Author:Were, Edmond Maloba


National service schemes are one of the significant avenues states adopt to manage existential threats, realize nation building, and promote civic engagement. Despite the significance of such programs, their implementation faces criticism for infringing on individual freedoms and liberties and for indoctrinating and militarizing youth in defense of the status quo. This article revisits the arguments surrounding national service schemes and contends that they retain the potential to contribute to nation building and to promote the empowerment of young people in emerging democracies. States justify national service by arguing that it securitizes young people as a prelude to engaging them in nation building. Security-conscious states have pursued these goals with both compulsory and voluntary programs that focus on secondary and postsecondary students. Many African countries adopted such programs after they achieved independence and today some of them do so in postconflict situations. Western and some East Asian countries have also adopted the schemes. I situate the Kenyan National Youth Service in the context of experiences from selected Western, Asian, and African countries for the purpose of rethinking its relevance in Kenya's existing democratic order.

I revisit the complexities of securitizing young people in order to highlight the challenges of nation building and providing security in Kenya. Including the country's youth on the national security agenda is urgently needed if Kenya is to address the challenges of radicalization, marginalization, and youth disem-powerment. Currently, Kenya is experiencing threats to both the state and its population that require short- and long-term responses. The country's National Youth Service is one of its responses to the existential threats it faces.

A number of postcolonial African regimes pursued security and nation building by embracing national service schemes. This strategy was often recognized as a viable pathway to these goals despite the difficulties with implementation states experienced in later years. Although those initial schemes were largely abandoned, current and emerging challenges to both state and human security on the continent demand a balance between the goals of securitization and the pursuit of democratic goals on the continent. National service programs are popular in many countries around the globe. (1) They were particularly popular in a number of African countries immediately after gaining independence, during social and economic crises, or after protracted civil conflicts. (2) In 2006, the African Youth Charter of the African Union codified their relevance. (3) When national youth programs are controlled by a dominant political party or when a state drifts toward authoritarianism, accusations of political indoctrination and affront to individual liberties arise. (4) However, it is important to revisit the thinking behind national service schemes with a view to reformulating and reengineering these schemes not only in Kenya but also on the African continent.


The securitization theory advanced by the Copenhagen School of critical security studies can be used to identify young people as a group that pertains to national security. This theory was popularized by Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde in their 1998 book, Security: A New Framework for Analysis. (5) The Copenhagen School portrays securitization as a process of "presenting an issue as an existential threat, requiring emergency measures and justifying actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure." (6) It views securitization as socially constructed existential threats expressed in a speech act. A securitization act includes a securitizing actor, a referent object, and an audience. (7) The securitizing actor makes the securitizing move or statement, the referent object is an object or ideal that is threatened and requires protection, and the audience is the target of the securitizing act that needs to be persuaded to accept the issue as a threat. Successful securitization, therefore, legitimizes "extraordinary means to solve a perceived problem." (8)

The Copenhagen School prescribes a deeper and wider approach to the study of security than the traditional approach that limits the discourse to state security. (9) The theory of securitization explains how state actors prioritize issues and bring them into the context of a national security agenda that requires a state to commit resources in order to bring about the required interventions. The interventions are the state policy actions necessary to address the perceived existential threats to national security. Thus, the process of securitization moves issues or perceived threats beyond established political rules and enables them to be handled in a special kind of politics. This is in line with the Copenhagen Schools conceptualization of securitization as "a more extreme version of politicization." (10) Integrating human security into the national security discourse enables researchers to include referent objects from the political, economic, environmental, and social realms." These are sectors that fall outside the conventional analysis of national security.

The need to locate youth on the national development agenda of a number of countries, especially African countries, is prompted, in most cases, by the inability of the state to include the growing number of youth in its development policies. (12) As a consequence, young people tend to participate in antisocial activities that influence a public perception that they are a national problem. (13) A national youth service program enables a state to prioritize young people in its agenda and include them in a country's development discourse. (14)

In emerging democracies on the African continent (e.g., Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia), securitization is, however, increasingly perceived as an undemocratic affront on individual liberties under the guise of promoting state security. (15) Indeed, civil society members have accused the state of using extrajudicial powers to address issues that could have been resolved using ordinary political processes. When a state exhibits a preference for high-handedness in imposing law and order, the issue of the linkage between securitization and democratization arises. (16) A number of African countries where the state tends to prioritize state security at the expense of individual freedoms and rights are facing this issue.

The expansion of democracy worldwide has prompted increasing calls for desecuritization; that is, the normalization of public policy making with regard to security. (17) Kristian Atland refers to the process whereby an issue "actively offer[s] a political solution to the threats, dangers, and grievances in question" as the "re-articulation" of security issues. (18) Proponents of this process argue that speech and narratives about securitization should be democratized. They argue that the politics of security should unfold within predictable rules in a democratic environment and that the changing sociopolitical and socioeconomic dynamics in developing countries require a revisit of the traditional roles of the state and integration of the voice of the people. (19) Desecuritization challenges the notion of state security and stresses that securitization should be broadened to include soft areas such as the environment, economy, and immigration. These are some of the areas that constitute human security. (20) According to securitization theory, as security threats change, so does the configuration of the referent objects. (21) In a number of countries, the sectors that are the referent objects of securitization vary because of national particularities. (22)

Young people in African countries are becoming preferred targets of national, regional, and global radical extremist groups. These groups propagate radical narratives "that reject or undermine the status quo or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice." (23) Such groups have converted many youths to terrorism. (24) In Kenya, the teachings of Al-Shabaab are a significant existential threat to the nation because they induce young people to embrace radical extremism. Al-Shabaab is an Arabic word meaning "the youth. The name denotes a movement of militant young Somalis who broke away from the Islamic Courts Union regime that ruled Somalia for several months in 2006. The movement is based in Somalia and advances a brand of Salafist and Wahhabist Islamic ideology that supports tafkir, or the excommunication of apostates and unbelievers. It advocates for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic republic in the Horn of Africa that includes Somalia and portions of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. (25) The movements cause has been invigorated by Kenya's military presence in Somalia, which Al-Shabaab members perceive as occupation by Christian kaffirs. Al-Shabaab presents its radical narrative in a manner that is captivating to vulnerable youth, who are promised bliss in the afterlife. The movement is sustained by a variety of funding sources, especially the Somali diaspora, racketeering, and taxation and levies. Its cash flow is enabled through mobile money transfers inside and outside Somalia.

The challenge to the Kenyan state is its apparent inability to contain radicalization without infringing on the rights of the individual. The state has often responded by using discriminatory and repressive strategies against the Somali community in Kenya, whose members state actors brand as Al-Shabaab sympathizers. The strategies normally involve searches of homes without a warrant, arrests, and group incarceration. These actions on the part of the state generally attract condemnation from advocates of democracy. (26)

The emergence of extremist radicalization in schools transforms students and...

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