Many universities around the world welcomed their new students for the 2017-2018 academic year in recent weeks.
I watched many proud parents bring their eager and hopeful young adults to start life away from home at the University of Cambridge.
It reminded me of my own experience when I joined the University of Nairobi as an undergraduate student. It was the first time I would live away from the scrutiny of my parents, neighbours and relatives.
I was eager, hopeful about the future and full of promise. I see the same excitement and promise when I mingle with the freshers who I now envy with their energy and eagerness.
Earlier in September, the University of Nairobi, my alma mater, also welcomed most of its new students for the 2017/2018 academic year. In his welcome speech, Vice- Chancellor Mbithi promised the freshers that the university offered a space for their dreams to be realised, telling them that if they dream big, they would reap big.
He urged them to make the right choices and not to settle for less in a world full of opportunities.
The situation last week at the University of Nairobi challenges the very argument the Vice-Chancellor was making about the university as a safe space where students can dream big.
Recently, police used excessive force on innocent students in the halls of residence to end protests over the arrest of a former student leader and current Embakasi East MP Paul Ongili aka Babu Owino.
I understand the university authorities’ anxiety over what a Babu Owino protest could become, especially given the political economy of big money and politics that the MP created while he was a student leader — which also eroded the idea of the university as a safe space.
But inviting police officers to end a protest inside the university without supervising them is inviting them to violate students indiscriminately. The entry of armed GSU officers in the halls of residence to end protests should be the last resort. The Vice-Chancellor could have employed many other strategies from dialogue with all sides and working with security officers to accompany peaceful demonstrators to their destination. The tweet from the Vice-Chancellor soon after the violence asking the students to maintain their peace and not to provoke the police indirectly glorified the police actions.
Violence is endemic in Kenya
I strongly condemn such uncouth, unethical and barbaric acts advanced by the government.
It is illegal to have police officers access student premises devoid of clearance by the university’s stakeholders/Senate, or the Chief Security Officer.
The shocking video footage of students scampering for safety in the hands of GSU officers who seemed to be enjoying harassing them speaks to a deeper issue beyond the protest.
It shows how we have normalised violence. Many Kenyan men and some women who went to public school speak about their bullying experiences known as “monolisation” by older bullies with an uncomfortable laughter which they use to mask the pain and trauma from those humiliating assaults on their dignity at a young age. Bullying, a form of emotional violence, is normalised in Kenyan schools.
The wounded and traumatised students from bullying in high school then graduate to join the university where the promise of freedom away from the bullies beckons.
Just as they had begun settling into the carefree life, police break in after a protest some students did not even know about and beat them up as they watch helplessness. This further traumatises students by reminding them of the high school bullies that crushed their fragile sense of self.
The university is also the first space where younger women and men are sexually assaulted for the first time by their colleagues or outsiders.
Going to university in Kenya still offers opportunity for social mobility in spite of the high unemployment rate.
The police recruits, who are often the same age as university students, are perceived to be against students based on a long history of antagonistic relationships between the students and security forces.
The police seem to see the students as representing their broken dreams and aspirations. The university and other tertiary institutions should be protected as safe spaces for dreaming, learning, enjoying new-found freedom, growing up and just being away from home and without scrutiny. A safe space where budding ideas, however ridiculous, are nurtured and supported.
A space that allows us to make mistakes before we can go out to the increasingly competitive and nasty world.
We must stop this culture of violating young people in education institutions. President Kenyatta, education officials and the institution heads should care for Kenya’s youth.
The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge’s Politics Department. @ njokiwamai