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Government statistics show that Kenya’s public universities and counties are largely ethnic ghettos. The universities are often headed by academics - and have a majority staff - from the ethnic communities where these institutions are located and whose names they bear. Same thing with the country’s 47 devolved units. The names of universities and counties should be changed to de-ethnicize them.

Universities are public entities and should never bear the name of an ethnic group. Similarly, counties belong to all Kenyans according to Kenya’s constitution and should therefore not bear the name of any single ethnic group, given that no county in Kenya is inhabited by a single ethnicity. All the 47 counties in Kenya are inhabited by many ethnic groups although there are those with one or two dominant ethnic groups. There are many counties in Kenya that bear ethnic names - Kisii, Nandi, Meru, Embu, Taita-Taveta, Turkana, Tharaka-Nithi, Elgeyo-Marakwet, West Pokot and Samburu - that need to be changed.

Naming counties after some ethnic groups goes against Kenya’s national constitution, which states that all Kenyans are equal and can inhabit any part of the country. If Kenyans are equal then all ethnic groups should not have their names on any county because it isolates others. Why are some ethnic groups allowed to name their counties by their tribes while others are denied the privilege? This amounts to discrimination based on ethnicity and against the Bill of Rights in our constitution. It is wrong, for example, to have a county called Samburu when there are other people such as Turkana, Rendile, Borana, Meru and Kikuyu living in that county apart from the Samburu people.

Names are very important and people would do anything to retain a name they like. I recall sometimes back when former President Daniel Moi ordered change of names for all sports clubs bearing ethnic names following constant fighting between supporters of Abaluhya Football Club (AFC) and those of Gor Mahia. The leaders of AFC came up with a new name, All Footballers Club (AFC) Leopards in order to retain the initials AFC. Gor Mahia leaders also came up with Golf Olympic Rangers (GOR) in order to retain GOR as the name of their club.

We need to rethink the whole notion of naming, because a name is very important. There have been indications that members of ethnic groups whose name counties bear have a sense of entitlement for positions in the county compared to counties where names are neutral and have no ethnic markers. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) under chairman Francis Ole Kaparo should act immediately to order the name changes on our counties with immediate effect. NCIC has capable commissioners such as Prof. Gitile Naituli and Dr. Joseph Wamocha Nasongo who understand the implications of naming and should make sure they change these names. The same should be done for universities which bear ethnic names for they violate the Bill of Rights and need to build an inclusive society.

The best way would be naming the counties after dominant towns in the counties and which names should not be tribal. Kisii County could be called Manga after Manga Hill, or Suneka or Ogembo or Gesusu or Mosocho or Keumbu County. Taita-Taveta County could be called Wundanyi or Voi or Mwatate County. Turkana could be called Lodwar, Lokichar, Kalokol or Kainuk County. Elgeyo-Marakwet could be called Iten or Tot or Kapsowar County. West Pokot could be called Kapenguria County and Samburu could be called Maralal County.  Change of names will make them neutral places for all Kenyans to settle and not a monopoly of some ethnic groups.

Nandi County could be called Kapsabet County, or Lelmokwo, or Chepsonoi or Kaiboi, or any other town in the county. Meru County could be called Nkubu County or Ikuu or Kenyakine County. Embu County could be called Runyenjes, Manyatta, Kigari or some other famous market or hill or river in the county. Did we run short of names so as to begin calling counties and universities ethnic names? It is worse for universities which are supposed to universal or global and yet they are associated with some narrow ethnic interests thereby demanding that Vice Chancellors come from the ethnic group which the university is named after. Kenya has progressive Cabinet Secretary for Education, Science and Technology, Dr Fred Matiang’i, who is likely to order for name changes.

I was recently in South Africa and met many prominent scholars who kept asking me what we in Kenya were doing to honour great Kenyan scholars such as the late Prof. Ali Mazrui and late Prof. Thomas Odhiambo, yet we continue churning universities with community and ethnic names. Prof. Ali Mazrui was a mega-scholar, a distinguished professor in social sciences, while Prof. Thomas Odhiambo was the founder of the world famous International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE at Duduville, Kasarani and ICIPE Field Station at Mbita Point) and founder of African Academy of Sciences. The scholars I met wondered why universities are being given ethnic names when there is a long list of scholars who could be named after them.

There are many universities in Kenya that have ethnic names such as Kisii University, Meru University of Science and Technology, University of Embu, Taita-Taveta University, Chuka University, Maasai Mara University, among others, which should be changed. Kisii University could be named after independent hero Otenyo Nyamaterere or Chief Musa Nyandusi or George Moseti Anyona or Andrew Omanga or Zachary Onyonka or Wilkista Onsando or Nyachae University or a national hero from another part of the country such as Paul Ngei, Robert Matano or Fundi Konde. Meru University could be renamed Captain Judy Angaine University or Jackson Harvester Angaine University or Prof. J. N. K Mugambi University or a hero from another part of Kenya such as Achieng Oneko or Kungu Karumba.

Embu University could be renamed Jeremiah Nyagah University or Cecily Mbarire University or Prof. Mwaniki University or Prof. John Mwaruvie University or a hero from another part of Kenya such as Julia Ojiambo or Phoebe Asiyo. Taita-Taveta could be renamed Eliud Mwamunga University or Naomi Shaban University or Mashengu wa Mwachofi University or another hero or heroine such as Prof. Jonathan Ngeno or Oloo Aringo or Daniel Otiende or Martin Shikuku. Chuka University could be named after any of the leading lights born and raised in the county, preferably a woman given that most of our streets and national institutions already have male names.

Maasai Mara University could be renamed Joseph Murumbi University or John Keen University or William Ole Ntimama University or John Konchellah University or Stanley Shapashina Oloitiptip University or Damaris Parsitau University in honour of one of the first Maasai women to receive a PhD, or after Kajiado East MP, Peris Pesi Tobiko, the first Maasai female MP.

Kenya already has some universities named after distinguished Kenyans such as Jomo Kenyatta (two universities), Adonija Obadiah Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (one university), Daniel Toroitich arap Moi (two universities), Tom Joseph Mboya (one university and one college), Pius Masinde Muliro (one university), Dedan Kimathi (one university), Koitalel arap Samoei (one university college), Mama Ngina Kenyatta (the new Mama Ngina Kenyatta University College in Kiambu), among others.

Many gender scholars concur that it would be great to have some of the universities named after great female heroines such as Mekatilili wa Menza (most famous female resistance heroine), Grace Onyango, (the first female MP in Kenya), Nyiva Mwedwa, (Kenya’s first female cabinet minister), Grace Ogot (first female assistant minister), Prof. Florida Karani, (first female Deputy Vice Chancellor of a public university in Kenya), Field Marshal Muthoni (the Mau Mau heroine), Lena Moi (Kenya’s second First Lady), Lucy Kibaki (Kenya’s third First Lady),  Margaret Kenyatta (Kenya’s fourth First Lady), Wangari Maathai (Kenya’s first female professor), Charity Kaluki Ngilu (Kenya’s first female presidential candidate), Tecla Lorupe (Kenya’s most famous female athlete), etc

The list of heroes and heroines in need of honouring can be long and may include people like Bildad Kaggia, J. M. Kariuki, Joe Kadenge (Kenya’s football legend), Kipchoge Keino (Kenya’s athletic legend), Orie Rogo-Mandulli, General J. K. Mulinge, Tabitha Sei, musician Ochieng Kabaselleh, musician Daudi Kabaka, Prof. B. A. Ogot, Prof. William R. Ochieng’, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ambassador Prof. David Kikaya, Prof. Miriam Were and Prof. Judith Mbula Bahemuka.

In the US, the first lesson at state building was to ensure that no state or public institution bore an ethnic name. It was acceptable to name states after individuals given the roles they had played in setting them up. This has ensured that the states remain accessible to all ethnic groups. There were attempts by Irish and German immigrants to name states after their European ethnic identities but this was strongly resisted.

In the UK, naming regions after the four ethnic groups – English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh – has created some of the worst nationalist uprisings and xenophobia, in which thousands have been killed. But United Kingdom leant early that universities should not bear ethnic names.

In Africa, Nigeria faced the worst form of ethnic violence and war based on ethnicity, and leant its lessons and no university today bears an ethnic name in Nigeria. After Biafra civil war, Nigerians agreed that states and universities should never bear ethnic names. It is perhaps one of the leading countries in the world where universities are named after individuals such as Nnamdi Azikiwe University (Namdi Azikiwe was the first president of Nigeria, from Igbo ethnic group), Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (Tafawa was the first Prime Minister of Nigeria, from Hausa-Fulani), Chief Obafemi Awolowo University (Awolowo was the first leader of opposition in Nigeria, from Yoruba ethnic group), Adekunle Ajasin University, Afe Babalola University, Ahmadu Bello University, Afe Babalola University, Ajayi Crowther University, Akungba Akoko University, among others.

Kenya can borrow from Nigeria (not many countries borrow anything from Nigeria) and de-ethnicise names of counties and universities. This will cultivate a national and positive energy in the country that will promote our counties and universities into global giants. Universities should not be symbols of ethnicity where locals gather for small talk, local gossip and discussion of mundane things such as circumcision, payment of dowry, installation of clan elders, lists of witches, weddings and funeral and burial plans. It is not surprising that universities bearing ethnic names are headed by Vice Chancellors from those communities, which is rather unfortunate.

* Maurice N. Amutabi is the Vice Chancellor of Lukenya University, Kenya, Professor of History and Fulbright Scholar. [email protected]



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