is for exam purposes, the modern student neither reads nor writes. Debate clubs and moot chambers have become the preserve of a select few, as have legal aid and awareness engagements. It’s no wonder therefore that the curious breed of good students who cannot understand Brentwood, Eurobond, the unconstitutionality of initiatives such as Okoa Kenya, the recent onslaught on the IEBC, our spending, the precarious precedents such engagements set and much more.

While a number of these students may understand Civil Procedure (which is what makes an advocate really), they lose sight of contemporary intellectualism and substantive law upon which society is built then protected. What remain of substantive law honchos and contemporary intellectuals are but the relics of a dying golden age. For lack of interest, more likely ignorance, the modern law student simply crams, pays, blackmails or sleeps their way to a first class or a decent 2nd class upper (Hons) only to spend the rest of their lives behind a desk or walking a totally different career path – wasted years.
Alas, this is the student that we applaud.

If I may shift focus, it is time we condemned the reckless regime of discrimination society has constantly rained upon privately sponsored students at public institutions or their counterparts in private institutions. Somewhat true, a number of such privately sponsored students were secondary school “failures”. However, many others find themselves pursuing this route out of choice. Means notwithstanding, it’s only proper that institutions are celebrated for their histories, systems and stellar output not composition!

On private institutions, though a fair share have managed to hide their affection for business over standards in the open, quite a number have succeeded in carving out their own niches as centres of not only academic excellence but also research, innovation and intellectual debate. Some, I dare say, could actually be on the same pedestal as the great colleges of the days past, even higher. Surely it would be foolhardy to ignore the ground covered by Strathmore University under the illuminating guidance of Dr Luis Franchesci, for instance.

The achievements of “tiny” Kabarak School of Law cannot be ignored either. While Strathmore’s IP centre continues to earn rave reviews, in four short years, Kabarak has not only realised a consistent student legal magazine of admirable qualities, but it also boasts a first ever Student Law Review, a leading faculty Journal of Law and Ethics, not to mention a superb performance at difficult moot competitions, among others.

False superiority
Individual feelings of awesomeness in the mere association with great institutions like The University of Nairobi without individual effort to retain the standards its pioneers struggled so had to achieve, can only be inconsequential! Perhaps sadder is the contempt with which the internship hunting alumni from some of these institutions are treated (I certainly have no respect for supposed professionals who are seemingly inclined to risk their firms admitting a common student from a big university whilst overlooking demonstrable legal and intellectual acumen from a “smaller” institution.

I should emphasise that poor privates are not the only victims of the aforementioned discrimination; in the same basket exist largely the entire public horde that isn’t the University of Nairobi or an affiliate college – talk about Kisii University, Moi (perhaps the best mooters in Kenya), etc. But make no mistake, from these latter sons have come such great young minds that the lazy Nairobian would shudder. One only needs to visit Moi University alumni Walter Khobe’s argument on Transformative Constitutionalism to appreciate the trajectory I am taking.

Lastly, the regulators may have failed in the sense that they have allowed “institutions of higher learning” to crop up at every back street, and the creation of universities in every county, district, location, village or community that feels “left out.”

I rest!

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