Kenya Boilover Began With Simmering Students
Monday's clash was preceded by a long rebellion sparked by tuition, loan dispute
On a Saturday morning in June, Damaris Magnange woke up choking on the noxious fumes of a tear-gas bomb. She pulled on some clothes and stumbled out of the women's dormitory at Nairobi University.
"I had stayed up late ... but even in my morning daze, I knew it was the police," she recalls.
She was right. More than 100 policemen in riot gear had sealed off part of the campus and were pelting it with tear-gas grenades. Ms. Magnange wasted no time filling a plastic bag with water and picking up a few stones on her way to the police line.
For six hours that day, she doused tear-gas bombs with water as they hit the ground around her.
For months, a student movement - initially sparked by tuition hikes but which has grown increasingly political - has rumbled along at Nairobi, Egerton, and Kenyatta Universities. The movement marked the only visible dissent aside from a squabbling, bitterly divided political opposition to the 20-year rule of Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi. His hard-line stand against a multiparty system and history of crushing protests have drawn international criticism.
On Monday, riot police clashed with demonstrators across Kenya who are pressing for constitutional, legal, and administrative reforms. At least seven people were killed.
The radicalization of Kenyan students mainly in the capital, joined in recent protests by other Kenyans, poses an obstacle to Mr. Moi's bid for reelection. Moi is bound by the Constitution to call presidential elections no later than February 1998.
In Magnange's case last month, the police offensive had come minutes after a politically charged rally by opposition parties degenerated into mayhem.
Student participation in the rally - explicitly forbidden by Moi - was heavy. The declared objective of the police was to catch student looters. The real objective, students say, was to punish the student body for its increasingly activist stance.
Moi's ruling Kenya African National Union Party has been busy trying to garner the two-thirds parliamentary majority it needs to alter the Constitution and scrap a provision preventing Moi from seeking a sixth term. It has redrawn constituency borders toward achieving that goal.
It has also come down hard on students, disbanding the student council at Nairobi University, banning its student newspaper, and suspending academic activity for months at a time.
The latest campus closure came in late February in response to violent protests following the death of Solomon Muruli, a student leader killed in a fire that swept through his dorm room after a mysterious explosion. Last December, Mr. Muruli was abducted and tortured for five days. "When he came around, he said it had been the police," says Paul Okong'o, a student leader.
No evidence has emerged to confirm the student's suspicions that Muruli was killed by police.
"I can understand the students, but let's be real: Why would the government want to kill a kid?" argues a Western source with connections to the government. "People in the government are not dumb. They know they'd be the first to get blamed."
But a government inquiry has produced no evidence in support of a suicide theory put forth by police. Whether accidental or premeditated, the death of Muruli constituted a turning point in the students' struggle.
"Kenyans are essentially apolitical," says Vivienne, a leader of the main women's group on campus, who asked not to be further identified. "Before Muruli's death, many [students] were saying, 'Let's just finish our exams and get on with it.' Now they are saying: 'This is unacceptable. We have to fight.' "
When the protests first started a year ago, they had little to do with politics. Students took to the streets against a drastic hike in tuition fees and perceived discrimination in the allotment of student loans, which seemed to favor members of Moi's Kalenjin tribe.
Government brutality appears to have escalted the conflict. While Muruli's death remains a mystery, three other students at Kenyatta and Egerton Universities were shot by the police between December and March.
"The crazy thing was that Kenneth Mukabi and Eric Kamundi, the two students killed at Kenyatta University, were ... randomly shot when the police stormed the campus after a student protest," says Okong'o. "They died with their history books in their arms."