Student politics in Kenya has been turned on its head. From the 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, university campuses were the breeding grounds for future leaders who cut their teeth at radical student politics.
Politics was part of university life, with students engaged in national discourse.
Names like Chelagat Mutai, James Orengo, Mwakdua wa Mwachofi, Titus Adungosi, Mwandawiro Mghanga, Miguna Miguna, Wafula Buke, Isaac Rutto, Ntai wa Nkuraru and Kabando wa Kabando would probably not have gained national recognition were it not for the platform universities presented them.
Solomon Muruli, Omar Hassan, Suba Churchill, Moses Kajwang and lately, Christopher Owiro aka Karl Marx, Irungu Kang’ata, Gladys Wanga and Babu Owino also started their political careers on campus – and mostly for being anti-establishment.
So influential was student politics that some paid the ultimate price for their activism while others were imprisoned, tortured, detained or went into exile.
In the aftermath of the abortive 1982 coup, as suspected rebel soldiers were rounded up, many students also found themselves behind bars, accused of crimes against the state.
Those taken into custody included Mwakdua wa Mwachofi, Evans Vitisia, Jeff Mwangi Kwirikia, David Murathe, Ciira Wabere, Kirimaina, Ongele Opala, Richard Momoima Onyonka, Philip Murgor, Wahinya Boore , Thomas Mutus, JJ Ouma, Kibisu Kabatesi, Njuguna Mutonya, Francis Kinyua, Omondi Oludhe, Muga K’Olale , Wahinya Bore, Paddy Onyango and Oginga Ogego.
However, student leadership has changed and those elected are barely recognisable.
Students also appear disinterested or aloof on matters of national importance like the state of the economy.
They no longer champion social justice and democracy.
The student leaders interviewed by Higher Education appear to know the genesis of their declining influence.
University of Nairobi Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Treasurer Razinah Salim blames the University (Amendment) Act, 2015 – popularly referred to as the Duale Bill – that was tabled in the National Assembly by Garissa Town MP Adan Bare Duale.
It introduced several changes to the University Act, effectively weakening student organisations by introducing an Electoral College system of choosing leaders.
Before the amendments, students voted for their leaders directly.
They now first vote for delegates representing different schools, faculties or departments, who then choose student leaders.
As such, just a handful of learners – less than 30 in some cases – determine student leadership in universities. Some institutions like Kenyatta, Moi and the University of Nairobi have as many as 40,000 students or more.
The University of Nairobi held student elections in March.
Ms Salim’s team won in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It selected three delegates who would later vote for leaders representing the entire student fraternity.
Answerable to cabinet
With three delegates coming from the university’s 13 faculties, a list of 39 was prepared.
“This is a disadvantage to students as they no longer exercise their democratic right. Students feel alienated from decisions made by the president and his team as they were not elected through popular vote,” she said.
According to Ms Salim, the constitutional amendments were tabled and passed to destroy student leaders’ powers.
“Student organisations were strong in the past because leaders interacted more with the voters. An election victory was personal. Leaders would call rallies and students would show up,” she said.
This is no longer the case as students do not even know their representatives. Under the current law, the leaders are answerable to a cabinet and cannot therefore run the show as was the case in the past, call for mass action or a strike, Ms Salim said.
“I feel student leadership is dead. Those chosen by delegates cannot call themselves leaders. An official of our organisation should represent the entire University of Nairobi student fraternity, regardless of faculty or campus,” she added.
University of Nairobi Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences President Edwin Washiali, however, does not think the present student leadership is that weak.
He says it is the system of governance that has evolved.
“Student leaders had a lot of influence before the Duale Bill. I feel the student leadership is not dead. We can also not say the current leaders are weaker than their predecessors,” he said, adding that the doing away of the done person one vote system hurt leadership.
“As a president, imagine being elected by more than 50,000 students. Such a president has influence. He or she is like an MP. Using delegates means those participating in the election can be influenced with money. A weak or unpopular person may emerge victorious,” he said.
According to Mr Washiali, student leaders appear weak due to fear and the threat of being expelled. With the backing of the rest of the students, leaders could call strikes and make demands.
“Students no longer take their leaders seriously. They think we are puppets of the administration. The Duale Bill messed up everything,” he said.
Mr Washiali decries disunity in the university student leadership across the country.
“We have to agree that things are tough for the current student leadership. We have to work hard to improve everything,” he said.
Kenyatta University Student Association Secretary General Teddy Odhiambo blames the weakening of student leadership on internal and external forces. He too thinks the bill is the reason for the current state of affairs.
“You must be answerable to the administration that backs you. That is why leaders’ hands are tied even when students have nagging problems. The student leadership cannot go against the people who made them who they are,” he said.
Barring student leaders from addressing the media and other draconian rules are also largely to blame, Mr Odhiambo said.
“Student leaders have been gagged. No one really gets to know the good things some student leaders are doing,” he said.
There is always danger for those who fail to play ball. Often, student leaders find themselves before disciplinary panels to answer all manner of charges.
“I miss the days of serious student leadership. There was a reason for tabling and passing the Duale Bill. I think politicians saw a threat in students. They did not want vibrant student leaders to take their positions as lawmakers in future,” he added.