NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 6 – The earliest Gabriel (not his real name), a first-year University of Nairobi student would retire to bed after a long day of study was 2am, while at other times he would doze off on his desk.
Fatigued and confused, he would wake up in the morning, rush to his room in Hall 9, take a shower, for yet another tiresome routine.
But that was not until he said enough is enough! He didn’t quit studies but instead looked for another place to stay away from the ‘comfort’ of the institution’s hostel where it is relatively affordable.
“They would smoke bhang (in Hall 9) as they play loud reggae music all night” Gabriel said, narrating his tale under the hands of strangers, camouflaged as students of the giant educational institution.
They are just not normal outsiders, he says, but “more of landlords. Some are expelled students who have chosen the path of crime.”
The rightful owner of a hostel room is at times displaced and his space rented to other students or strangers.
“They pay Sh30,000 per semester. It is a lucrative business,” he said.
It was survival for the fittest for Gabriel and remains so for tens of other students who cannot speak out, because either they will be victimised or have acclimatized to the situation – as established by this investigative piece.
And though bullying is rampant in secondary schools, at Hall 9, as student testimonials indicate, it is real.
“Sometimes I would go back to my room, prepare food and when I am serving and ready to eat, strangers would walk in, demand a share, of which I don’t have any option but to oblige,” Gabriel recalled.
Two students share one room, which is partitioned by a semi-permanent structure, both having the key to the main door. Uninvited guests are common at Hall 9.
They have infiltrated the institution’s private security and seem unstoppable despite loads of complaints to the University Student Welfare Authority (SWA), whose headquarters is a stone’s throw away from the infamous Hall 9.
It is just a fraction of the populous institution that is threatening to dim its glory, Gabriel says.
During the September 28 pro-Embakasi MP Babu Owino demonstrations, anti-riot police officers raided the campus after a daylong running battles with a group of students.
One of the places they went was ADD (College of Architecture and Engineering building ), which neighbours Hall 9, where they caused terror to students, a majority of whom were innocent since the rioting group had fled.
But who invited the police? Why inside the institution’s halls of residence?
According to the University Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mbithi, it is the institution security team that asked for reinforcement.
“Our security requested for reinforcement when it became clear that the criminals were not ready to relent,” the UoN Vice-Chancellor said.
According to Prof Mbithi, it is “criminals” who were being flushed out, but some of the students have refuted the claims.
– The hall of horror –
The above narrative is captured in a detailed report by the Commission on Administrative Justice (Office of the Ombudsman) after a probe following the disputed SONU April 1, 2016 elections that led to a series of protests.
The aggrieved students were led by one of the aspiring students’ leader Michael Jacobs who garnered 3,000 votes against Babu Owino, who won by 15,000 votes.
Several students were injured during the riots, where police used excessive force, and four days later, the university was indefinitely closed on April 5, 2016.
Just like established by Capital FM News, the Ombudsman report, a year later had revealed that “there are many strangers living in the halls of residence meant for students.”
This, the report further indicated,” is due to a weakness in the system when it comes to allocation of rooms to students. No routine checks are done to monitor the occupancy of individual rooms.”
This explains the scenario where some SONU officials appear in SWA records to be occupants of specific rooms “but a check proved otherwise.”
The Students Welfare Authority (SWA), it was revealed used to set aside 100 rooms for SONU Executives at Hall 9.
And according to the report, “the notorious hall for substance abuse is Hall 9 which is occupied mainly by SONU officials.”
“The Commission noted with great concern that there is a potential growth of criminal elements within the university halls of residence which if left unchecked would lead to a serious security problem. It is possible that such situation could be found in the other public universities in Kenya,” reads a section of the report.
The Students Welfare Authority was challenged to strengthen mechanisms for allocation and actual occupancy of rooms in the hostels to weed out non-students/strangers occupying rooms at the expense of deserving students.
“The University of Nairobi should put in place continuous surveillance to enhance security within the university premises,” the Ombudsman recommended. “The University of Nairobi should invest in relevant modern security equipment besides fencing the university.”
It is after the report that UoN introduced custodians in every hall of residence within all campuses to not only monitor the flow of students and visitors in and out of the halls but to also ensure general safety and security of the students, their property, and that of the university.
But even with this, the menace is far from over.
Most of the recommendations that may have sealed some of the loopholes have not yet been implemented.
– Criminals arrested –
Police investigations have revealed just like explained by Gabriel, and as exposed in the Ombudsman report, that some rogue elements have infiltrated the institution through the help of sympathisers who are students.
But the problem of criminal gangs is not new; it is deep-rooted.
In 2002, a student was arrested inside Hall 9, where an AK-47 rifle and other small arms in his custody were recovered.
The lead detective during the operation spoke to Capital FM News on anonymity grounds, about one of the most successful police raids.
“The student (name concealed) is currently serving a jail term. He used to commit crimes within the CBD and thereafter retreat to the hostel,” the officer said.
Drugs (bhang and cocaine), counterfeit money (in shillings, dollars and Euros) and a machine to manufacture the currencies were also recovered.
“It was a den of criminals…” the officer, who has since been transferred to another jurisdiction, said.
And according to reports, the gangs have specific duties and code names.
In October 2016, police raided several UoN campuses including Hall 9, located at the main campus, where a student was arrested and a homemade gun, assorted knives, machetes and other crude weapons were recovered.
– Security loopholes –
For a person to access the institution’s premises, they are required to produce a student Identity Card or at least the national ID card.
But this, as established by Capital FM News cannot deter a stranger from getting inside the hostel area because of the porous fence.
The hedge or chain link fence is porous due to the openings made by students and which they often use as entry or exit points to avoid security checks.
During demonstrations, they are the easiest routes for rioting students to escape from anti-riot police officers.
Another challenge according to the Ombudsman report is that “SONU officials consider themselves superior and so have no respect for the university staff manning the halls of residence.
They consider themselves above the rules and regulations governing the halls of residence. In this regard, the SONU officials always want to occupy one specific hall of residence at any given time posing a big challenge to the staff.
The halls officers are supposed to be mentors to the students. This, however, is made difficult by the different family backgrounds of the students. Some students, according to the report have negative influences on their ‘peers because of their upbringing.”
Detectives are pursuing several people, among them students who were expelled, believed to be behind the destruction of SWA offices on Tuesday night.
A fire was also lit, though the offices were not burnt down.
– Expelled students menace –
University of Nairobi officials say they are aware of the existence of strangers within the halls of residence but insist that they are expelled students.
John Orindi, the University Communication Officer say several students found harbouring outsiders- majority of whom are their former colleagues – have been expelled as part of their “strict” disciplinary measures adopted by the institution.
“What we have is a dynamic environment and the situation keeps on changing, just like in any other place in this country,” Orindi told Capital FM News.
He pointed out that, “our rules are very clear on students residing in the halls of residence.”
Aware of the magnitude of the challenges facing Kenya’s oldest university, he says they are currently doing a security assessment more so around the halls of residence, to ensure all loopholes are sealed.
“This will inform some of the measures we are going to take,” he said.
But expelled students are not only the problem according to Orindi; the current political environment, he says, ‘has also affected the politics of the institution.’
Some external forces, politicians included are said to be interfering with their affairs “while taking advantage of students vulnerability” to use them.
But he says the institution is working with other national agencies including the police in order to enforce some of the security measures put in place.
“We need help from police so that we can protect the school’s property and also ensure the students are safe,” he said.
And this, Orindi pointed out that it was the main reason anti-riot officers were invited in the institution, during the pro-Babu Owino’s demonstrations.
“We want the students to learn…they do not belong to the streets. Most of them are on taxpayers’ sponsorship. They should look at the bigger picture,” he appealed.
It is not in doubt that the University of Nairobi is a leading education tower in the region, from which some of the best brains trail their roots, but until the criminal elements are eliminated out of the institution, its image will remain dented.