Tribalism in Kenyan universities and how Mount Kenya University beats it

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Kenya is inching forward to yet another general election in August, and the stakes cannot be much higher. Polarization is at its peak and feelings of division and negative ethnicity are fast creeping amongst the citizenry.

Many would be forgiven for expecting that scholars would not fall into this ugly trap that has arguably ravaged this nation and left many engulfed in hostility. Sadly, this is not the case.

A recent research conducted in Kenyan universities has left shocking results at how much the scars of a national crisis is mirrored in a younger generation.

A whopping 70 percent of respondents, admitted that they would not, vote for leaders not of their own tribes regardless of their qualities, while at least 65 percent believed that tribalism and nepotism are heavily practised within university student’s unions.

However, this is not the case everywhere.

Martin Owilah MKUSA President

According to Martin Owilah, the President of the Mount Kenya University Students Association (MKUSA),

“There is no tribalism here. Thika is a metropolitan town.”

He further argues that tribalism is a product of the leaders in question.

“We were elected because of the sense they saw in us, that they can trust us to lead them. As leaders, we are a symbol of unity.”

The major question on what stokes ethnic flares in campus is one that is often heavily disputed with varying schools of thoughts. But one factor is commonly agreed: tribal associations.

In 1982, Kenya was battling to come to terms with an attempted coup that had threatened to overturn President Daniel Arap Moi’s four-year-old government.

This led the government to ban all tribal groupings across the country with the Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA) and Abaluhyia Football Club (AFC) becoming the first casualties.

Recently, many people have become proponents of associations and as Martin Owilah explains, the difference lies in their rationale,

“We have tribal associations here in Mount Kenya University, but they only focus on culture. By name, they look tribal but the only differentiating factor is the language.

They post their agenda of their meetings in Kiswahili and English (both national languages). The common agenda is not to separate, diminish but to bring people together.”

While these associations often come into play during elections; their modus operandi, at times, is baffling.

For one to vie for an elective position in campus politics, he or she has to appease their leaders, commonly referred to as ‘elders’.

Abel Kengere Ombaso; Minister of Academic Affairs MKUSA

Abel Ombaso Kerenge, the Academic Affairs Minister of Mount Kenya University Students Association (MKUSA) puts this into perspective,

“The associations are like villages, they have elders. When two people from one association vie for an office, the elder can step in to have one step down, or move to another position.”

Martin adds,

“They choose and agree on contenders as a family to create order within the institution.”

While some may struggle to admit, these associations have had plenty of advantages in the community. They play a key role in marketing the respective institution and uniting and assisting fellow colleagues. Martin explains,

“We have made associations like families. They do their fundraisers, do marketing for the institution which is very helpful to both parties.”


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