Page last updated at 17:49 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 18:49 UK

Tribal divide on Kenyan campus

Kenya's ethnic divisions have become so entrenched, since a disputed election 18 months ago, that even student politics have been tainted by tribal rivalry as Will Ross discovered.

Student union election posters at Nairobi University
Improbably glossy posters have adorned the student campaigns

I stumbled across this story on my way to lunch.

Heading for a downtown cafe, I took a shortcut through the Nairobi University campus, passing the neatly trimmed lawns and the signboards announcing "Corruption free zone".

I was bombarded by immaculately dressed, wide-smiling, young Kenyans. Many were in sharp suits and had a look of "trust me" in their eyes.

These were the unbelievably glossy campaign posters for the student union elections.

"Where on earth would students get the money for such a glitzy campaign?" I wondered.

I later found David - one of the two men vying for the top position of chair of the union - and with the election just hours away, it was hard to tear him away from T-shirt clad campaigners and his phone.

"I know one day I'll be president of Kenya," he declared and then led me to his election poster which I suggested looked a little like a gospel singer's album cover.

"Well I am a gospel singer and I've made an album," he replied. "Cynics said I was too moral to be a leader, too straight to head this organisation which is so corrupt, but we want to prove them wrong."

Financial incentives

While digesting this claim to virtue, I quickly learnt that there was an ugly side to this election. Tribal divisions.

David is from the Luo tribe and he was up against a Kikuyu.

People demonstrating near a burning barricade following the disputed Kenyan preisdental election (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
About 300,000 people fled their homes during Kenya's post-election violence

It was a similar face-off 18 months ago, during Kenya's disputed presidential elections.

Goaded on by some of the power hungry politicians, Kenya's deep-rooted tribal divisions erupted and more than 1,000 people were killed.

"It's worrying. Many students would only vote for somebody from their own tribe and the top politicians have encouraged this," a student called Isaac told me.

Seeing as Isaac was studying economics, I wondered what he made of the election funding.

He said ministers and MPs had backed their favourites with cash and lamented, that for a small fee, a candidate could hire some men known as "goons" to sabotage a rival's campaign.

On her way to a lecture, another student, Maureen, told me she had just returned from a trip around town shouting and singing for several candidates, not because she supported their ideas but because she had been promised some money.

Access to influence

At another campus I started chatting to a young man in a baseball cap.

"There's going to be violence. I'm telling you there's so much at stake," he said.

He introduced himself as Patrick, but quickly added that his street name was "the virus".

I chose to call him Patrick. He said he had sponsored a candidate running for a junior position, giving him the equivalent of £250 ($160).

Kenyan MP's are among the best paid in the world with a package equivalent to at least £80,000 a year

"I know he'll win and then he'll pay me back several times over and let me run one of the campus tuck shops," he predicted.

The election, it seemed, was about power and access to resources and when tens of thousands of students pay their subs to the union, the kitty gets quite fat.

There are parallels with the clamber to support parliamentary candidates during the last election.

The hope for many then was: "If we can get our man or our woman into power then we'll be within arms length of the money."

And there is plenty of it. Kenyan MPs are among the best paid in the world with a package equivalent to at least £80,000 a year, most of which is untaxed.

Ignoring the past

A few hackles may have been raised in Britain, as news leaked of MP's moats being cleaned and duck houses being built, but you should hear the "mwananchi" or "man on the street" in Nairobi getting worked up over the somewhat unaccountable politicians here.

Inside one of the fairly dilapidated halls of residence, mini-rallies were under way in several bedsits.

Fuelled by alcohol, bought incidentally by the candidates, young men were competing with rap music as they shouted slurred slogans which usually included the words "comrades" and "power".

Worryingly the next generation of well educated Kenyans seems to have learnt few lessons from the country's violent, tribal implosion 18 months ago

The next day, after the results, students were dotted around the campus in huddles.

"This was the fairest election ever held at Nairobi University," young Valentine told me before quietly adding that he had just secured a position in the Union.

Patrick, aka "the virus", was nursing a few cuts to the head after fighting with a supporter from a rival camp.

A disgruntled student proclaimed: "How could this black man possibly have been voted in?" referring to the fact that the new Union chair was darker than his choice of candidate.

Worryingly, the next generation of well-educated Kenyans seems to have learnt few lessons from the country's violent, tribal implosion 18 months ago.

I later received a text message from Maureen. It seems the candidates did not cough up after hiring her cheering voice for the rallies.

The message read: "Politicians being sick individuals with no purpose - they haven't given me squat. I'm as dry as a city council fire engine."

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