On that fateful night, a loud explosion shook the roof of my campus room at around 3am. I quickly sprang out of bed and made a bee-line for the corridors where everyone was running helter skelter.
As I reached the stair case i called out for my friends George Ogola, Allan Tollo, @Edwin Kibicho and @David Aura to find if they were safe. On way out we decided to go check what was happening on the sixth floor. On reaching room 619, Solomon Muruli was in a huge inferno with the door ripped apart. His body was in an almost kneeling position and smouldering red. Shocked, others fainted. It was pandemonium. See, my room 419 was two floor directly under Muruli’s 619, so the explosion shook us to the core. These two rooms alongside 219, 319 and 519 were reserved for us student leaders. Soon campus security arrived to evacuate everyone before the police arrived at the scene. This time, what remained of Muruli body was agonisingly almost a skeletal stump. It was really sad to see, a mate we had contested an election with die so mysteriously.
See, I had ran for Chairmanship, but when my mother heard that I was involved in student politics, she arrived pronto and read yours truly the riot act. I was stopped on my tracks. However, I was still regarded as campus leader among my peers. So, staying in that room, I could sometimes get weird knocks at night. Other days unknown people would come in pretext of looking for their kin.
I knew, I was under watch of the state. I decided to disguise myself and offered entertainment services in my room like movies. This could make my room busy with other students to avoid being cornered. Other days George Ogola and friends would stay overnight, and thus better cover. So, when my friend @George Muruli, then working at British Council came for his brother’s body, he told me to take care of myself.
See, I had been part of the editorial Campus wall newspaper that was critical to the establishment, run by George Ogola. Things were tough, but we survived. But many colleagues did not. Those ahead of us like Wafula Buke were detained. The immediate ODM executive and former Sonu supremo @Wafula Buke, reign lasted nine days.
This is not a political post but a recollection on student leadership and especially Sonu. It is skewed towards mostly the selfless leaders who believed in a just cause. See, during my formative years at the University of Nairobi, I played a critical role in rebirth of Sonu. Subsequently I helped hoist Sonu 98 first chairman, comrade Moses Oburu.
The government had banned Sonu and refused to register it in its original name. So, I threw my weight behind Moses Oburu who was a sober and strategic leader. But university was teeming with political discourse.
The painful death of firebrand leader Muruli seemed to have inspired more students into leadership. From the halls of residence of Main Campus appeared the legendary Christopher Owiro aka Karl Marx. As a student, his hostel room door was inscribed: “This is the graveyard of Karl Marx.” The man Christopher Owiro aka Karl Marx was a paradox. Whereas he dined with the rich and mighty,he loved the poor, mostly his fellow students, some of whom he time and again rescued from social joints in town whenever they failed to pay for their froth.
Dark, unrefined, with a missing tooth, his deep convictions about life, his philosophical thoughts, his unwavering spirit and the way he married words with wit of the garb made him perhaps arguably one of the most powerful student leaders of his time. He had 13 straight A’s in both first and second years studying Mathematics and Chemistry. He later went on to study Actuarial Science in post-graduate before alcohol took toll on him. With no government or private institution ready to employ the philosophical Karl Marx life became a living hell. The bad political system revenged, destroyed and took him to the grave, just like the inscription on his hostel door.
And if the case of Karl Marx was sad then Tito Adungosi died a martyr. The aftermath of 1982 attempted coup was bad for student leaders. Most were rounded up and framed with fake charges. And that’s what befell the first SONU chair. His death in prison still remains a mystery. Adungosi’s father the late Mzee Longinus Adungosi had three wives with a total of twenty children. His father was a farmer and grew banana which Titus Adungosi’s mother Marciliana Nyabole used to sell to pay their school fees. Apart from raising fee by selling banana she also used to make beer.
Others rounded with Adungosi were Mwakdua wa Mwachofi, Ken Sagala, Evans Vitisia, Onyango CA, Jeff Mwangi Kwirikia, David Murathe, Ciira Wabere, Kirimaina, Ongele Opala, Richard Momoima Onyonka, Philip Murgor, Wahinya Boore , Thomas Mutus, JJ Ouma, Kibisu Kabatesi, Njuguna Mutonya, Francis Kinyua, Omondi Oludhe, Muga K’Olale , Wahinya Bore, Paddy Onyango, Joseph Hongo, Maurice Adongo Ogony, Onyango C. A., Oginga Ogego, Francis Kinyua, Thomas Mutuse and Johnstone Simiyu among many others. They were holed Kamiti prison Block D, which gained the name a ‘revolutionary campus’.
“The most memorable of the student trials was that of a University of Nairobi freshman Onyango Oloo, who eventually defended himself in court, having rejected plea bargains for a short sentence from his attorney Richard Kwach on the principled bases that he was not guilty of any crime. Sixty-seven other students were held in remand prison from August 1982 until March 1983,” the book Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa notes.
Then emerged Mwandawiro Mghanga! A story is told of how on February 10, 1985, he inspected a guard of honour mounted by students at UoN. Those days, it was mandatory for post-high school students to go through National Youth Service training before joining public universities, and they happily paraded on the university sports field for the occasion.
The aftermath of the incident was deadly. Armed General Service Unit officers stormed the university grounds killing student Joseph Wandera and injuring more than 50 students. Mghanga, alongside five other students, were promptly charged with convening and attending an illegal meeting. He was jailed for one year and the others were fined.
Soon Wafula Buke found himself in the Sonu hotseat. He was eventually elected chairman on November 4, 1987. Buke took the university’s authorities head on, accusing them of stifling debate by barring some personalities from speaking in the University. This was after the reign of system apologist PLO Lumumba as Sonu leader. Lumumba had only invited pro-state leaders and Buke wanted change and institution’s autonomy. A confrontation ensued and Buke was arrested and charged with spying for Libya and jailed for five years.
But the Sonu leader that captured the imagination of students was the unassuming and hard-as-nails Karimi Nduthu. The student leader lived away from media glare but was not apologetic. When arrested for involvement in Mwakenya movement he thundered in court, “”Jail me if you like,” he said “But change, like death, is inevitable.”
The book, Karimi Nduthu: A Life in the Struggle, released by the Mau Mau Research Centre is good start for any reader who needs to understand this leader. During his prison time at Naivasha Maximum Security Prison alongside fellow student leaders Tirop Kitur and Kang’ethe Mungai they made friends with such other dissident Maina wa Kinyatti. The likes of Isaac Rutto escaped with the skin of their teeth as Miguna Miguna fled.
Much later in 2000s emerged the mercurial Oulu GPO. Oulu, fondly referred to by all as GPO, was a young man who lived and breathed with a fierce passion for his country. The incoming Sonu vice chair teamed with Oscar Kingara of Oscar Foundation and tirelessly defended the rights of those denied justice, gave a voice to the voiceless. And the government became jittery with their quest for truth. They were gunned down driving along Mamlaka Road in traffic jam in broad daylight.
But the signs of political awareness and activism had emerged in 1969 at the university (then known as the University of East Africa), when the Government barred Jaramogi Oginga Odinga from speaking on campus. What followed were demonstrations and boycott of classes.
The university was closed and students were asked to reapply as well as sign apology letters for “disobeying the Government”. Three years later, in 1972, a campus publication, University Platform, was closed and its editors, including the fiery Chelagat Mutai, expelled.
However, it was the assassination of Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki in 1975 that saw radicalism in universities take a new turn. Kariuki was idolised for his defence of the poor and criticism of Government.
“A generation of elites was being radicalised,” writes Charles Hornsby in Kenya: A History since Independence.
Theirs became a story of honour, bravery, betrayal, murder , protest, and triumph. Two decades later, one student leader was brutally murdered by suspected state agents.
Among those who eulogised Kariuki at his burial was Wanyiri Kihoro, then a student whose criticism of Government would later see him detained. Kihoro would later be arrested and held against the law for 73 hours before being hauled to court.
Inspired by socialist ideologies, lecturers at the university would soon suck students into the fight for human rights and democracy.
The government responded with a heavy hand. Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who chaired University of Nairobi’s literature department, was detained in 1978 for his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda.
A series of ominous events followed in 1979 and 1980, as the Government banned the Student’s Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu) and the Academic Staff Union. The institution was also closed as more protests ensued, including those demanding that wa Thiong’o be reinstated.
Riots erupted as the university’s administration would not let speakers from outside engage students in debates on campus. Then the State seized the passports of lecturers including Atieno Odhiambo, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Micere Mugo, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Okoth Ogendo and Gutto, who were seen as radicals.
When the University of Nairobi’s Department of Architecture decided to fail and discontinue all of its final students in 1974, many students were angry. None of the students was angrier than James Aggrey Orengo, the then Chairman of the powerful University of Nairobi students’ union. No single student had passed the final exams in the Architectural department that was by then controlled firmly by Asian and European students and staff.
James Orengo felt that there was some kind of racism in the department of Architecture as there was always a ploy to control the number of qualified Architects in the country. With the vibrant leadership of James Orengo, the entire university went on strike. The case of the discontinued students was reviewed and the UoN department of Architecture was wrestled away from the shackles of racism. Due to his selfless service to comrades and to kenyans during his student days, Orengo was elected as an MP for Siaya County’s Ugenya Constituency in a by-election in 1980. He became the youngest MP, at age 29.
But that’s not all, there was also Ken Obura, Mbara ka Mbara, Thomas Mbewa, Ngatia, Joseph Kioko, Karieri wa Karieri (a story for another day), Jeff Makeke, Cyprian Nyamwamu, Simba Arati, Fwamba NC Fwamba, Jeff Nyamboga, Ken Orengo, Ngaruiya KJ and Irungu Kangata among others. Later emerged Babu Owino and David Osiany. Other notable leaders in student movement include Gladys Wanga (KU), Ababu Namwamba, Johnson Sakaja, Hassan Omar (Moi), Suba Churchill (Egerton), and Martha Wangari!
So, we survived. To cut the long story short, we been to the furnace before!