The raging drama over the appointment of a vice-chancellor for the University of Nairobi heightened on Monday after the courts reversed a directive annulling the installation of Prof Stephen Kiama even as Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha stood his ground, invoking President Uhuru Kenyatta's name.
Employment and Labour Relations Court Judge Maureen Onyango suspended the order issued by Prof Magoha on Friday, which stopped Prof Kiama from taking over as vice-chancellor.
Lady Justice Onyango also revoked Prof Magoha's appointment of Prof Isaac Mbeche as the acting VC of the country's oldest and largest institution of higher learning.
It was a day of high drama as Prof Magoha admitted that he had acted on orders from State House, while the Public Service Commission (PSC), which had conducted the interviews and ranked Prof Kiama tops, also defended its position.
Prof Magoha said he acted on instructions of President Kenyatta when he cancelled Prof Kiama's appointment and dissolved the council chaired by Prof Julia Ojiambo.
In what appears to take away the freedom of university councils to appoint top managers, Prof Magoha said President Kenyatta was not bound by the recommendations of the council or any entity on who should be appointed to run the institution, citing the recent decision by the Head of State to reject three nominees for the post of Auditor-General.
But within the corridors of justice, Lady Justice Onyango was issuing a contrary directive.
"An order is issued to stay Prof Magoha's decision contained in his letter dated January 17, purporting to revoke Prof Kiama's appointment as vice-chancellor of UoN," the judge directed.
Speaking earlier, Prof Magoha acknowledged that he met the council on January 3 and was briefed on the appointment.
He told the council that he would consult further. He is understood to have taken action after consultations with President Kenyatta in Mombasa.
Prof Magoha cautioned that the consultation was not an information process, but a deliberative one.
"I met them on January 3, and the council presented the candidate they recommended and I told them, well, I will consult. I consult upwards, and consultation is ongoing. But they went ahead and appointed a VC. Then the owner of the process asked me about it. I cannot appoint someone without consultation; I take orders from my appointing authority," said Prof Magoha.
He added a new twist to the saga when he suggested that the directive to appoint Prof Kiama may have come from outside the hiring process.
"What you are seeing is a directive coming from somewhere. Somebody somewhere is pulling strings to destroy the university," said Prof Magoha, while addressing journalists after assessing progress of the 100 per cent transition programme in Kibera, Nairobi.
BLOCKED BY LAW
The Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendment) 2018 Act, which was signed into law in January last year by President Kenyatta, took away the power of university councils to advertise, interview and recommend for appointment top university managers.
Instead, university councils should appoint vice-chancellors, their deputies and principals of colleges in consultation with the Cabinet Secretary after a competitive recruitment process conducted by the PSC.
Before the Universities Act 2012 was amended, university councils would conduct interviews and submit three names to the Cabinet Secretary for appointment.
However, the 2018 amendment targeted only Section 35 of the Universities Act 2012, but left two other relevant ones intact.
For example, Section 39 (1) (a) provides that the vice-chancellor of a public university shall be "appointed competitively by the Cabinet Secretary on the recommendation of the Council".
Prof Magoha went on to justify his position, saying: "All senior appointments -- be they to councils, the Teachers Service Commission, Kenya National Examinations Council, public universities -- when the hiring process is complete, the agencies must consult with the government."
Members of the disbanded council declined to comment on the CS's remarks, citing threats and intimidation from government officials.
However, the PSC insisted that the interviews they conducted were above board and welcomed any investigations.
"We believe we did our job well and handed over the results to the university council," said PSC chairperson Stephen Kirogo on the sidelines of a mindset education forum for commissioners and secretariat staff in Nairobi.
The results handed over to the disbanded council on December 30 ranked Prof Kiama higher with 80.44 marks, Prof Madara Ogot was second with 79.31 marks, Prof Patricia Mbote third with 78.44, while Prof Mbeche, the acting VC, had 77.94.
In a letter to Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) chief executive officer Twalib Mbarak, Prof Magoha said the ministry suspected ethical and integrity breaches in the recruitment process.
On Monday, Mr Mbarak could not be reached for comment on when investigations will begin, while his communication team promised to provide information on the probe but had not done so by the time of going to press.
At the institution, police were deployed to ensure Prof Mbeche took charge and chaired a meeting of the University Senate.
The University Tower, which houses the vice-chancellor's office, was a no-go zone for outsiders. Prof Kiama stayed away from the Senate meeting.
Prof Mbeche told the Nation after the meeting that he was fully in charge of the institution as the Senate had endorsed his appointment in an acting capacity.
"This morning, I chaired the Senate meeting, which endorsed my appointment. I have also met student leaders and other stakeholders to assure them that all is well," said Prof Mbeche.
University of Nairobi Students Association secretary-general Gideon Majiwa rallied behind the acting VC.
The Universities Academic Staff Union (Uasu), University of Nairobi chapter, backed Prof Magoha's decision.
Chapter secretary George Omondi said they will work with the acting VC to allow for adequate consultations at all levels.
"Uasu reiterates its support for a transparent process devoid of short-cuts, grandstanding and pursuit of individual interests as opposed to the larger interests of the institution," said Mr Omondi.
The union called for the appointment of a person with the ability to sort out the university's financial challenges.
According to Prof Magoha's directive, Prof Kiama will continue dispensing his duties as deputy vice-chancellor, human resources and administration.
During the interviews that were conducted on December 18, PSC shortlisted eight candidates out of the 14 who had applied for the job.
Also shortlisted were Prof Kareithi Ruth Wanjiru Nduati, Prof Elijah I. Omwenga, Prof Bernard Njoroge and Prof Solomon Igosangwa Shibairo.