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Watch for danger signs when the army comes recruiting



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This week, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) started another round of recruitment.

There were the usual complaints: The Daily Nation quoted the Vice-Chief of Defence Forces, Lt-Gen Robert Kibochi, warning that there was an increase in the number of people soliciting money from the public by claiming they could help secure recruitment.

This time, there was also grumbling that there weren’t enough places for women.

Earlier in the year, it was reported that more than 130 people were arrested for presenting fake admission letters to join the KDF when recruitment took place at that time.

These problems are just a mirror of the wider societal crisis of corruption. But taken together with what we see whenever recruitment in the “disciplined forces” takes place, it becomes a much bigger story and a canary in the coal mine not just for Kenya, but, indeed, also many other African countries.

In the majority of African countries, the photographs from recruitment into the army, police, Prisons Service, or reserve, are much the same these days.

There are long lines of mostly shirtless young men, sitting on the field, waiting to do the initial fitness exercise for them even to get considered.

The queues for the women are usually much shorter, because there are far fewer slots for them.

And, thankfully, they don’t have to take their blouses off like the men.

The vast majority of them will not make it, because there are just not enough openings for the numbers of young people looking to get in.

In Nigeria, recruitments into the police and army look like Nairobi’s Kasarani Stadium during a match involving Gor Mahia Football Club — there is a huge number of eager and, often, agitated candidates looking to get into the stadium where the recruitment is taking place.

This despite the fact that for the cadets, life in the forces is not the rosy one you get from the Officer’s Club. You will not get a nice car, or house.

If you are lucky, you will get to share a uniport. Otherwise, it will be a half-collapsed filthy quarter, with possibly four or five other families separated by a curtain, with the embarrassing sounds of procreation unfiltered in the night.

In places like Uganda, you could end up in a manyatta. The housing crisis is so acute, in the past there were reports of latrines covered over and turned into homes.

There are common stories of recruits too weak to go through the rigour of exercise even for five minutes. Their quest sometimes ends in a fainting spell. And then there are those who have meat on the body, but are hopelessly unfit.

In a recent recruitment in Uganda for the local defence units (LDU), a kind of national reserve, photographs of prospective candidates who were too fat to bend and touch their knees or scratch their backs made the rounds on social media. To some, it was funny.

But it was no laughing matter. The fellows who are too fat to make the initial cut, are actually in the same boat with the ones that are too weak.

The obese chaps are the ones who finished school, and looked for work for years until they gave up on the searches and themselves, and sat at home because they have parents with a roof over their heads, and an income. They spend their time on the couch, eating their disappointment in front of the TV, as they pile on the kilogrammes.

When the recruitment for the army or police comes around, the parents basically chase or shame them out of the house to go and give it a try.

And then there is the other half, who also spends every day looking for work, while trying their hands at all sorts of odd businesses. They don’t have the social safety of a family with a home, so they live rough during their struggles.

But after two or three years, hope begins to fade. Friends and relatives get tired of bailing them out, and soon they are out on their own. The gaps between meals get longer and longer, and frailty sets in.

Then there is a recruitment for the army or police, and they essentially crawl to the centre, hoping for a miracle. However, since the New Testament, miracles are extremely rare.

The heartbreaking stories that come with recruitment into the forces, tell us how severe the crisis of youth unemployment is, but are also a warning of the risks that lie ahead if the outlook doesn’t improve.

Ironically, the very forces they seek to join, are the ones that will show up to confront those who don’t get in when they take their discontent to the streets.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer [email protected]