‘We believed that the only way Africa could be liberated was through a socialist revolution’

‘We believed that the only way Africa could be liberated was through a socialist revolution’


The political legacy of Kenyas radical 1980s student movement.


Image credit Miguna Miguna.

Miguna Miguna, the Kenyan activist and lawyer, rose to international prominence in 2018, after administering Raila Odinga’s unofficial inauguration ceremony as Kenya’s “People President.” The event challenged the legitimacy of Uhuru Kenyatta’s electoral victory in Kenya’s 2017 presidential rerun, which Odinga and his opposition NASA coalition had boycotted. Following this ceremony, the Kenyatta government expelled Miguna from the country accusing him of treason. In exile in Canada, Miguna has remained one of the most outspoken and popular critics of the current Kenyan regime.

Like many of the leading Kenyan opposition figures of his generation, Miguna cut his teeth politically as a student activist at the University of Nairobi in the 1980s. During that decade, as the regime of Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, increasingly drove opposition actors underground, university students and faculty became some of the only public voices of dissent left within the country. In response, Moi escalated his repressive tactics against the university: closing campuses on multiple occasions, authorizing security forces’ assault of student protesters and even arresting dissident professors and student activists.

In November 1987, government forces detained Miguna and his fellow student leaders of the Students’ Organization of Nairobi University (SONU) shortly after they publicly challenged the Moi’s regime at their swearing-in ceremony. In the aftermath of this event, the student union was once again banned and Miguna and some of his colleagues were forced into exile. Miguna ended up in Canada via Tanzania and Swaziland, where he eventually completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto before studying law at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto.

My recently published article for the academic journal AFRICA, recounts the history of the Kenyan student movement during this period. In it, I examine how the National Youth Service Pre-University Training Program (NYSPUT), a paramilitary camp designed by the Moi government in the 1980s to instill discipline and a sense of loyalty to the state in prospective university students, actually helped to radicalize a number of students like Miguna.

Miguna recently granted me an interview to discuss his time as a student activist and the ways in which these experiences have subsequently come to shape his life in politics.


Luke Melchiorre

Is there a reason that a lot of Kenyan student leaders, like yourself, came from a place like Nyanza [in Western Kenya], which has been historically marginalized by the Kenyan state?

Miguna Miguna

It was poverty, but it was mainly oppression. A lot of people from Nyanza fought for the liberation of Kenya. When independence came, a lot of Kenyans, especially from Nyanza realized that there was no difference between the colonial administration and the independent government. In fact it became worse [in Nyanza], so there was a lot of resentment against the Kenyan regimes as I grew up in Nyanza, because it was obvious to even a young child like myself that [Jomo] Kenyatta [the first President of independent Kenya] had taken independence to mean that only a small clique of Kikuyus (it was not all Kikuyus) would benefit from the independence struggle. So we grew up in Nyanza with eagerness to join the struggle, to uplift the conditions that we saw around us.

Luke Melchiorre

Prior to your admission to the university, it was made mandatory in 1984 for all prospective university students to enter the national youth service pre-university training program. What did this training program consist of?

Miguna Miguna

It was not actually even a training camp. It was a boot camp. It was meant to punish us for having passed our high school exams, having made it to university. It was to prove to us that education was nothing. That all that mattered was that you had money, you had political power, which you could wield at will against those who believed they had knowledge—like us.

Luke Melchiorre

The NYSPUT was supposedly designed to instill discipline in universities students like yourself and make you loyal to the regime. Is that what happened in practice?

Miguna Miguna

Exactly the opposite. The only positive thing I got from the NYSPUT was that it gave me and others access to the entire population that were going to go to university. People I would never have met if I had just left my home and gone to the University of Nairobi and others had gone to Egerton, Moi and Kenyatta universities. But now they were going to Gilgil [where the NYSPUT was held] and now I was meeting all of them. It allowed people like me, who were already politically conscious and growing more conscious and radical, to build alliances, to inculcate a sense of comradeship amongst ourselves, to emerge as potential student leaders and later on national leaders. And that’s what we did. By the time, we now went to the university, some of us had already demonstrated our bona fides at NYSPUT and so when we contested for leadership positions at the University of Nairobi and campaigned on radical platforms, because we had already demonstrated what we stood for, the students voted for us in unison.

Luke Melchiorre

What was the political ideology of you and your fellow student leaders at the university?

Miguna Miguna

It was almost like we had formed a political movement at the University of Nairobi by November 1987. There was the government camp and our camp. We were socialists in orientation, we believed in scientific socialism. We believed that the only way that Africa could be liberated was through a socialist revolution. We then politically said that the people that were governing Kenya had betrayed the dreams of the freedom fighters that fought for independence and that it was time that we actually gained true independence. What we had was a flag and a national anthem and an emblem, but there was no freedom. Our opponents supported the status quo—the Moi/KANU regime. The regime that detained many of its critics, suppressed freedom of the press, expression and association. Their ideology if one could refer to it as that was merely to continue on the same path that Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi had followed.

Luke Melchiorre

When you look back at your time as a student leader, how, if at all, do you think it shaped your future career in politics?

Miguna Miguna

I have to say it is not the student leadership that shaped my career in politics. It is my ideological beliefs and commitments that did. Whether I was in student leadership or not, it would not have changed my ideology, my commitments and the trajectory that my life took, but it helped me work with others, deepen my ideological and philosophical understanding of society and it made us demonstrate practically that the edifice on which the Kenyan state and other neocolonial states in Africa stood was quicksand.

Luke Melchiorre

Finally, what is your relationship now with Raila Odinga today?

Miguna Miguna

I worked with Raila Odinga between 2006 and 2011. At the time, I considered Raila to symbolize the struggle some of us had had for a genuine liberation of Kenya. I believed then that he could be the leader of a cadre of patriots who were committed to transforming the country and bringing forth social justice. But I soon realized that Raila does not represent a new Kenya. That Raila is neither progressive nor transformative. I realized that Raila’s agenda [is] to cement the culture of impunity where privilege vests on those who have occupied positions of power and used those positions to enrich themselves. Raila is not interested in the creation of a merit-based society, which is what I’m committed to. And after he surrendered and betrayed the struggle for electoral justice and social justice on March 9th, [2018, the day in which Odinga famously shook Uhuru Kenyatta’s hand, making peace with him], I have not spoken with him, because there is nothing to discuss. He came to the airport on March 26, 2018 after my second detention by the Kenyatta regime but we didn’t really speak. How do you say that Uhuru Kenyatta has perpetrated an electoral fraud and is trying to institutionalize tyranny in Kenya and it is obvious that that is the case, then tomorrow you say that Kenyatta is your best friend and the people that died in defense of the constitution, the rule of law and democracy, you don’t even mention and you don’t ask for justice for them? You become nothing but an opportunist and a hypocrite. And hypocrites are the swine of history.


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