Students participate in fiercely contested elections

With three months to go before Kenya’s general elections on 9 August, the country’s politics are heating up with candidates choosing their affiliation or defecting from one party to another.

Kenyan university students have stepped up to champion their agendas while citing a lack of financial support for their campaigns as a major challenge.

Ashura Michael, a second-year law student at the University of Nairobi, is vying for the Nairobi County senatorial seat on behalf of the Orange Democratic Movement, a party led by presidential aspirant Raila Amolo Odinga.

Michael (29) is the first deaf person to vie for the Nairobi senatorial seat and admits that it is hard to convince voters about her leadership ambitions.

Michael, a sign-language interpreter, told University World News that she got involved in politics because she wants to ensure an equal distribution of resources for all, including persons with disabilities, to ensure fair representation for all in parliament, and to represent youth leadership.

She says Kenyan youths need to be continually empowered in all spheres of life, including the economy, health and, most importantly, education.

“My dream is to provide full scholarships to Kenyan youths in need, like the UK does. I believe Kenya has immense resources that can be tapped into to fund students without using loans. More partnerships within developing countries can also go a long way in reserving funds for higher education institutions.”

Michael says campaigning is tough. “I am a woman with a disability, and to be in politics makes it harder. The general public should support all the youths and their ambitions,” she said. She funds her own campaign.

Weikena Steven (24), a fourth-year student at Murang’a University of Science and Technology, is also running for public office, in his case hoping to be elected as a member of the county assembly in Ikerege Bukira ward in south-western Kenya’s Kuria West constituency under the banner of the Usawa Kwa Wote Party.

“I have always had the passion to serve people and deliver fully. I intend to improve agriculture for food security, improve infrastructure like roads, as most of the roads where I come from are in a sorry state, better health services, and empower the youth, while, at the same time, uplifting people with disabilities for equal rights and empowerment.

“This is because people with disabilities are mostly forgotten, yet they possess immense potential to serve and develop this nation too,” Steven explained.

He laments high pollution levels in most Kenyan regions, and champions environmental conservation as part of his manifesto, as well as boosting local artists to inspire future generations.

“Although the education system in higher learning has shaped us as aspirants to be good future managers, balancing my studies with campaigns has been a hurdle. My campaign is based on a house-to-house talk to convince voters that I am capable; it has been exhausting and time-consuming,” he added.

Students focus on youth issues

Another student with political aspirations is Judith Oyoo (29). Her goals include improved security in Korogocho Constituency, one of the largest slum neighbourhoods of Nairobi. Contesting under the banner of the Democratic Action Party-Kenya, she intends to tackle unemployment by creating a conducive business environment for the youth in the area.

“A favourable competitive environment for youths in the slums, increasing the visibility of persons with disabilities, and positively exposing children with disabilities through education, are my top priorities. Some parents in the slums still hide children with disabilities in their houses and deny them education, which is unacceptable,” Oyoo said.

Richard Mwendwa (27) is also eying a seat in the county assembly for Kasikeu Ward on behalf of the Usawa Kwa Wote Party in Makueni County in the Eastern region of Kenya.

He wants to reform young people lost to drugs by building rehabilitation centres, improving farming in the dry region through the building of dams, support local talent among the youth and improve the state of primary schools and healthcare services in his area.

On higher education, Mwendwa told University World News: “I think higher education in Kenya has lost its glory, where we are producing graduates but not skilled manpower. I blame it on theoretical learning; it’s high time we changed university learning systems to accommodate skilled practical learning in all universities to save generations from joblessness. We need to take tough action to build a productive education system.”

Students have an historical role

A recent research report published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies confirms that students have always played an important role in political developments in Kenya. Based on field research, the report says that, during recent waves of protests and political activism, however, students took a more ambivalent stance towards both the state and the political elite.

It discusses the relationship between student activism and the political elite in Kenya: “During the overall change in the meaning and function of higher education, universities and student activism have played an important role in political development.

“This report analyses the education system based on (qualitative) research on education and student activism in Kenya. The paper focuses on the education system as an important factor in the recruitment of political elites.”

Over the past decades, Africa has experienced dynamic political processes in the context of both the anti-colonial struggles for independence and newly independent African nation-states. These united several different stakeholders, according to the report.

In the 1960s, students as well as other formally educated Africans played a significant role as agents of political change. Since the mid-1980s, numerous states in the Global South have been facing the so-called third wave of democratisation.

The process has included students, other urban minority groups and the social middle class as actors who have alternately been described as the ‘emergent elite’, ‘intelligentsia’, ‘Western-educated elite’, and sometimes as ‘African bourgeoisie’.

More recently, however, students in several African countries have rather been considered an integral part of the ‘rising middle classes’.