It’s careless to blame student leaders for rot in university

A few weeks ago, Kibabii University — the only university whose chancellor is President Uhuru Kenyatta — was closed due to student unrest.

The reasons for the unrest, among other things, were the disputed students union elections.

Not long after, the oldest university in the republic, ‘THE’ University of Nairobi (UoN), closed its doors over disputed student elections.

Next on the riot list was Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, whose chancellor is former president Mwai Kibaki.

The worrying trend has caught the attention of the nation. It is no wonder that one of the prayer items at Afraha Stadium that brought together the ‘Ocampo Six’ to celebrate the collapse of their ICC cases, was institutions of higher learning.

Student leadership at our institutions of higher learning is a mirror image of our national politics, discourse, challenges and triumphs.

It will be unfair to compare the late Tito Adungosi’s stint as chair of Sonu during the 1982 coup with that of Mwandawiro Mghanga of the famous guard of honour in the 1980s.

The circumstances that confronted Hon. Francis ole Kaparo during JM Kariuki’s burial in the 1970s are not remotely related to what Sonu chairman Ted Munovi had to deal with during Dr Mbai’s funeral in 2003.

Similarly, what Prof Mulwa Mbithi had to contend with in the 80s as Vice Chancellor is not what Prof Francis Gichaga or the late Prof George Eshiwani had to contend with in the 90s.

It is therefore absurd to compare Hon Kabando wa Kabando’s leadership as Sonu chairman in the early 90s to that of the apparent ‘lifetime’ Sonu Chairman, a new phenomenon that is Babu Owino.

Organised opposition

That said, there is the apparent distinction between student leadership before and after the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) came to power. Pre NARC leadership offered an inward-outward leadership, while the post NARC era offered an outward-inward kind of leadership.

The outside political world looked up to the likes of Tito Adungosi, Mwandawiro and Kabando to lead in the struggle and help set the agenda.

Only Sonu student leadership, in collaboration with ‘dissident’ lecturers, Law Society of Kenya (LSK) and particular members of the clergy could stand in the face of an intolerant leadership. It is actually claimed that the first truly organised opposition during Moi’s era was Sonu and LSK.

During this era, tribal student associations were in existence, not only to enhance one’s background and culture, but also to celebrate and appreciate the diversity that is the mosaic at the university.

It was an era when university population was not bloated, jobs were guaranteed and generally students were more mature age-wise.

The banning of Sonu

This leadership existed between 1998 and 2002 — it spilled into that period immediately after Kibaki’s victory. It’s a leadership mostly associated with the resistance to the introduction of the parallel programme.

The riot that followed the introduction of parallel degree programmes led to the banning of Sonu. Students were suspended and many others discontinued from the university.

Unlike the inward-outward leadership, the transitional leadership did not set the national agenda — they were co-opted by the political players.

This leadership watershed came with the NARC triumph in 2002 — they became the beneficiaries of the presidential blanket pardon to all suspended and discontinued students. Sonu emerged from the doldrums to a new life.

The new Sonu made certain that no parallel student would occupy any of its offices. It locked them all out of its leadership.

Towards the end of their term, fissures in the Sonu leadership were taking root based on events at the national level — the push and pull pitting Kibaki’s and Raila’s camps.

The murder of Dr Mbai, a UoN don laid the seeds for division in the comrades’ approach to national issues.

Tribalism takes centre stage

This period lies between 2003 to date — with variances that need deeper interrogations. Student leadership was no longer based on an individual’s ability to mobilise and lead. Instead, focus shifted to some nondescript considerations.

Leaders did not prove themselves worthy internally to move the agenda outside the university — they instead looked for connections outside to secure leadership inside.

Student leadership became more about the elections, with most crucial ones being those coinciding with the country’s general elections.

Tribalism took center stage. Instead of Bungoma Students Association (Busa) or Murang’a Students Association(Musa) being stakeholders of Mulembe or Mugithi nights, they were now reduced to vehicles that will ensure the elections of some dimwit leaders in the name of Wekesa or Kamau.

Didn’t the administration love this? Who wouldn’t in their position anyway? It was a period when the Sonu constitution was amended arbitrarily

By the time I was leaving the University of Nairobi, the biggest clamour — from the administration — was to bring in parallel students to Sonu leadership. We had to concede one seat for one parallel students representative at the executive level. Hon Johnson Sakaja was the first beneficiary of that new position.

Deep pocket campaigns were also firming their roots. Other than the tribal factor, other things that were determining factors were how deep your pockets were — and outside connections.

Truth be told, Mwai Kibaki’s election in 2002 pulled the rag from under the vibrant, revolutionary student leadership. Yes, the open democratic space gave room to the most timid a chance to critic and oppose with no imminent danger. Soldiers have to go back to the barracks after the war, a fate suffered by Sonu and LSK.

With the introduction of the parallel programme, the university population grew exponentially, students became more concerned with graduating in time than fighting to correct societal ills, and individual welfare interests took precedent to collective welfare.

The percentage of critical mass thinkers shrunk, most parallel, non-resident students really don’t give a damn, yet they are the majority of voters.

Ben Karuga is a commentator on social issues