Student poll disputes spark protests, close campuses

It is 5.30pm at a private university in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Students are settling down for an evening class when the door bursts open and a smartly dressed young man in a navy-blue suit strolls in, a broad grin on his face.

‘Hussein’ is not alone. In tow are about seven young men and women, all students and supporters pitching for their man to be elected chair of the university’s student body.

He does not waste time, quickly introducing himself and his team before enumerating a lengthy list of things he pledges will change at the university if he is voted in during student elections due to be held on Friday 12 February – longer library hours, government student loans, free phone airtime for class representatives, smaller classes and so on and on and on.

Just then a harried lecturer storms in, but must wait as the student candidate and his proposed officials take turns in saying “a word or two” before the group finally leaves, having delayed class for nearly 20 minutes.

During the lecture the door opens no less than five more times as rival contestants pop their heads into the room to see whether they can make a pitch, annoying the lecturer and students keen to learn without interruption.

Whacky world of student politics

Welcome to the world of Kenyan student politics. At least one university has closed following protests over disputed student leadership elections, which are being held in universities now or in the coming weeks. It is campaign season across the country.

Chuka University in central Kenya was shut indefinitely after students went on the rampage last Sunday, burning a university bus before blockading a busy highway linking the capital Nairobi to the north of the country.

Police were called in to quell the riots that also left many businesses in a nearby market looted and saw 10 students arrested.

The rioting students accused the university administration of “rigging” the student election in favour of a contestant from one community – an indication that student politics had borrowed heavily from national political culture, where voting is mobilised along tribal lines and claims of rigging are part of every electoral exercise.

Vice-chancellor Erastus Njoka said the university would remain closed as police conducted investigations to find out which students organised the riots, before the next course of action is taken.

A notice signed by Oliver Mwangala, the academic affairs registrar, said the university management and senate had decided to close the institution “until further notice” and ordered students to vacate the university by 14h00 on Monday 8 February.

Earlier, rioters smashed windows of university buildings as well as those of a number of university vehicles, wreaking damage estimated at hundreds of thousands of Kenyan shillings.

A perennial problem

The closure came less than a month after resumption of studies following the long December holidays, and reflects how important leadership positions in student bodies are perceived to be and also the hunger for power that permeates Kenyan society.

Last July, two public universities – Moi and Eldoret – were closed for months after student chaos resulting from disputed elections. Students accused university administrators of interfering in the polls and preventing leaders of their choice from being voted into office.

In December 2015, seven students on the campaign trail were seriously injured in clashes with police following chaos that marred student elections in Maseno University in western Kenya. The students tried to jump out of a moving lorry when police lobbed teargas to disperse them.

A similar fate had befallen Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology in the same region. The institution had to shut after widespread violence erupted over botched elections.

Follow the money

Later that night at the private university in Nairobi, on social media sites and the messaging platform WhatsApp, a campaigner group messaged students, promising cash rewards for all who voted for ‘Hussein’ in the hotly contested polls.

Student campaigns have featured glossy full-colour posters that have lined university corridors – a clear indication that large amounts of money are being spent on the campaigns.

Away from the violence, numerous questions have been raised over the sources of money student candidates spend during campaigns, printing posters, throwing alcohol-rich parties for supporters, and hiring vehicles to criss-cross campuses to solicit votes.

It is no secret that politicians at times fund student polls in return for support from student leaders when they are elected, but questions have also arisen over what monetary gains student leaders receive once in office, and how cash spent campaigning is recouped.