Restricting travel of academic staff an unconstitutional affront to academic freedom

Restricting travel of academic staff an unconstitutional affront to academic freedom

Terminal 1A at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (photo: courtesy)

SUMMARY

  • Controversial circular from Office of the President has stopped hundreds of academics from conferences and research related work
  • It is not uncommon for government officers to obtain clearance before travel abroad, but restricting academics from international conferences beats the very essence of learning

We have a problem. On Sunday evening, a distinguished academic was stopped by immigration officials at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The professor was on her way to a crucial annual global conference, part of a multi-million shilling research project she leads and which includes a well established network of local and international scholars. At the immigration desk, she was asked to produce letters from the Office of the President authorising the trip. She was stunned. For the last two decades, Sunday marked the first time she heard that authority from the President was needed to pursue academic interests. Something somewhere is wrong.

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Since a controversial circular issued and signed by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Chief of Staff Joseph Kinyua last week ‘banning’ travel of top civil servants, hundreds of academics have been stopped from leaving the country to attend to conferences and research related work.

In the circular dated September 13 and copied to the director of immigration, Mr Kinyua directs that no ‘government official’ will be allowed to leave the country without clearance by the President.

For the avoidance of doubt, the officials in reference include Cabinet Secretaries, principal secretaries and officers in ministries, chief executive officers of parastatals and their officers and Board of Directors of parastatals. It is not uncommon for government officers to obtain clearance before travel abroad.

In recent past, reigning on foreign travel by government officials was urgent in the context of tight budgets and appalling wastage. In particular, our cantankerous MCAs in the devolved units needed restraint from their own greed expressed through endless “benchmarking trips”.

Voracious spenders

Indeed, a report from the Controller of Budget, Agnes Odhiambo, showed that in the last financial year, nearly Sh12 billion was spent on foreign travel, hospitality and catering of government officials. Among the most voracious spenders on foreign trips are the two top-most offices in the country; that of the Office of the President and that of his deputy.

In contrast, for the decade he was in power, Mwai Kibaki made 33 foreign trips. While restrictions on international travel make budgetary sense, especially if they are rightfully targeted to the most extravagant offices, it is only in dictatorships and in those regimes suffering serious legitimacy deficits that such restrictions are extended to academics.

Why are academics all of a sudden being stopped from travelling? It is now well known that universities can barely fund international conferences and that most academics rely on international networks, self funding and research projects to fund international travel. Why would any government bother to restrict travel even where she bears no costs of travel? This disturbing behaviour risks shipwrecking highly valued academic freedoms.

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Keen readers of this column will recall my assessment of the Jubilee ‘regime’ as possibly the most anti-intellectual in recent years. The unlawful travel restrictions on academics remind us of a similar directive issued in Turkey following an attempted coup on President Tayyip Erdogan last year. Thousands of academic deans were asked to resign and a ban on travel imposed.

In Egypt, only two months ago, the government of ex-Army general President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi introduced stringent government control of academic institutions and academic staff. To travel, universities are required to obtain permission from both the ministries of foreign affairs and higher education before their teaching staff members can travel. Sudan, Ethiopia and a few assorted dictatorships like North Korea have travelled this road. I am surprised Kenya would wish to join such an ‘exclusive’ club.

I am informed that it is no longer enough to simply have permission from one’s Vice Chancellor. If travel is required, the poor academic now has to write to the VC, who will petition the Education Cabinet Secretary, who then writes to the Office of the President to request such approval. Kenyans, we are slowly rolling back our democratic gains. The last time such a procedure was required of academics Kenya was under the Kanu era.

Academics must by the nature of their vocation travel. Knowledge is transnational, and the most impactful and successful of academics make mostly overseas trips to network, share knowledge and increase research visibility.

An academic who does not travel for conferences, workshops and projects risks being a deadwood academic. Given the multiple ways in which faculty members, universities and governments benefit from conference participation, it is difficult to imagine why any regime would ever discourage faculty travel. Attendance of conferences and participation in international research networks brings prestige and visibility to the university, and is among the very few ways to keep scholars up to date in their fields, and, perhaps most important, to keep papers flowing on the way to publication.

Any government restricting travel and erecting bureaucratic hurdles to such travel is ‘clueless’. What we are witnessing is a blatant assault on the independence of academics to pursue truth, wherever it leads them, and is an attack on the cherished ideals of academic freedom and an infringement of the rights of scholars to associate with peers.

Academic freedom

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To demand extra documentation even after those vexing visa processes in foreign embassies, and imposing multiple levels of approval on underpaid, overworked but highly gifted academics who sacrifice time and resources; to hoist the research profile of their individual universities is simply unconscionable. Something is not right! 

Are we saying that the government will soon, sometimes advise academics to alter their research programs and routinely deny conference leaves even when papers have already been accepted, and are externally fully funded?

Is what we are seeing a symptom of a wider assault on basic freedoms, and part of a grander scheme to stifle dissent, undermine the courts, capture the media, limit freedom of speech, scatter the civil society and reproduce a meek, uncritical academe?

Although some have argued that the latest (mis)behaviour is an overzealous interpretation of the directive by immigration officials who cannot tell the difference between a public and a civil servant, it is possible that these measures are part of the tantrums associated with Jubilee’s invalidated ‘electoral victory’.

If, as we are now constantly reminded, that Jubilee’s inevitable win in the October presidential poll re-run is well demonstrated by the near ‘super’ majorities in the counties and the national assemblies, why is this regime exceptionally insecure of its own electoral win? Something is definitely wrong.

The writer is a lecturer of Media Studies, School of Information Sciences, Moi University.

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