The University of Nairobi (UoN) was under heavy police siege for four days in a row, from Saturday 2nd to Tuesday 5th April 2016, following the SONU elections that were held on the Friday before.
The results of these elections were disputed, with claims of blatant rigging through stuffing of votes in the ballot boxes during voting and inflation of figures during tallying. The University administration led by professor Peter Mbithi chose to ignore the complains from the students, and instead hurriedly swore-in the ‘elected’ SONU officials inside a boardroom, under the external guard of hundreds of policemen in full riot gear. This is unlike the UoN custom where student leaders are sworn-in in public, after all appeal issues are addressed.
This travesty ignited student protests in and around the University, where the police reacted by firing live bullets, reportedly killing one student. The police also broke into the female students’ hostels where it is reported that they raped some students, beat up most of them and stole their laptops, mobile phones and money. The protests went on the following day, where instead of the police ensuring that the demonstrations went on peacefully in the streets, they chose to target the students who were studying in the lecture halls and the library, rounded them up, took them to the streets and savagely beat them up. Others were taken from the lecture halls directly to central police station.
The ongoing protests should not be analyzed in isolation, but within the context of the existing rot in our public universities and the country as a whole.
For a long time now, the University administration in connivance with students’ organization officials has been mismanaging millions of shillings from the students’ union kitty, since the financial scrutiny over those funds is not as strict as those operated within other structures of the universities. Usually, contribution to the Union is a mandatory part of the school fees. UoN for instance collects about thirty million Kenya shillings every year (This may explain why the UoN administration was quick to swear-in the students, probably out of an established financial abuse relationship that had been in place since the previous year.)
The University administrations and the government of Kenya including its security organs, are very well aware of the existence of thugs within the universities, most of whom bully vulnerable students in the evenings, and terrorize candidates vying for the student councils during elections, but choose to turn a blind eye; but will never hesitate to arrest, suspend and expel students who protest injustices done by the same administration and the same security organs.
In some of our public universities and in most of our private universities, academic freedom is not allowed at all. Political debates are never encouraged, and any intellectual engagement beyond coursework has to be approved by the university administration. The culture of fear and silence is the order of the day. Just last year, the Kenya Law Students Society of the University of Nairobi had organized a political debate that involved leading political figures that included Raila Odinga, Mwandawiro Mghanga, Martha Karua and Koigi wa Wamwere, but was cancelled by the Vice Chancellor with no concrete reason being given. The discussion topic was on ‘Whether the universities are playing their expected role as an alternative pillar for democracy and socio-economic development'. Kenyatta University has even more dictatorial sanctions in this regard. This stifling of academic and constitutional freedoms explains why peaceful protests end up with ugly consequences.
The university councils are also guilty of institutionalizing the misappropriation of public funds and turning a blind eye to the degeneration in our universities. Just the other day for example, the Kenyatta University council awarded Professor Olive Mugenda, their outgoing vice Chancellor one hundred million shillings as a send of package, over and above her legal retirement benefits. Were it not for the resulting public outcry, the money, which includes students fees and tax payers monies would have been stolen just like that.
What message does such a criminal activity send to the students in that institution?
The students are also to blame. They have allowed student leaders to take them for a ride, where they steal and misuse their monies without taking anyone into account. Unlike in the past where those campaigning for student´s leadership would address concrete issues affecting students and the country, today, they listen to childish rhetoric from those seeking to lead them, and we even recently saw a shocking video of some students lining up to be bribed with money so as to vote for a particular candidate!
Nevertheless, we are glad to see that sense still exists, since if it did not, then we would not have seen the demonstrations in the scale that we are currently witnessing.
The Government of Kenya, the University Council and Vice Chancellor must take full responsibility for the death of the student that the police killed, the students that the police raped, the electronics and money that the police stole and the violence that the police meted out on the unarmed students.
The Cabinet Secretary for education, Dr Fred Matiang’i must suspend, investigate and take disciplinary action against the University of Nairobi top administrators right from the Vice Chancellor to the head of security. The need for the suspension of the Vice Chancellor in particular is compounded by the fact that he has continued to deny that unarmed students were maimed by the police, that students were raped and his claim that the elections were free and fair even before independent investigations are carried out.
The university students should not stop rising up to protest against all forms of injustices, dictatorship and corruption meted against them, and against the people of Kenya. They should instead intensify the struggle.
Kenyans must also learn from the current protests and rise up and reject the corruption, tribalism and other ills that currently bedevil this country of ours.
The contested results in the just concluded SONU elections should be cancelled, and fresh transparent elections carried out as soon as possible. No student should be victimised for exercising their constitutional rights. The culture of stealing elections in Kenya can partly be solved by ensuring that repeat elections are done for every questionable election, including that of the highest office in the land, for if a candidate is indeed popular, they will still win on a fair repeat.
Social Democratic Party of Kenya
5th April 2016 (revised on 6th April 2016)