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Campuses stay closed amid concern over student protests

A demonstrator runs from a burning car set on fire by irate youths after  a  funeral service called by opposition ODM was tear-gassed by police, Ligi Ndogo, Kenya, January 2008.
(Julius Mwelu/IRIN)

Most of Kenya's public universities have yet to reopen amid fears of riots and ethnic bloodshed following December's disputed polls.

The opening of Maseno University in the opposition stronghold of Luo-dominated Nyanza Province in western Kenya has been postponed until April because it was not considered safe for Kikuyu students from Central Province, the home turf of Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki, to return.

"The community around [Maseno] are mainly Luos and Luhyas and they've become so volatile. There are very many students who are from Central Province. That would mean if they go there, apart from students fighting students, it would degenerate to community fighting students," Joseph Adinda, chair of the Kenya National Association of Universities, told IRIN.

"When they were supposed to open, a group of students went there to wait for fellow students from Central Province - Kikuyus - so that when they alight from the buses, they deal with them even before they reach campus," Adinda said. About 45 percent of students at Maseno are Kikuyu.

Some of the worst violence in Kenya has been around Eldoret in Rift Valley Province. Here, Kikuyus and Kisiis have been targeted by pro-opposition Kalenjin determined to force “outsiders” to leave “their” province. Moi University is 36km outside the town.

However, Nabos Ekwam, chair of Moi University Student Organisation, was optimistic there would not be trouble when campus reopens on 8 February, after two delays. The university needed more time to find alternative accommodation for some of the 8,500 students whose hostels in town were destroyed during the unrest.

He did not believe there would be any tension between students and townspeople.
"My [positivism] is based on the fact that I was in campus a few days ago. The main campus is located in the interior, surrounded by the community. There was nothing of the university that was destroyed. The only destruction was outside the university," he said.

Photo: Allan Gichigi/IRIN
Hoping for a new dawn in Nairobi as university campuses around the country remain closed

Student politics at Moi University is not divided on ethnic lines, Ekwam said, using the fact of his own election as a student leader to illustrate this. He is one of about 10 members of his Turkana community at the college.

"People do not vote in terms of tribe," he said. "There hasn't been much aggression in terms of tribe."

However, students will respond to the nation's political crisis when they return.

Student duty

"Student politics will be a bit hot because of national politics," predicted Ekwam. "It is going to be a reaction not to fellow students but to what is happening in national politics and the entire society. You feel it's not right. You have a duty to point it out. Once we get to campus, students have to take a position."

The student governing council will meet first and then there will be a meeting known as a kamakunji, with all the students, to decide the course of action.

"The main way of being heard is to make a political demonstration, to meet the press and say what we feel should have happened," said Ekwam.

Only a few months ago, Moi University students held their first demonstration in several years to protest against fare hikes on public minibuses.

"It was a peaceful demonstration. We sorted out the problem," said Ekwam.

The University of Nairobi (UON) has traditionally been the most politically active of Kenya's seven public universities. It is the country's oldest and most prestigious university with a history of producing radical student leaders. Many have gone on to become prominent national politicians, such as James Orengo, and rights campaigners, such as PLO Lumumba, currently a lawyer for the political party Safina.

UON's main campus is in the heart of Nairobi's central business district. During the 1980s and 1990s, UON students who opposed the excesses of President Daniel arap Moi's one-party state regularly engaged in battles with riot police. While UON students have not rioted since 2003, there are fears they could do so now.

"I foresee student protest. There is a likelihood students will express their anger," said Hassan Omar, who was a student leader at the university during the 1990s and is now a human rights activist.

"The goings-on right now have radicalised every element of society. The net effect of all this radicalisation is to transform us into a violent society. I don't see the students will be left behind."

While Adinda insisted that "violence is the last option", he said students wanted to express their displeasure at the outcome of the presidential elections. Some have been displaced from their homes by the post-electoral violence and are waiting for university to re-open so they can get accommodation.

Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, is mediating talks between political parties in Kenya

"Students are now saying when they come back they must show the world that they were disappointed with the Electoral Commission of Kenya [which has been criticised for its handling of the results]," he said.

Campus politics follows national agenda

Politics at the university has closely followed the national scene, with students voting on ethnic lines.

"Campus politics is exactly like outside politics. Everything about national politics has come in, tribalism, which area you come from," said Adinda, who is also chairman of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University.

Demonstrations could turn into riots. All public demonstrations have been banned since the elections and the police's heavy-handed response to people trying to protest has repeatedly sparked violence.

On 21 January, a riot broke out at Nairobi's Kenya Polytechnic University College after students heard that its opening had been suspended indefinitely.

Because of its status, what happens at UON is likely to influence other institutions.

"If we go for very peaceful and well coordinated demonstrations, the other universities follow. But if it is messed up and it is a violent one, when others open it will be the same way," said Adinda.

The priority now for UON students is to find out when the university will reopen. Term was due to start on 7 January but has been delayed "because of the prevailing circumstances", according to Charles Sikulu, acting public relations manager in the Vice-Chancellor's office.

"They wanted to make sure when they reopen its safe for the students and for them to conduct their business peacefully," he said.

On 21 January, post-graduates and the medical school reopened. A date of 4 February has been pencilled in for the remaining students to return to campus but it will depend on the outcome of talks mediated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

"What happens in the meanwhile will determine whether we reopen on 4 February. If things crop up that dictate otherwise, then the administration will have the power to delay. This is the first time this kind of thing is happening in the country. We can't tell how the students are going to react," Sikulu said.

University reforms

Kenyan students have been a lot less radical since Kibaki came to power in 2002. Reforms within the university system have opened up a channel of communication with the administration. The introduction of parallel degree programmes for self-sponsored students, many of whom are older and combine their studies with jobs, has brought a more conservative element into campuses.

Under Kibaki, there has also been greater freedom of speech, giving students other means to express their discontent than through violence. The student movement "disintegrated", said Hassan Omar, because activists believed they had "acquired the necessary democratic dispensation we were looking for.

"The student movement was localised, deradicalised and depoliticised on the basis of the perception that we had a new framework in terms of leadership and the struggle we had could be best won within government," he added.

However, "with the new developments, I don't know whether that might reignite the politics of the student movement and whether they will be immune to tribe, which appears to be one of the most divisive issues we have in Kenya right now. If there were to be a rebirth, I don't know what shape that would take," said Omar.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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