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By Brian Mukulu

A student taunts riot police after lighting a road barricade , in Nairobi in June, 2002. Photo by George MulalaThis is a dilemma that often faces most of Kenya’s college and high school students. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the frequency of student riots all over the country. The local media has been awash with scenes of rampaging youth who destroy anything that is unfortunate enough to be in their path. In some cases, such scenes have ended up in tragedy with the police being called in to quell the riots. As a result, a few students have been killed. But why do they do this? Perhaps my experience as a student may help to understand.

My first rude introduction to the student riot phenomenon, took place during my first year at the university. It was around that time that the government planned to introduce stricter controls on loan disbursements to students. Needless to say, this didn’t go down too well with most of us. Something had to be done. Efforts by the student leaders to present their grievances to the government proved futile. The administration was unwilling to help.

So, our leaders decided to organise a “peaceful” demonstration - they always start out as peaceful. So a Kamukunji - a slang Swahili word for an informal meeting - had to take place to gather enough ground troops. They quickly mobilised a few of our colleagues and ran to all the classes and halls of residence, urging everyone to go and “peacefully” demonstrate for their rights to be heard.

To help in attracting attention, whistles were blown as the demonstration organisers shouted at the top of their voices. Woe unto you if you dared ignore them. Our lecturers had to dismiss us. Meanwhile those in the halls of residence, either because of curiosity or out of fear, had to bring to an abrupt stop whatever they were doing. Whether we liked it or not, we were going to attend the Kamukunji!

At the Kamukunji, we were all urged to go and fight for our rights. We, the intellectual crème-dela-crème did not deserve to be treated this way. How dare they introduce controls on tertiary education loans. Tempers were now rising to fever pitch.

However, after going to such extraordinary lengths of trying to convince us, only a few of enlisted for the demonstration. It would later prove to be a costly mistake for some. Destination? Thika Road.

It was a cold drizzly morning. However, this did not deter the students. Amid chants of “Comrade Power!” they confidently marched onto the busy Thika Road and sat on the road. At this point, the police from there nearby Juja police station were called into action. What had initially started out as a peaceful protest broke out into pandemonium.

With the police failing to convince the students to get off the road, Thika Road had now turned into a battle field. The police started by firing tear gas at the students; they replied by hurling back stones and anything they could lay their hands on. The tear gas canisters did not have the desired effect as the cold wind blew the gas towards the police. Meanwhile, some of them had gone ahead and looted a few of the neighbouring business premises. A garage was torched, with goods worth millions of shillings going up in smoke. The boys in blue had to take drastic action. The tear gas was not working. More reinforcements had to be sent in. They charged down the students mercilessly with their whips and buttons. Rubber bullets were fired. This proved the turning point of the battle.

Later, as we were to count the cost, three students had suffered severely from gunshot wounds. However, most had escaped unharmed. Amazingly, some came back and recounted to us their experience on the battle front with glee. It was as if this was a game for them. Some did regret what had happened. They did not support the violent turn the demonstration had taken. Nevertheless, they felt that they needed to stand up for their rights. Peer pressure had also come into play as some of my friends did not want to let down their comrades. A friend of mine told me how he felt like something else had taken over his body and mind. A euphoric feeling. He found himself becoming a totally different person during the riot.

I then found myself asking the question, did this have to happen? With a little more dialogue, the pain and suffering would have been avoided. Surely there are more peaceful ways to sort out our differences. Even if dialogue fails, violence should never be considered as an option. Sadly, student riots appear to be here to stay.

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