Missing the radical activism of yester years in Kenyan Universities


I miss the old days in Kenyan universities. The old days when universities, the premier institutions of higher learning were respected for the role they played in national, regional and international matters. The old days when universities were grounds for radical thought and activism. When voices of university students were respected. When our institutions were not yet ‘villagized’ and acted as institutions of higher learning, amplifying marginalized voices and providing directions on issues pertaining to democracy, good governance among other issues at the local and international arena. I miss the old days when Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU) would stand up for progressive rights to the regime of the day and send state’s security agents into a wild  frenzy. I miss the old days when the organizing power of SONU was respected and hated by the oppressive government due to its influence and impact. When student leaders were the  unofficial opposition leaders after citizens had been silenced by authoritarian regimes in Kenya since independence. I miss the days when progressive student leaders stood up when it really mattered for the country, for ordinary people and for the impoverished in squatters and informal settlements in our country.  I miss the old good days in universities when students’ activism was not centred on boom and students’ welfare alone! I miss those days that I never had in my years at the university. I yearn to relieve these memories of true revolutionary comradeship that defined student activism in the early years of Kenya’s independence.

Institutions of higher education in Africa,  including Kenya, should be principal agencies of social transformation. That’s why  the British and other colonial powers curtailed higher education for Africans, both to deter the development of a crop of political leaders and to thwart the ascension of Africans into administrative jobs that would enable them to govern the country. The few university students thus played significant roles in the  process of political change and made radical student activism as part and parcel in the struggles for democratization in Kenya.

However, radical organizing that was a characteristic of students’ bodies in the past has been diminished as student leaders have been compromised and debased over the years in the pursuit of material gains. This debasement of radical organizing has even extended to public barazas, community forums, distribution of publications and pamphlets and has now been replaced by the culture of handouts. When devolution was instituted after the promulgation of the new constitution, it seems that the voices in the  institutions of higher learning seem to have devolved their voices from national concerns to village politics. Voices from institutions of higher learning in this country are now only focused on agitating for individualistic welfare issues for students whilst forgetting that they should be some of the leading lights and voices of reason at the national, regional and international levels as is required of university education.

From about 2000s, student leaders have used their positions to launch political and professional careers. Student associations have also become institutionalized within university structures. The Universities (Amendment) Act 2016 was used to change the leadership structures of university associations as well as the election process of student leaders. The government of the late President Mwai Kibaki that rose to power in 2002, came with the hope of expanding the democratic space. In actual sense, the government advanced the culture of democracy in the country, especially in human rights struggles such as freedom of speech, movement and association. But it was in this government where students’ activism and other radical struggles for change seemed to have taken  a downward trend and were debased in substance and organizing. This is where co-optation of students’ and their organizations by mainstream political parties peaked. Students’ organizations that were supposed  to contribute to progressive political leadership and direction became sub – branches and departments of political parties and gradually lost their vibrancy and voice.  The political and ideological clarity that was the norm for students’ organizations in the early years of independence became moribund as the new clout of student leaders chose to adopt the positions, constitutions and manifestos of the political parties that were sponsoring them. Student leaders have nowadays been reduced to hirelings and sycophants of opportunistic politicians, only asking how high they should jump rather than why jump in the first place. For the students leaders to survive on the helm of leadership of student bodies, they have to show their unequivocal loyalty to their political god-fathers. This is in total contrast to the old days when radical students associated themselves with underground political movements such as December Twelve Movement (DTM) and Mwakenya that sharpened their ideological clarity and organizing. Current political outfits and parties nurturing -future leaders lack ideological and political clarity. They also lack a progressive curricula to ground and train ideologically new leaders. In effect, the students who get recruited by these parties are taken as expendable hirelings. The political performances of these leaders are pegged on their loyalty to these parties and any contrary voice or opinion is taken as opposition to party barons.

University politics
I first witnessed university politics gin 2016 as a freshman student of  Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) in Kakamega. Before joining the university, I had read a lot about student activism during Kenyatta and Moi’s regimes. I had read of how students who were mostly attracted to Marxist-Leninists ideologies challenged these two regimes on issues of good governance, the expansion of the democratic space, human rights, structural adjustment policies among other pressing issues of the time. In my days at the university, political alliances were formed during elections to help aspirants to clinch various seats that were up for grabs. These alliances were less concerned with students’ welfare. In my naivety, I expected these alliances and political formations to be based on  shared ideologies and manifestos as was the case in the early years of student activism. I expected these alliances to be based on common areas of converges on how to improve the welfare of fellow students. I got a rude shock when I witnessed a replica of national politics being played in university politics. Tribal and ethno-politics were the cogs in the wheels  of these formations and politics. Elections in universities were held then about eight months before the 2017 general elections in Kenya.  As a result, national politics in the country had far-reaching influence in the elections taking place in universities across the country. The rhetoric and empty sloganeering used in the campus elections were similar to the national politics and  alliances that were based on ethnic loyalty. As a freshman then at the university, I struggled to understand why campus elections and campaigns had to be so expensive and extravagant. I never understood then the high stakes in campus elections.

National politics
Politics in Kenya are based on the infamous tyranny of numbers where the performance of the various political alliances are gauged depending on the disparate ethno-blocks forming these alliances and the number of tribal blocs of voters the alliances can marshal. The ethno-balkanization of voters in university politics campus was the coup de maître of campus politics as it gave assurance of an early win to the alliance that brought together the voting blocs with the highest number of students. An example of these blocs is the GEMA, an acronym of Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association which forms a dialect continuum associated with Mount Kenya region. GEMA has historically been voting as a tribal block for many years. The tragedy of tribal politics in Kenya was set – up right after independence by the regime of the first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, and continues to haunt to date national and in extension university politics.

From my experiences in 2016  politics and elections at university, my view is that students contesting for positions of leadership have learnt from the worst in national politics. The aspirants in university elections gave lots of promises to students on various issues. Students raised many questions on the pragmatism of these promises.  These promises were hollow. This has been the case in national politics where manifestos have become empty promises. For example, eradication of diseases, ignorance and poverty have been promised since independence in 1963 and continue to be promised in every election since then without showing the public how these goals will be achieved. In 2016 when I was a first year at university, students were promised a reduction of school fees when most universities were working on revising upwards the costs of tuition fees to offset the huge debts many institutions were facing to maintain them. This promise turned out to be just another campaign tool that has been used before, not only in universities but also in national politics. Improving the welfare of students has also been an endless promise without a systematic explanation of how they would be achieved by student leaders who have become mere appendages of university administrators. At the end, promises have become just another political chess game, hoodwinking students from underprivileged families who are used as pawns at the receiving end of piles upon piles of unfulfilled political promises.

What’s the problem?
I view the decline in student activism having much to do with the kind of education in this country. Like in all countries based on neoliberal policies, the education system is Kenya exists to transmit the values of the ruling class or the bourgeois over the exploited labouring masses. I recently took part in study group discussion of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in which Mwalimu Wandia Njoya spoke about how education in Kenya is designed to alienate people from their lived experiences. Education has disempowered people from valuing their experiences and interpreting them based on progressive knowledge. The education curriculum in Kenya is often determined by state authorities to include the functional training in the service of the neoliberal state and lords of capital. Progressive history is often redacted or expunged all together from the curriculum in order to advance the state ideology of capitalism and neoliberalism. As a result, we have a large number of adults in Kenya without clear knowledge and awareness of the correct history of this country.  Many people pass through the education system without realizing that collective action and community organizing for social change in past struggles in Kenya is a tool that can be harnessed in current struggles. If students are not curious enough to read beyond the materials set in classrooms and textbooks,   or lack teachers who pushes them to think critically, they miss out large chunks of Kenya’s progressive history. Consequently, these students fail to contextualize their studies in the context of their lived experiences.

Though many students are aware of what is happening nationally and globally, they exist as an oppressed group that fails to confront this reality objectively and critically. Freire refers to people’s apathy as a culture of silence and argues in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed that for people to achieve authentic praxis, they need to objectify reality and act upon it. That people cannot transform their reality by merely perceiving it without following up this perception with critical interventions. Subjectivist perception of reality only creates  a false reality. The capitalist economic system that is largely expressed in the culture of consumerism has created a false reality.

Kenyans therefore need to constantly introspect and ask ourselves some hard questions. Why for example are we so beholden to ‘tibim’, ‘tialala’ and ‘kumira kumira’ slogans and not the clarion call for Africa’s unity, Africa Moja, Africa Uhuru!(One Africa, a free Africa!) Has the immortal clarion call of resistance Aluta Continua’ become just another cliché? Why do we continue to tether students’ activism in tribal mindsets and village politics?

Students’ organizations and leaders in Kenya need to revitalize students’ activism and their involvement in progressive national politics. Student bodies from public and private universities should galvanize their fragmented voices and unite. They should coalesce around common challenges facing students and synergize their efforts towards a renaissance of progressive students’ politics in this country. Only then will the students and youth in Kenya progressively shape the country’s politics, now and in the future.

Tibim and tialala were the slogans that were used by National Super Alliance (NASA) in the 2017 elections.

Kumira kumira was a clarion call for the voters supporting Jubilee alliance, mainly from Gikuyu  ethnic bloc, to come out en masse and vote for the Jubilee government.

*Gathanga Ndung’u Is a community organizer with Ruaraka Social Justice Centre (RSJC) and a member of Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network.

*Wairimu Gathimba is a community organizer with Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and a member of Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network and a student at JKUAT.

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  1. Moraa

    Thank you! I’ve been screaming this at the top of my lungs but sadly, kenyan students in private universities barely worry about the living and working conditions of the working class. Viva!

    • Peter Wanjihia

      The current state of student politics in Kenya has become increasingly ineffective, as the student leaders, once vibrant champions of the people’s rights, have now embraced the corrupt practices of incumbent politicians. To address this pressing issue, it is essential to rekindle intellectual discussions on transforming the direction student politics has taken in recent times. The leaders emerging in the next few years will shape our future, and if they follow the same script, we cannot anticipate any positive change as we grow older. Therefore, we must take action now to ensure a more promising and principled path for student politics in Kenya.