On September 5th 2014, Uhuru Kenyatta caused a social media (and traditional media) standstill when he wore army fatigues for the first time in his presidency. All kinds of things were said: he looked “devilishly handsome”, “presidential”, “they fit him much better than his usual suits, he should get this tailor to make his suits”, “look at how cool my president is”, “oh my God you guys see how much swag he has”, and many others. He has done so at least once again since. This is a first for a Kenyan president: his predecessors have only worn their ceremonial Commander-in-Chief attire. As others celebrated, I was just sad, because this was yet another sign that Kenya was going in the direction of countries like the USA: becoming militarized.
Militarization occurs when a society organizes itself for violence and military conflict. It has many aspects: the threats a country thinks it faces, be it from terrorists, neighbouring states and natural resources such as diamonds and oil, will lead a state to wanting to achieve a certain level of military capacity to face these perceived threats. Arbitrary language also points to militarization, such as the “war on terror/drugs”. It is closely related to militarism, which is the military readiness of a state, and includes factors such as maintaining a standing army and actively developing advanced combat techniques and weaponry.
Militarism was a leading cause of World War 1. All over the world, there are conflicts, only varying in size and severity – these constitute militarization, and usually lead to war, when state forces (the police and the military) are actively deployed toward perceived or actual threats, such as resource wars and political wars between nation states, or inter-community clashes within a country. Globally, there has been a rise in militarization in the past two decades, since the end of the Cold War. As budgets for military spending increase, budgets for social goods such as education reduce.
Evidence of this in Kenya is daunting – other than our 2011 entry into Somalia to fight Al Shabaab, we have seen increasing military focus and spending since then, as well as a renewed focus in the militarization of youth through the National Youth Service (NYS). The NYS is a vocational training program for young people run by the Kenyan government. It was established in 1964 to train young people on tasks of national importance, such as service in the armed forces, national reconstruction programmes and disaster response. The NYS’s importance faded in the 1980s, and this renewed focus is supposed to “address insecurity, patriotism and morals” in the youth.
It aims to recruit 21,780 young people per year, up from the current 2,500. These 21,780 youth will then train a total of 227,670 young people across the 47 counties each year within a four to six month duration, after they complete their own training. The aim is to reach 1 million young people in four years and create a “social transformation army”, armed with skills and charged with the responsibility of transforming the other youth.
The recruits will take over traffic control in selected parts of the country and provide security for slum areas and in non-strategic government installations. NYS will also have a security firm where Kenyans can hire NYS guards to protect them. The intention here is to make NYS the alternative to militia groups and vigilantes. It is also to stop the radicalization of the youth by vigilante groups – which have proven to be attractive to jobless youth seeking a purpose for their lives.
I have spoken before on why patriotism as a concept is fallacious, and even dangerous to human beings. The effort being put into the NYS also seems to be as a response to our poor and terribly bureaucratic system of education. Who do these NYS recruitment drives target? People who have traditionally been denied opportunities to complete their 8-4-4 education either due to poverty or living in marginalized areas. Such programmes do not have as high enrolment in affluent, urban areas as they do in less affluent, rural and marginalized areas. This is essentially a resource distribution problem.
Even more dangerous is how such a programme makes a military culture, as opposed to a civilian one, natural. This is escalated by the fact that there is a plan to make the NYS mandatory for all high school leavers. Young people are inducted into the military way of life; its hierarchy. They have uniforms that resemble those of the military; their goal becomes to move up ranks while in the programme, just like in the military. All of these aspects are aimed at creating a militarized mind, such that these recruits, upon leaving the NYS, will feel most at home in the armed forces and likely enroll for military service, perhaps without regard to the hazards that come with the job: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, and other mental health difficulties.
If Kenyan youth need “discipline, morals and patriotism” (I don’t think this is a problem with the youth, if the education and employment system change, this programme will be unnecessary), let us find ways to provide these things, but not through militarized training. Civilian forms of youth development, such as sports, physical education, after school activities, clubs, music and visual arts programmes can achieve this for youth across the country, and even better, can be provided through the current education system should it be streamlined.
As this happens, and our armed forces continue to expand via such fertile recruitment grounds, we may find Kenya more and more predisposed to using military force to solve our problems, both with our neighbours and internally. Perhaps we could have a dispute with our neighbours about the waters of Lake Victoria, for example, and rather than solving it amicably through dialogue, we opt for military intervention just because we have a strong, well equipped army. When a country has a huge military which is well-funded, it will feel inclined to use it to solve all manner of real and imaginary problems – if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. The USA is a great example.
Closer home, since the Westgate attack of September 2013, we have become comfortable with military deployment within our borders. When 48 police officers were killed in Baragoi over what seemed like a cattle rustling dispute, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) were deployed there. Earlier in 2013 during the elections, when eight police officers were killed in Mombasa and Kilifi, KDF were deployed there. When there were clashes in Mandera and Wajir earlier this year and 18 people were killed, KDF was deployed to quell them. Most recently, KDF has been deployed to Kapedo to recover firearms from bandits after 21 police officers were killed there.
Rather than invest in improving the intelligence and police services, the government has opted for the nuclear option: deployment of the military within national borders. This constant reliance on the army to solve domestic problems is a clear sign of the failure of the police service as an institution. And, as we always do in Kenya, rather than fix the institution, we circumvent its failure, only that in this case, the stakes are very high – it’s a matter of life and death. It instills terror into the people living in the area where KDF have been deployed. Military intervention always leaves behind cases of torture, murder and rape, regardless of whether it is within or outside the country. But what is the government to do, you ask?
The paradox of government is thus: can a government be both empowered and constrained? For a government to perform its functions, the people it governs must cede control over some aspects of their lives to it. However, the inherent danger in this is that said government abuses its power and mistreats its citizens. One way in which governments do this is through their monopoly on military force.
The military has a well-defined organizational structure, weaponry and tactical training; as such, it is the ultimate tool of government abuse. Using the threat of force, especially of the violent kind, increases the cost associated with disagreeing with the government, and serves to repress the people. This leads us back to the aforementioned paradox: this force, technically speaking, can be used to protect the people from threats to both themselves and their property. On the other hand, however, it can also be used to trample on the very rights and freedoms it is supposed to protect.
The police are trained to protect and serve the Kenyan public. Even when a person is suspected to have committed a crime, a police officer is expected to continue to treat him/her as just that – a suspect. The police are still expected to protect the rights and freedoms of such people. They are trained to operate within a certain legal framework to solve problems, and to use physical violence as a last resort. This is why we must fix the police service.
On the other hand, members of the military only see two categories of people: “the enemy” and “not the enemy”. When deployed into a community, or region, the people inhabiting this community or region view them as intruders – occupiers. As a result, soldiers then view them as the enemy. Soldiers are also not trained to uphold domestic laws – they are trained for combat with the enemy. They see “the enemy” as a threat to their country, even when they are in their own country. They are out to subdue and/or destroy the enemy at all costs. This is why the military must be deployed within our borders sparingly, if at all.
I am worried when our president, an elected civilian, dons fatigues and goes about smiling as if such days are the best days of his life – considering the aforementioned situations. His comradery with the army is not something that should sit comfortably with Kenyans – it reads to me like a silent message about who is in charge, and who has the backing of the country’s most powerful institution if/when all goes to hell. Perhaps he does it to intimidate his enemies. Perhaps he is sending a warning to Kenyans. Perhaps, and this is very unlikely, he thought nothing of it other than “it would be so cool for me to wear fatigues!” Whatever the reason, he should stop it.
In Africa, countries too easily fall into military control, and once this happens, most times it ends badly for the civilian population. This has been the case in Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, the DRC, Somalia and others. A president wearing military fatigues all too easily evokes the image of a dictator – all we need to do is look at Kenya’s Western neighbours, Uganda and Rwanda, where the presidents occasionally do so. Kagame and Museveni both came to power through armed struggles, and occasionally feel the need to remind their people what they are capable of by donning fatigues. Why must Uhuru Kenyatta do this? Is he planning for an armed struggle within the country? Does he have an alliance with the military for protection against “his enemies”?
We should know that militarization has real, grave consequences: remember, a soldier’s mandate is to terminate the enemy. We must not celebrate when our president wears fatigues, we must question. We need to dig deeper into the NYS, rather than accepting is as a wholesale solution to “the Kenyan youth problem.” We must resist the constant deployment of KDF within our borders. This is a matter of life and death – the more we militarize our country, the more we put ourselves at risk.