Cartels to blame for Kenya’s mass school burnings, witnesses say

The cartels influence teachers to incite students, reports Henry Owino.

High School dormitory burnt down © Nation Media Group

The burning down of more than 100 Kenyan secondary schools nationwide, set ablaze by unknown assailants in July 2016 and during the public school year’s second term, will make 2016 go down in history as Kenya's most destructive year.

What began as student unrest in a Kisii County school, after administrators denied pupils a chance to watch the Euro Cup finals, spread across the country. Innocent Kenyans assumed students were just expressing their displeasure by burning a school.

The reality of the matter, however, is that cartels are behind the secondary school fires. Many of the cartels had found their way into schools by infiltrating and influencing mischievous teachers to incite students against new tough regulations set by Ministry of Education.

Students from Langata High School appear before a court of law.

© Henry Owino

To start with, the students from Itierio High School in Kisii County burnt seven dormitories and two classrooms before attacking and damaging a neighboring girls’ school.

A student from Itierio High School disclosed that they had already planned the attack but were waiting for a trigger. He said that support by certain teachers prompted them to set dormitories and classrooms on fire and that they capitalized on the excuse that they were only expressing anger.

‘There is a teacher who used to incite students. He would tell students that that new rules by the Ministry of Education are turning schools into prisons and the only distinction is a jail term,’ the student explained. ‘But school imprisonments have a maximum of four years while real prison is more.’

Langata High School dormitory burnt down.

© Henry Owino

The reason for inciting students is to oppose the tough new regulations aimed at curbing cheating on national examinations across secondary schools. The new rules are applicable to all public secondary schools beginning in their third term, according to the Ministry of Education.

Cabinet Secretary for Education, Fred Matiang’i said that most cheating of national examinations occurs early in the third term during student visitations. He elaborated that there are examination paper brokers who pose as parents or guardians of students but are in the business of selling exam materials.

The Ministry of Education’s new regulations include banning all visitations to students by parents, guardians, relatives, friends or any other persons. The other restrictions are: no prayer day for the candidates, no mid-term break, and remaining students and teachers are to stay at home during the entire exam period, hence schools close early.

‘As the Ministry of Education, we are perturbed by the high rate of national examination irregularities in our schools. So, we have applied some stringent measures to ensure no more cheating takes place and every candidate score what they deserves,’ Matiang’i explained.

The Ministry of Education headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

© Henry Owino

Additional measures include the use of police officers in exam supervision and limiting very few examiners to handle papers in preparation for examinations. Head teachers and principals will be held responsible for examination irregularities.

Matiang’i explained that, traditionally, form four national examinations start mid-October and continue through mid-November. He hinted, however, that this year changes have been made and examinations will start on 7 November and end in the first week of December.

Some parents, teachers and government officials opposed the new regulations. They used social media to galvanize support for their position and raise awareness of their objections. They succeeded as numbers increased from individuals to communities, civil society organizations, government agencies and even some from Education Ministry joined the online debate.

The debate took a more serious tone when hate speech was used to attack Matiang’i the Cabinet Secretary, calling him names and pushing, unsuccessfully, for his resignation.

After the cartels realized that they were losing the battle in social media, they turned to protest and property destruction.

It is at this point that the mass burning of schools began, without students necessarily rioting or getting directly involved. Although a few schools had students rebelling against certain minor things, such as late or bad food. The banning of student entertainment time is an incident that did end in a school being burned. This incidents were not, however, due to the new applied regulations.

For instance, James Mwangi, student in Muranga County, revealed that his school dormitory was burnt to the ground, while students were in class and in broad day light. He said that they were only alerted about the fire after it had been burning for nearly 30 minutes. By then, it was too late to salvage anything.

Mwangi said that all students were in class studying and a few teachers, who had no class then, were in the staff-room or in their staff-quarters on the school compound. He said that the school watchman on duty noticed a cloud of smoke.

‘Students were perplexed at how the dormitory could be set ablaze and burn for a whole 30 minutes without anybody noticing or spotting the assailant involved,’ Mwangi said. He alleged it was an inside job organized between cartels and school administration and money must have changed hands.

‘If the school administration is fighting Matiang’i, they should demonstrate in the streets. We are not concerned with new regulations as long as they have optimum time to prepare for the final examinations in October,’ Mwangi expressed his frustration.

Moses Ouma, a parent in Maranda High School in Siaya County blamed Matiang’i for coming up with the new rules without consulting the school administration. He said Matiang’I needed to consult widely with parents, teachers and school stakeholders before imposing the regulations.

Ouma however said that he is not opposed to the regulations but its consequences that have left millions in property damage. He worries about the schools that have been burned down, the students who lost their belongings and the school system which has lost massive wealth.

‘I am actually concerned as a parent though I have no students in any of the schools involved in the fires. I thanked god that no students died as a result but the pain of losing things like books, mattress, blankets, bed-sheets and so on tortures students psychologically,’ Ouma said.

Dormitory razed to ashes.

© Photo courtsey of Nation Media Group

Jael Jaoko is a retired primary headteacher but also a parent at St Augustine Nyamonye Girls Secondary School in Siaya County.

Jaoko claimed that cartels are selling exam papers at Ksh 5000 (US $50) per copy. Jaoko stated in her experience as teacher, most secondary schools could invite parents of Form Fours for a meeting normally dubbed as career guidance meeting. It is in meetings like these where parents and teachers agree to donate money to buy the leaked exam papers.

‘I once attended a career guidance meeting in a school where my son was a candidate. I was asked to donate Ksh 50,000 (US$500) per parent to buy results oriented exam papers for our children who were candidates,’ Jaoko recalled.

The retired teacher stated that after the principal explained everything to the parents they, the convinced parents, donated the money. Those who did not have enough cash took the leaked exam papers on condition that they would pay the fee before collecting the exam results certificate given as part of student clearance.

‘Imagine a school with more than 100 candidates with each paying that amount for a copy yet every student sits for a least eight examinable papers. How much is that, and can poor parents afford it?,’ Jaoko asked.

Jaoko argued that because the cartels make big money it is no wonder that they are against the new regulations and fighting back against Matiang’i. She realized that the reason for student results held by back by the school administration in the name of outstanding fee arrears may not always be true.

‘No wonder school administrations never respect call by government not hold back student results and certificates,’ Jaoko noted.

‘All these tricks happen in the third term. The names differ from school to school so that none suspect it. For example, some call the meetings where leaked exam papers are sold ‘prayer day’, ‘Form Four last visitation’, ‘candidates-parents academic meeting’, ‘Form Four career guidance meeting’, and the list is long,’ Jaoko revealed.

A principal in one of the schools agreed with some of the allegations, however, refuted claims of holding back results certificates on such a basis. He said that last year his school did not perform as expected but that none of his students failed.

I want to say here that I support the new school regulations fully, no wonder cartels and schools used to cheating are panicking,’ the principal said. ‘The truth about why schools are burning involves opposition from cartels, not stress by students reacting by rioting to sabotage Matiang’i's position,’ he added.

He anticipated that when results are released next year, the painful truth about the current crisis of school fires, that has left both parents and students stressed, would be revealed.

The Butula school was recently burned down as students were enjoying their second term holiday. Investigations into the fire have been launched, however, the results of the investigation have not yet been publicly released.