In May 2010 the University of Nairobi in Kenya closed down indefinitely after violent unrest and looting in the streets by students over disputed student elections. The disturbances were allegedly caused by external interference of local politicians in the students’ elections. A year earlier, in March 2009, it was Kenyatta University, also in Nairobi, which closed down after students’ protest over the set deadline for examination registration. The incidents resulted in one student dead and serious destruction to university property. Student unrest and rioting, leading to closure of several campuses, also occurred in Kenya during 2007/2008 in the wake of the disputed presidential elections.
Kenya is but one of the many African countries that have had to deal with university student unrest. South Africa and Nigeria, among others, have also had their fair share in recent years. Student unrest is of course not a new phenomenon in Africa; it goes back to the late 1960’s and 1970’s, at the time when universities were being established following independence from Europe. But the campus environment today is very different from that a few decades ago.
First, the student numbers are far greater. Previously an African university would have a couple of thousand of students; now most universities have tens of thousands of students, so the disturbances have more serious consequences. Second, the existing campus infrastructures, including student residences, lecture halls, libraries, etc., have not generally expanded to cope with the increasing student population, leading to greater frustrations and complaints from students. Third, the student profiles have changed. Previously universities would admit a few students from the more socially advantaged urban population. Now, with efforts to increase access to higher education, universities admit a greater mix of students from different social and ethnic strata, as well as from the rural areas, thus increasing the possibilities of tensions among students. Fourth, a significant number of students now have to pay tuition fees, so they are more demanding and want their money’s worth. Fifth,
technology, in particular mobile telephony, has increased the ease of communication among students, making it possible to better organise their protest for maximum impact. Finally, many of the former student leaders, and even faculty, now occupy influential political positions which they tend to use to their political advantage.
It is therefore not surprising to continually hear of student unrest on African campuses. Such unrests of course occur in other regions of the world as well – in particular Asia and Latin America, but even Europe. However, the long term impact of student unrest on Africa is particularly disturbing. African universities, after years of neglect and under-funding, are undergoing a major revitalization process with international support. They can ill afford the set-backs caused by campus destruction and closures. Africa right now needs vibrant and dynamic universities producing graduates and undertaking research to assist in the continent’s much-needed development drive.
So what can be done? One should first recognise that universities are a reflection of the social and political society in which they are located. There are perhaps two major factors causing student unrest – internal and external, although it can be argued that one invariably leads to the other. The internal factors result from poor living conditions, protest over examinations, tribal or ethnic differences, dissatisfaction with administration, etc.
Here, African universities can learn from other parts of the world. Since the mid-1960’s almost all US universities and colleges appoint a ‘Campus Ombudsman’, a respected external personality who listens to students’ grievances and attempts to resolve a problem before it bursts into a major crisis. In the UK, since 2004, the Government has appointed an ‘Independent Adjudicator’ to deal with complaints from university students. Other countries must have tried similar preventive measures and these could be emulated in Africa. African universities need also to review their governance structures to ensure participation of students in their various decision-making bodies, and to create appropriate communication channels between administration and students.
Dealing with the external cause of student unrest, in almost all cases resulting from political interference, is more complex as it goes beyond the campus. Here governments must realise that it is in the long-term interest of their respective country to have universities that are autonomous with no political interference, be it at administration or student level, and they should take appropriate steps in revising the governing statutes of universities to make this effective.
Once major student unrest has occurred on campus, university leaders must apply all the skills of conflict resolution and management to limit the damages and to bring the unrest to a quick resolution. Several universities in Africa run programs on conflict resolution to promote peace in their country. They need to adopt a similar approach to resolve campus crises of their own institution and of others on the continent.
The topic of student unrest should perhaps be one to be addressed urgently by the newly created Pan-African Institute of University Governance in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities, the former President of the International Association of Universities and the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is currently a member of the governing Council of the United Nations University.