On students organizing: Which way forward?

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Students constitute a critical section of the population in any country. Kenya is no exception. As a country, the progressive steps we have made as far as the opening up of democratic space is concerned have occurred as a result of the deep involvement of university students in national struggles.

It is impossible to divorce student politics and their struggles from the national question. As citizens, students are not immune to the influences of the struggles of the masses – their struggles comprise a section of these struggles and they serve as a barometer of the general progress of the country. The suppression of student voices within their university campuses by their administrations is a microcosm of the actual situation throughout the country – that democratic space has shrunk and freedoms have been curtailed nationwide.

It is important to recognize the enormous potential of student organising in influencing and shaping nationwide struggles. The mobilization and organization of students against the continual increment of fees can, for example, influence a nationwide struggle for the increment of the minimum wage and the reduction of commodity prices in general, with particular attention being paid to basic commodities. Clearly, a dialectical relationship exists between the struggles of students and the political struggle in the country generally. Students do not, after all, exist in a vacuum, and are products of the environment they exist in.

One would arrive at certain deductions after taking a look at the history and present state of student politics in Kenya. The active participation of students in the country’s political affairs throughout the decades – the push for a multiparty system, the end of the Moi-KANU hegemony and the increment of democratic space have demonstrated the organizing and the mobilizing capabilities of students. However, this situation has, expectedly, caused anxiety to those who control the neo-colonial state apparatus, whose response has been to quell protest and rebellion to the hilt. To protect its interests, this class has been trying to pacify student organizing and neutralize its potential. A look into the state of student politics in Kenya today will reveal the government’s attempt to control and pacify students and student organizations as well as a struggle by the students to resist this attempt.

In what ways have the ruling class tried to pacify students and dismantle their organizing capabilities?

At the forefront of their strategies is the University Amendment Act enacted in 2016. Through legislation, the government changed the leadership structure and the electoral process across public and private universities throughout the country. The legislation did away with the direct participation of students in electing their student leadership as it introduced an electoral process based on the Electoral College system through which student leaders are selected by representatives of the various faculties, schools and colleges within the university. As a result, the student leadership in Kenya’s universities does not draw its legitimacy from student bodies and, therefore, is not accountable to the constituency it supposedly represents. This cunning manoeuvre has further enabled the university administrations to handpick their preferred student representatives who are more interested in pleasing their respective administrations and securing marginal benefits for themselves than in serving the students.

Ideally, directly elected representatives and the students whom they represent should have a horizontal relationship. The lack of this direct participation therefore has the effect of creating a vertical relationship between the former and the latter. It is, in a very realistic sense, the highest curtailment of democracy. It is a mutilation of the basic principles of freedom and liberty, and must be understood as such.

Secondly, the past few years have seen wave upon wave of student suspensions and expulsions by the administrations of the public universities across the country. Most of these actions taken against students are done in retaliation for their organising. As a result, many student leaders have ended up being severely frustrated in carrying out their political activities within university campuses, with many being cut off from the students they represent. The end goal in this cunning manoeuvre by the university administrations, often acting on behalf of the government, is to water down student organizing by demoralizing their actions and arm twist them into submission. It is clear, in this regard, that the university administrations, and the government in general, are extremely uncomfortable with a strong student union, and would therefore do anything possible to demobilize students.

Further, a recent tactic used by the university administrations to curtail student organizing has been to interfere with the electoral process in selecting student leadership. Often times, progressive students have found themselves locked out of the electoral process as a result of all manner of excuses ranging from incomplete school fees to failed units. This has also seen students at a certain stage of their courses get locked out of participating in student elections.

Another form of interference has been the instalment of ‘preferred’ candidates by the university administrations to participate in and ‘win’ the student elections. In a recent instance, in 2016, the Dean of Students at the University of Nairobi conducted a swearing in ceremony of the installed SONU Chairman inside his office against the wishes of the majority of the students. This, and subsequent student leadership elections, have seen the administration at the University of Nairobi install puppet student representatives in a bid to exercise control over the students. The same mode of operation has been applied throughout the private and public universities in the country, all geared towards demobilizing the students.

How have the students reacted to this onslaught? How have they struggled to keep intact their organizations and their organizing capacities?

Against the backdrop of suspensions and expulsions on a massive scale, students and student leaders have been trying to legally challenge these decisions, most of which are usually carried out with no legal basis and without following the due process of the law. On this front, some students have been successful in challenging university administrations, although the threat of these high-handed and arbitrary decisions being made again still lingers.

In a bid to maintain the credibility of student organizing and organizations, university students have been constantly trying to challenge the recently enacted University Amendment Act (2016) in the courts. Quite clearly, the successful repealing of this Act would symbolize a strategic victory for student organizing and would restore the students’ sovereign power. Moreover, this would give the students another chance to properly guard their organisations against onslaughts from the government and or university administrations.

But winning this victory would require the public to stand in solidarity with the students. How would this solidarity look like? The public could provide the students with wherewithal to challenge the University Amendment Act (2016). In addition, they could file petitions in court to challenge the unlawful suspensions and expulsions carried out against them by their administrations. The students also require solidarity to amplify their voices on a national scale. This calls for a harmonization of the struggles of students with the struggles of all other interest groups in the country struggling for a decent existence. The struggles of students have to be seen as an extension of the struggles of workers through their unions for better working conditions and for the right to organize. In the public eye, the struggles of students for a decent learning environment should be viewed as interconnected with the struggles of university lecturers and other university workers for a conducive working environment. Furthermore, these struggles cannot be separated from the struggles of doctors, nurses, teachers, artisans, the unemployed and other sections of the population championing for a decent livelihood and a better country. In essence these groups are railing against the problems brought about by capitalism.

What, therefore, should be the way forward apropos students organizing in the country? What are the strategic priorities? How do we move on from here?

Electoral malpractices such as the use of huge amounts of campaign money, voter intimidation, bribery and the use of violence are commonplace in University politics. Whereas this can be understood as being the logical image of what happens in national politics, it must be resisted, strongly condemned and avoided if students are to distinguish themselves as a genuinely progressive force in national struggles and if students are to bring back the militancy that has characterised students movements in past decades. Most importantly, this move would assert comradeship in student organizing and enforce a horizontal relationship between students and student leaderships.

It is also extremely important for students, through their organizations, to move speedily and create alliances with the aforementioned interest groups. Students have to actively seek to establish solidarity with university lecturers and other staff, for instance, within their university campuses; jointly organizing and participating in strikes, demonstrations, mass action and the drafting of petitions. Such an alliance would put the university administrations on their toes and would work toward getting the university back into the hands of those it was meant to serve. It would also behove the students to use their organisations to actively seek audience with unions of teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, artisans, community organizations, unemployed youth and other groups with the intention of creating a long lasting alliance of solidarity and the harmonization of national struggles.

Through this, it would be possible to have a nationwide platform of people-based issues whose pursuit would work towards a better country for all. Above all, the building of this working class solidarity would be a step towards the attainment of a system in which the working class have their interests put above the interests of profiteers, speculators and hoarders; a political and economic system for the people, by the people and of the people.

The pursuit of this economic system and the need to ward off interference from state machinery in student organising requires ideological grounding. Organized student activities, through the student organizations, must not be blind, spontaneous nor adventuristic, but must be carried out in accordance with the illumination of ideology. Students must understand that in order to successfully organize against the system, and in order to have lasting institutions that would resist pacification or internal corruption, it becomes absolutely necessary to have an understanding of how the system we exist in works as well as the future model we wish to achieve.

Ideological grounding and political pedagogy requires a careful and deliberate way of organizing. More importantly, it requires a disciplined and structured way of learning, carefully coordinated by the student organizations, that is at the same time organic and adaptive to the existing and ever changing conditions of student life. An effective way for students to organize this would be through the setting up of cells made up of small groups of students throughout university campuses. These cells would be meeting regularly to analyse the system and share ideological materials while at the same time participating in tasks allocated to it by the larger student body. Cells can join up to form fractions, sections, branches and chapters of student organizations throughout university campuses where students are able and willing to participate in the collective struggle of students. A coordination of these smaller groups by the larger student organization would effectively lead to a core of dedicated students, determined and committed to participate in the struggle of students throughout the country. This implies that student organizations would have to model themselves as disciplined units to lead and spearhead student struggles which would ensure that the students would guard against pacification and state interference, and going forward, a purely democratic, comradely and horizontal relationship within student organizations would be created and subsequently concretised.

In order to merge student struggles in universities across the country, it is necessary for students, through their organizations, to come together speedily under a national banner. Whereas it can be said that attempts towards this have been made, it would be important to acknowledge that it has not been fully achieved. The effects of not having a nationwide students’ banner are obvious; the isolation of students struggles in different parts of the country and the weakening of student activity arising therefrom. A lack of coordination in student organizing deprives students of a nationwide voice in championing their interests. A struggle for better grading systems at USIU, for instance, has to be viewed as a struggle of all university students in all parts of the country. For this to be amplified, the nationwide banner must actively lead the voices of all university students throughout the country and direct them towards a particular struggle at any given moment. If students at the Technical University of Kenya are protesting delayed results, for example, all university students in the country must be mobilised to take part in the protest in solidarity through the nationwide students’ banner.

With the setting up of highly organized and disciplined student organizations within university campuses, and the coordination of these under a nationwide students’ banner, an organic and extremely efficient student movement would emerge in the country, and its impact would be felt nationwide. Its ability to shape and be shaped by the daily struggles for a decent existence by Kenyans would make it an extremely critical element in Kenya’s national struggle and its organic nature would cement it as a genuine organization. Most importantly, the movement would last for generations to come, and would itself be an indication of the power that lies with student organizing.

In summation, students in Kenya have to be aware of the tasks they face going forward. They must understand their capabilities in shaping the greater nationwide struggle. They must understand their limitations in dealing with the state and their administrations, and how these can be overcome with better organizing. Finally, they must understand their revolutionary role in struggling for a better country.

*Lewis Maghanga is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League and a former student of the University of Nairobi.

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