Torturous journey that birthed student union

By Agnes Aineah | Thursday, May 2nd 2019 at 11:45
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Former student leaders who endured arrest, torture and imprisonment to form the most powerful student movement in Kenyan history are unhappy that the unions are being systematically turned into extensions of university administrations instead of nurturing fearless leaders. 

When tension engulfed the country following an attempted coup in 1982, a first-year University of Nairobi (UoN) student was arrested on claims of having a hand in the treasonous act against the State. Police who had monitored Mwandawiro Mghanga’s activism over the period he had been at the university picked him up while he was visiting an uncle in Karen and detained him at GSU training school in Embakasi for 6 months.

This arrest and detention marked the start of Mwandawiro’s troubled pursuit of higher education before he sought asylum in Sweden where he completed his studies. Mwandawiro’s studies in Kenya were cut short in 1985 when he was expelled from the university on claims that he inspected a guard of honour that was organised by fellow students. Since setting foot in the institution, Mwandawiro has setting himself apart as an agitator for academic freedom.

“I joined students who were fighting for an independent student organisation to champion for academic freedom and to fight dictatorship inside and outside the university,” says Mwandawiro.

The students were especially opposed to the introduction of school fees in universities by Joseph Kamotho who headed the Ministry of Higher Education between 1980 and 1983. This fired-up activism would lead to the formation of Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU). Despite the gains, Mwandawiro, then only aged 22, became a marked person. This was because his activism went beyond campus precincts. Together with other students, he participated in riotous conduct in the capital following the barring of the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and other radical politicians from contesting for seats in an election in 1981. KANU was the only political party then.

But it was the August 1982 attempted coup that led to Mwandawiro’s first arrest. At that time, SONU founding Chairperson Tito Adungosi was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of sedition and died in jail 6 years later. Mwandawiro was Tito’s deputy. Nevertheless, that was a long time ago. Nearly 40 years later, the SONU founding leader and one-time chairperson of the organisation has watched with mixed feelings the phases that the student organisation, which inspired formation of other student movements across the country, has been through. 

According to Mwandawiro, the once powerful movement now called University of Nairobi Students Association (UNSA) has lost its glory.

“During our time, there was democracy within the university and we were surrounded by a lot of dictatorship in the society. Today, things are different. There is dictatorship in universities and democracy outside the university,” says Mwandawiro.

However, this was a different age and student leaders have continually been exposed to very different issues to address. The amended Universities Act that was signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta seems to be the tool that has tamed what some perceive to be an unruly movement. 


When Mwandawiro went to school, a student was entitled to a Sh600 stipend every semester, which according to Mwandawiro, was a lot of money for a student. For Sh10, he recalls, one could buy enough food and drinks for friends in town. He says it was from this amount that he educated his siblings. He would later fight for a Sh1,500-student boom per semester.

“We had free food, a fitting allowance, ample accommodation, entertainment, enough time to read and very little time to worry about material things. Our movement was ideological because we spent time reading and outlining real issues that affected the society,” says Mwandawiro.

He recalls attending conferences that were organised by the then International Union of Students outside the country to discuss issues that affected other countries in Africa. Then headquartered in Senegal, he says the regional union was key in liberation of many African countries including Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

However, harsh economic times and changing individual needs are forcing student leaders to re-focus their ideology to more internal issues, he says. They include lack of adequate accommodation, delayed government financing through Helb, delayed graduations occasioned by missing marks and many other issues that affect students internally. Lately, students have also been faced by lengthy lecturer strikes. 


Mwandawiro says no money was involved in student campaigns when SONU was formed.

“The only money we spent was to board a matatu to all UoN campuses to stage our campaigns for different seats. And there was more than 90 per cent attendance of students who came to enjoy our oratory skills and to listen to our manifestos,” recalls Mwandawiro.

Communist Party of Kenya vice chairperson Booker Omole blames the government of the day for introducing politics of money in universities. Formerly known as Social Democratic Party of Kenya (SDP), Communist Party of Kenya mainly accepts registration of university students who have an interest in national politics. Members are taken through a six-month induction course.

According to Omole, some politicians faced unpopular ratings in the 1980s.

“At some point, the politicians realised that university student leaders were very influential. A scheming section of the politico began offering student leaders money to endear themselves to the student body,” says Omole.

In no time, any unpopular politician who wanted a grip on the entire student body would go through student leaders, says Omole. He notes that it is around this time that university administrations also started using money to have a grip on students.

“I know a popular vice chancellor who claimed he controlled a university yet all he did was offer the student union chairman a huge cut of the student kitty. The chairman in turn restrained studentsfrom rioting,” says Omole.

And with money, came violence and goons in universities, according to Mwandawiro. He says goons have no place in university.

“Thugs are a backward idea that has no place in an institution of higher learning. In the past, university students were highly dignified people who were respected in the society,” says Mwandawiro, adding that university goons are a reflection of the society.

“Goons reflect the Kenyan society because some of our leaders are well-known thugs yet they are occupying top seats in government,” he adds. 


A less abrasive relationship between government and the student body seemed to exist when Mwai Kibaki ascended to power. This was short-lived, however, when the Privately Sponsored StudentsProgramme (PSSP) was introduced in Kenyan public universities. This, according to the Communist Party boss, did not sit well with government-sponsored students who did not want private studentsto join SONU.

The rift became a stepping-stone for one of the most infamous student leaders in recent times. Embakasi MP Paul Ongili alias Babu Owino took the helm of SONU office in 2011.

“Babu Owino, a privately-sponsored student, galvanized all privately-sponsored students to fight for their right to belong to SONU. He argued that since they contributed the highest amount to the SONU kitty and had all the right to be there. The PSSP was its biggest source of power,” says Omole.

Omole says university vice chancellors have been forced to work with student leaders to minimise student strikes, keep students in class and thus keep a steady flow of these monies through school fees and the student kitty.

At a past female vice chancellors conference, former Kenyatta University vice chancellor Prof Olive Mugenda admitted to working with student leaders to minimise destruction during strikes at the university.

“To succeed as a VC, you must understand the environment you are working in. You must put up with politics from students through their leaders, the community and even national politics. I remember the day students went on strike, destroying a lot of property, but never touched the library. I kept constant communication with the ringleader and urged him not to lead the students to the library,” said Prof Mugenda. 


The highly-contested 2007 presidential contest, pitting the incumbent Mwai Kibaki against Raila Odinga, brought a major political drift in universities that was characterised by tribal mobilisations.

“The mobilisations were no longer ideological. As those allied to the 2007 presidential candidates fought on the streets, students fought similar battles within university halls,” says Omole.

Mwandawiro says tribalism wasn’t welcome in universities during his time.

“There was no single tribal movement in the university. Just SONU. And we supported each other regardless of where one came from,” he says. 


For the first time since inception close to 50 years ago, UNSA has a female student at the helm of governance. Anne Mvurya was declared UNSA chairperson after she garnered 24 votes out of the possible 36 in the elections that were conducted at UoN earlier this month.

It was the second time that UoN conducted elections by an electoral college that was drawn from the university’s 12 campuses. A similar election system has been applied across all universities in Kenya in accordance with an amended Act.

Signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta some two years ago, the Act requires university students, among other requirements, to elect representatives from their various colleges who are then tasked with voting in the executive leaders such as Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and Secretary General.

There have been mixed reactions on the new election rules. Some applaud it for bringing peace in university campaigns that were earlier marred by violence. Others feel the rules have created more opportunities for marginalised students to have a fighting chance in student politics. Female students, for instance, feel it is their time to thrive.

“It is a dream come true. I contested last year and I know how tough it can get. But I am glad I set the pace and inspired other students to feel that everything was possible,” says Daphine Githuku who tried to vie for the UNSA top seat last year.

UoN Political Science Students chair Bruno Otiato dismisses the two outfits. He argues that while SONU was only interested in looting student money, UNSA thrives on cheap publicity.

 “SONU was about getting into office to loot the millions allocated to it for purposes of running student activities while UNSA is about public appearances. Many students have never met their council representatives and only see them on television trying to weigh in on issues they hardly understand,” says Otiato.

According to the political students’ person in charge, the university administration kicks out strong student representation from contesting for leadership positions. Out of 13 teams that joined the race at the university last month, only three were cleared to vie. Otiato’s team was among those that were locked out on claims that a team member had a missing mark. At Egerton University, Kiplagat Ng’eno claims that he was sent a threatening message from the university’s security department after he declared his interest in the political race.

“The system is biased. I was threatened not to vie, but I went against the warning and vied,” says Ng’eno.

SONU founding student leader Mwandawiro says universities are not effective in nurturing good leaders.

“This system doesn’t nurture leadership but instead trains people who fear the administration. These are not leaders that the society needs,” he says.

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