Few years back, the mention of the term “university students” was associated with fights, riots, stone throwing all in utter rebellion to government unpopular moves. Comrades power was an in house term in such situations. The universities were part and parcel of the national discourse. Opposition politics in Kenya would not be complete without student activism.
Student activism, which was in vogue especially in the ‘80s, would give the discordant regime insomnia and extreme paranoia. The students were pro-active in campaigning for their rights and those of their fellow countrymen, in spite of the unsympathetic climate that prevailed. Student leaders could get arrested, beaten up, jailed at the infamous Nyayo house or murdered in cold blood.
Student leaders were powerful figures in the country then. The government of the day kept vigil of student activism to the extent of placing spies in major universities. Former presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Moi knew the student leaders by name, in all the major campuses especially the University of Nairobi. Comrades, as they would popularly refer to each other would proceed without phobia of subjugation or intimidation, to engage the government on unpopular moves. Student activism was a public watchdog.
In 1992, when the fight for multiparty democracy was at its peak, university students joined notable ‘second liberation’ figures such as Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Paul Muite, Raila Odinga among others. The struggle successfully saw the repeal of the famous Section 2A of the constitution that brought in a new era of multiparty democracy.
Thanks to student activism of the 80’s and 90’s, a crop of vibrant leaders emerged. The likes of James Orengo, Miguna Miguna, Ababu Namwamba , Chief Justice Willy Mutunga are just but a few.
Fast forward to the 21st century, Student activism took a different turn. University voices in national discourses are rare .The only time student leaders are heard of is when a varsity strike occurs and the media gets them an interview as part of the evening news.
Perhaps pointing out the vacuum left in the country by the dwindling student activism in governance matters, Chief Justice willy Mutunga was quoted in the papers in 2012 urging varsity students to bring back the great debates and student activism witnessed in the past decades.
Similar Sentiments were shared by Mombasa County Senator, Hassan Omar at an event in Moi University. Hassan Omar was once a student union chairman at the institution.
To discern why university activism is heading to the grave, we spoke to some of the student leaders and university administrators.
Nahashon Mungo’ra, SONU congress clerk says in this new era student leaders live in an environment with a larger democratic space, brought by the enactment of a new constitution in year 2010.
‘There is a total difference between the two phases in respect to vibrancy, advocacy or activism.This is because of change that have been experienced after the activities of 80’s leadership; For instance,in 80’s,dictatorship was evident in Moi era regime and it required massive activism to press for change in areas such as the constitution review, appointments, recruitment,” says Mungo’ra.
“This is as opposed to today’s government where there is more of dialogue through different institutions such as an expanded parliament”, he adds.
The same sentiments are echoed by Dikembe Disembe. He says student activism has changed because the country too has changed.
“Today, a lot has changed; no one is in detention, no spys in the university, lecturers no longer burn lecture notes; Kenya is more free with expanding democracy in the country”, says the former MUSO (Moi university Student union) Secretary General.
“More players took over what students used to do for instance the civil society. The judiciary has also experienced reforms. Justice is easily found at the courts,” he adds.