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Changing face of student leadership

Students in a lecture hall
Students in a lecture hall. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The University of Nairobi completed its yearly elections for the students’ association a week ago. These were the second elections under the changed electoral framework. In 2016, the National Assembly made changes to the Universities Act, which affected the way students’ elections are held in universities across the country.

The changes sought to ensure that the supreme body of the students’ association reflects national diversity and adheres to the Constitutional principle of not more than two thirds of either gender.

The law introduced an electoral college system for voting. In accordance with the Act, the University of Nairobi adopted a constitution to operationalise the students’ association and the election process. Having had the privilege of serving as a commissioner in the ensuing two elections, it was amazing to watch the transformative effect of the new legal framework and voting system.

In the latest elections the university for the first time in its history elected a female as the chairperson of its student’s association. This is a huge milestone in the journey towards gender parity in political leadership. It is demonstration that with the right political environment, even across the country the number of women in elective politics would rise.

The experience of electoral college is one that the country’s political parties may want to study. In the case of the University of Nairobi, there are twelve electoral colleges. There are two tier elections. First each of the electoral colleges is also a devolved unit with its own student leadership. At the first level of elections, all the students who are members of that college vote, through universal suffrage, for their leaders at the college level. They at the same time vote for three electors.

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Following the conclusion of this first stage of elections, the three electors from each of the colleges congregate as delegates to choose the members of the students’ council. During this year’s elections of the council, there were three teams that were contesting. The three teams are the ones whose members met the stringent requirements set by the Association’s Constitution.

First every team was required to have a diverse membership, include an international student and a student with disability. Secondly every member of the team was required to seek clearance from their Dean or Director based on well stipulated parameters including the requirement of being of good academic standing.

Thirdly, the teams are required to receive several seconders from most of the electoral colleges before being cleared.

The students are also required to get a clearance from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to confirm that they have no criminal records. In addition, the entire team must appear before the commission on nomination day.

By the time that a team gets cleared, they meet the set standards of integrity and academics that the Constitution stipulates. These teams then campaign both with the entire student leadership and the delegates.

During the past election, the commission organised an externally moderated debate session. What impressed me during the debate was the insights that each of the team had and their suggestions of tackling the critical challenges facing the student population and the university in general.

From the elections, it is clear that it is possible to have both voters and candidates to comply with the rules of elections if the rules are clear and applied objectively. However, such a process is not without its challenges. First, changing people’s attitudes and ingrained practices is a process and not event.

The number of those who complain that the current electoral system for university student elections are boring and undemocratic is not small. It requires a lot of work to deliver the intentions of the changes to the law, which is a credible and peaceful elections.

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