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Over 100 Kenyan Schools Burned in Apparent Arson Attacks

FILE - Students walk near the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.

More than 120 high schools throughout Kenya have been set ablaze since early June, amid a government crackdown on cheating on national exams. The conflagrations, which reportedly have caused some injuries but no fatalities, have heated up conflict between authorities and educators, even though the perpetrators and their motive for setting the fires remain unclear.

This week, with fires reported in 10 more schools, the government’s Teachers Service Commission ordered principals and their deputies to move into school compounds as a deterrent to arson. Teacher unions have refused, saying their members are not security experts.

Government investigation

Authorities have arrested dozens in connection with the fires. Teachers and students arraigned in court have denied involvement. The government has formed an eight-person committee to investigate.

A school in Meru County in central Kenya on Thursday became one of the latest to be torched. No deaths were reported there or at any of the other schools since the incidents began, though some students reportedly have been injured while trying to retrieve belongings from burning buildings.

In a story published Thursday, the French news agency AFP cited a confidential report, prepared by the police and the Education Ministry, that said 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.”

It remains unclear who is responsible and what they hope to gain by burning down school buildings.

Kenya’s education sector has been in turmoil lately. Education Minister Fred Matiang’i recently visited several schools, and in some cases he found that teachers were absent without permission.

Clan politics, bad management blamed

Responding to questions from Senate Committee last week, Matiang’i blamed clan politics and bad management for some of the chaos in Kenyan schools.

In some regions, communities fight over who and how many people should represent them in school leadership, leading to unrest and some school closings.

It also has been suggested that a change in the school calendar, shortening the typical one-month holiday in August to just two weeks, may have angered students or teachers.

Omboko Milemba, chairman of a teachers’ union, said he had called upon the government “to close schools for a period so that we can ease the tension.”

But Matiang’i said classes would continue until the current term ends in mid-August. “We will not close schools early,” he said. “The program and the term date will go on as planned to the logical conclusion.”

Anger over national test?

Some observers say students, parents and teachers are unhappy with government efforts to prevent the national exam from being leaked before testing begins in October.

In past years, many students were caught possessing copies of questions and answers before the exams began. AFP reported that some believe the fire attacks may be “retribution from a ‘cartel’ formerly linked to the country’s exam-setting body, which used to profit" by charging for advance copies of questions on the test. AFP reported the cheating ring, which involved several senior members of the government testing office, was broken up in March 2015.

Chacha Nyaigoti-Chacha, a professor and education expert affiliated with Mount Kenya University, says students try to cheat because they are not being properly taught.

“The students we have now in schools are not being given mentorship," he said. “I think the challenge we have as a country is those who are responsible for these schools should put more effort into making sure they know their students well and address their problems.”