The wave of unrest afflicting secondary schools in Kenya has understandably elicited much public concern. Many have chimed in with their take on what is causing it, with most blaming panic over exams, drug abuse, an oppressive school environment, wayward parenting and incompetent government officials. Some have even suggested that the abolition of corporal punishment is to blame.
Given that this problem is not new, it is rather curious that there seems to be such confusion over its causes. According to a 1996 PhD thesis by Margaret Wangeci Gatimu of Portland University, disruptive unrest in the form of class boycotts and riots in secondary schools had by then been steadily increasing in Kenya since the mid-1970s. The study highlighted many of the same issues that are cited today.
So perhaps it is better to ask not just why unrest happens, but also why the problems said to cause it have been allowed to fester across generations of students. In a media interview earlier this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Education bemoaned the fact that recommendations from at least two task forces appointed by his predecessors as well as from many independent researchers, remain unimplemented.
This failure to effectively address the issue, despite the existence of such reports, is a manifestation of a wider systemic reluctance to employ evidence-based measures to solve problems. And this goes beyond schools. In tackling security and terrorism, Kenya has seemed to prefer knee-jerk solutions to what are complex and historical challenges. The desire has seemed to be to address the immediate crisis and move on rather than to proactively tackle the underlying and fundamental causes.
An example of this is the reaction to last week’s bombing of Elram village in Mandera by Kenya Defence Forces planes which killed at least 4 children. There have been few calls for the incident to be exhaustively investigated, for people to be held to account and, more importantly, for lessons to be learnt to ensure this never happens again. Similarly, the circumstances surrounding the January overrunning of a KDF base by the Al Shabaab group at El Adde in Somalia and consequent massacre of at least 141 soldiers are similarly shrouded in mystery.
To these we could add the many terrorist incidents that have killed hundreds of citizens since 2012, including the attacks on the Westgate shopping mall and on Garissa University College. The many failures that allowed the atrocities to happen and that hindered effective response, appear to have been swept under the carpet. On the contrary, a Presidential promise to set up a public inquiry into Westgate failed to materialize and, as a senior police officer told The Nation last July, “there was never a review meeting on how we handled incidents”.
Earlier this week, in reaction to a terrorist attack on the Ataturk airport in the Turkish capital, Istanbul, which reportedly killed 41 people and injured more than 230, Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet ordered the beefing up of security at all Kenyan airports. But there have been few queries about what this actually means and even fewer indications that Kenyan security agencies are learning from and adapting to previous incidents. We rarely hear of our security agencies sending teams abroad to study how such attacks happened and how they are investigated. Meanwhile, domestic incidents are similarly studiously ignored. For example, reports on the August 2013 fire which razed the arrivals terminal at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and on the improvised explosive device that went off at the same airport 5 months later, have yet to be made public. It is unclear whether they have led to any changes.
A similar dynamic is at work when it comes to addressing the root causes of post-election violence. Three years after it was handed over to the President, the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission continues to gather dust in Parliament. The report exposed many of the deep-seated maladies that have fuelled blood-letting at election time but even as we approach another polarizing poll, there is little mention of it, let alone of implementing its recommendations. The focus of the political class is on the urgent and important but largely superficial task of reconstituting the electoral commission.
This, more than anything, highlights the fact that as a country, we are obsessed with the problems of politicians, and not those of the people. In the end, this obsession is the real reason why the problems at our schools and the state of insecurity across the country will continue to fester once the immediate crisis has passed.