By WAWERU MUGO
The story is told of how, on February 10, 1985, University of Nairobi student Mwandawiro Mghanga inspected a guard of honour mounted by students. In those days, it was mandatory for post-high school students to go through National Youth Service training before joining public universities, and they happily paraded on the university sports field for the occasion.
It was a daring thing to do at a time when the Government was cracking down hard on dissidents and the institution had become a battlefront of sorts between the one-party hardline system and its vocal opponents.
Mghanga had been expelled a week earlier but defied an order to stay out of campus.
Among other issues, the students were protesting a divide-and-rule policy of the regime, which was accused of planting a student leader. Tribal student organisations were also allegedly being used to divide the student body, as they would be invited to meet President Moi privately at State House and other locations.
In response to the students’ audacity, armed General Service Unit officers stormed the university grounds, beating them up with truncheons and gun butts. One student, identified as Joseph Wandera, was killed and more than 50 others injured. Mghanga, alongside five other students, were promptly charged with convening and attending an illegal meeting. He was jailed for one year and the others were fined.
The prosecutor then was Bernard Chunga, who was accused by the opposition of playing into the hands of the ruling party by pushing through suppressive charges. But Attorney General Matthew Guy Muli led an onslaught to convince the court to give the students maximum sentences.
The radicalisation of students had started in earnest after independence, as the new government muzzled academic freedom as well as freedom of expression on campus.
After independence, the President became the chancellor of all public universities, which were led by vice-chancellors handpicked by the Head of State. Council members were also appointed by Government who, together with the vice-chancellors, were at the beck and call of the State. Thus, it can be said that the universities were led by State agents who suppressed students’ academic and expressive freedoms.
Signs of political awareness and activism had emerged in 1969 at the university (then known as the University of East Africa), when the Government barred Jaramogi Oginga Odinga from speaking on campus. What followed were demonstrations and boycott of classes.
The university was closed and students were asked to reapply as well as sign apology letters for “disobeying the Government”. Three years later, in 1972, a campus publication, University Platform, was closed and its editors, including the fiery Chelagat Mutai, expelled.
The University of Nairobi would come to symbolise resistance to dictatorship and became part of the movement for democratic space and an end to tyranny. However, it was the assassination of Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki in 1975 that saw radicalism in universities take a new turn. Kariuki was idolised for his defence of the poor and criticism of Government.
Students took to the streets to demonstrate. There were claims that General Service Unit officers sent to quell the riots raped female students.
Students continued to commemorate JM’s murder every March 2 in subsequent years and continued to clash with police.
“A generation of elites was being radicalised,” writes Charles Hornsby in Kenya: A History since Independence.
Theirs became a story of honour, bravery, betrayal, murder , protest, and triumph. Two decades later, one student leader was brutally murdered by suspected state agents.
Among those who eulogised Kariuki at his burial was Wanyiri Kihoro, then a student whose criticism of Government would later see him detained. Kihoro would later be arrested and held against the law for 73 hours before being hauled to court.
While in confinement, he was held alone, tortured, denied food and held in a waterlogged cell before being charged with delivering anti-government speeches in London as well as publishing seditious materials. He was also accused of belonging to the Mwakenya movement before being sent to prison for nearly three years. JM’s murder shocked the country.
“When he was murdered, obviously there was shock, a serious shock in the society as a whole and in the university. He was treated like a piece of meat and left to rot and be eaten by animals,” Shadrack Gutto, a lecturer at the university, would later tell an interviewer.
Inspired by socialist ideologies, lecturers at the university would soon suck students into the fight for human rights and democracy.
The government responded with a heavy hand. Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who chaired University of Nairobi’s literature department, was detained in 1978 for his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda.
A series of ominous events followed in 1979 and 1980, as the Government banned the Student’s Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu) and the Academic Staff Union. The institution was also closed as more protests ensued, including those demanding that wa Thiong’o be reinstated.
Assassination of scholar
Riots erupted as the university’s administration would not let speakers from outside engage students in debates on campus. Then the State seized the passports of lecturers including Atieno Odhiambo, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Micere Mugo, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Okoth Ogendo and Gutto, who were seen as radicals.
Things got so bad that many were said to have been arrested for merely sporting a beard, as Kanu loyalists interpreted them to be Marxists.
The student’s organisation was registered again in 1982. More students accused of taking part in the 1982 coup attempt were expelled and jailed. And as students became more radicalised and political awareness matured, they participated in activities to show solidarity with revolutionary movements around the world.
In 1980, for instance, they held a meeting to protest the assassination of Walter Rodney, a Guyanese revolutionary scholar who spoke passionately against neo-colonialism advanced by leaders of newly independent nations. He is well known for his 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Students also organised meetings and demonstrations with members of ANC, PAC, SWAPO and SWANU in Nairobi to support the struggle for the liberation of Southern Africa.
“In the then International Union of Students’ meetings at Dar-es-saalam, Moscow, Prague and Sofia, we were at the forefront of the movement to articulate revolutionary support for the liberation of Southern Africa and for peace, socialism and anti-imperialist solidarity,” Mghanga told a Cuban symposium in Kenya held at Charter Hall, Nairobi, on March 20, 2008.
But it was not all smooth, and the Government often tried to curtail their interactions with “outsiders” by barring speakers from campus, or preventing students from travelling outside the country. In November 1987, two students nominated to attend an international student’s meeting in Cuba were arrested and stopped from travelling.
Few lawyers dared represent people labelled dissidents. Targeted were a few radical lawyers who dared, such as John Khaminwa.
Through their students’ organisation, students had very much become part of the struggle for multi-party democracy and good governance. Soon after Mwandawiro’s arrest, Maina Kiranga was elected Sonu chairman in a poll seen to have been manipulated by the government.
It was at this time that another radical student leader, Wafula Buke, was emerging and establishing himself among his peers. He led students in rejecting Kiranga, suspending the organisation’s constitution and replacing the leadership committee with an interim one. But the coup was not successful as most of them backed down following threats.
But Buke was eventually elected chairman on November 4, 1987. On the day he was sworn in, Buke took the university’s authorities head on, accusing them of stifling debate by barring some personalities from speaking at campus. Students demanded the institution’s autonomy. That same night, several students were arrested as a confrontation with police took off the following day.
Buke was chairman for only nine days. He was arrested, charged with spying for Libya and jailed for five years. The Special Branch, the equivalent of today’s National Security Intelligence Service, had obtained the “evidence” they required to fix him a year earlier.
When still a first-year student, Buke had organised a demonstration against the US when it bombed Libya on April 15, 1986. They were false charges.
“I have not seen a Libyan up till now, just seeing one,” Buke told Robert Press, an author and researcher, in 2002. “And I’ve really struggled to see one. When I went to Geneva I tried to see one. I didn’t succeed. I was in Nigeria, I tried to see one. Even here I’ve tried to see one; I’ve not seen a Libyan except [Libyan leader] Gaddafi on TV.”
And so it was that in November 1987, thousands of students were expelled and ordered to report to their chiefs in their villages twice a week. Earlier, in what the university fraternity called “black Monday”, there were violent confrontations with the police after barricades erected to stop students from marching to State House were broken through.
Sonu was banned in 1992 and allowed back in 1998.
But 1992 would see some students join Youth for Kanu ’92, a lobby that campaigned for Moi in the first multi-party elections.
The organisation is remembered for the massive funding it enjoyed. Its leaders drove around in flashy cars and expensive suits. It was while he was a part of this outfit that Deputy President William Ruto blossomed politically while doing the legwork for Moi, who was eventually accused of rigging the election.
It was not until the National Rainbow Coalition came to power in 2003 that a sense of freedom returned to universities. President Kibaki also ceased to be the chancellor of all public universities.