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Babu Owino: The controversial veteran of varsity politics

There is a reason Paul Owino Ongili is known best by his moniker rather than his real name.

His nickname “Babu” is a character he plays when the cameras are rolling. The name is short and memorable and a bit jarring considering he isn’t 30 yet. Babu is over the top and flashy. He has sports cars, poses with guns and is in the news.

Babu is also hopelessly charming in person, with a whiff of scandal about him. And there have been scandals — his name has been dragged by his opponents into forgery, thievery, rape and assault cases.

Throughout, though, nothing has stuck and he has come out smelling roses. The first time Ongili tried to run for the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu) chairman’s post he found out he could not.

Module II students were only allowed a seat at the Sonu top table but they could not occupy the chairman’s because the Sonu constitution expressly forbade it.

Ongili was livid. How could they? Module II students pay Sh1,000 to be members of Sonu. Regular students pay half that. Parallel students outnumber regular in the university and pay more for the privilege of joining the institution.

Module II is what the university used to keep the lights on.

In an interview Ongili called it a “ridiculous two-tier system”. Sonu leaders used to support Mandela in the 80s and now were running “an apartheid style system” he said. The majority must be allowed a voice.

So Ongili started campaigning to change the Sonu constitution. He was among a group of students who orchestrated a strike. No examinations would be held until all members of Sonu were treated equally. Sonu was disbanded. People fought. In the process Ongili became Babu the ultimate university politician.


When the dust settled there was a new constitution granting parallel students equal rights to those of their regular counterparts. There were elections which he won easily as a crusader of the majority’s rights.

Even then there were signs of student politics getting noisier and nastier. During his first campaign, his opponents’ posters vanished from some campuses.

Due to University of Nairobi’s large transient student population posters are the sole means of communication between Sonu aspirants and students. Going by the posters available, you would think Babu was running unopposed.

He was the overwhelming favourite but would not leave anything to chance. In an interview after his election he blamed the situation on his supporters. His candidacy had inspired zeal in his backers leading to unfortunate excesses which “he does not endorse”. The excesses he and his supporters were accused of continued, a stabbing, assault and arson attacks on his rivals.

Ongili was born in Nyalenda, Kisumu. He always uses this fact as his origin story or starting from the bottom. He went to Kisumu Boys High School and scored an A- in KCSE 2005. He joined University of Nairobi in 2009 and studied Actuarial Science. In class he was a model student, his classmates point out the fact that he did well in exams before his political career took off in second year.

Politics first in university and then outside it was his stated goal. After his first term as chairman he ran for the ODM Westlands MP nomination.

He lost. He blamed his loss to favouritism. Tim Wanyonyi the current Westlands MP who beat him to the nomination is Cord principal Moses Wetangula’s brother.

He later campaigned for Kamlesh Pattni in the billionaires ill-fated bid for the Westlands parliamentary seat during the 2013 election. He described Pattni as a mentor and worked to popularise him across Westlands.

After his graduation in 2013, with first class honours he went back to university.


His second coming to the Sonu top seat while studying law was even more aggressive. The theatrics turned were up to eleven. His campaigns feature elegant processions of motor bikes, sports cars, roadshow trailers and SUVs all which he claims were donated by generous well-wishers.

His speeches are now filled with posturing. “Our university is not named after a dead person… Our university is the only one with a definite article in its name…,” is standard fair for him all lines guaranteed to win applause from his largely male audiences.

He loves English. He has been lampooned endlessly about the fact that he speaks like he swallowed a thesaurus. His statements are always prolix.

He walks around with a large retinue of supporters. His muscle is always heavy, always close by and always on the precipice of violence. The smartphones are numerous, top-end and always buzzing and then there are the beauties always surrounding him.

He says he is a businessman, and like all good connected ones, when you ask, he is a none-of-your-business man. His answers on interests are usually vague: real estate, farming, and clubs.

His fingers are in many pots but he won’t say which ones and there are no specific businesses or plot numbers offered up.

Then there are the contradictions: he rails about administration interference in student politics but admits to partnering with like-minded politicians to financially turbo charge his campaigns.

His return to student politics also came with a more rebellious tone and infantile antics. The strikes and strike issues have been impractical, the demands implausible and impossible, the strikers imbecilic and have frequently made University Way impassable.


He once led students in storming an examination centre demanding an exam be postponed because they weren’t ready.

He threatened mass public urination and suicide if US President Barack Obama did not come to the university.

He asked the president to supply him with petrol to torch clinics he claims are performing abortions. He also rightly campaigned stridently for the loans board to release money to students who had reported to campus.

His politics is that of the man on the street, but his instincts are suit-and-tie.

University politics is an exercise in contradiction; the rhetoric is very communitarian and socialist, but the thing that really attracts the crowd is capitalism-in-excess. The students like the ridiculous shows of bling, the Range Rovers, the public displays of piles of dollars all the while shouting “Comrade!” Babu does both, very well.

The Sonu chairmanship is useful in leveraging for positions at the table. It is usually assumed that whoever occupies it has the ear of the over 70,000 members.

An e-mail from Babu threatening to chop down the tree Mr Obama planted at UoN gets him an invitation to the dinner held in the US president’s honour.

Babu has now won three on the trot since re-joining the university.

Critics argue the main elector of Babu is apathy. Most university students do not bother voting. This in all likelihood is Babu’s last term and he has already said he is gunning for the Embakasi East parliamentary seat.

If he gets a major party’s nomination he will move on, if he doesn’t, well he does have a law degree to finish doesn’t he?

This story was first published by the Business Daily on April 08, 2016