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Kenya recognises education as a fundamental human right that is vital for the attainment of national development goals. Article 53 (1) (b) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states that every child has a right to free and compulsory primary education while Article 55 (a) requires the state to take measures, including implementing affirmative action programmes, to ensure that the youth have access to education and training. Under Article 56 (b), minorities and marginalized groups have a right to be provided with special opportunities in education.

To give effect to the Constitution, the Basic Education Act (No 14 of 2013) has been passed into law to regulate primary education and adult basic education in the country. The Children’s Act also acknowledges and protects every child’s right to education. In addition, Kenya has adopted various general and specific policies on education. The second Medium Term Plan of Vision 2030 (2013) and the Policy Framework for Education and Training (2012) are the most recent.

Kenya recognizes that education is key to empowering the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals in society and makes efforts on an affirmative basis to enable these individuals to exploit their capabilities alongside their Kenyan peers through primary, secondary, and tertiary education.

Outside the provisions of the constitution, the government has also recently made efforts to address the issue of access to education and concerns about the quality of education. The measures undertaken include the establishment of tuition waivers for secondary schools, curriculum reviews to optimize student learning, and public‐private partnerships that aim to increase individual and community participation in the education sector.

World Bank statistics show Kenya’s successes in improving education through free primary education and other programs, with the most recent data from 2018 showing a literacy rate of almost 82 per cent. This has risen significantly from 72.16 per cent in 2007 to 78.73 per cent in 2014. Yet, despite these efforts, the country is still beleaguered by challenges and is far from narrowing the equity gap in the education sector. This is partly due to the application of solutions that fail to adequately address the social, cultural, historical, and political realities of the communities in the different parts of the country.

For the longest time, northern Kenya has been associated with marginalization, most prominently in the education sector. Although the region occupies a crucial geographical position as a borderland, progress is hampered by regional insecurity and government neglect. Most recently, threats from Al-Shabaab have had an indelible effect on the region’s education sector, leaving it to fare among the worst in the country in terms of literacy levels, school enrolment, performance in national examinations, high school graduation rates, transition to university, and student-to-teacher ratios. According to a 2015 report by Uwezo – a citizen-led assessment of learning outcomes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda,  8 per cent of adults in Kenya did not attend school. The regional contrast is stark: in northeastern Kenya 82 per cent of adults did not attend school while in central Kenya 0.1 per cent of adults (1 in 1,000) did not attend.

Historical overview 

With its mission of exploiting the country’s natural, human, and economic resources, the British colonial government recognized the agricultural potential of the Kenya highlands — which it referred to as the White Highlands — and encouraged the establishment of settlers in places like Kiambu and Nyeri.

The settlement of colonialists in the highlands propelled the region’s development. Infrastructural development, such as the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway, soon followed, easing the movement of people and goods to and from the region, followed by such social amenities as schools and hospitals, which remained concentrated in the highlands. The departure of the colonial administration left behind a system that perpetuated inequity and allowed central Kenya to stay ahead of other parts of the country.

As for northern Kenya, its geographical location—far away from the railway line— contributed to its isolation during Kenya’s peak years of development. The British government only set up a few essential facilities in the region, such as police stations, military bases, and administrative offices. The building of schools became the responsibility of the local communities. With few resources, the districts could not afford to build many schools, and the few that were built were below standard.

The departure of the colonial administration left behind a system that perpetuated inequity.

Formal education was introduced to the people of Kenya by European Christian missionaries who used it as an evangelical tool to spread Christianity. The missionaries dominated the provision and administration of education throughout the colonial period. This strategic decision greatly benefited other parts of Kenya and further isolated the northern parts of Kenya where the climatic conditions were harsh and which were predominantly Islamic territory. Most of the communities never accepted Christianity and received a limited benefit from the “education mission” undertaken by the missionaries. Kenya’s most prestigious high schools central and Rift Valley regions—like Mangu High School, Alliance High School and many others—started out as missionary schools.

Successive post-independence governments perpetuated the marginalization of the people of northeastern Kenya. For instance, President Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, imposed a state of emergency on the region in December 1963, which persisted for 28 years until it was lifted by his successor, President Moi, in 1991. In part, the state of emergency was a response to attempts by ethnic Somalis in the colonial Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya to secede from Kenya and join their fellow Somalis in the larger Somalia Republic.

The Kenyan government dubbed the 1963-67 conflict the “Shifta War.” During the conflict, the Kenyan forces treated the ethnic peoples in the region with brutality, leaving a lingering sense of suspicion, anger, and tension, to the extent that some communities still consider themselves not part of Kenya. This exacerbated the sense of mistrust, with other Kenyan communities fearing being posted to the region for administrative duties, teaching, or to provide government services.

Schools remained understaffed because of the low numbers of teachers, while most locals could not take up teaching due to the high entrance grades required to join the Teacher Training Colleges (TTCs).  Many high school graduates from the region have been scoring below average due to the poor learning conditions and the limited resources availed to the region by the central government.

After civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, the region’s security situation worsened as the conflict spilled over into Kenya.  The civil war in Somalia started as a clan-based conflict but Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al-Shabaab, Daesh and Takfiriyun—which are against Western education—soon emerged. The interim Federal Somalia Government has been unable to contain these groups, which started launching attacks in northern Kenya, taking a region that had been slowly catching up back to the dark ages.

Al-Shabaab terror attacks 

Northern Kenya has borne the brunt of al-Shabaab attacks. The group’s leaders have sought to establish a base in a region—one of the country’s poorest—where the ethnic Somali population has for years complained of mistreatment by the state. The insecurity hit the education sector hard since 2018 when al-Shabaab began attacking schools and killing teachers, many of whom started fleeing the region that year.

Most teachers hail from elsewhere in Kenya. Al-Shabaab, which seeks to create sectarian strife, has killed many public servants besides teachers, including engineers and security personnel. In 2015, it launched a string of attacks on non-local casual labourers at construction sites, forcing many of them to flee. The armed group also staged an attack that targeted the only university in the entire region, Garissa University College, killing 148 students. This led to the destabilization of the institution and created fear among students from other parts of the country. Laxity on the part of Kenyan security agencies has been witnessed; many police officers and soldiers detest being deployed in the northeast, where they face a greater danger of attack than in other parts of the country.

The British government only set up a few essential facilities in the region, such as police stations, military bases, and administrative offices.

The government posted a new regional commissioner who helped reduce the terror attacks. Mohamud Saleh led the region’s security forces between 2015 and 2018.  His approach centred on community intelligence gathering. He gave locals the confidence they needed to go to the police with information about what al-Shabaab was saying and doing. Saleh was transferred back to Nairobi in 2018. The terror attacks have been on the up, especially in Mandera. Due to scant trust between citizens and the security forces, officials deployed from Nairobi to the region since then have struggled to gather intelligence on al-Shabaab.

The death of education in northern Kenya

While an understandable step, the government’s decision in early 2020 to withdraw all non-local teachers played into al-Shabaab’s hands. First, it created widespread anger in northern Kenya since residents took it as a signal that Nairobi does not consider them fully Kenyan. While the al-Shabaab accuses locals of being too Kenyan, the government on the other hand views them as belonging to Somalia. Secondly, evacuating teaching staff from the northeast risks consigning the region’s youth to poverty, or worse, leading to an entire generation missing out on education, with dire consequences such as delinquent and criminal behaviour likely to follow.

The Teachers Service Commission (TSC), the national body responsible for teachers’ employment, has insisted that teachers not be posted to the northeastern region until their safety is assured. Local leaders and members of parliament have argued that the government’s mass transfer of teachers is an indication of the continued marginalization of the region’s people. The education sector in northern Kenya has been brought to its knees by al-Shabaab.

Turning the situation around 

To bring changes to the education sector in northern Kenya, we must first address the security situation. Corruption in Kenya’s security sector and failed or politicized intelligence-gathering lie at the root of the problem. Studies show that corruption fuels terrorism by undermining counter-terrorism measures and destroying police-community trust. Military force alone will not help to counter al-Shabaab’s activities in Mandera. The government should consider using committed intelligence officials who can blend into the local population and emerge with more accurate and timely intelligence to stop the group’s plans. The build-up of mistrust between the locals and Kenyan authorities has played into the hands of al-Shabaab.

Capacity building for civil society groups, community structures, local leaders, and the media could also help prevent violent extremism in northern Kenya. Human and material resources and training for all those involved in fighting al-Shabaab – such as elders and community leaders – are needed. Without the effective implementation of the local and community-level components of Kenya’s National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism, and in the absence of an extensive intelligence network, the country will struggle to combat terrorism.

The insecurity hit the education sector hard since 2018 when al-Shabaab began attacking schools and killing teachers.

Training local teachers to free the region from its dependence on a non-resident teaching workforce is an important step that needs to be prioritized for security-related disruptions to be avoided. The continued suspension of learning activities has long-term ramifications. Studies show that children who have never been to school can easily be manipulated and recruited into the ranks of violent extremist groups.

The government should also upgrade the current school infrastructure. Schools in the north have few learning materials and cannot be at par with schools elsewhere in the country. The current budgetary allocation by the Ministry of Education is low, and the shortfall is bridged by funding from developmental partners such as USAID and the World Bank.

The challenges of improving education and other aspects of life in northern Kenya are enormous as the neglect has been ongoing since Kenya’s founding. No one entity may be able to overturn the cumulative disadvantages of historical injustices, but collaboration among agencies is necessary. The Kenyan government must spearhead a coalition of stakeholders and willing partners to implement an action-based policy framework for change. Given the extent of the lag, future funding needs to account for missed opportunities in a fair manner and as such, elected representatives from the area should form a special caucus to lobby the government to increase the national government allocation. Finally, deliberate policies need to be enacted to move the region from the margins to the centre.