A university is a microcosm of a nation. It is in fact a representation of the nation’s best. The oldest institutions of learning have long acknowledged and advanced this thinking.
The mission statement of Havard university for instance states that ‘, The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.’
This statement implies that the college is a place which will give the nation leaders in sports, arts, philosophy, science, law, business etc.
The big question of our time is whether our universities are doing justice in providing leaders capable of resolving our longstanding nightmare of tribalism, greed for power and plunder of national resources.
Even the meanest pessimist of student affairs agrees that there was a time when leadership at university was ideology driven.
The ideology demanded for an egalitarian society guided by transparency and accountability in public affairs. The energy of these demands frightened the Kenyan government of the day into a paranoia that in most cases resulted in needless persecution of the young ideologues.
Decades down the line, names from the golden era of university student leadership still remind the nation how genuine, conscientious student leadership can drive the democratic transformation of a society.
These names include the likes of the late Karl Marx and GPO oulu. We still celebrate Kabando wa Kabando, Wafula Buke, Ababu Namwamba and James Orengo. The university also gave us the greatest orator and philosopher of our time, a man who reminds one of Mwalimu Nyerere in PLO Lumumba.
Mwandawiro Mghanga leads the social Democratic Party that has been extremely active in not just pushing a leftist agenda but also social justice. Prof Anyang Nyongo even when he served in government maintained a certain admirable measure of cool radicalism.
When weighed against these great titans who obviously have the advantage of age and history on their side, the current crop of university student leadership comes a cropper.
This week Kenyans openly condemned a letter allegedly written by the chairman of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University – SONU , Mr Babu Owino to the American ambassador to Kenya.
The said letter while making a legitimate demand to have president Barack Obama visit the university during his forthcoming visit to Kenya was grossly polluted by childish blabber that was not only immature but also obscene.
While the letter raises real questions on the character of its author, it also raises serious concerns about the quality of the process of picking student leadership in Kenyan universities and colleges.
Traditionally student leaders were picked based on a solid criteria: oratory skills, political intelligence, courage and a track record of demonstrated comradeship.
Modern student politics is guided by tribalism, big money and the capacity to unleash violence on fellow students. These vices of course mirror the state of African politics in most cases before the advent of multi-party democracy.
When we talk of university leadership in our age we are speaking of a paradox in which contrary to the dictates of logic, the university lags behind the nation on leadership and integrity. The university remains firmly anchored in a history of darkness at worst. At best university leadership is spoken of in terms of being a mirror rather than a model for society.
Violence is synonymous with every student election at the University of Nairobi in the past decade. The culture of ‘goonism’ is entrenched and often gets to a crescendo during the electioneering period. The goons will extort money from candidates, pull down posters, harass, intimidate and castigate opponents pretentiously, to settle political scores in a manner no less reminiscent of the single party days. In many cases, these student goons carry no serious political ideology beyond political mischief with detrimental results on the growth of an issue based student leadership.
Tribalism enjoys a supreme position in organization and execution of student elections. The governance of operations in the one year post election period which is the natural tenure of a student parliament is not spared. Campus student mobilization is rich in tribal rhetoric and shamefully deficient on ideologies. The voting blocs are superficially modeled along the prevailing national camps such as PNU/ODM or Jubilee / CORD instead of the more ideological capitalist/socialist or at least liberal/conservative.
The theme of tribalism is no longer a pretense. It can determine whether one is elected into a position of student leadership or not. This tribal organization betrays an unfortunate bankruptcy of political originality in institutions of higher learning which ironically boast of being the fountains of knowledge.
Election day on campus is far from a celebration of democracy as it ought to be. The process run by outgoing student leaders is vulnerable to manipulation and outright abuse. Incidences of manipulation have occurred with varying degrees of impunity through different generations. The SONU election results of 2007 were disputed by a majority of students who felt that the process was not free and fair.
Since then election fraud and attendant disputes at university elections has become pervasive.
This week, Moi University was closed following an old but familiar script of student election related violence continuing to hold up the red flag that something is seriously wrong with organization of student affairs in Kenyan universities.
The university administration will often feign ignorance and innocence yet it is implacably opposed to functional student affairs . It is not uncommon to find the administration supporting tribalism, violence, and electoral fraud associated with student elections both openly and covertly.
The management in our universities has more often than not acted in the interest of self preservation. Had these managers acted in the interest of the future kenya, they would have promoted progressive systems in the arena of student leadership. They would have introduced electronic voting using technologies innovated at the university that would have formed a model to be used in national elections.
The scourge of tribalism can be dealt a decisive blow if the virtues of nationalism are inculcated at university level. Kenyan high schools have been excellent in the promotion of patriotism among students only for universities to demolish the good work.
Our dons must feel ashamed that they aid in building a destructive attitude of tribal loyalty in young Kenyan minds. The university is the final major station of character formation for the nations leaders. When our young leaders train in deceit and violence the nation will continue to carry the burden of bad leadership.
The university of Nairobi’s quality policy statement states in part that the institution is ‘committed to quality as the guiding principle to its decision making and leadership in the provision of university education and related services to its customers’. While the institution has done well in many areas, it has performed dismally on the matter of quality student leadership and the results are showing.
DR CHITAYI MURABULA
A medical doctor, trade unionist and writer. He is also a former student leader at the university of Nairobi.
Facebook: Chitayi Murabula