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Who is setting Kenya’s schools on fire?

Fires 1

Nairobi, Kenya | AFP |

Dozens of secondary schools across Kenya have been deliberately set on fire, but as the authorities struggle to pinpoint why, fractious relations between pupils, teachers and a controversial education minister offer clues.

In the last three months, 117 Kenyan schools have been partially burnt by arsonists.

Yet the arson attacks, which are countrywide, don’t seem to correspond to any of the usual ethnic, geographical or socioeconomic fault lines that often spark tension in Kenya.

A confidential report by the police and education ministry seen by AFP identifies a clear pattern of behaviour in the planning of the crimes, as the authorities struggle to contain the phenomenon.

The fires “mainly affect dormitories where students sleep, and appear well coordinated because so far students have never been caught by the fire, meaning they escape well in advance with prior knowledge,” the report said.

In response, education minister Fred Matiang’i has held several meetings with teachers, religious leaders and police, and more than 150 students have been arrested so far.

But the problem persists: on Thursday night alone, four schools were set on fire.

 

 Fear and loathing

Identifying those orchestrating the attacks, or merely proving they might be copycat acts, is proving difficult.

The media has relayed fears of parents for their children’s safety along with strident editorials condemning the incidents as symptomatic of a soft touch approach to parenting and education in Kenya today.

“An education system in which students burn hostels and destroy school property every day is an indictment of the collective ethos of a nation. It is a shame and a reflection of a society gone haywire,” the Daily Nation newspaper thundered on Thursday.

The government has meanwhile seized upon recent reforms designed to stop epidemic levels of cheating to explain the fires.

They say the burning schools are retribution from a “cartel” formerly linked to the country’s exam-setting body, which used to profit handsomely from selling papers and answers.

Questions were exchanged by text messages and on social media, with some sold for around $10.

The cheating ring was dismantled in March 2015 and several senior figures from the government agency were arrested.

Others blame students themselves, saying they are scared of failing their exams, and still more point to their parents, whom they characterise as angry after losing out financially due to the cheating crackdown.

 

Ministerial role

The role of education minister Matiang’i is also a suspected factor, following months of complaints from teachers, students and parents against his tough approach.

Matiang’i has effectively reduced the length of the school holidays by modifying the scholastic calendar, and has altered the allocation of funds for school supplies, angering the education establishment.

He has carried out surprise visits to schools, publicly taking teachers to task in a way that has reportedly left them feeling humiliated.

The minister has earned the nickname “Magufuli” as a result, in reference to the tight ship administration run by the Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who has cracked down on ministerial incompetence and wasteful public spending.

Without any sign of the government reversing its strict policy on cheating, and Matiang’i still firmly in place, older students are currently refusing to take their mock examinations ahead of the real thing in October.

Some told AFP they want the exams delayed to make up for time lost to teachers striking in October 2015.

So whether or not the arson mystery is solved, the bad blood between all the actors in this educational saga seems far from over.

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