The inside story of the school fires and riots in secondary schools

Remnants of a 114 capacity dormitory that was razed down in a morning fire. No casualties were reported during the incident /HILTON OTENYO
Remnants of a 114 capacity dormitory that was razed down in a morning fire. No casualties were reported during the incident /HILTON OTENYO

Over the years, the second term of school calendars in Kenya has been characterised by chaos, with students often striking and burning structures.

This year alone, 63 schools have experienced riots and arsons targeting school dormitories and administration blocks in two months. Fifty of them reported fires.

The unrest has hit 32 counties so far, with the highest number of cases recorded in Siaya (six), Muranga (four), Nairobi (five), Nyeri (four) and Kakamega (four).

Most arson cases have occurred in boarding schools, followed by mixed boarding and day schools, and lastly day schools. Both those schools that perform well and those that struggle in national examinations have been affected.

This year’s wave of unrest has been blamed on fear of exams, resistance to transfer of head teachers, peer influence, change in education policies and indiscipline.

Boarding schools, which account for at least 80 per cent of schools in Kenya, are often targeted because students feel imprisoned there.

Students who spoke to the Star said there is a missing link between them and the administration, blocking them from having meaningful dialogue and peaceful resolution. They end up targeting the institutions

because their grievances tend to be school-based.

The students say they are belittled rather than acknowledged. Despite their actions being castigated as hooliganism, students say arson and riots have in the past given way to the administration acknowledging their dissatisfaction.


The most commonly cited complaints include principals’


autocratic rules and unaccountable styles of management, poor quality school diets and inadequate learning resources,

and queries on

how school budgets are being allocated.

“Schools paint students as villains in every situation. We end up being the criminals when we question the way things are done in school,” a student who spoke to the Star said.

“Those bold enough to approach the administration in a diplomatic way end up being victimized and slowly the administration will look for a reason to push them out of the school through expulsion or frustrating them.”

However, Education CS Amina Mohamed says no reason can justify pushing students to destroy property in school.

“There is always another way, a better way to approach issues. Destruction of property is a criminal offence. We advise students to seek better ways of addressing their matters,” Amina said in July.

Psychologist Alex Munyere says students are incapable of analysing the extent of damage riots and fires could cause.

He says adolescents, who make up the biggest percentage of secondary students, are more impulsive and quick to emotions, which pushes them to take risks regardless of the effects.

“An adolescent’s brain experiences a unique developmental stage. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is implicated in impulse control, may not be fully developed and functional until the early 20s or later, and that’s why they are pro-reaction,” Munyere told the Star.

Evidently, this has been exhibited in cases where the riots and arsons cases ended up fatal, for instance in Moi Girls’ School Nairobi, whose fire left 10 students dead.

The Education ministry and the Kenya National Examinations’ Council have suggested that riots and arsons have been masterminded as retaliation against the government’s crackdown on exam cheating, a policy that came to force way back in 2016.

Most arson cases are set in dormitories, forcing school administrations to send the students home. This gives them some respite from their intensive boarding school lifestyles, one student explains.


The Kenya National Union of Teachers says the riots are a case of students reacting to policy changes, which saw principals transferred from their home counties to serve in other counties.

Speaking to the Star, KNUT secretary general Wilson Sossion said out of the 63 schools that have experienced unrest, 58 had had administrative changes.

Sossion said students and teachers are unhappy with the stringent rules being applied by new principals. He blamed the Teachers Service Commission and the Education ministry for the indiscipline and fires in school.

"The two institutions have mismanaged education and created undue pressure, and the outlet has been the obvious situations we have been witnessing," he said.

Under the programme, the government has posted new principals to schools outside their home areas, much to the displeasure of some residents who want local people to manage schools.

In one incident, students of Ortum High School in West Pokot county went on strike, demanding that the new principal help them cheat in the national examination.

Amina said preliminary investigations indicate that the unrest could be a response to the cancellation of some KCSE examination results last year due to cheating.

She said students could also be resisting the stringent guidelines set out by Knec in the administration of this year’s exams to stamp out cheating.

“The ministry will not be distracted from sealing off all loopholes to ensure the examinations are credible. We are conducting unfettered and impromptu surveillance of all examination centres to monitor the examinations using combined teams of multi-agency government actors,” she said at a press briefing at her Jogoo House office.

She said the ministry supports the Directorate of Criminal Investigations’ decision to criminalise unrest in schools.


Kenya Secondary Schools Heads Association chairperson Indimuli Kahi yesterday said the wave is spurred by incitement from other schools.

“School heads have to be very vigilant because the school fires are caused by small issues affecting students, and you don’t know what will be the next reason students go on the rampage,” Kahi said.

“We propose that if a school has been involved in unrest, it be closed down for three to four days to allow investigation then students go back and learn, to avoid time wasting,” he added.

Kahi said most schools lack preventive measures to curb such incidents, from personnel to equipment, such as CCTV cameras.

“CCTV monitoring needs to be in a focal point, where someone is observing it 24 hours. But in most schools, they are in the principal’s office and he will not be there the whole time. Thus if anything is recorded, it remains as evidence and not preventive measure,” Kahi said.

The National Association of Parents chairman Nicholas Maiyo blamed management of schools for the unrest.

“There are no consultations between principals, students and the parents. Some principals do not want to engage parents early enough to solve conflicts,” he told the Star.

Maiyo further said there is a breakdown in school management-student communication. “Why must parents be involved at the last minute, when the situation has deteriorated, yet they are expected to pay the cost of the unrest in terms of cost of damages?” he asked.

He encouraged schools to adopt an open-door policy, allowing students room for dialogue and ensure students have more freedom in managing their time in school to ease tension.

Former Education CS Jacob Kaimenyi outlawed the administration of any form of mock tests — including those that were being sponsored by politicians — across the country in a bid to contain the unrest in schools.