Students in the Struggle for Kenyan Democracy A Brief History of University Student Activism in Kenya

Student activism in Kenya is a form of protest and resistance against oppression. At its very heart, it is also a demonstration of leadership and the capacity for mass mobilization.

For newly independent African countries, the two principal agencies of transformation and modernization were the competence and responsibilities assembled and directed under the aegis of two institutions—government and the university. Universities would be an instrument to give strength, content, and direction to national life.

By the late 1970s, the University of Nairobi and its constituent Kenyatta University College had become key hubs of national dissent within Kenya. Between 1969 and 1990 there were over 20 university closures at the University of Nairobi alone. Many of the debates that students initiated on campus would later be rearticulated on the national political stage as former students went on to prominent public positions, set up their own political parties or joined governing or opposition parties. Many of those who graduated in the 1970s and 1980s have been active in Kenyan politics ever since.

However, reports by the popular press and some academics have tended to only focus on the incidents during this time that involved physical violence and suggest students merely disrupted the university. Many reports failed to highlight the democratic nature of the students’ concerns and the oppressive, authoritarian structures that they faced.

Set against the context of authoritarian leadership, institutional decay and management crises, student activism in Kenya is a form of protest and resistance against oppression. At its very heart, it is also a demonstration of leadership and the capacity for mass mobilization. University students played a key role in Kenya’s struggle for democratization.


The first violent conflict between students and the authorities occurred in 1969 when Kenya’s first vice president and later, the opposition leader, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was denied permission to give a lecture at the University of Nairobi. Students protested by boycotting classes, citing a violation of their academic freedom. The General Service Unit (GSU), itself a paramilitary wing of the Kenya Police Service, were immediately deployed to the campus to end the boycott, resulting in violent clashes. This incident was one of the first to highlight the fact that freedom of assembly, speech, and association (key aspects of a functioning democracy) were a big part of the demands that university students made of the establishment.

Student protests also had success in driving major policy shifts in government. For example, in 1972, students went on strike demanding an underpass on Uhuru Highway that separated the university lecture theatres from the halls of residence after a student had been killed by a car. The University’s student paper, The University Platform, gave the most detailed description of this demonstration and its suppression in its 27 July 1972 issue. However, this proved to be its final issue, as it was banned as a result. Despite the strike being violently broken up, with many students injured and some arrested, and The University Platform being banned, by 1973, the underpass had been built within only six months.

Kenyan university strikes were effective at highlighting the injustices in the wider social system. In 1974, two major protests calling for fair representation led to ‘police violence, widespread student injuries, expulsions and closures.’ The first protest was prompted by what students termed mass failure rates in the faculty of architecture. The students highlighted the fact that ‘at the end of the 1972/73 academic year, only two Kenyan Africans qualified as architects’ and by 1974, ‘only two Kenyan Africans were in the fifth year’ dubbing it a ‘clearly worked out plan to control the entry of Black Kenyans into this vital profession’.

This protest was amalgamated into a broader protest at the increasing expatriate presence in the university, which protesters viewed was symptomatic of expatriate control over education and the economy in Kenya. The students organized a boycott of examinations and demanded the removal of the head of the university’s architecture department. However, police broke up the boycott and after two days of protests, the university’s vice chancellor announced the closure of the university in response.

The second protest was against British policy in South Africa and what was then known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). All the students involved were expelled and had to apply for readmission with some failing to gain readmission upon university reopening in January 1975. It served as a clear example of student activism being informed and fuelled by global current affairs, and not only being restricted to local issues.

Soon after the university reopened, the body of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, a well-known politician, was found dead in Ngong Hills. ‘JM’, as he was popularly known, had been the member of parliament representing Nyandarua North and he was ‘believed to represent many of the nationalist aspirations abandoned by President Jomo Kenyatta’s government’. Murder was suspected though the Daily Nation newspaper published a false report that Mr Kariuki was still alive in Zimbabwe in what was believed to be an attempt to cover up the murder. Students boycotted lectures as a result. This was one of the earliest examples of students protesting what they regarded as a political assassination. Later there would be a suppressed Parliamentary Select Committee Report with allegations that the government was behind the murder.

In the subsequent months, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) attempted to rally together students behind President Kenyatta. GEMA’s machinations on campus together with the parliamentary report led to two weeks of riots and clashes during which female students were raped, nearly 100 students were arrested, and dozens were hospitalized.

The university again experienced major riots on 2 March 1976 as students protested the death of JM Kariuki. Several students were injured, with six of them appearing in court after the authorities continued their heavy-handed response. However, the riots that took place exactly a year later, on 2 March 1977, surpassed all previous ones in terms of intensity and destruction of property. The Weekly Review of 7 March 1997 reported that ‘those arrested included not only students but also press photographers, some of whose cameras were smashed by the police in the process’. According to the report, the chief photographer of The Standard (one of Kenya’s main newspapers) and a reporter got clubbed by the riot police as they tried to cover the demonstration.

When President Kenyatta died in 1978, he was succeeded by his vice president, Daniel Arap Moi, who also became the university’s new chancellor. The president being the chancellor was common practice at the time and as the university chancellor, he was also responsible for appointing the vice chancellor of the university. This led to democratic space and ideas at the university being stifled by administrators who were seen to serve the interests of the ruling class.

One of President Moi’s first actions was to release all of Kenyatta’s detainees which students responded to with joyous demonstrations on the streets of Nairobi. However, any hope that there would be a return to nationalist ideas, basic freedoms of discussion and democratic participation was short-lived. Lectures and seminars that were deemed to be controversial were cancelled and the creation of a new Ministry of Education which had a mandate over universities further demonstrated the institution’s lack of autonomy.

In October 1979, students protested the barring of Kenyan politician, Oginga Odinga, and all other Kenya People’s Union (KPU) members from running in the upcoming December 1979 parliamentary elections. They also demanded that Ngugi wa Thiong’o be reinstated as professor of literature at the university. Ngugi had been detained two years earlier by the Kenyatta government and although he was released in December 1978 (alongside other detainees) he was not allowed to take back his job at the University of Nairobi. He was detained again by the Moi government for organizing a community theatre in his native Kamirithu village in Limuru.

President Moi responded by closing the university, less than two weeks after the beginning of the new academic year, declaring that the ‘Christmas vacation’ which was scheduled to be nine weeks away, be brought forward. At the end of the vacation, six students were expelled for their involvement in the demonstration. In addition, the Nairobi University Students Organization (NOSU), the predecessor of the Student Organisation of the Nairobi University (SONU), was dissolved in 1979.


In May 1982, there was student unrest at various university colleges including Kenyatta University College (KUC). Following the disturbances, college administrators suspended studies and ordered students to go home. Days after, the Ministry of Education made it a requirement that no student would be readmitted unless he or she gave out information implicating the perpetrators.

On 3 June 1982, Maina wa Kinyati, who was a lecturer in History at KUC and who was well known for his research into the Mau Mau movement, was arrested with his books and files confiscated. Two days earlier, President Moi was quoted at a Madaraka Day address as saying, ‘I want to make it clear that we shall not allow a few individuals who regard themselves as revolutionaries promoting foreign ideologies to disrupt our education and training programs…’ This was one of the many times that President Moi publicly reprimanded student activism and demonstrated his intolerance for opposition underlining how the 1980s was the decade during which there was an even more severe crackdown on student activism.

Despite the government crackdowns, student activists continued to force government policy change when they opposed the new terms on which student loans could be acquired. Under the proposed new plan, parents or guardians would have to deposit land title deeds before their children would be granted loans to enrol in the university. In July 1982, SONU organized a boycott of the new loan forms. The students vehemently opposed this proposal, arguing that it would discriminate against large numbers of disadvantaged students or those without property and render the university inaccessible to many. Additionally, in some parts of Kenya, communal lands had not been surveyed and demarcated by the lands department and inhabitants did not yet hold title deeds to their parcels. On July 28, 1982, SONU issued an ultimatum to the minister for higher education requiring that he consult with students about this issue. Ultimately, these plans would be overtaken by events that occurred four days later when non-commissioned air force workers initiated a coup d’état against President Moi’s government.

The coup failed, however. President Moi responded by not only overhauling the leadership of the security forces and reconstituting the air force but also beginning a major crackdown on the University of Nairobi. He dissolved the university in October 1982 saying that his government ‘want[ed] a new university…with no prospect henceforth that it could lie in our midst as a source or instrument of destruction’, the Weekly Review reported on 22 October 1982.

During the dissolution of the university, an unknown number of students were arrested and transported to different police stations for interrogation. According to first-hand reports they were mistreated and forced to sign false confessions implicating their fellow students. They were denied bail and, in some cases, according to the Nairobi Times of 5 November 1982, were refused medical attention.

Among those arrested was the chairman of SONU, Titus ‘Tito’ Adongusi. He was charged with complicity in the attempted military coup and jailed for ten years on 24 September 1982. He died in prison six years later. Peter Nicholas Oginga Ogego was another student leader who was arrested, charged with sedition, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment on 7 October 1982. Initially sentenced to six years imprisonment, this was changed to ten years by the government prosecutor who stated, Maina Kinyatti has written, that ‘he did not show enough remorse’.

A third student, David Onyango Oloo, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for ‘writing, possessing and publishing’ a seditious document which was his own handwritten incomplete class essay. Conducting his own defence when his lawyers withdrew following intimidation from the government, Oloo said that it was ‘high time the court defined what was meant by “sedition”. Where does the demarcation point where somebody says here is where constructive criticism stops and is where sedition begins?’ reported the Daily Nation of 27 October 1982. These words would be revisited within the courtroom during other sedition cases in the years after until 1997 when the sedition clause was finally removed from the constitution.

The foregoing two court cases demonstrate how student activism took the fight for democracy to the judiciary and although the two students lost their cases, they highlighted the lengths to which the government was willing to go to suppress dissenting voices. In May 1984, the government announced the National Youth Service Pre-University Training Programme. This was a mandatory programme of 14 weeks of paramilitary training that every student had to go through before attending Kenyan universities whose main focus was on converting students into ‘compliant, pro-government young citizens, loyal to the ruling party’.

The government’s repressive policies began to attract international attention, with campaigns in various countries calling for the release of university lecturers, students, and other political prisoners. Student trials that were due to start in January 1983 were continuously postponed until 22 February 1983, when President Moi announced the release of 412 Air Force men and 61 university students.

Despite the violent suppression, university students, as representatives of democratic forces, continued to engage the dictatorial machinery in Kenya. In 1985 personnel of the GSU, are alleged to have killed a twenty-three-year-old student, Jacob Wandera, by clubbing him to death as they forcibly dispersed a student prayer meeting in the University of Nairobi sports grounds. Although the government later alleged that fellow students trampled Wandera to death as they ran away, eyewitness accounts have vehemently refuted this version. They insist that the GSU personnel set upon innocent, unarmed, and defenceless students with truncheons, clubs, and guns, maiming and shooting to kill. This is one of the incidents that attracted worldwide media attention to the Moi regime’s dictatorial tendencies, with Amnesty International among other human rights organisations condemning the killing.

A few years later, in 1987, student leader and SAFINA party activist, Robert Wafula Buke, was expelled from the University of Nairobi during his final year. He was arrested, falsely accused of espionage, charged with spying for Libya, and jailed for ten years. Before he was arrested and incarcerated, he led students in the longest ever strike in the history of the university at the time. This was after he had just served as SONU chairman for only two weeks, the shortest term ever.


University student action was part and parcel of the democratization process in Kenya. They vigorously opposed the state’s security personnel and were subject to violent confrontations with the police and government security forces. They also consistently demanded the rights to freedom of assembly, speech, and association. Students sought to redress policies such as political interference in the university curriculum and corrupt appointments on the university administration. Furthermore, they demonstrated their wider commitment to democratic ideals by contesting policies that affected the wider population of Kenya but also other countries such as Rhodesia. Lastly, they fought against the oppression of government critics and radical politicians by protesting political assassinations and arbitrary detentions without trial. Therefore, student action during this period looked to reinforce democratic values at every opportunity and in so doing helped advance the troubled process of democratization in Kenya

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