| Can student leaders reclaim their glorious past?
Less than a fortnight ago, most university student bodies in Kenya held their elections. Setting the political tempo was Moi University, followed by one of the most hotly contested elections at the University of Nairobi and then Kenyatta University. Conspicuously absent were the massive campaigns of the past, as most university charters had shortened the campaign period. Previously student campaigns were spectacular, involving vernacular songs, beautiful ladies, political goons and creative literature to woo voters.
A look through history clearly illustrates the important role that student unions have played in effecting change in the Kenyan political system. Today student bodies point to a glorious past, but are now causalities and victims of bad governance, corruption, tribal politics, ideological bankruptcy and outside interference. Still their rich history should not be dismissed just because of their present lacklustre existence. They have made successful political leaders and influenced the downfall of others in the same measure.
The man at the helm of a possible grand opposition, the Hon. Ababu Namwamba is an example of a groomed product of the system- he served as Head of the Council of Students’ Union between 1996 and 1997 in the University of Nairobi. The Lands Minister, the Hon. James Orengo, then a no-nonsense government critic and enemy number one, also served as the chairman of SONU (Student Organization of Nairobi University). Other leaders who have been student leaders include Anyang’ Nyong’o, Miguna Miguna, Kabando wa Kabando and PLO Lumumba.
The power of student bodies extended so far that university administrations and the government formed special units to monitor, spy on and sometimes implicate those leaders seen as too influential to the students. It is on record that the much dreaded Special Branch, headed by the late Kanyotu, formed a special unit that spied on student leaders. In fact one of their bases was at the Libyan Embassy in Kenya which student leaders used to frequent.
Misfortunes, one after the other, have had a major effect on student leaders. Many of them have been suspended, expelled, arrested and killed mysteriously, or have disappeared, never to be found. Peter Aringo set history by being the first civilian to be charged on sedition charges. By that time, in 1982, he was a first year student in the University of Nairobi and had been accused of participating in the coup attempt. One of the notorious cases was that of Titus Adungosi. He was detained several times during the clamour for multi-party politics and later the police set his residence on fire. Others who were lucky enough to escape such an untimely demise include Mwandawiro Mghangha and Orioki Guto who is currently struggling to complete his studies at Kenyatta University.
While the numbers involved cannot be certain, a rough estimate is that more than 500 student leaders and other prominent students have faced unmentionable atrocities. The most recent absurd case is that of a former secretary general in Kenyatta University. He underwent full cadet training at Lanet and, less than two weeks before graduation, he was sent away. “I believe that somebody in Kenyatta University sent a letter saying that I would not be trusted with state security. All this is because I led a strike to demand for students’ rights several years ago at the campus,” he told the Daily Nation in an interview.
Even with such unfavorable factors, the student leadership has withstood the test of time. During the recent SONU elections, Dan Mwangi was elected chairman. In his speech he called for “a year of working so as to take SONU back to its glorious past.” The most outstanding elections this year were those held at Kenyatta University. Initially, in a show of unity, all the aspirants led demonstrators to the administration to demand a legitimate constitution and to air the students’ grievances. Martin Luther was elected KUSA’s (Kenyatta University Student Association) chairman after flooding his closest challenger, Simon Gathuo by more than one thousand votes.
While student bodies continue to survive, their star is waning. There are rumours that the university administration sponsors candidates who are “friendly” so as to minimize full students empowerment. One such rumour revolved around the election of Grace Mutemi, the new KUSA Secretary General. “Where did she get all the money for such a rigorous campaign?” questions Victor Jaringa, a student leader and activist. His questions have earned him warnings from the administration.
Some of the leaders are easily compromised and intimidated to sing the administration‘s tune. As Apopo Lentana A.A., KUSA’s organizing secretary, laments, “Our former secretary general and chairman were compromised to alter our constitution without any consultations.” Taking their fire higher, various administrations are now cutting down on the remunerations of elected student leaders. In the most recent case in one of the universities, aspirants took the Dean of students to task after the administration “illegally” did away with free meals and accommodation.
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