Youth power too has a dark underbelly, as does most political life in East Africa

Thursday October 25 2018

Babu Owino, upon entering national politics, ditched Sonu on May 1, 2017. He once declared he was not the Robert Mugabe of the university – but history will say different.


There was a time in our history when university students held the country in the palm of their hands. With their zeal and energy, they could bring the capital city to a grinding halt.

They were not protesting because they were supporting some sycophant university student leader whose rightful place is in a jail cell, they were amplifying the pangs and toils of a nation. Questioning leaders and holding them accountable to promises they once made.

There was also a time in our history when sedition was the law of the land, and reading certain books as a university student could get you arrested. A time when university students went missing or were found murdered. It was a time filled with fear.

Still, one thing stands clearly from our history: University students had a lot of power. They were always being courted to support particular politicians and compensated with money, power and respect: Their power was so great that it was not surprising to see the majority of student leaders land political positions.

The Students Organisation of Nairobi University, Sonu, was established in 1982 as a central body representing University of Nairobi students. The first chairman was Tito Adungosi, an undergraduate with acclaimed oratory skills.

Adungosi was outspoken and several viewed him as radical, so he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for sedition on September 24, 1982, soon after the failed military coup of August 1. Adungosi died in prison under mysterious circumstances on December 27, 1988.


A generation and more later, we witnessed another leader coming to the forefront. Babu Owino, whose real name is Paul Ogili, had held the post of chairman of Sonu since 2011. His last election in 2016 turned chaotic after his closest rival Mike Jacobs disputed the results.

I remember seeing posts on Facebook of his shambolic swearing-in ceremony on a weekend, late in the afternoon with none of his voters present.

Babu, upon entering national politics, ditched Sonu on May 1, 2017. He once declared he was not the Robert Mugabe of the university – but history will say different.

His departure paved the way for change. The Universities Amendment Act 2016 was enacted, changing the student leadership structure and election process. The Act disqualifies a student council member from serving more than two terms. This means that a student leader will only serve for a year and be eligible for re-election just once – thus serving a total of two years maximum.

It also changed the system of voting, as no longer would students be able to vote directly for their leader in a one-man one-vote process. There was an uproar and students from across the country came together and tried to fight this law. The biggest issue for the leaders was the stipulation that student elections would now be determined by an electoral college, made up of representatives from individual schools or campuses.

Now, Ugandan lawmaker Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, who has become quite popular for standing up against President Yoweri Museveni, was in Kenya recently to popularise the “Youth for Africa Movement”.

I could not help but cringe to see the people surrounding him on his tour of Nairobi.

It was difficult enough watching a late-night talk show where Babu Owino sat next to Bobi Wine and proclaimed how he had done so much for young people, and that in many ways they were fighting for the same things. Perhaps Bobi Wine is not aware that Babu has created more obstacles for young people than bridges.

We need to recognise that whatever happens in our universities, it is only a matter of time before it comes into national politics.

This is because these youth are very same ones who dream of ascending to political leadership. The campuses are their breeding ground.

Not only that, the way elections were conducted for Sonu was a replica of how our elections are run at the national level, replete with voter bribery, intimidation, murder, voting in tribal blocs, corruption, vote rigging.

The Universities Act was, perhaps, preparing the youth for the prime minister’s position, as in most parliamentary democracies, the prime minister is chosen from the political party that commands the majority of seats in the lower House of parliament. So, a new kind of breeding ground?

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director of Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW