Panic overtook Moi University in late October when local police announced that four missing students were suspected of joining Al Shabaab, the Somali-based terror group.
As word spread, students' cell phones lit up with unsubstantiated rumors that the four students were leading the Islamist militants to attack the campus.
“There was a student missing from class today ... I think he’s the one coming to attack us,” read one text message that Kinyua Njeri, a Moi University education student received. Another student told him over the phone that the attackers had already breached campus security.
Thousands fled from the campus of more than 24,000 students, fanning across the city of Eldoret in western Kenya and taking refuge at the homes of friends and family. At the time, it was not clear if any of the rumors were true, but no one wanted to be slow to react – not after Al Shabaab gunned down 148 students at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya in April.
“Everyone really freaked out [because] the students just don’t trust universities to protect them,” says Mr. Njeri who hosted as many as five friends each night in his tiny off-campus room before they returned to campus a week later.
For Njeri, the Moi Univesity incident was emblematic of a new reality for Kenya's university students: they believe their campuses are easy targets for Al Shabaab attacks – and the government is doing little to protect them.
Indeed, there is a growing frustration among students about how the Kenya police, and their own universities, have prioritized school security since the Garissa attack. Student groups have been at the forefront of demanding for increased security. They've also pushed for deradicalization programs to prevent Al Shabaab recruiting from universities. These are signs of a growing distrust of the country's security forces' ability to protect them.
“It's only fair because if we are the victims and we are also the targets then at least we could come up with the solutions,” says Michael Opondo, a law student at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and founder of the International Youth Action Against Terrorism to combat radicalization and improve security on Kenyan campuses.
“We are basically looking out for ourselves.”
The outsized sense of responsibility among students to protect themselves is seen through different on-campus initiatives that have sprung up since the Garissa attack.
Student leaders at the University of Nairobi, one of the largest in Kenya, host regular forums on terrorism and campus security. They have also worked with administrators to increase the number of security guards and to provide training for identifying suspicious activities on campus. Their campaigns have bred result: the main campus, once a breezy thoroughfare, is now manned by security guards who check student ID's and search backpacks.
Another group, the Universities and Colleges Students’ Peace Association of Kenya, started what they call the “Zero Radicalization Campaign." The group works to prevent radicalization on campuses. And prompted by the scare in October, student leaders at Moi University lobbied the administration to host a deradicalization workshop this week, the first of its kind after months of asking for one, says Jared Mogire, the school's student body chairman.
"We have done well because we have been able to convince the university to make those accommodations," he says. "But this is only the start, we must continue to improve things because security is something you must be continually vigilante about in Kenya."
While commendable, student-led efforts underscore the distrust between all Kenyans and their security forces, not just students, says Irene Ndungu a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.
“Youth can and should be engaged as partners, she says. "But responsibility for campus security ultimately lies with those responsible for the physical security of all Kenyans."
Much of the distrust towards Kenya’s security forces stems from the Garissa attack itself. A police special tactical unit didn't arrive on the scene until seven hours after the shooting had started. In the following days, the government admitted that it had ignored intelligence of an impending attack.
“There was lack of coordination on the side of the officers,” Kenya's Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said to a parliamentary committee shortly after the attack.
The police have since increased measures to avoid another attack like Garissa, says George Kinoti, spokesman for the National Police Service (NPS). He says there is now a "clear command structure" in place as they continue to improve measures.
On Wednesday, the NPS will conduct its first on-campus safety training at the United States International University. The training will "practically show them ways to disarm [and] how to fight [terrorists],” says Mr. Kinoti, adding that it will help decrease the number of casualties. The NPS plans to roll out the program across all universities and colleges.
But Njeri, the Moi University student who hosted friends in his off-campus room during the recent scare, remains skeptical. After students returned to class, the police presence and random security checks increased. But two weeks later, they have already gone, further eroding student faith in the longevity of such changes.
“I don’t know that they’ve taken any measures at all," Njeri says. "They should get scared like we are scared, and take action.”