So the other day the University of Nairobi students went on strike. The first day that happened was on a Saturday, and I remember I was at the museum with a bunch of my friends trying to convince ourselves that we have not yet grown up. When I first heard the shots I thought they were gun shots, but one of my friends told me it was tear gas. We all breathed easier. When you hear sustained shots in this City you imagine Westgate. Having established that the City was not under Al-Shabaab attack, we concentrated on the peace path.
I am yet to figure out what the peace path is supposed to achieve by the way. And I am not alone. Having gone through the maze and reached the centre, my friend blurted out:
“So when you get here what is supposed to happen?”
I was struggling with the same question. I am not sure what I expected, but surely, after enduring the cynical taunts of one of our other friends, were we not supposed to at least momentarily turn blue or something?
“You feel happy I guess,” I replied.
A white family that had joined us burst out laughing. Perhaps we could say that some of us enjoy practical things…like eating roasted arrowroots with black tea. Certainly not going round in circles with the sole aim of reaching a metallic centre. But the white family seemed to be having fun so yea, you can go to the national museum and give it a try.
The students staged another demo on Monday and in the process set the Sonu office on fire. Well, that would probably be understandable (though not acceptable) if that is all they did. But they also took to Uhuru Highway and University Way to cause chaos. This of course evokes negative reactions from the general public whenever it happens. I remember one time when I was in first year, we were fundraising for a particular project and a certain gentleman refused to chip in. His reason? He could not support a project piloted by University of Nairobi students because they had stoned his car God knows when. Maybe twenty years before. Fair enough: the sins of the fathers must be visited upon their sons. More recently, a radio personality sensationally said that UoN students should be blacklisted from the job market.
The truth of the matter is that the average student has nothing to do with the stoning. They are sensible enough to know that motorists have nothing to do with their displeasure. The chaos are usually carefully choreographed by a bunch of selfish politicians and a class of hooligans who are usually at their beck and call. As a matter of fact, sometimes the average student requires protection from these characters. What springs to my mind is an incident we had when I was in first year.
First year law students are usually accommodated at the hostels in School of Business at Lower Kabete campus. We would be ferried to and from Parklands every morning and evening by the college bus. At Lower Kabete, we had our own hostels quite apart from the business students, though a number of girls from the business school were given space amongst the law school girls. So this particular Friday my roommate, myself and a friend of ours were talking in our room at around midnight. We had not even locked our door, as our friend would leave at some point to go to his room. Our neighbors were having a party in their room but we had gotten used to the noise. After all, it was Friday. Suddenly, a group of girls crashed into our room.
Now, when you are a front line Christian union member and a bunch of girls crash into your room at midnight, you get quite confused. It is even more puzzling if they are behaving like petrified hares whose little hideouts are being dug out by ferocious blood thirsty hounds. You might be tempted to think that Satan has finally staged a surprise offensive onslaught. You might even start overturning beds and doing spiritual press-ups as warm up in preparation for the looming battle with the Princes of Darkness.
But these girls were not strangers to us. They were our classmates. We tried to get them tell us what was going on but they could not talk. They were too terrified. I opened the door tentatively and peeped out. Out on the corridor were a group of men I had never seen before, armed with whips and machetes. One even had an axe (where do you even get an axe in a school?). Now, if you have read my previous blog posts you are aware that I am no Makmende. That means that the sight of armed mercenaries on our corridor was enough to send my heart on a century of somersaults. I quickly shut the door and retreated to the furthest corner of the room.
As it turned out, the hooligans were from the business school. The story that went around (which I never really bothered to confirm) is that a couple of business school students had tried to force their way into our classmates’ party. Our classmates had however thrown them out. This incensed them because first, our classmates were first years, and second, being law students, they were IDPs in “their” campus, and that apparently gave them the right to force their way into the party. So they went and came back with the hooligans, who came and started beating up everybody in the party-including the girls. And that is how the girls found themselves in our room.
Our classmates in the neighboring hostels quickly mobilized. Our hostel had two doors, but one was permanently locked. And the only working door had been locked by the mercenaries. We were trapped inside, so our classmates really could do nothing. Besides, if they attacked business students in a bid to rescue us, the other business students would mobilize and we would be outnumbered. I am told we were lucky that evening because some student politicians from Parklands were in Lower Kabete and they negotiated a truce with their Lower Kabete colleagues who then called off their attack dogs. They therefore let us be, but of course by that time those who had been at the party had enjoyed some warm intimacy with the whips.
Sonu political events are always chaotic. Aspirants vying for political offices have to pay taxes to cartels as protection fees so that their posters would not be removed. Depending on how senior the office you are seeking is, you might need physical protection from the danger posed by rival camps. Last year, an aspirant for Sonu Secretary General position was stabbed in the stomach and had to be rushed to hospital. In 2011, the then Sonu Secretary General was also attacked in his room at 3am and stabbed with a knife by hooded criminals, critically injuring him. Obviously, these are not the characters the average student will confront. Recently, I visited Parklands campus for a Sunday service with the Christian Union. As I walked out of the campus after the service, I noticed a young man urinating on the flower beds-in broad daylight. When he noticed my surprise, he gave me drunken smile. It is then I noticed a bunch of noise makers at the Campus’ main hall, Sheria Hall. My host students told me it was a political mobilization meeting. I got the message: the untouchables.
I am not suggesting that the average student does not have grievances or that they do not air them. But student protests are usually peaceful and issue based. When I was in second year, our Property Law teacher, the late Harvey Agumba gave us a wide berth. Whenever our class representative called him, he would either be offline or he would say he was on vacation. When she went to the administration, she would be told that Harvey was our scheduled teacher for the semester. We didn’t mind for the first 3 weeks. After all, lecturers rarely taught for the first two weeks of the semester. But by the sixth week, we had had enough. We knew Harvey would not come. On a previous occasion, someone had reported him to the Dean for some misdemeanor which I forget. The next time he showed up in class he was unrepentant:
“I know some of you reported me to your local headmaster. What did you think he would do to me? You could as well have reported me to the guy upstairs,” He said in his drawling voice. He always referred to God as the “guy upstairs”.
Knowing that Harvey had made up his mind not to teach us, someone mobilized us to stage a protest to the dean’s office. I cannot even remember whose idea it was. We soon organized ourselves into a bunch of protesters and went down to the dean’s office and demanded to see him. The security officers and secretaries tried to stop us but we remained defiant. Eventually, we were ushered into his office. Those of us who could squeeze ourselves in got in while others milled outside.
Our dean then was Prof. (now Justice) Otieno Odek. This guy is a Magufuli of sorts. He is an action guy. He makes things happen. He quickly summoned the Chairman of the department into his office:
“Prof these students are saying they have not been taught for six weeks. Is that true?”
“Sir, Mr Agumba is taking the class…”
Nooo, he is on leave…
“Shut up all of you. Prof you were saying?”
“Sir as I was saying, Mr Agumba is taking the class. His leave was not approved so I am not aware of his being on leave. I am doing…”
We want to be taught today…
The elderly professor’s shoulders sagged. It is not easy to be caught between hot blooded young students and an uncompromising boss over some insubordinate colleague. Anyway, Prof. Odek was soon on the phone:
“Mr XX where are you…Riverside Drive?…how fast can you make it to Parklands Campus?…20 minutes?…Ok, I have a class that needs to be taught but has no lecturer. Be at the Lecture Theatre in 30 minutes. The students will be there waiting for you.”
Just like that, we had a teacher. No stones thrown, no chairs broken. Of course I am alive to the fact that it was fairly easy to stage peaceful protests at Parklands because of the low student population, which was easy to manage. At the larger campuses it is highly likely that such an idea would be hijacked by hooligans to gain some political traction.
The point I am making here is that the average UoN student had nothing to do with your car that was stoned. At that time he was probably doing his laundry, only to find himself caught up by the GSU. Right now he is probably somewhere in his village planting maize-the school just had to be closed during the planting season. Some parent has gotten cheap labor. The student is hoping to survive Sonu drama and graduate while on the other hand you are swearing never to hire him. Allow me to tell you something else.
The guy who orchestrated the stoning of your car is doing well. He will probably be hired as a gun-toting aide of some political clown. Or he might be favored by some flashy pastor who has made a crucial discovery that preaching is a dangerous career, and since God has proven Himself over time to be a novice in dealing with the security of his ranking officers, he has decided to take matters into his hands by hiring an army of gorillas to escort him from his office to the pulpit. And the guy who stoned your car fits the bill. Or maybe this guy is doing his second year for the seventh year running. He is waiting for the next Sonu election so that he can stone the car that the Insurance Company has just given you. Between now and then, he will keep himself busy by roaming around Mamlaka waiting for a black out to happen so that he can harass you on State House Road. After all, you will blame the guy in the library or the one watching a movie in his room. They are the ones who needed the electricity, no? Oh sorry, I forgot. He doesn’t really care what you think or who you blame. In fact, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Unless someone in authority seriously decides to break up the cartels and gangs at UoN. Perhaps then he will care. Just maybe. Meanwhile, please give the UoN student a break.