UoN student leadership today a shadow of Sonu

It was changed to tame rampant student riots, hooliganism, thuggery and violence

In Summary

• Trade CAS David Osiany headed Sonu before Embakasi East MP Babu Owino's reign

• It was replaced by UNSA, enabling varsity management to weed out 'radical' elements

Students at the University of Nairobi
Students at the University of Nairobi
Image: UoN

Student politics in the University of Nairobi has changed a lot since the days of David Osiany. The Trade CAS once chaired the Student Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu). He was succeeded by Babu Owino, now the Embakasi East MP.

He says the reconfiguration of student leadership diminished its influence on major issues that had propelled it to national prominence. It used to be the popularly elected Sonu but later became the delegate-chosen University of Nairobi Students Association (UNSA), following legislation that sought to tame student strikes. 

Sonu’s politics for decades had been fiery and had a direct linkage with national affairs, such that whenever there was a sneeze in the national political landscape, Sonu would catch a cold. 

For example, as early as 1975, when politician JM Kariuki got murdered in mysterious circumstances, Sonu, then led by politicians Wanyiri Kihoro and James Orengo, mobilised students to the streets in mass protest, leading to a rampage. Then-President Jomo Kenyatta responded by banning Sonu altogether.

In 1982, in the aftermath of the failed coup against the Daniel Moi government, senior Sonu leaders, including its chairman Tito Adungosi, were arrested and charged with sedition. The firebrand Adungosi was quickly convicted and sentenced to 10 years behind bars. He died mysteriously, with vicious torture suspected.

After the aborted coup, the Moi government continued to act tough on student leaders and lecturers because they were suspected to be inciters against his regime.

In 1987, the then chairman of Sonu, Wafula Buke, was detained on suspicion of spying for the Libyan government, which by then was at loggerheads with the Moi regime. Buke was later imprisoned but got released after the introduction of multiparty politics in the early 90s.

Other past leaders of Sonu who later got to national renown include Paddy Onyango (1982), Rateng’ Ogego (1982), Mwendawiro Mganga (1985), Miguna Miguna (1987) and Kabando wa Kabando (1992).

Sonu was changed to UNSA through the Universities (Amendment) Act 2016. The changes were undertaken when Prof Peter Mbithi was the vice chancellor in a bid to tame rampant student riots, hooliganism, thuggery and violence.

The rioting students protesting a myriad of grievances from time to time would destroy property, burn hostels and stone vehicles, especially along lower State House Road and University Way.

The law change gave the university management a hand in shepherding the election of the student leaders and weeding out those deemed too radical.

Speaking during a retreat for new UNSA leaders in 2018, Mbithi said a radical shift in the student leadership culture was critical to ensuring students become well guided in terms of character and attitude.

“True education doesn’t consist of acquiring a few facts, but the development of character and dignity,” he told them.

Osiany, however, feels the change in approach has prevented student leaders from taking a firm stand on issues that have a close nexus to national discourse. UNSA is currently led by Eddie Mwendwa, who got elected in November last year.

What is UNSA? Who are the leaders? And what do they stand for? It is not even close to the rigour with which Sonu conducted itself,” Osiany said.

Our leadership was a movement with people from all ethnic groups of Kenya. For you to be elected, you had to be able to demonstrate leadership, character and earn the trust of everybody,” Osiany said.

He says the enhanced influence of the university management in the affairs of the student body and the electoral process ensured only “user-friendly leaders emerged”.

Edited by T Jalio