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Prof George Magoha: Gentle giant of Kenya’s academia and public service

by kenya-tribune

Now that he’s dead, I can talk about him, departed former Education CS Prof George Albert Omore Magoha said of the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson.

He wanted to talk about the cosmetic surgeries that changed his appearance, and his perceived discomfort in his own skin. The topic was not the music superstar but confidence in oneself, something the professor of medicine had in abundance. 

I write about Prof Magoha not just because he’s dead but for the man that he was. One day, in June 2021, an invite for a breakfast meeting came through the office of then-Lands CS Farida Karoney.

I almost declined it since my beat is education. But the caller explained that the ministry had only organised the event; it was Prof Magoha’s meeting. Also in attendance would be CSs Joe Mucheru (ICT) and James Macharia (Transport), TSC boss Nancy Macharia and other top officials.

Ms Karoney, being a former journalist, had intervened to thaw relations between Prof Magoha and the media at a time all eyes were on the CS following a 10-month closure of schools occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Attention was on the ministry and he was getting it a bit rough in the Press. His Cabinet colleagues then stretched out a helping hand in the spirit of collective responsibility.

As others ate and chatted and made speeches, one could see Prof Magoha was itching to take to the podium and speak his mind, as usual. After niceties from his colleagues, the man rose to speak, and he didn’t mince his words. He declared that he doesn’t work to please anyone but God, the President, who appointed him, and the children he served; nothing about him would change.

Back to factory settings

He cared little for the PR effort and went back to factory settings: Firm, unabashed, unapologetic, a bulldozer who couldn’t be contained within the confines of societal expectation when his conviction said otherwise. It is this ruthless streak that won him plaudits and opprobrium but he cared for neither.

“I am a firm, hands-on and results-oriented transformative leader. I cherish professionalism, teamwork and team spirit rather than command and control” is how he describes himself in an 89-page CV that was uploaded by the University of Nairobi on January 13 2023. As the institution’s vice-chancellor in 2005-2015, he was credited with sweeping reforms, especially in academic programmes, management and student affairs.

He never tired of invoking the influence his alma mater, Starehe Boys Centre, and its founding director Geoffrey Griffin had on his formation. He was proud of the strict discipline and, off the record, would extol the “virtue” of caning, despite it being illegal, though clarifying that he would never allow it as CS. 

When a wave of strikes in secondary schools left unquantified losses in their wake as students torched school property, Prof Magoha ordered that parents bear the cost of repairs, blaming them for neglecting their parental responsibilities. He instructed that the culprits be transferred to day schools, where their parents would supervise them. It is at such moments that he itched for the cane.

He was hands-on while supervising examinations, delivery of desks to schools, commissioning new classrooms or mopping up learners who had not reported to school as he pursued the 100 per cent transition policy. He was one of the most visible and, probably, most travelled Jubilee government’s CSs.

The main test for his public service career was when Covid disrupted learning for millions of learners. After the lockdown was lifted, he had to reopen schools despite many of them clearly being ill-prepared for it. But he had to avert the vices that came with children being away from school for too long.

Prof Magoha found himself making tough decisions that affected almost every household. The lockdown also came just a year after the hugely challenging rollout of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC). He pushed it through with various levels of success, believing that it will transform how children learn, ultimately changing the country.

Prof Magoha’s work as Education CS was felt more in basic education, where he was ever-present, and not higher education, a sector he had spent much of his adult life in. Even his CV mainly concentrates on his achievements in basic education.

A tenacious fighter, he however knew when he had lost a fight and had to retreat. He was attached to UoN even as CS. When, in 2020, he attempted to revoke the appointment of Prof Stephen Kiama Gitahi as VC and dissolve the university council, they moved to court. Prof Magoha called a truce and the suits and counter-suits were quietly withdrawn.

The distinguished scholar had a special dislike for politicians that he did not conceal. When his Cabinet colleagues hit the campaign trail for the 2022 General Election, he did not. He didn’t attend a rally and banned the use of school buses to ferry supporters, an order roundly ignored by rival camps.

He was the only CS who stated that he wanted no part in government after the elections and would retreat to his medical practice.

On several occasions, he would claim that he will go to heaven, saying he had lived true to his calling. Well, he died just before he took up his new appointment as a professor of surgery at Maseno University to continue his calling.

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