Mutahi Ngunyi: Why I do not condemn school riots

The riots in our schools must be blamed on poverty and hopelessness. Drugs, Mungiki and the devil have nothing to do with the menace. And to blame it on poor parenting is also pedestrian.

What are my reasons? In my days, we did not burn schools or ask for the principal’s head! We were good students: Not because of the caning, or because of effective parenting. We were good because we had hope.

I KNEW, FOR INSTANCE, THAT if I passed my examinations, I would amount to something. I, therefore, played my head off until the last year of high school. I was always number 38 out of 39. The boy at number 39 became a watchman, but he later started a small security firm.

As for me, I finally got serious with school and made it to the University of Nairobi. Here, we were pampered with ‘‘boom’’ and groomed to become the educated elite. We had four course meals, starting with soup and buns, ending with hot chocolate. For those who drunk, Serena was the place.

And then there was this guy called Abu. The man supplied us with every thing clandestine: from bhang to seditious literature from the Communists! When the administration tried to remove his kiosk, former president Moi had to intervene to save him – or so we believed! After an exciting time at the university, I was posted by the government as a District Officer (DO), given a Land-Rover, a driver, and a policeman with a gun.

This was a kali sana (tough)job, but I could not take it up because the university invited me to do a masters degree and teach at the political science department. My classmate at number 39 and I had realised the Kenyan dream. And what is more: although we were poor, we became something because the system was fair.

CONSIDER THE RIOTING STUDENT now. This guy has no hope, and no probable future. If he is from a poor background, his chances of getting out of the woods are next to zero. More so if attending university is his hope out of poverty

In a class of 50 students, only an average of four will make it to a public university. And of the four, only one will get a decent job. The others will scavenge for decent opportunities until ‘‘Thy Kingdom come!’’

Sad twist

But there is a sad twist for the poor regular student. The guy has to compete with students in the parallel programme. While a regular student is required to take a minimum of four years, it is possible for a parallel student to take a similar course for 2 ½ years.

In the end, the privileged student will be working for one-and-a half years before the regular student can finalise the same course. This is unfair advantage!

But what is the relationship between this and the riots? In my view, we are experiencing a state of social collapse. And the rioting students are just messengers sending us the early warnings. To cane them, jail them and expel their leaders is, therefore, unwise.

INSTEAD OF LASHING OUT AT them, we need to understand their anger. More fundamentally, we need to listen to their inarticulate point of view. In fact, I am persuaded that it has nothing to do with bad food, the fear of mock examinations, and all the excuses being pimped around.

These, in my view, are just the triggers. At the core of the riots is a deep concern for fair justice. And this is subconsciously linked to our politics. Consider a hypothesis with me.
The post-election crisis had two revolts: one from above and one from below.

The revolt from above was about power relations, while the one from below was about distributive justice. When President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga agreed to share power, the revolt from above ended.

THE POLITICAL ELITE WAS HAPPY and so it assumed that the rioting mobs were happy too. Well, they were wrong! The revolt from below had acquired a life of its own. And some of its foot soldiers were the rioting students.

Most of these students were involved in the uprooting of railway lines, and servicing of crude weapons. In the process of this short struggle, they became conscious of what is just and what is not.

Equity and justice

When they went back to school, therefore, they took the struggle with them. Although their riots are expressed as an aggression against the school administration, they have a political connotation.

At the core is a struggle for equity and justice – the ideals they fought for on the streets early in the year. In fact, I am prepared to bet that some teachers identify with this struggle and, if they had a choice, they would burn the schools with the students.

My point? The riots are a political expression of displeasure: a disorganised fight against poverty and inequality!

BUT THERE IS ONE MORE THING. Youth crises of this nature are a cry for help. Our young people are looking for something to believe in; something inspiring. And if they will not get it from our leaders, they will follow a demagogue.

This is what happened in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. And to avoid such a blunder, we must ignore the Education Minister, Prof Sam Ongeri.

This Mzee is old school and minimalist in his approach. What this situation requires is innovation, not condemnation. And this is why Mr Odinga should intervene. By the way, when will Mr Odinga stop travelling and start supervising these unimaginative ministers?

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