Listen to the Students

Michael Onsando
12 April ,2016

Imagine a country. This country has an election. During the election it becomes clear to the voters that the processes that are being followed are flawed and that the result might be neither free nor fair. They stay silent. Eventually the electoral body makes an election. The elections, they say, were free and fair and power will remain where it was. So the citizens take to the streets in protest. Police are dispatched where they proceed to deal with the citizens with swift brutality. As the election comes under scrutiny allegations of bribing voters, threats and violence come to light.

To add to all this the leader of this country has been in power for longer than he should have. There are allegations that he bribed his way into a constitution to allow his running for a fourth term.

Would you call this country politically stable?

The story of the University of Nairobi is one that baffles me repeatedly and without fail. But let’s start from the beginning which, in this case, is somewhere near the middle.

Last week a video was sent round on social media. The video shows university students lying down on the side of the road as GSU officers cane them. The caning is methodical and slightly reminiscent of that day in primary school when you didn’t finish your math homework. Except the canes are larger and the stakes are higher. This was a day after Babu Owino had been announced winner and the elections having been described as happening in a “democratic and peaceful manner.” The next day the university was closed indefinitely.

“Since its inauguration, the University of Nairobi (UON) has been an accurate microcosm of the struggles facing the Kenyan people. It has often been the testing ground for most of the adverse sections later perpetrated on the larger Kenyan community. Attempts at controlling and directing the university are frequently a prelude to similar efforts at the national level.”

The university often presents a sample of the country. Given the nature of how students end up at the university it is a mirror of sorts through which we can see ourselves. The question then becomes, what reflection do we see? To do this, we need to go back to other times the university has been closed and understand the context around those.

Perhaps the most famous closing of the University of Nairobi came after the 1982 coup. Frustrated by university student leadership that kept challenging him, and coming off the back of a coup attempt, retired president Moi ordered the closing of the university. The university was closed for 13 months through to October 1983. This is also currently the longest closure in the history of university. Prior to this closure the university had become a particularly hostile place for students. The state violence that characterized most of Moi’s rule was vetted on students and staff. They were also incentivized to be “loyal” with many staffers receiving high paying lucrative jobs as a reward for their loyalty.

During the period between 1990 and 1993 the university, or at least sections of it, was closed 5 times. July 1990 saw students sent on “early vacation” so they wouldn’t be involved in the demonstrations for multiparty elections. The Faculty of Arts was closed between November 1990 and 1991 after they protested the university’s delay in refunding them money owed. It has been argued, however, that the university needed the rooms for other students as temporary accommodation due to incomplete hostels.

All students were expelled in July 1991 after protests over introduction of cost sharing. Shortly after it re-opened in March 1992 Faculty of Commerce students were sent home – on April 2nd – over the registration of SONU 92. They came back on May 4th. On July 30th in the same year students from the Faculties of Law, Arts, Architecture and Design, Engineering and Science were also sent home over SONU 92[1].

For the most part, university closings seem to resonate with a larger happening in the country and with some form of ideological shift that was being pushed for. One of the major pushes from SONU 92, for example, was to remove the president as Chancellor of the university. Getting the state out of the institution was very important having independent thinkers, and finding ways to ensure the state can be challenged. Sending students home early to avoid their participation in multiparty demonstrations was also a way to pre-empt a movement that, as we know, wasn’t that far in the future. The first multi party elections were had 2 years later.

And, even when the university was not closed for an apparent political reason there was always a grievance of sorts at it’s core. Student cost sharing, delayed refunds and mismanagement are things that were the pressure points of the students every day.

What’s the context now? We have a student leader who has now held on to power for four terms and openly gives money to voters. He claims this money is not a bribe and gives it out right next to the voting queue. His election was verified by an announcement of “free and fair” results. The students protested and the state swept in to deal with the students in the way the state has designed its dealings with the citizens.

This political narrative is too familiar. This story has been told. We know how it goes. We have seen it both here and in elsewhere. Which is what bothers me. If the University of Nairobi exists as a reflection of how the country is run, how is the country being run? The country you were imagining earlier? Stop imagining, look around. Is there really a difference?

[1] Maina Kiai, On Repression in University of Nairobi (PDF Here)

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