- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

NAIROBI, Kenya — Students here are noted for rioting for apparently ludicrous reasons. Last year they created havoc in the town center after a power cut stopped them from watching a European Cup soccer match on television.
Stone-throwing demonstrators swept up the main road bordering the university, bursting in to a hi-fi shop, where they stole portable radios to listen to the end of the game.
Students often reflect the mood of a nation, and in Kenya that mood is hopeless frustration. Young people here, who have little chance of finding good jobs, also lack the ability to change the political system largely responsible for their woes. Split into factions, they may well be used by political parties as goons during the next presidential election in 2002.
Despite their apparent differences, though, student movements in Kenya and Europe have much in common. Both are powerless before problems that no longer fit into either-or ideologies. In the 1980s, Kenyan students opposed the government and the single-party state, like students throughout the West in the 60s who protested against the governments their parents chose.

Issues clearer in the past
"In the 1980s, the issues were clear. Students united in opposing the government," said Alfred Ombudo Kombudo, a former student leader here who now heads the National Students Council for Peace.
There is still plenty to demonstrate about in Kenya, but the student movement has lost its way. The public embodiment of student protest is a mob leader who goes under the largely accepted pseudonym "Karl Marx."
Like Western student activists looking back at the 60s and 70s, Kenyan students feel nostalgia for a time they have only heard about, when Kenya was a single-party state and the issues and choices were clear. After being at the forefront of demonstrations against the single-party state in the early 1990s, the Kenyan student movement is now seeking an issue that would restore its own unity.
"They have been robbed of an argument," said Aidan Hartley, a Kenyan writer and columnist. "The students can no longer rebel against the unjust society that Kenya once was. The country is now comparatively freer than most of its neighbors, even though it is burdened with an endless series of problems."

Frustration prevails
The complexity of the countrys contemporary problems, ranging from intrigues within the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party and deadlines for International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs, have eluded the grasp of the student population, formerly one of the most powerful vectors for political change.
So student frustration at the corruption and bleak economic outlook of modern Kenya lashes out in bursts of uncontrolled violence.
Periodically, student riots and demonstrations force the university and nearby businesses to shut down. Rioting students sweep over the main roads near the campus, setting up roadblocks and stoning cars.
"Its all about geography. Every day, thousands of students cross this road," said George Omonei, secretary-general of the recently disbanded student union, pointing toward one of Nairobis main thoroughfares between the campus and the student dormitories. The smallest student demonstration can bring part of the capital to a halt.
"Kenyan students are very physical," Mr. Omonei said. "Two hundred students could destroy this whole building," he said, pointing at a multistory building by the main campus.

Town vs. gown 'wars
"We try active nonviolence, but it doesnt work," he went on, having just referred passionately to demonstrations that pitted the students against "matatu" touters as "war."
Matatus are the overcrowded vans spray-painted with hip-hop tags that race around Nairobi in the absence of public transportation. Aggressive touters, or barkers, hang on the outside of the vans trying to cram as many people as they can inside for maximum profit. Last September, gangs of touters stormed a campus on the outskirts of town after a student started fighting over fares. The students replied by sweeping back into town to battle the touters.
Large-scale violence between touters and students is a sign of the dead end where the Kenyan student movement finds itself.
Student leaders argue that power cuts at the university are symbolic of the governments corruption and ineptitude but lack a focus for their ire.
"Corruption is there, in the air, but there are no facts, no evidence," said Freddy Mutete, a former member of the student union.

Agitations impact scant
Students frequently riot to protest conditions at the university, but their impact is slight or nil. Students fought so fiercely against the introduction of tuition-based courses over the past four years that twice they forced the entire university to close down. Yet such courses have by now been introduced in virtually all faculties.
"The impact of multiparty politics in Kenya and the growing role of the IMF have radically changed the power balance in the country," said a senior university official. IMF structural-adjustment programs, which determine the amount of aid a country can receive, forced the introduction of fees at the university. The IMF told the government it ought to withdraw from education, so "the government told the university to survive or die," the official said.
Since the early 1990s, when students played a key role in the fight for multiparty politics, the Kenyan student movement has achieved little. As in national politics, students from the main ethnic groups vie against one another rather than creating a united front. Students from the Kamba and other ethnic communities support their representatives on the national political scene.
"Student movements represent little more than the youth wings of the tribes and parties they belong to," said Mr. KOmbudo. "If there is trouble, they will be appealed to as a mob."

Students seen as pawns
Consequently, politicians take little notice of riots or demonstrations, and students feel they are battling a stone wall. "In Kenya, if you are demonstrating in the streets, people dont ask you why you are demonstrating, but who sent you to demonstrate," explained Mr. Omonei of the recently disbanded student union.
Riots are seen as political operations by one of the many opposition parties.
Paradoxically, the introduction of multiparty politics in 1992, in which the students played a great part, robbed them of political credibility. As the Kenyan political scene grew more complex, students came to be seen as pawns among others. They no longer represented the sole voice of dissent and opposition.
Fearful of the unity of the students in the early 1990s, the government strove to break up the university by encouraging tribal factionalism and largely succeeded, according to Mr. KOmbudo. Students have lost both unity and credibility in the eyes of the public.
"These are dark days for the Kenyan student movement," he said.
Like Western students, Kenyans are struggling to find an issue that will reunite them.
In Europe and the United States, protests against the effects of "globalization" may be about to become a major student issue. But among Nairobi students, the word is greeted with a shrug.

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