Besides providing education, the universities recognise their role in democratisation through students and lecturers some of were agents of change in the 1970s through the 1990s to bring a second liberation in Kenya.
Stung by the changing political situation where violence emanating from the political party primary nominations and sections of ethnic skirmishes, the universities have developed an advocacy lobby to help preach peace among local communities.
In the post-election period of 2007 over 1,300 people were killed, several maimed and property destroyed, universities were not spared either. They too lost potential lecturers and employees as well. Their buildings and other properties were destroyed.
“Better late than never, here we come to help nurture peace in this country,” observed Prof Munyae Mulinge, Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the United States International University (USIU) during a recent roundtable conference in Nairobi.
Mulinge noted that in helping preach peace ahead of the polls, the universities are now preaching what they teach practically. He said that the university fraternity and foreigners alike were shocked when violence broke out in the country that has been known as an island of peace.
“We are going to use students to help demonstrate to communities that the youth are useful members of society and should not be hired as gangs by politicians,” explained Mulinge.
The process is to take place before and continue after the General Election. It is being done in collaboration with grassroots peace organisations and is aimed at entrenching the culture of living in harmony and peace with each other.
“Like the scenario in the United States of America in 1865, Kenyans must be in the frontline to say ‘never again’ after unnecessary violence that claimed many innocent lives,” said Freida Brown Vice Chancellor USIU.
According to Brown, time has come for more universities to go further and teach subjects on causes of conflicts so as to equip students with mechanisms of preaching and maintaining peace. The Vice Chancellor of Maseno University Prof Dominic Mak’Awiti noted that the youth of today need attention as they seem to be evolving faster with demands for survival mechanisms for their economic advancement.
“They receive a lot of information from the electronic media, some not very appealing yet they consume them and at times apply them freely in disregard to the societal harm,” Mak’Awiti observed.
He challenged parents to take up their responsibility by setting a good precedence to their children so as not to get involved in activities that threaten peaceful co-existence among Kenyans.
The Secretary for Cohesion at the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs Mr Michael Ndung’u appealed to universities to assist in packaging cohesion concept through research.
Ndungu said that despite developing a guideline on hate speech, the subject is still controversial as many people still do not understand it.
The universities’ peace initiative is dubbed “Wajibu Wetu (our responsibility)”. Their goal is to have universities with a culture for change as well as look at innovative ways of bringing together university students and counties in a devolved government.
Under the programme, university students will be trained and short messages on peace prepared to be sent across the counties.
“The programme will engage all universities with county peace committees and county administration by preparing peace messages to be used at the community level after the General Election,” explained Prof Paul Mbatia.
Selected students from the 47 counties will be trained in creating and maintaining peace before and during the elections and the messages will be used for radio transmission in all vernacular languages.
Ford Foundation Regional representative for East and Central Africa Maurice Mak’Oloo appealed to the universities to change to meet the current demand of the society.
He noted that the fight for constitutional reforms had been spearheaded by lecturers and students at the universities, saying that the programme has been started by the right people at the right time.
“The barriers to achieving good governance can only be broken by a multiplicity of actors and actions,” Mak’Oloo noted.
He observed that through the initiative, Kenya has been accorded an opportunity to make amend with history from the post-election violence of 2007- 2008.
Under the programme, the universities have produced a documentary that will be used in reminding voters of the traumatic events of 2007-2008.
The documentary is a mythic story of the relationship between two neighbours whose friendship turns to conflict as ethnic passions threaten to engulf them.
The universities project is not the only peace initiative going on in the country. Peace Initiative Kenya, is also another venture that is looking at non-violent elections especially at the grassroots.
Peace Initiative Kenya is working with communities and women at the grassroots towards mitigating gender based violence which tends to increase during the electioneering period. The project brings together eight organisations that seeks to address gender based violence at the grassroots.
Peace Initiative Kenya is running trainings aimed at creating a more protective and peaceful environment in the run up to the polls.
The project is being implemented to engage communities in the four conflict zones of Rift Valley, Nyanza, Nairobi’s informal settlements and the Coast. It hopes to build seeds to the capacity of women’s groups to advocate for peace in their respective communities.
Being the first of its kind, PIK engages women leaders, youth, teachers and community health volunteers at the village level in engaging in peaceful activities within their day to day operations. It is also helping them rebuild their lives away from the violence meted against them.
Through the project, local women organizations are given small grants to help further grassroots action in Gender Based Violence (GBV) and peace building.
Given that those bent at causing chaos mobilises citizens to cause violence in pre and post election periods, PIK aims at supporting a sense of patriotism and nationalism that overrides ethnicity.
It targets to transform the society through continuous engagement with communities to break the cycle of violence, especially in hot spots The project includes actions around legal aid and clinics for women and children experiencing violence.
PIK has created county platforms to convene community members for action around peace and GBV to be presented to regional and national levels.
This article was originally published in Reject Online Issue 76