Student activism is not an unfamiliar headline to reach the hungry news desks of Kenya’s media houses. It is not easy to ignore a revolt from campus guys, given the devastating destruction that they leave in their wake. As a result the general public is quick on its tongue to dismiss the entire lot of public university students as a bunch of yobs. Perhaps there is a point, with the media only interested in depicting campus life the moment they take to the streets to demand for something they want (or need). Images of a highway festooned in gory litters of stone, of students with hefty suitcases fleeing from hostels, and of broken windows on buildings in a rioting campus neighbourhood, quickly find their way into mainstream and social media.
It is therefore curious to find out why a student, educated and brought up in a rather civilised society, one who probably attained good grades in High school, would resort into a senseless spree of destruction.
The Horrifying Truth
This question that mocks the intelligence of many a person still remains unanswered. Yet the answer lies so openly in numbers that have been swept under a mat. In December last year, a slightly inebriated student from Moi University on his way from raving in a club in Eldoret, was attacked a gang of goons, beaten up and left for dead. He receded into a coma and died a week later in hospital. It later turned out that he was a case of mistaken identity, and the gang was a group of youthful members of a church. His name was Brian Rao.
Barely a couple days after Brian’s heart wrenching ordeal, the University of Nairobi students went on a rampage. Why? A comrade, Erastus Abok, died in police custody under suspicious circumstances, in which the police stated to be suicide. In protest, two of the varsity’s students were shot, one of whom died, while the other managed to get away with a gunshot wound. Unconfirmed whispers allege that two policemen were killed in retaliatory attacks from the students, and later the University of Nairobi was shut down indefinitely.
Such horror stories of insecurity cut across all universities. Last year Maseno University students blocked the Kisumu-Busia road to protest the gang rape of their female colleagues by the surrounding villagers. In November 2009, Egerton University student took to the streets to protest the murder of a 4th year B. Com student. They engaged the police in running battles for hours, and the intensity of their riot was manifested in the shattered windows of the DT Dobie Showroom in Nakuru. In the end, 36 students were incarcerated in police cells and tried. In the United States International University, a private university, a student was abducted near university grounds, and later turned up dead at her parent’s home. The truth behind her murder still gnaws our security apparatus to date.
“The art of rioting is a tradition that has been handed down from our forefathers,” says Collo, a student from the University of Nairobi. He says that the fierce pelting of stones, destruction of property that brings business to a standstill, all the while singing songs of solidarity beneath leaves and branches, is a habit that is inherited from previous students-some of whom now swirl behind hefty titles in government. He was not scared of reminding us the role of student activism of the current Deputy President (Hon. William Ruto) and his then counterpart Cyrus Jirongo, in the notorious YK92 outfit. Other memorable incidences include the student support of the 1982 coup attempt and other uprisings against the iron-fisted rule of the former President Moi. Such defiance forced the likes of the highly controversial author Miguna Miguna and the former Prime Minister Hon. Raila Odinga into exile for eons.
In sooth, there is a great deal of genuine anger towards the status quo that spurs sweltering fury in students. Riots are usually a measure of last resort after all other means of negotiation promise meagre returns.
John ‘Stitches’ Ouko, a reformed goon and a former student leader from the University of Nairobi aptly puts it in a simple honest statement; “Whatever cannot be solved through peaceful dialogue encourages the use of force. We do not engage in the lackadaisical spirit of accepting and moving on.”
Students complain severally to the administration for poor services such as arbitrary closure of the sickbay, unnecessary delays in release of examination results and inadequate accommodation. Most often, the school administration ignores such requests, and that pacifies the rage in students.
Unassuming motorists and the general public sometimes suffer the wrath of the students rage. That is because they get caught in between the crossfire between students hurling stones like Molotov cocktails on one end, and trigger happy police playing target practice with their assailants.
Of course there are some cases that do not justify a riot, such as the UoN students blocking Uhuru Highway due to intermittent supply of electricity. Or Moi and Kenyatta University students going on rampage over increment of bus fare. Others, such as Egerton University’s uproar against arbitrary increase of school fees are otherwise welcome and understandable.
Women too have not been left behind. Ever since the Feminism flight from Beijing landed in Kenya, the ladies folk have been actively involved in student politics as well. One Irene Kendi’s bravado in tackling student welfare issues has earned her the title ‘Mama Yao’ among her peers in UoN. She mobilizes ladies to take part in student activism, though she insists in first settling disputes amicably through dialogue. When that fails, she sanctions the use of reasonable force to get the attention of the administration.
“In as much as most ladies in campus are too frail and faint hearted to join the boys on the streets, we play our part through encouragement, and providing relief services for the student combatants,” says Mama Yao. Such relief services include providing water to wash off the sting of tear gas, and providing first aid to injured comrades.
Kamukunjis and Hidden Agenda
UoN qualifies as the grandmaster of all student riots. Before they spill over to the streets, students gather to psych up in a kamukunji, where bottles of liquor are passed around to give them the necessary gusto to confront the terrifying GSU officers, teargas canisters and (hopefully rubber) bullets. “A comrade is never wrong, a comrade is still a comrade,” are some of the inane cacophony that comes from charged Kamukunji attendants. Here, drums of war are beaten; and chants of “Comrades Power” pervade the otherwise still air. When this happens, chances are dim that they are inviting people for song, dance and wine tasting.
Stiches clarifies that there are however some students who cloak themselves behind the plight of fellow comrades. Their true intention is to loot and thieve as much as possible as the protest ensues.
“During last month’s strike, a motivating factor was the December exams for which students were ill prepared for, and that made them take advantage of the situation, so that they could leave early for the festive season,” says Daniel Kipchumba, SONU executive official.
Such students who deviate from the main cause of the protest to loot from traders, or heighten havoc in the thick of protests for selfish agendas, are the sleaze of student activism. Yet surprisingly, they are the ones the media is quick to stalk and make sweeping statements about the brutish ways of young intellects in universities today.
“It is true, we owe more than just mere apologies to those who we hurt during riots,” accepts Kevin Katisya, the Secretary General of Kenya Law Students Society. “However the right to protest is a Constitutional right granted to us, and we will not shy away from exercising it.”
Student strikes leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. The nonsensical raid of innocent civilians, who do not deserve their persons or property attacked, dilutes the sanctity of the right to protest as blessed by the Constitution. It leaves people to wonder what direction Kenya is steered towards when the intelligent ones are the once driving the wave of violence.
Rioting is not always a decision. Campus students are not born with a strand in their DNA that involuntarily spurs them to war with people who might as well be their neighbours at home, relatives and girlfriends. It is all about being too scared and angry for their own good. No mother raised her son to steal, kill and destroy, just the same way no mother went through nine months of labour for her child to be murdered or raped or shot at by the same authority that is meant to protect them.
I am a student. I have never thrown a stone at a motorist or made chalk outlines of any policeman in retaliation for a friend’s death. I have never been so angry as to pick a rock over a pen. But I am sorry that my other brothers are not as merciful. You have got to understand that it is kind of hard making these other comrades understand that live bullets and peace-talks are proportional.
I am sorry that we are the way we are.