Fears of a violent confrontation between two camps allied to the country’s rival political formations on Tuesday led to the indefinite closure of the University of Nairobi.
Interviews with the rival camps and students revealed deeply-entrenched divisions in the institution with fears that the current political situation in the country had found its way to the university, threatening a deadly confrontation.
The closure was a culmination of running battles pitting the police and the students over what the latter termed use of excessive force on those who were protesting the arrest of former student leader and Embakasi East MP Paul Ongili alias Babu Owino on Thursday last week.
But at the heart of the demos last week, and a fresh one that had been organised for Tuesday, it seems, is a growing case of national politics finding its way into the top institution and threatening learning.
On Tuesday, the political differences were eminent amongst the students after they were sent home, with some almost exchanging blows at the School of Law, Parkland Campus.
“We condemn any outside interference in the affairs of our university. Independent Police Oversight Authority (Ipoa) is investigating the matter, and we hope for a speedy conclusion. In the meantime, comrades should remain calm,” Simon Muigai, the outgoing Sonu legal affairs secretary, said.
He added: “We may have internal differences between the university and the students, but that does not warrant interference by outside forces.”
Besides the political differences, the top institution is still facing a crisis over the holding of student leadership elections, with the issue splitting the two camps down the middle.
This led to the emergence of two factions: The former Student Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu) who claim to be legally in office and a group of aspiring student leaders claiming to represent a majority of students.
Further, a move by the university administration to appoint an 18-member caretaker committee after the Sonu elections failed to take place has caused further friction at the institution.
The two rival factions organised separate press conferences, accusing each other of being used by politicians.
The group of aspiring Sonu leaders led by Rony Mamba dismissed the caretaker committee as “puppets” of the university.
Some students who spoke to the Nation after the school was closed complained about the decision by the university Senate to close the campus.
“Some of us are working on our dissertations and we want to finish our studies.
“We were affected by the lecturers’ strike and the General Election. We can’t afford to waste more time,” Fabian Oriri, a fourth year law student at Parklands campus, said.
The closure of the university comes in the wake of last week’s protest by students, which left 27 of them injured.
Police had raided the Nairobi campus to quell the protests and were accused of not only beating up students but also demanding money before releasing them.
On Tuesday, Ipoa urged students to record statements at their offices at the ACK Garden Annex along Ngong 1ST Avenue.
“Recording these statements will assist in fast-tracking the investigations,” Ipoa chief executive Joel Mabonga said in a statement.
One faction at the university is advocating demonstrations to remove Vice-Chancellor Peter Mbithi from office while another is seeking a resolution of their grievances through dialogue.
But even as the two groups differed on Prof Mbithi’s fate, they both condemned the police brutality meted out on students.
Officials of the caretaker committee were unavailable for comment.
Additional reporting by Stella Cherono
Varsity officials cite security concerns.