Kenyan National Youth Service cadets march during review ceremony in Lamu in 2011.
Kenya's Senate has passed a law that brings back National Youth Service (NYS) conscription for high school graduates.
Under the law passed unanimously July 18th, the pre-university service will no longer be voluntary. All high school graduates will be required to sign up for the NYS, a programme that seeks to give young people vocational training, instil patriotism and empower them to help safeguard the country.
"After completion of high school, there is that window period of about two years [while students wait for university admission] when the majority of the youths are idle," said Senator Beatrice Elachi of the Alliance Party of Kenya who supports the legislation. "That time frame is very delicate as youths ponder their future and many have fallen by the wayside by engaging in criminal and immoral activities."
The NYS was established in 1964 to train youths in tasks of national importance, including service in the armed forces, national reconstruction programmes and disaster response. For more than 20 years, pre-university stints with the NYS were compulsory for Kenyan high school graduates.
"It was gradually scrapped in the late 1980s and the re-introduction is aimed at addressing security, patriotism and morals," Elachi told Sabahi.
"There are youths who are unable to progress to universities or colleges because of financial challenges or [because they] do not have the required grades," she said. "In a way, the NYS is aimed at empowering youths with skills that will also tackle security and unemployment."
The law also requires the government to expand existing NYS facilities in order to accommodate the expected influx of young recruits.
The legislation comes at a time when the country is seeing an uptick in criminal activities, said Wajir County Senator Abdirahman Hassan Ali.
"We have witnessed criminal groups like al-Shabaab targeting idle youths in the country," he told Sabahi. "This is one of the moves that will keep the youths busy."
The Senate Implementation Committee, on which Ali sits, is tasked with implementing the law within six months.
Because youths represent the biggest demographic segment in Kenya, they can make important contributions to the country's social and economic development, Ali said.
"Without engaging the youth constructively, the country's Vision 2030 of attaining economic independence in all sectors will be in jeopardy," he said.
National Youth Service short on recruits
NYS Director General Kiplimo Rugut said the programme has struggled to recruit youth because it is voluntary.
"During our recruitment exercises across the country, we literally beg the youths to join NYS yet we offer the much-needed vocational training required for the job market," he told Sabahi.
"Besides the technical and entrepreneurial skills, youths also get paramilitary training to respond to disasters such as floods, famine and now terrorism," he said, adding that the military, Kenya Wildlife Service and police recruit personnel from NYS.
NYS cadets are trained in efficient agricultural practices and management, and after their six-month training they receive certificates that help them secure employment, he said.
Compulsory recruitment will supplement the national education system, which is mainly academic, with vocational training, said Jacqueline Mugo, executive director of the Federation of Kenya Employers.
"Kenyan employers are keen on people who can meet the [needs of the] labour market," she said, adding that the NYS is playing an important role in closing gaps and providing in-demand training.
The government will need to ensure that training standards remain high once youths start flocking to NYS centres, she said.
Stephen Kinaro, a civil servant at the Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development in Kisii County, is sceptical that the decision to make enrolment mandatory will lead to positive results especially if not accompanied by a jobs programme.
"Forcing someone, especially youth, to do something or join service against their will will only foster resentment and [negatively] affect any skills they might learn," he said. "Most will go through the programme as a requirement but they will gain nothing."
He said the government should tackle the issues that lead youths into crime, so that any training received through NYS is not wasted or used for negative goals.
Nairobi resident Isaac Bosire, 47, said he had a positive experience during his NYS training in 1985.
"The skills I acquired at NYS have enabled me to provide for the family," he told Sabahi, adding that he hopes the law goes into effect in time for his son's graduation from high school next year. "My son is aspiring to be a doctor, but the NYS courses will be a back-up."
"The law comes at a time when a sense of patriotism is very low because of the economic and security challenges," he said. "Everyone is required to be patriotic no matter the situation and the NYS instils this aspect by promoting social responsibility, discipline and cohesion."