Kenyan students go on rampage

January 5, 1996

Kenyatta University closed indefinitely late last year following riots. More than 5,000 students went on the rampage for two consecutive days, raiding kitchens and damaging property. There were unconfirmed reports that attempts had been made to dynamite senior academics' offices.

The unrest occurred only 12 days after the university opened for the 1995/96 academic year. The riots were triggered by complaints over a new loans scheme, food prices and accommodation.

The students beat junior staff and threatened to burn offices before police and paramilitary units managed to quell the riots. The university is the largest teacher-education institution in the country with places for 6,000 students.

The police also arrested five members of the unregistered Safina political party the same day the university was closed. The five had gone to seek talks with George Eshiwani, university vice chancellor, on the unrest.

But Professor Eshiwani has denied that the arrest of the human rights activists had anything to do with the riots or the closure of the university. The five have since appeared before a magistrate's court in Nairobi charged with incitement. Their case was postponed to this month.

Professor Eshiwani also denied the riots were sparked by food and accommodation issues. He says students just wanted to cause chaos. "The mission of this university had little to do with food and accommodation," he said when asked about the issues that led to the closure. "This is politically motivated and has nothing to do with adverse food and accommodation," he said.

But he accused some students of trying to dynamite offices belonging to senior academic staff. This allegation was not confirmed by police.

But many questions about how new loans were disbursed to students remain unanswered.

Discontent springs from how the higher education loans board disbursed funds. Many students have been denied loans for no apparent reasons. But the board claims many students lied when making applications.

Some students from rich families have been awarded loans and bursaries, while poor students have not been given the loans.

Opposition politicians accused the government of sidelining students from opposition zones. They alleged that students from particular ethnic groups that give support to opposition political parties have not been given loans.

In response to those charges, the board announced that students who have not been given loans or bursaries will be allowed to appeal. But such appeals are likely to take a considerable time as the board has insufficient staff to deal with processing the applications.

Starting from this academic year, the students have to pay about Pounds 700 in fees, compared with about Pounds 70 in the past, to the public universities. This money either will be paid directly by the students without loans or students will have to apply for loans from the higher education loans board. So far, the board has awarded about Pounds 7 million to 30,000 students.

The board has yet to explain why some students from poor backgrounds have not benefited from the government loans. The board is also being accused of neglecting to set up bursaries to cater for talented students in sciences and technology.

Statistics indicate that ordinary workers and farmers are not able to educate their children in public universities without government support. The average annual income for a Kenyan is about Pounds 150. But even after obtaining the maximum loan of Pounds 500, each student will be expected to pay Pounds 200, possibly forcing many to drop out from college. This trend is being reflected in admissions to the universities.

Since Kenyatta University closed, students in other state universities, notably Egerton, Nairobi, Moi and Jomo Kenyatta, have been complaining of highhandedness by the authorities. Some have alleged that universities have raised food prices without improving what is on offer.

Contrary to the government aims of silently introducing full cost recovery in higher education - a policy urged by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - the current issues have raised the agenda onto the public platform. The loans board will have to show it is not just another governmental body distributing funds to well-connected students but a national organisation that is fair and committed to the development of higher education. It will also be vital for the board to show it was not being manipulated by politicians.

Professor Eshiwani has appointed an advisory committee to investigate what triggered the riots at Kenyatta. The university has not announced when it will re-open but it is expected to be early this year.

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