Student movements in many African countries have historically confronted contradictions of colonial and post-colonial rule. In Kenya, these movements sent generations of young people into the streets, underground, into exile or death. Isaac Otidi Amuke retraces heady years of involvement in student politics, and the rise and fall of arguably the most renowned activist at the University of Nairobi.
“Do not take part in student politics.” This was a piece of advice given to every Kenyan freshman by family members before reporting to university. If, like most of us, you came from a not so well-to-do economic background, you were reminded that, should one be kicked out for engaging in activism, only the children of the rich had alternatives, like being shipped overseas to complete their studies. Under no circumstances were we, the sons and daughters of peasants, to partake in troublemaking. We were to remember where we came from, the suffering we had left behind. We were not at the university for our own sakes but for the sakes of many others. This narrative was well perfected, and was repeated over and over.
In my case, I had once tried engaging my father in conversation about Tito Adungosi, a former president of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU), who had been jailed after the 1982 attempted coup d’etat by a section of disgruntled Kenya Air Force privates. He had died in 1988, a few days before his rumoured release date. Adungosi, an Iteso like me from a little-known corner of Kenya, was the closest I got to visualising University of Nairobi radicals at whose feet I worshipped since I was a kid. My father told me Tito had been trouble, a lot of trouble. But he didn’t know why I was asking. A few years later, my brother’s boss, an engineer, who had been at the university with Adungosi, warned me against doing student politics, telling me that Adungosi was a fine orator, but would have done better to liberate his mother’s homestead from grass thatched houses before he opened his mouth to speak. Children of the poor need not speak truth to power. Adungosi died in prison. His mother couldn’t transport his body to his village in Teso because of the stigma surrounding his death, and the fear of repercussions from a paranoid state. Adungosi’s case remained the perfect cautionary tale for freshmen: stay out of student politics or you’ll simply cause your mother untold pain and suffering.
I joined the University of Nairobi reluctantly in November 2004. I had been convinced that I didn’t need a university education, and had settled into a life of hustling, selling high-end jewellery from dubious sources to clients sourced by my friend Cee, who had attended almost half the private schools in Nairobi, and who knew who had money to throw around. With Cee, nothing was too expensive to sell and no price was too high to quote.
My dreams of walking the grounds of the University of Nairobi, where Adungosi and his ilk had made their names, quickly waned after high school. All I wanted was loose cash in my pocket for the weekend night out. Going to university didn’t make sense to me. I passed by the campus on registration day, when my fellow freshmen were queuing to pay fees, and I felt I didn’t belong there. I was wearing jeans, Converse Chuck Taylors and a T-Shirt, hovering around like a drug peddler. Despite thinking I had a real chance of hitting it big with my dubious business pursuits, I knew I had to enrol for my mother, though, to do it for where I came from. Two months later I became a university student.
Every Friday and Saturday night, my new friend Tito and I would lead a bunch of friends to a network of nightspots where I was known by the bouncers from previous partying escapades. This allowed me to sneak anyone in, even if they were underaged. Tito, the smooth operator, always had a load of women friends calling us on Friday and Saturday evenings, asking us where the party would be. Tito would get the crew, I would come up with the plan. The partying made campus life bearable.
I wouldn’t stay in school unless I had reason to, and only showed up to do my class presentations in front of lecturers who didn’t know me. I’d then wait for my exams to come, borrow notes and stay up through the night rushing through them. One of my classmates coined me “Student in Diaspora”, since I made strictly technical appearances. Later on, around my third year of study, school became a bother to me, and I considered dropping out more than once. I gave up campus accommodation after first year, seeing that even when I had a hostel room, I hardly spent nights there. Tito would spare one side of his wardrobe for me, telling me that in his room I had a home on campus. Without Tito, I would have dropped out.
Then Oulu GPO (John Paul Oulu) arrived on the scene and life changed dramatically. Oulu GPO was a former vice chairman of SONU. Alongside the Law Society of Kenya, SONU was one of the few robust pro–democracy groups, whose leaders were detained without trial or forced into exile from the 1970s to the1990s. As the historically preeminent student organisation in Kenya, anyone who rose to its leadership was almost always seen as a public figure-in-waiting. During his tenure, Oulu led myriad student protests against fee increases and in favour of equipping the university’s campuses with ambulances, and allowing students to cook in their hostel rooms. He was eventually suspended for his political activism, but despite being persona non-grata, he would sneak in some nights to crash in his girlfriend’s campus room. Whenever he was around, there would be commotion in the corridors, for he had a cult-like following.
Despite my political awareness from an early age, my Damascene conversion to student politics happened when I fell into close contact with an incumbent SONU secretary general, who was consulting me over a project he was working on. That proximity to power demystified things for me. I realised all I needed was more belief in myself, since there I was, feeding ideas to those leading the guild, ordinary ideas which they found profound. There and then I decided I could do it myself, on my own, without playing second fiddle to anyone. When Oulu was readmitted, I was in my third year, running for secretary general of SONU and trying to follow in Adungosi’s footsteps.
I was invited to be part of the welcoming committee for Oulu’s re-admission. A room was set on the sixth floor of Kimberly hostel, where we sat around a table waiting for Oulu, like disciples of Jesus during the last supper, or as if he were Nelson Mandela being released from Robben Island. He arrived, explaining that he had been readmitted under a barrage of unfair, illegal restrictions, including a ban on involvement in politics and meeting with more than five students at a time. It was clear the university administration was targeting the man. I promised to join him in resisting the sanctions. That night, our lifelong friendship began and I made my impromptu entry into underground student politics. Eighteen months later, I was embroiled in a fight with the office of the vice chancellor, threatening to drop out in protest over the administration’s efforts to frustrate student union reform. Oulu and everyone else thought I was crazy to abandon my studies. The vice chancellor was apparently moved and sent two emissaries to buy me dinner.
The main emissary was the university’s chief security officer, a greying, bespectacled man who told me: “You are still a handsome young man. Anyone can give you a job if you walk into their office. Don’t make them use you like Karl Marx… dump you and leave you with nowhere to go.” Karl Marx was in fact Christopher Owiro, a legendary student activist in the late 1990s. It was said by some that he had been used by political forces as a henchman, to cause havoc both within and outside the university. My act of protest was seen in a similar light. Although I wasn’t being used by anyone to cause trouble the Karl Marx analogy hit home.
During my years of underground activism, I would move around alone late at night, either coming from a meeting at a friend’s room or from having a group coffee at the student centre. I never lived on campus, fearing for my security. I couldn’t date or sustain a relationship at the time because of the emotional baggage I carried, trying to balance student activism and the allure of a care-free life outside campus. The pressure and risks were ever present, whether we were distributing subversive materials, being followed by state security agents, or being denied access to campus. On those late nights I almost always bumped into Karl Marx, drunk and staggering back to campus where he’d been living for close to a decade. I would see myself in him, tell myself that if the activism I was engaged in ended up putting me in a fix, then this was exactly how I’d turn out. There was a real possibility of this being me in the not too distant future.
Karl Marx’s last public engagement was on the evening of Thursday, 5 March 2009.
A group of University of Nairobi students witnessed the execution of two men riding in a white Mercedes Benz. The students had chanced on the killings on State House Road while walking back to their hostels. One of the students, assuming that the two, shot at point blank range, were dangerous criminals, asked the shooters, already in flight, why they weren’t taking the men’s bodies off the scene. The usual police ritual is to throw the bodies into a truck and dump them at Nairobi’s public morgue. The shooters, dressed in identical suits, looked like members of an elite death squad. One of them replied that “others” would do the cleaning up.
As the shooters fled the scene, it became clear that the man in the passenger seat of the Mercedes Benz wasn’t dead. The students pulled him from the vehicle, intending to rush him to the main student sanatorium nearby. They had moved only a few yards before he succumbed. They laid him on the tarmac, face to the sky.
I found Oulu GPO lying in the same spot forty minutes later. Karl Marx arrived after nightfall, drunk.
Karl Marx – as he was commonly known; for many didn’t know his real name – had joined the University of Nairobi in September 1996 to pursue a BSc degree, majoring in mathematics. However, that fateful 2009 night, 13 years later, he was still residing at the university. His love-hate relationship with the institution and the state persisted from the late 1990s. That night was yet another where he’d take on both the state and university.
“They are finishing us! They are finishing us! They are finishing us!” Karl Marx cried out on seeing Oulu’s bullet-ridden body lying on the tarmac. “They have killed GPO!”
As he yelled and cried, chants of “Comrade Power”, the student’s rallying call, were heard in the background. Amid his tears, Karl Marx told the students that they had to protest, that Oulu was a comrade. Before the police could get their act together, students took charge of the scene. They pushed the Mercedes Benz into Lower State House, down the entrance to one of the hostels. They pulled the driver’s bullet-ridden body out of the car, carried it a few yards from the vehicle and hid it under the staircase. Hot in pursuit of the students and the body, a reinforced police force charged into Lower State House, dodging stones and other crude missiles deployed by the students. During the confrontation, a first-year student, Eric Ogeto, was shot dead. This further fuelled the student’s anger. Karl Marx and his brigade now had new impetus and they wouldn’t relent.
As the night progressed, Karl Marx removed his shirt and held it in his hand, running up and down in the battle against the riot police. Eventually, the students were overpowered and the body retrieved. There were more protests in the coming week. Shops were looted and property vandalised, but students claimed the state had hired goons to infiltrate and cause havoc to make them look bad. In the end, students retreated to their lecture halls. Karl Marx, dejected, retreated to his drinking.
There were many who knew Karl Marx through years of uprisings and political shifts in Kenya. Clarice Atieno, of the class of 2000 at the University of Nairobi, knew him from high school days at Kisumu Boys, where he was coined Karl Marx for his radical politics. They were also classmates at the university when a friend of Atieno’s was found murdered and badly mutilated. Karl Marx immediately rose up and led a student demonstration over his classmate’s death. The university was closed in a matter of hours.
Paul Nyaguti’s first encounter with Karl Marx was almost violent. He was a first year student and had heard that one of his classmates had been arrested. Nyaguti gathered fellow first years and led a protest march to Central Police Station, securing his colleague’s release. On hearing of this act of defiance, Karl Marx walked into Nyaguti’s room and introduced himself as Karl Marx. Nyaguti was unmoved, indifferent almost and Karl Marx was irritated, asking those accompanying him to discipline the errant Nyaguti. Violence was averted only by another group of friends who arrived on the scene.
Their second encounter was less dramatic. Moses Oburu, a senior student leading efforts to reinstate the then banned SONU, heard of Nyaguti leading first years to Central Police Station and approached Nyaguti to join in the fight to have SONU reinstated. They needed courageous people onboard. Oburu gave him posters to pin up across the university, agitating for the reinstatement of SONU. Nyaguti naively went about putting up the posters, ignorant of the fact that such an act was prohibited. In the process, he got to work with Karl Marx, who was also involved in Oburu’s campaign. The two became friends this time round.
Oburu was the person who probably knew Karl Marx best, politically. He was in third year when he met Karl Marx and was instantly impressed by the young man’s revolutionary rhetoric. Soon Oburu, Karl Marx and a couple of other students were organising on campus. Oburu acted as the interim chairman of the SONU Revival Committee. Karl Marx was in charge of mobilisation, liaison, as well as document preparation. According to Oburu, Karl Marx was extremely intelligent and articulate. He was usually the person dispatched to spread word to the students. The group agreed that as a strategy, Oburu would never meet the vice chancellor. He would remain distant, but Karl Marx and the rest of the team would engage the university in negotiations to have SONU reinstated. They found allies in almost all tertiary institutions in Kenya, and built alliances with the student movements at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and Dar es Salaam University in Tanzania.
Around that time, Hillary Clinton came to Uganda with her husband on an official visit and was hosted by Makerere University’s student guild. The guild president invited Oburu to a meeting with the first lady. Karl Marx and James Nduko, another of their cadres, prepared a dossier for Oburu, complete with newspaper cuttings, documenting human rights abuses committed by the state under then president Daniel Arap Moi. Their main argument was that the parliamentary opposition had failed Kenyans in keeping the government in check, and that only the revival of SONU would keep the state accountable and on its toes. Oburu slipped the dossier to Hillary. On perusing it and listening to their case, Hillary was sympathetic. She promised to get back to them. Not long thereafter, Oburu learnt that President Moi was seeking an urgent meeting with him to discuss the revival of SONU. Oburu declined.
To Oburu’s surprise, Karl Marx had already made contact with Moi and his people through Paul Nyaguti. They agreed that Oburu would not meet President Moi during the negotiations. Karl Marx and the rest of the team would. But Moi insisted that he wanted to meet Oburu. His people scheduled a meeting, but on the day, Oburu didn’t show up. He sent Karl Marx as his representative, accompanied by a couple of other members of the team. Moi refused to speak much and told them he wanted to speak to Oburu. No more intermediaries.
Oburu relented following pressure from Karl Marx. The day came and the group went to State House. Oburu said little. Karl Marx was a brilliant negotiator and enjoyed significant credibility among students. Oburu decided that he would be their spokesman, telling Moi that what Karl Marx said was the official position they had all agreed on. After several meetings of intense negotiation during which Karl Marx gave “immeasurable input”, Moi agreed to reinstate SONU. In the presence of the student negotiators, Moi instructed the vice chancellor, the attorney general and the commissioner of police, respectively, to reinstate SONU and refrain from infiltrating or harassing the student community on campus.
“That is how we brought back SONU, in 1998,” Oburu remembers, “Without Karl Marx the negotiations would have failed.”
Oburu was elected SONU chairman unopposed. He asked Karl Marx to contest a lower seat because most candidates popular with students and likely to win seats were from their Luo ethnic group. Oburu didn’t want it to appear like SONU was going to be a Luo affair. He actively lobbied to engage students from the Kikuyu campus. One was Kariari wa Kariari, who Oburu proposed run for the seat of SONU vice-chairman. Karl Marx did not heed Oburu’s advice and ran for the seat himself. Without Oburu’s support, however, he lost, and took it personally. In attempts to mend fences, Oburu made Karl Marx his right-hand man once he got into office and the latter travelled to many conferences as the de facto SONU spokesman and strategist. Despite being unelected, Karl Marx became one of the most influential individuals in the student movement.
But all was not well with Karl Marx. Despite his reputation and credibility within the movement, he had real trouble with alcohol. Nyaguti recalled that Karl Marx started smoking and drinking heavily in second year, after meeting Kamlesh Pattni. Pattni, in his 20s, was the architect of Kenya’s biggest financial scandal of the 1990s, Goldenberg, in which the country lost millions of dollars through a fraudulent export compensation scheme. Pattni weathered the storm and made an entry into electoral politics. He’d need contacts within the student movement and no one was better placed to guide him than Karl Marx. It seems then that Karl Marx suddenly had more money than he knew what to do with. Nyaguti also suggested that Karl Marx was worn down by the pressures of student activism, particularly in the early days when he was suspended from his studies for two years (despite being off-session at the time), and consistently and unfairly targeted by the administration and authorities.
Karl Marx’s drinking and activism were not a good mix. He was a brilliant mathematician, a strong political orator and negotiator, a radical personality and a drunk. Isaiah Owiro, his first cousin, was brother and guardian rolled into one. “I am the one the police used to call whenever Karl Marx was arrested,” he says. “Sometimes he would get arrested, and the police… would come to my place of work. Whenever I was told policemen were looking for me at work, I always knew it had something to do with Karl Marx. There were a lot of such occasions.”
On one such occasion, Karl Marx decided to go on a hunger strike, refusing to eat prison food. He was moved to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Isaiah followed him there and made sure he was released. He recalls the times Karl Marx called the then Ugenya MP James Orengo, who would make interventions to have him released. Westlands MP Fred Gumo also intervened on his behalf numerous times. On another occasion, when he appeared in court at Kibera, University of Nairobi students came in two buses to secure his release. Isaiah suspects the magistrate got intimidated, granting Karl Marx an acquittal.
Such run-ins with the state were dealt with as they came, Isaiah remembers. But in one incident, things almost got out of hand. Karl Marx worked closely with James Orengo in Muungano wa Mageuzi (Movement for Change). According to Isaiah, Raila Odinga’s people swore that if they came across Karl Marx, they would skin him alive, because of his reputation for trying to mount opposition to Odinga. The threat to his life was real. One day they went to watch a Gor Mahia match together. When Odinga supporters saw Karl Marx, they began shouting at him and threatening violence. Isaiah stood up as Karl Marx’s human shield, telling the Odinga supporters that if any of them wanted trouble then all they had to do was lay a finger on Karl Marx. He told them Karl Marx was his younger brother. Apparently, Isaiah had a lot of credibility among this particular group. He had been a rough neck during his days in the streets with some of them. None dared step forward. However, Karl Marx’s security was never guaranteed when he was alone. He couldn’t even walk across town to take a matatu home. He knew these people were looking for him.
Upon graduating with a BSc in mathematics, Karl Marx was struggling deeply with alcoholism. He found it hard to secure or keep jobs. Isaiah tried to help, paying his rent when he couldn’t manage himself. But Karl Marx found it hard to stay in one place for long. Landlords would decline his money, saying he became uncontrollable when drunk and didn’t care whose path he crossed. He resorted to drinking in dingy backstreet bars in downtown Nairobi, from where he’d march in the middle of the street, late at night, singing, making his way back to the University of Nairobi, where he stayed for the most part. If he didn’t have his own accommodation, he’d show up at friends, who would have no choice but to house him for the night.
Whether it was from bar brawls or wounds inflicted during student protests, Karl Marx’s face was covered in scars. He was a shadow of his former self and some couldn’t believe that he was the same man of late-1990s fame. One attempt at his rehabilitation was led by a University of Nairobi professor, who, aware of Karl Marx’s mathematical prowess, organised him a scholarship to study for a second degree, a BSc in actuarial science, in hopes this would offer relief. Others, including President Moi himself offered to help if Karl Marx would stop drinking. According to some, James Orengo, while Minister for Lands, had tried to secure him a government job.
Karl Marx hung around the University of Nairobi campus for more than a decade after his contemporaries graduated. He engaged with latter day student leaders, including Iddi Pembere, of the class of 2010 and SONU’s secretary for health, catering and accommodation. On one occasion, Karl Marx approached Pembere at the student centre bar and restaurant: “I hear you are the one in charge of food. I am hungry. I want to eat and I don’t want to know how that will happen.”
Karl Marx went on to say it was not only him that was hungry. He demanded that anyone seated in adjacent tables at the cafeteria also needed to have a free meal. Iddi was lost for words, but decided to act and see to it that Karl Marx and all those he had pulled in had a meal.
“That’s how much respect I had for Karl Marx,” Iddi says. He knew Karl Marx to be somebody who had done a lot for students at the university, and felt that the least he could do was satisfy the few demands Karl Marx placed on him.
On New Year’s Day in 2013, news reached Nairobi that Karl Marx was dead. His body was found inside a barely habitable structure in his father’s homestead in Otonglo market, Kisumu. He had succumbed to injuries sustained in a brawl with the security detail of the wife of a former MP, with whom he had had an altercation during a drinking escapade. However, the general feeling was that Karl Marx was driven to his grave by a mixture of frustration, loneliness and heavy drinking.
On learning of his death, a friend in Dubai offered to buy him an expensive casket. Another offered to finance a befitting suit for his burial. Within no time, enough pledges were made to cater for the burial. Everyone seemed to want to give Karl Marx an opulent burial, even those who hadn’t been present in his life. In the end, having graduated with two degrees and having located himself inside Kenya’s public memory, Christopher Owiro went down in one of the most bizarre ways, as if he were sliding down a hole with slippery walls, with nowhere and nothing to hold onto.
After the assassination of Oulu, a group of comrades and I, fearing for our lives, fled the country and sought asylum in Uganda, on the advice and assistance of the US ambassador. The supposition was we’d be in Uganda only for three months, but this turned into a year. There was a promise of being resettled in the US, one that seemed to grow more and more distant as time lapsed. As was my style before, during and after university, I sunk deep into the Kampala nightlife, often finding myself at 4am in a crowded nightclub, contemplating what future, if any, I had. There was a bleak sense that this was it. That all that time and energy invested in activism had gone to waste, and now here I was, stranded, disillusioned, an almost bitter recluse. By the time I came back to Kenya, I couldn’t deny that I was broken in more ways than one. One day, sitting with my father, replaying for him my Kampala experience, he told me he was grateful that I hadn’t descended into alcoholism. In his view, it appeared, I was facing the perfect combination of circumstances to become one. This meant a lot to me coming from him, since, growing up, I had seen him struggle with his drink. The words felt weightier.
Sitting in a post-exile safe house, a serviced apartment in Nairobi, the thought of writing the story of our activism crossed my mind. I took out my computer, and tried pretending that as a graduate of literature who never attended lectures, I somehow had it in me. I wrote part of my asylum-seeking story and shared it on Facebook. Then a publisher picked it up. Soon, writing about student activism grew into a trade. The more I wrote about contemporary student activism, the sports cars, the parties and the ideological bankruptcy, the more I realised that even if ours, or whatever was bequeathed to us by the likes of Oulu and Karl Marx, hadn’t been a golden age, at least there had been something meaningful to write home about.
In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.
This story, and others, features in the Chronic: We Make Our Own Food! (April 2017). In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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