By Ndungi Wa Mungai
A strike by the teaching staff in all four public universities in Kenya has entered its third month. This is one of the most successful and most organised strikes in the country for years.
The strike by 3700 academic staff began on November 29 after the authorities refused to register the University Academic Staff Union (UASU). The strike is basically to press for this demand, but in addition the union is seeking greater academic freedom and democracy within the universities.
Among the complaints has been the use of non-teaching staff to supervise examinations, contrary to the statutes of the universities. The staff also want to have a self-regulatory body to ensure that lecturers joining the profession are qualified.
The strike has been widely supported by the union members. The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) has also supported the strike and demonstrated in the streets of Nairobi, leading to clashes with anti-riot police.
The government and the university administration have reacted with enormous hostility. Five lecturers involved with UASU have been sacked. These are Dr Korwa Adar, national chairperson; Dr Omari Onyango, secretary-general of Nairobi chapter; Charles Namachanja, deputy secretary-general Nairobi chapter; Churchill Kibisu, representative of Faculty of Commerce (Nairobi); and Eric Makokha, a committee member.
The government has also urged students and parents to condemn the lecturers, but most students and even parents see the government as the source of all the problems.
Union members have requested moral and material support within the country and from overseas, as their salaries have been stopped at a time of great hardship due to rampant inflation.
Repression against the trade union movement in Kenya dates back to colonial times. Great organisers like Makhan Singh (a migrant from India feared by the British for his communist ideology) and Fred Kubai were jailed for their union activities.
The labour movement was instrumental in the independence struggle, and some trade unionists, like Tom Mboya, became national leaders after independence in 1963. But the post-independence leaders were too aware of the power of the trade unions and did everything to weaken them. This process became complete when President Moi came to power (in 1978) and proceeded to ban the Civil Servants Union, University Staff Union and Nairobi University Students Union. Even the tame COTU was forced to affiliate with the ruling Kenya African National Union.
The reason given for banning the University Staff Union in 1981 was that it was becoming "political" after organising a demonstration to condemn apartheid in South Africa. Some of the leaders were detained without trial, and others fled into exile.
It has taken nearly 12 years to fight back, and this will be a test case of whether the trade union movement can rise again to be part of the democratic struggle that is going on in the country.
The Joint Staff Association (Melbourne University) has sent a message of support to UASU and hopefully more unions, organisations and individuals will give their support to this difficult but worthy cause.