In Kenya, a crowd as huge as the one seen in the viral video of former National Youth Service (NYS) officers thronging the Embakasi Garrison for the recruitment exercise by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) can only be rivaled by that of a political rally.
In the video, which has been shared widely on various social media platforms, a sea of former NYS officers is seen jostling outside the garrison, hoping to be among the lucky 350 recruits that will be allowed to join the disciplined forces this year.
There is just something about the military that makes it attractive to a lot of job seekers. The first, and the main one, of course, is the pay. Second is that, save for the cadet category, the field is flat for both those who have university degrees and college dropouts.
A form four certificate with a minimum qualification of C (plain) is enough.
But you also need to be young (between 18 and 26 years), healthy and energetic. For men, a minimum height of 5’3″ and 5′ for women.
Anyway, this is the crowd that propelled President William Ruto to power after running a well-oiled campaign in which he packaged himself as the saviour of the millions of hustlers who scrap a living in the informal sector as hawkers, jua kali artisans, boda boda operators and many other ‘hustlers.’
In the UDA Party manifesto, Ruto noted that every year, 800,000 young Kenyans join the workforce after completing school, college and university.
The corporate sector, reads the manifesto, is only able to employ 50,000 or so.
Another 100,000 to 150,000 fortunate ones are able to find stable jobs in successful small businesses.
“The others, more than half a million, swell the ranks of frustrated young people eking precarious livelihoods as hawkers, casual labourers and subsistence farmers who hardly produce,” reads the manifesto.
Most of those are not really unemployed…they might be underemployed.
Well, it is true that a tiny fraction of these youths just laze around Kwa Mtaa, chewing khat and sharing jaba stories.
Another tinier fraction are criminals-mostly petty offenders like the phone snatchers whose ‘shamba’ is around the Bus Station area in Nairobi’s Central Business District.
But most of them are either trying hard to find a job or fend for themselves the only way they know how: doing odd jobs in the ubiquitous informal sector, but all the while praying that one day they will have a break–like landing a job in the military or, increasingly, hitting a jackpot.
This explains the country’s low unemployment rate of 4.9 percent as of December last year, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). This is lower than the unemployment rate in Finland, a country that however, only 12.7 percent of its population live on less than $2.5 in a day. Close to 40 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line, according to the national statistician.
Kazi ni kazi is a popular line that was popularized in the mid-1990s. When we were growing up, we listened to that a lot. It was disturbing for those of us who wanted to be doctors and engineers and lawyers.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that around that formal jobs started disappearing. Or perhaps the working age population was growing faster than formal jobs.
But it is also true that manufacturing companies were ditching Kenya for other countries at a fast rate. Civil servants like my father were hounded out of office through the Structural Adjustment Programs that were being spear-headed by the World Bank and its sister institution the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
We lived close to the Industrial Area, and my friends and I often passed through this manufacturing district. Suddenly of ‘Hakuna Kazi’ started popping up on the gates of many factories in the Industrial Area.
Many students leaving colleges found themselves without white-collar jobs, triggering a major campaign to encourage those with tertiary education not to be picky with jobs.
Formal jobs have refused to grow. A survey by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) showed that less than 10 percent of Kenyan adults have permanent full-time jobs.
The CBK report showed that the average share of workers in permanent full-time jobs stood at nine percent last year.
For most of those in the informal sector, or without jobs, an opportunity to join the chosen few with permanent jobs comes at least once a year: The recruitment by the disciplined forces.