Teaching Resistance in Kenya

January 28, 2009

A striking Kenyan teacher arguing with a policeman

A striking Kenyan teacher arguing with a policeman

Across the world, public sector workers can expect that retrenchment measures will freeze or cut their pay packets. The ongoing and deepening economic crisis will push governments (many of which are shovelling billions of dollars into failing banks) to cut back on wages.

In some places, this will be a financial hardship. In others, it will be a nightmare. Britain falls into the first category – and its public sector workers have been preparing to resist such measures for over a year. Kenya is firmly in the latter category, being a country where teachers, doctors and civil servants exist much closer to the margins of subsistence.

So it’s not a surprise to see Kenya’s teachers on strike in massive numbers in response to a miserly pay award from the government. The government, having promised to pay teachers $243 million in total, announced last week that the amount would only reach $220 million, and that was to be paid in three installments. With an inflation rate near 26 percent, and the baseline salary for teachers at just $176 per month, this is not much of a raise in any case.

After talks between the teachers’ union (the KNUT) and the education ministry broke down on 18 January, some 250,000 teachers downed tools in what the government then claimed amounted to an illegal strike. By 19 January, it was reported that 40 teachers had been arrested and many more were injured as police charged strikers, and used tear gas against them.

Meanwhile, the education minister Sam Ongeri declared that strikers would face blanket dismissal. A couple of days later, as the Daily Nation reported, the authorities had begun demanding that striking teachers leave their staff houses. As KNUT officials suggested, “As long as the teachers are paying their rent, they have a right to stay in the houses. It is the decision of the boards of governors to evict, not TSC” but this was not in the minds of the government.

However, this tactic seems to have backfired on the government, as the next day tha Kenyan Universities Academic Staff Union declared that it too could bring its members out on strike, while MPs demanded that the government listen to the teachers’ demands.

The threats emanating from the government have not relented, however. As Africa News reports, Gabriel Longoboini, the Chief Executive Officer of the Teachers Service Commission has declared that all striking teachers will be permanently barred from resuming their careers, and has promised to recall retirees back to the chalkface. That particular measure has drawn scorn from the union, which has branded it futile and “defeatist.” Quite so.

By now, the KNUT action has entered its second week, with massive numbers of teachers still on strike. The education system is paralysed.

Support seems to be with the teachers rather than the government, which has been slapped with a lawsuit by the “Kenya National Association of Parents” demanding negotiations. Union officials remain confident, buoyed by the militancy of their members. As the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation reports, “officials…warned that teachers were not ready to resume classes unless their demands were fully met and dared the commission to make good their sacking threats.”

Unfortunately for the teachers, while the public may well support their fight, time is not on their side. Many are deep in debt and, of course, need to afford necessities. There is a tight limit to the length of such strikes in developing nations which militates against protracted disputes. The confrontation is therefore intensifying. As the Africa Press Agency puts it, “It is now an- all battle between the government and the teachers.”

But the struggle is broader than that as well. This is a key test of how far public pressure can be exerted upon the Kenyan government, which is itself a hybrid formed from the parties of Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Their election contest in 2008 ended in massive bloodshed. Their government however, has so far shown no signs of real change in the way one of the world’s most unequal societies is managed.

For example, Kenya’s foreign policy has hardly shifted. It continues to play an active role in harassing Somalia and assisting the U.S. in its regional aims. This week, the UN has castigated the Kenyan government for forcing refugees back into war torn Somalia, often at gun point. In one case, police visited the hospital beds of asylum seeking Somalis, and personally escorted them out of the country.

The government has also recently signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the U.S. and the UK which ensures that Kenya will detain and prosecute piracy suspects rounded up by navies off the East African coast. Although the government claims that Kenya “will not be a dumping ground for pirates” – it has agreed to ramp up its prison terms for those convicted of piracy from ten years to life.

At the same time that Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told the press about the memo, he also praised Barack Obama for “shutting down” Guantanamo. This is deeply ironic, as with the U.S. navy now trawling the seas for “pirates” (and actively intervening in Somalia) Kenya could easily become the next Guantanamo.

Meanwhile, as Reuters Alertnet reports, northern and south eastern Kenya face a disastrous drought, and 10 million people are thought to need urgent food aid. The past three years have seen two failed “rainy seasons” while political unrest shifted thousands of farmers from their lands – a devastating cocktail of problems for any nation.

The government has been slow to deal with this humanitarian crisis. In fact, its corruption has exacerbated the problem. One of Raila Odinga’s key aides has been sacked after becoming implicated in a maize smuggling scandal. Despite an export ban, several trucks of maize found their way into Southern Sudan, at the behest of government officials. This comes after the Daily Nation revealed that some $12 million had disappeared from government cereals budgets – representing some 100,000 bags of phantom grain.

Such scandals have been par for the course for the Kibaki/Odinga government. As Kenyan lawyer Okong’o O’Mogeni told Reuters, “In one year only, Kenyans have been treated to a magnitude of corruption they have never seen.”

Analyst Amboka Andere believes that “You have a population that is scared about what happened last year. It is not easy to get people out on the streets” referring to post-election violence that left 1,300 dead. That is why the teachers’ strike is so critical and, perhaps, why public support is strong. Kenyans are, perhaps, reasserting themselves on the streets and, with luck, may start to claw back control of their country from an increasingly corrupt oligarchy.

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