By Fuad Abdirahman
In times gone by, particularly between the 1960s to the late ‘90s, university students were a thorn in the flesh for the state, giving autocratic regimes sleepless nights on account of their radical “subversive” activities.
This is how units like the dreaded Special Branch – now more or less the National Intelligence Services – were born. Its members were – sometimes recruited students themselves – were deployed to lecture halls to spy for government.
It is university students who championed the cause for multi-party democracy and agitated for change when no one else could stand up to government. In 1972, Chelagat Mutai and Ochieng k’Onyango – some of the less talked about activists – both students leaders at the University of Nairobi, were expelled and subsequently detained without trial for advocating for multi-partyism.
Jomo Kenyatta, especially did not tolerate student activists. Boldly claiming in his book, ‘Facing Mount Kenya’, that he was a champion of freedom of speech, he was a markedly different man as president, brutally dealing with and dispatching students who were critical of his administration.
One popular channel available for student activism was print media. Among notable publications were the ‘University Platform’, highly critical of government policies and with huge readership, followed by ‘The Anvil’, which was launched after the former was banned.
The two papers covered to topics considered too sensitive by the mainstream media. A journal article, ‘Print cultures, nationalism and student activism in the late 1970s’ described The Anvil as “arguably the most fearless publication of its time…”
While banning the ‘Platform’ in 1972, government described it of being “highly critical of both government and university administration.” The editor was subsequently. ‘The Anvil’ was shut down in a similar manner. President Kenyatta also outlawed the formidable students union in 1979 before allowing it to become operational again in 1982, under some very strict conditions this time.
The students were not just about national politics. One of their most enduring triumphs was the construction of the tunnel under Uhuru Highway, to ensure the safety of students by providing a path to the hostels that did not involve crossing the busy highway.
When the demand was made, government rejected it right away. The result was a violent demonstration between students and the riot police unit. In 1972 before the closure of the platform paper, scores of students were arrested and charged, variously being fined or jailed.
But while government had its way, so did the students. The following year, in 1973, the tunnel was constructed; it is the only one that passes under Uhuru highway, and one of very few underpasses in the country.
At different times, the students also engaged in international politics as well; they protested against British colonial policies in South Africa and Zimbabwe, to give impetus to the push for independence in those countries.
But it was during President Daniel Moi’s time that student activism was most actively suppressed. Lecturers were not free to speak out on government excesses, as dissent was reported and swiftly acted upon.
Dr Duncan Omanga, a lecturer at Moi University, notes the agitation from universities and students during the Moi regime proved to be one of the most organised and efficient, which caused Moi to respond by establishing a stranglehold over universities through carefully manipulated appointment of ‘loyalist’ vice chancellors. Meanwhile, the President appointed himself chancellor of all public universities!
To a point, suppression worked because not many students were willing to be expelled. Conversely, those who bold enough to revolt and get expelled attained cult status. As author Maurice N. Amutabi notes, this venerable clique of students played a profound role in shaping some of the policies that govern government today. In a word, their capacity to galvanise was something to write about. (