Kenya varsity students behaving badly

University of Nairobi students demonstrate against the killings of one of their own along with two human rights activists by police and unknown gunmen at the university grounds. Photo/FILE

Just when everyone was talking about the death of student activism at Kenya's universities, events of the past one month have brought back the ugly scenes of widespread student riots.

It all started with Egerton University, Njoro Campus, where the students went on the rampage on the night of February 26, destroying property estimated at Sh7 million.

The riot was triggered by power shortages, or rationing as the students termed it. They claimed that there had not been power at the Ruwenzori Hostel for almost two weeks prior to the strike something the administration did nothing about.

The students further complained about the poor food quality and lack of communication between them and the administration. The campus was closed indefinitely and the students are yet to return to the campus.

A fortnight ago, students of the University of Nairobi poured into the streets to protest the killing of a fellow student, Edwin Ongaro, on the night of March 5.

Ongaro was gunned down by police officers as students tried to repulse them from taking away the bodies of Kamau King’ara, the founder of Oscar Foundation, who was shot dead alongside his colleague Paul Oulu near the hostels.

Though the student’s protests were largely peaceful in the morning, there were some ugly scenes later in the afternoon as shops were robbed and motorists pelted with stones soon after they blocked State House Road.

Those ugly scenes returned again this week when students at Kenyatta University went on rampage over tuition fees arrears. The students were demanding an extension to the February 7 deadline, which has since passed, to give their parents more time to raise the money.

When they could not get an audience with the Vice Chancellor, the students went on rampage vandalising kiosks and blocking the busy Thika Road, which even resulted to accidents as motorists fled the stone-throwing students. The three campuses – Main, Ruiru and Parklands – have since been closed indefinitely.

So what has changed?

Dan Mwangi, who chairs the powerful Student Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU), says that although students have become more understanding and tolerant, they still have a democratic right to peaceful demonstration.

“We showed maturity by seeking the permission of the authorities and we conducted ourselves very peacefully. Those who looted shops and stoned motorists were not students,” he says.

Innocent Akumu, a second year student at Chiromo Campus, says that competition is barring students from taking part in anything that can prolong their stay at the university.

“Student activism is alive and you see it when it comes to issues that deserve our voice and attention. We have not been muted by the administration as many claim,” says Akumu, who is eyeing a campus representative’s position in the next SONU elections.

A student leader at Kenyatta University, who declined to be named for fear of victimization, says that some of the protests are caused by the administration. He does not understand why the administration of Kenyatta University would not be willing to listen to a genuine concern raised by the students such as the one we complaint about.

“Some of us are about to complete our studies and losing any time means postponing our graduation. However, if riots is the only language the administration would want to hear then so be it,” he says. He says university administrators should not take advantage of the newfound student tolerance to compromise delivery of services the universities.

Former Daystar University Student Association (DUSA) chairman, Halkano Huka says that there seems to a communication breakdown between the student leadership and the university management. He says that although the students have the right to demonstrate when they feel that they are not being heard, they should exhaust all avenues

“I am convinced that there is much more to the KU students’ unrest than just deadline extensions. These are things that we as student leaders could sort out easily with the administration in my days at DUSA,” says Halkano, who is now a constituency officer for North Horr MP Francis Chachu.

Halkano worries that going with the trend, when students at one university hit the roof, others tend to follow suit. The management of the universities however sees it differently.

Dr. Edwin Gimode, Dean of Students at Kenyatta University, denies that the administration of his university does not listen to students.

“We have worked very cordially with the leaders and, in fact, there is a student representation in every single committee at the university apart from the examination one,” Dr. Gimode told Buzz in a telephone interview.

Pointing to the causes of the week’s strike at Kenyatta University, Dr. Gimode says that he is appalled that student leaders who were just sworn in weeks ago can instigate such a thing.

He says that there are no plans to withdraw the institution's transport and rubbishes claims that the university has been trying to introduce a uniform. According to him, the university only mentions introducing a dress code stipulating what clothing should be worn at what times, as is the practice all over the world.

“A majority of students have been forced to this because even in the examinations registration, 15,800 students are registered and only 178 have not been for various reasons. Why force the university to shut,” the wondered.

Mr. David Thuku, Associate Dean in charge of Students Affairs at Daystar University, says that it is important for the student leadership to have a good working relationship with the administration and that is the case at his institution.

“If there is any feeling of misunderstanding or misinterpretation, student leaders should address it with the administration urgently,” he says.

Mr. Thuku says that in every generation there are people who believe in sorting out issues aggressively which are what puts a strain on the student and administration relationship.