Changing face of Kenya's radical varsity students politics

Friday September 13 2019

Anti-riot police officers restrain University of Nairobi students opposed to the re-election of Babu Owino as Sonu Chairman in 2016. It t is not business as usual anymore in university student leaders' elections, thanks to the Universities Amendment Act, introduced in 2016. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


It is Monday July 13, 2015.

Student election campaigns at Moi University’s Kesses main campus in Uasin Gishu County are in overdrive.

The battle lines have been drawn for the high stakes elections slated for July 17.

But an impasse stands in the way of a peaceful election.

Supporters of two candidates in the race for the director of entertainment accuse the university of sneaking in the name of a third candidate in the ballot without following due nominations procedure.



A week of mediation between the camps of Mathew Rotich, Allan Kibet and Victor Brian on the one hand and the dean of students bears no fruit.

The dean, Dr Gilbert Ayieko, is losing his patience.

Having succeeded the long-serving and revered Mr David Mureithi only months before, his entry into the hot seat at the Students Centre has been nothing short of a baptism by fire.

How Dr Ayieko arbitrates this powder keg will determine if the university will have quiet elections, if at all, or if chaos will erupt. The latter though seems more likely.


Administration Police officers disperse Maseno University students in 2015 following a riot over the election of student leaders. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Anxiety is mounting by the hour. No learning is taking place in the university. Goons are attacking students and lecturers in lecture rooms.

Already, hard-core supporters of some candidates have pulled down and destroyed campaign materials of their opponents as the deadlock fast degenerates into a full-blown turmoil.

The hooligans deface the dean’s office and pelt it with stones. Some shops in the university are looted. Rogue students take to the university streets, ready for a faceoff with their opponents.


Some students from a local community are reported to have even borrowed bows, arrows and an assortment of other weapons from residents to attack their colleagues from certain communities.

The clock is ticking to an imminent disaster.

At 5pm that evening, Vice Chancellor Richard Mibey closes the university to prevent further destruction of property, injuries and possible loss of life.

Most students, majority of whom had taken cover in their hostel rooms, learn of the abrupt closure through social media.

As darkness creeps on the campus, a heavy contingent of anti-riot police officers is deployed to escort the students away.


Masinde Muliro University's new student leader Mulamula Simiyu is carried shoulder high after his victory in May 2019. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Only two-and-a-half years later in January 2018, another student election is held at the institution.

This time, there is neither fanfare nor drama.

In March this year, little-known Anne Mvurya was elected the chairperson of the University of Nairobi Students Association (UNSA), making history as the first woman ever to clinch the popular seat.

Ms Mvurya’s election though, was different from all the previous student polls before it – she had been elected through a delegates system, garnering 24 out of the 36 votes up for grabs.

Though celebrations were muted, the final year law student’s victory seemed to put paid to the politics of skulduggery, of money-splashing, hooliganism and even external influence by different quarters for different reasons.


From a youthful James Orengo’s clashes with the State to Babu Owino’s near dynasty at the helm of the then Student Organisation of University of Nairobi (Sonu), the history of firebrand university student leaders in Kenya is well documented.

But it is not business as usual anymore, thanks to the Universities Amendment Act, introduced in 2016.

For three years now, the high-powered university politics of old have disappeared from the scene.

The popular ‘‘kamukunjis’’ and ‘‘crossfires’’ where candidates were grilled by the voters are now a distant memory.


Ms Anne Mvurya, the chairperson of the University of Nairobi Students Association. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Article 18 of the Act introduced the electoral college system of voting, where student leaders are now elected by representatives of departments, faculties or campuses of a university.

This effectively ended the former system of popular vote.

Opinion is divided on the new electoral system, with a significant fraction of students strongly opposed to it while others support it.

A study conducted by CPS Research International in both public and private universities in Kenya, however, indicates that the majority of students (58.9 percent) are satisfied with the election process, terming it fair, democratic and transparent.

On the one hand, the current system emphasises national diversity and the two-thirds gender rule while bringing order to student polls.

On the other hand, students feel that universities now have an upper hand on who gets elected to the council, by handing control to departmental and faculty heads – who could block a candidate who is seen as a nuisance to the university.


Tom Odhiambo, who teaches literature at the University of Nairobi, argues that the drastic changes to the law ‘‘aren’t about student politics’’, adding that the introduction of the new system is ‘‘about politics of control,’’.

‘‘What prompted this drastic change in the conduct of student politics in a country that swears by democratic practices?’’ Mr Odhiambo wonders.

‘‘Why would national politics be what they are – free for all, one-person-one-vote, competitive – yet we’d rather micro-manage student politics?’’

Is the era of firebrand student leaders over in Kenya? Has the government finally managed to put the spanner in the works of student politics? What do past and present student leaders think about the new system?


K’Obunga Tisa, the immediate former secretary general in the students’ governing council of Moi University, says that "power was taken away from comrades", and that there is now "a huge disconnect between students and their representatives".

“Why would I vote in a delegate who will not represent me directly and who might choose to elect someone I didn’t want?’’ Tisa poses, adding that he did not get to enjoy power, ‘‘having been elected by only a handful of people’’.

According to Tisa, bribery is now rampant than ever before, noting that candidates can now buy off delegates, unlike when students would elect leaders based on merit and agenda.


"Student politics in Kenya will soon die unless the former system is reintroduced. Student are now detached from university politics," Tisa observes.

When he appeared before the National Assembly Committee on Education in April, Embakasi East MP Babu Owino, a perennial beneficiary of the old system, termed the new electoral system as illegal and an extension of universities administrations, which has, in effect, crippled students’ representation.

"Students should be allowed to elect leaders of their choice through the universal suffrage system," Mr Owino said.

Ms Mvurya though, denies that leaders elected through the new system have minimal influence over the students, arguing that it has helped to bring order in student elections.

"Having the delegates vote for me validated my acceptance by the general student body. It rubberstamped their faith in me to deliver," Ms Mvurya had told the Nation after her triumph.

Additional reporting by Daniel Ogeta and Hellen Shikanda