Society / Education
Tuesday, 24 May 2016 10:45 EATjonyando@kenyafreepress.com
The first female president of Masinde Muliro University Students Organization (MMUSO) is causing shock waves with another electoral stab that could make history in Kenyan student politics.
Winnie Nyandiga Opiyo is running for the chairmanship of the Kenya University Students Organization, KUSO, the umbrella association for all university student unions.
The elections were initially slated for May 23, but they were postponed after armed thugs stormed the venue and scuttled voting. A new date is yet to be set.
In addition to having an male-record, KUSO presidency has been some sort of preserve for leaders of SONU, the organisation for University of Nairobi students. The outgoing office was led by SONU Chairman Babu Owino, who recently secured for himself a new role of deputy patron.
Winnie threw herself into the ring of KUSO chairmanship last month when she saw that no fellow chairman of a campus union was running for the position, apparently in fear of the candidate being backed by the Students Organization of Nairobi University, Felix Apiyo.
“I saw that no one was running against him (Felix), so I threw myself into the race. My logic is that this position is for presidents, and someone who is not the president of his organization should not be allowed to lead all of us,” she told the Free Press.
Felix, the organizing secretary of SONU, had the full backing of Babu Owino, the SONU president who is also the outgoing chairman of KUSO.
Moments before the interview, she had been meeting student leaders at Kenyatta University in preparation for KUSO elections on May 22, which were eventually disrupted by “violent goons.” Candidates who contested the elections are awaiting communication on new dates to be set by the Organization’s patron.
Winnie Nyandiga Opiyo made history when she beat three male opponents to become the president of MMUSO, the students union at Kenya’s seventh public university in March.
Following her election, Winnie was widely reported in websites tracking university affairs to be the first female president of a students union in a public university. This is not true. Laikipia University elected the first female president, Rose Gakuo, in 2013.
Before Rose, women had held other senior positions in student politics, including vice chairmanship and even secretary general. In 2014, Moi University Students Organization (MUSO) nearly got its first female president in Anabel Wangari, but she lost narrowly to Geoffrey Omondi.
More than a decade earlier, MUSO had elected a female secretary general, Janet Muthoni Ouko, who is presently active in education activism. Similarly, the current women representative for Homa Bay County in the National Assembly, Gladys Wanga, also served as secretary general of the Kenyatta University Students Association.
Despite these breakthroughs, the glass ceiling still needed to be smashed, until Rose clinched the chairmanship, the highest office in the students governing council, at Laikipia. Now Winnie has broken a new record, winning in a major public university with over 30,000 students.
There are of course other women who have served at the highest level in small private universities, where students form tightly-knit groups in which campaigning isn’t as hard. There is even a small private university dedicated only for women.
Winnie’s electoral term begins officially in September, when she joins the fourth year. She was in Nairobi the weekend of May 21-22 for an even bigger electoral battle, running for chairmanship of KUSO. She spoke to the Free Press about her political experience, manifesto and future plans.
In talking about her election, Winnie recalled the challenges she endured that every aspiring woman politician should prepare to confront. The one that lingered throughout was male chauvinism. “My competitor seriously thought that male students would not vote for me,” she said.
Knowing the odds, she campaigned hard, going door to door to reach potential supporters. Due to a shortage of student housing at the university, many students live in private hostels off campus, and she had to go there at their times. In addition, she went lecture halls, games fields.
As her campaign picked up, the male opponents began to throw slurs at her. “A woman can’t lead us,” they said, snides that went even beyond the student community into the small town of Kakamega, whose community is very involved in the affairs of the university, the largest learning institution in the entire Western Kenya.
The scorn was evident when her convoys went around the town; some villagers expressed shock that a woman was running to lead the student community. As the recently appointed vice chancellor, Prof Fred Otieno, is also a Luo like Winnie, some students and locals warned of ethnic takeover of a Luyia institution should she win. Allegations began to fly that she was the candidate of the administration, a subtle campaign that a woman could not be her own person.
“This was propaganda. I had never known anyone in the administration when I sought to run for office. It is after my election that I have begun to know them,” she said.
An air of panic spread in her opponents as her team more and more students in the final days of the campaign. Tribalism played a subtle role in the election as the locals championed her main opponent who came from the community.
Winnie worked with all ethnicities, and the strategy yielded much as she won by more than 900 votes, taking the lead in nine out of ten polling stations. Her team Mwangaza swept all then ten seats in the SGC.
Winnie spoke about her gratitude for the manner her team managed the campaigns. “We identified all the groups, study groups, prayer groups including Seventhday Adventists and the Christian Union. Sometimes we campaigned at 3am in the morning.”
This comradeship has continued, she says, and her team look at issues together. “Just this week, I was required to attend an interview at KTN Television but I decided to let the secretary general do it; he is very capable, and he also needs a chance.”
The election was very peaceful. MMUST got help from officials of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which helped avoid the kind of fracas that has rocked university elections in recent years. This peacefulness of MMUST elections contributed to the universal acceptance of the results, including by the local community.
As the number of students joining universities has increased, subscriptions to the student organizations has become lucrative, making student politics a high stakes affair. Losers sometimes find it hard to accept defeat, as was the case at the University of Nairobi, which was closed in April following student elections.
Winnie asserts that, contrary to the popular belief that women are their own worst enemy in politics, her case was different as female students came out powerfully to support her team.
“Female students accepted me and they owned my campaign,” she said, then immediately added that her campaign transcended gender and spoke about urgent things of concerns to the entire student community.
Among the concerns was street lighting. There had been incidents. The county government has now erected lights around the college. The university has also installed more security lights.
They also sought to review the MMUSO constitution, which is urgent. She plans to embark on it as soon as college resumes in September.
At 22, Winnie carries with her the air of a born leader. She is confident and methodical in her speech, on top of superb facility of the English language. She said she has been a student leader most of her school life, having been exposed to the exercise of power and authority in primary school, where she was appointed head prefect.
By the time she joined Buru Buru Girls in Nairobi, her ideas about democratic governance had crystalised. She was not appointed a prefect this time though, because in her opinion her strong anti-establishment orientation made her unfitting.
However, she was elected by fellow students to chair the environmental club, which she said is one of the largest student organizations at Buru Buru Girls.
It is such popularity among colleagues that carried her into MMUSO leadership and hopefully the KUSO leadership, the election for which threw herself into the ring this month.
The KUSO presidency has been some sort of preserve for leaders of SONU, the organisation for University of Nairobi students. The outgoing office was led by SONU Chairman Babu Owino, who has now secured for himself a new role of deputy patron.
Babu, the SONU chairman, was campaigning for his organizing secretary Felix to take over the KUSO presidency, and, perhaps given Babu’s reputation for winning elections, none of the other association chairmen was brave enough to face a candidate who had his full support.
“I saw that no one was running against him, so I threw myself into the race. My logic is that this position is for presidents, and someone who is not the president of his organization should not be allowed to lead all of us,” she told the Free Press.
Moments before the interview, she had been meeting student leaders at Kenyatta University in preparation for Sunday’s elections, which, eventually were disrupted by “violent goons.” The candidates will await for communication new dates to be set by the Organization’s patron.
As a politically alert student, Winnie is watching the national politics and not liking it. She detests the idea of women seats under the new constitution, saying these have created a comfort zone where women compete against themselves.
“If women can beat men in class, in student politics and in other spheres, they should refuse to be given special attention simply because they are women. I would never go for a women representative post myself,” she asserted.
Winnie’s position is in tandem with many successful women. But while there is no doubt in the judgement that women should be striving for more equal opportunities and compete on equal footing as men, the legacy of marginalization means that there are not many women who can win against men.
Affirmative action is required to help women catch up. Nevertheless, it is the attitude of women like Winnie that is required to change the perception of all people, men and women, about the immense potential women have to lead.
Additional reporting by Lemmy Bramwel