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Are student leaders reflection of our politicians?

Friday July 12 2019

student leadership

A good number of present and past political leaders used their student leadership positions to fast track their ascendency to national politics. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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There was a time in Kenya’s history when varsity students could paralyse operations in the country.

If they were not leading protests to demand their rights, they were amplifying topical national issues. Questioning leaders and holding them accountable was their mainstay.

Those were fearful days when many student leaders either went missing, or were murdered.

A lot has changed since that time, but one thing remains clear. Student leaders command a lot of power. Because of the positions they hold, they are constantly being courted to support national politicians, and sometimes rewarded with money, power, protection and respect.

The promise of prime connections, power, pride, or free goodies, it seems, is the main reason many students aspire to be leaders at their various institutions.

And truly, a good number of present and past political leaders used their student leadership positions to fast track their ascendency to national politics. They include Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja, his Siaya counterpart James Orengo, Embakasi MP Babu Owino and Elgeyo Marakwet senator Kipchumba Murkomen.


We explore the characteristics and implications of the relationship between student leaders and national political parties, the influence of partisan politics on student representation, and the entrenchment of clientelism in institutions of higher learning.

MARK KIKENYI, 20, Kenyatta University

Mark Kikenyi.

Mark Kikenyi.

What do you think of our national leaders?

I feel that most of them are out to accumulate as much wealth as they can before the end of their tenure. The same is true of student leaders. When campaigning for leadership positions, they promise to work for the students, only to disappear after assuming power. Like our politicians, student leaders know what students want. So they populate their manifestos with the things voters will want to hear. But after one of two semesters, they disappear without a trace. You will only bump into them on hallways, or read about them in newspapers. However, I don’t blame them much. They are just making the most of the opportunities they have, which is what most of us would do in the same situation.

How treacherous is the campaign process usually like?

It involves a lot of money. For those without sufficient funds, it is almost impossible to succeed. I was involved in university campaigns both in my first and second year. Every day during the campaign, I would get Sh200 just to convince students to vote for a particular candidate.

What motivated you to get into university politics?

That I would get a regular stipend, and also the fact that I could interact with powerful people in the society. Having certain people in your circle gives you access to exciting opportunities. And they can be of great help when you happen to get into trouble. Student leaders enjoy many privileges such as trips outside the country, and they also get the best hostels in campus. You attend high-level meetings and trainings as a leader where you can establish important contacts.

To whom do students complain when leaders don’t deliver?

In some institutions, there are no proper channels to register complaints. Most students end up pouring their frustrations on Whatsapp groups.

Do you think students get the leaders they deserve?

To a large extent, yes. Most students don’t take time to evaluate a candidate’s manifesto. The decision is usually made based on who is offering the most amount of money during campaigns, or who is the most popular, and from which ethnic extract he or she is from.

Who is your ideal student leader?

A person of good morals, who is not easily compromised, and is concerned with the wellbeing of students.

SUSAN NYAWIRA, 21, Multimedia University

Susan Nyawira.

Susan Nyawira.

Is there a correlation between student leaders and national leaders?

Yes. Student leaders paint an accurate picture of what is happening nationally. For instance, some student leaders do not win the elections fairly, and some of those who win fairly were not voted in on the strength of their policies but rather, by how popular they were or through their connections.

Why do you think people go for such positions?

I have never thought of vying for any leadership seat, but I think most students go for it because of the promise of power, respect and the admiration that sometimes follows. Also, they get to know about the available tenders floated by the school, and are more likely to be allowed to operate businesses within the school compound.

Do you vote in university elections?

In first year, I remember voting for the aspirant who promised us free yoghurt. Then there is a time I voted for someone out of pity. He didn’t have much money for campaign. Now that we have delegates who vote in the student council, I do not take part in the elections. And it is unfortunate because I no longer have full powers to vote for the candidate I want. 

Who is your ideal student leader?

Someone who will not have to dangle bribes just to get the votes, and one who is well behaved. I believe that positions of power don’t change who you are. They expose your true character.


Grace Kinyua.

Grace Kinyua.

What do you think of our national leaders?

People look for and expect different things from their leaders. Compared to other African countries, I think we have made good strides, although we still have a long way to go.

Does that apply for university leaders?

I think so. It is not a secret that most university leaders aspire to be in Parliament.

Describe the campaign season at your university?

It is slightly different from the bedlam I sometimes witness in other universities. At USIU, there is a long process which encompasses personality evaluation and fiery but mature debates. Aspirants sell their manifestos publicly to the rest of the students. Most candidates spend money for things like posters during campaigns, but I am yet to see any aspirant who has openly bribed fellow students.

Do they ever make a difference beyond university level?

Most of the changes initiated by the student leaders are tailor-made to suit students, but some go out of their way to help others from the neighbouring community to acquire life skills.

Who is your ideal student leader?

An individual who has a clear vision, is of high integrity and is able to bring the best out of others. They should be loyal to the students who voted them in, and not be easily compromised.


Alvin Rita.

Alvin Rita.

What do you think of our country’s style of governance?

I like the fact that we vote for all our leaders. However, I think we often vote for the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. We vote even without looking at their manifestos.

How is the voting process like in your institution?

We vote for the delegates. And the delegates then vote for the student council on our behalf.

Have you ever considered running for office?

It has crossed my mind a number of times, but I doubt I can ever succeed. I’d like to get in so that I can do something to change the narrative. But it involves a lot of money especially during campaigns. My mother would be dumbfounded if she found out I was vying for a political seat because there is always the notion that politics is a dirty game. Besides the money, you need plenty of time to attend to campaign. Also, I do not know where to start because. There are very few guidelines on how to start out.

How come some students spend a lot just to get these positions?

Student leadership has got its perks. The most prominent, however, is getting access to tenders, and job opportunities that other students do not.

Who is your ideal student leader?

Someone who helps students acquire skills that can be put into good use even after university.

JACOB MAKOMERE, 28, Mount Kenya University

Jacob Makomere.

Jacob Makomere.

How do you compare the national and student leadership?

When most political leaders ascend to power, they change. To be honest, I have never understood what happens to individuals when they get power. However, I think student leaders at my institution are different. A good number of them are dedicated to serve, and are not obsessed with positions in national politics.

Is the campaign process at your institution different from that in public universities?

There is no big difference because even at university level, you need some level of popularity to win. And a spare budget to pay your campaigners!

What are some of the benefits student leaders enjoy?

They are eligible to attend high profile forums where they interact with the high and mighty. Besides, they are entitled to a monthly stipend.

Your ideal student leader?

A confident, decisive person who is able to deliver good results. A student leader should inspire others.