“A country that is at war with its young people, is a country that has no future.” These were the words of Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja, one month ago on the floor of the Senate in response to the proposed new directive by the Ministry of Education to track down and arrest HELB loan defaulters. The then Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed announced that the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) will partner with security agencies to track down over 74,000 defaulters who owe the government Sh7.2 billion.
This was met with vehement objection from the public, most especially the youth who took to the streets protesting the directive. Defending their stance, the youth cited that low wages and high unemployment make it impossible to pay off these loans, terming the directive as illogical and downright unfair. Young people also took to social media expressing their dissent from the controversial directive. “I thought education is the KEY…inafaa kufungua sio kufunga.” posted local musician Daddy Owen @daddyowenmusic.
Amidst the threat of imminent arrest for the graduated defaulters, a new spectre looms even larger for those currently still in university. The Vice Chancellors Committee have rejuvenated their push for the increase of university fees, tripling it from the current 16,000ksh per year to 48,000Ksh. The students affected shall be the students placed through KUCCPS, formerly the Joint Admissions Board (JAB), who are government sponsored. This means even bigger loans for them to grapple with. It becomes an insurmountably difficult task to convince these young people that their government is working for them, particularly when graft remains its immortal and never-ceasing modus operandi.
Currently, beneficiaries of HELB loans are given a one-year grace period after which they are required to start paying off their loan. This is lacks cogency because the graduates are not guaranteed work placement within this first year. Year in, year out, universities churn out numerous graduates across the country who nurse hopes of joining the working taskforce of the nation. The stark reality they meet on the ground is sobering. The quintessential youth has to ‘’tarmac” in search of a job for what seems like an eternity before even landing a job with a minimum work wage. Jobs are scarce, almost mythical. And in the eventuality that they present themselves, the working conditions and remunerations create the conundrum of whether it really was a worthwhile gambit to work in the first place.
We are quick to forget when Kenyan media was awash with stories not so long ago of young people being duped into ‘jobs abroad’ that turned out to be human trafficking, slavery and torture. On the flipside, those who remain here must continually wade through the mire of corruption, extrajudicial killings, high taxes and ill-conceived legislative bills just to make a living. It presents no surprise therefore that more youth are turning to drugs, crime and radicalization in a bid to survive. This is why the Senator’s words ring true. About 70% of our population are youth. If we do not take care of our youth, we are simply not taking care of ourselves.
It is of utmost importance that policy makers and government leaders consider these issues deeply during planning, appropriation of funds and execution of their constitutional mandate. The hue and cry from the youth should not merely be dismissed as petty, petulant or insignificant. Apathy, or sadly in other spheres, the intentional disregard for the youth, becomes the perfect nidus for the desolation of our society from within. As the African proverb warns, “The child who is not embraced by his village, will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
Young people are ready; young people are active. Young people are as gifted as they are passionate. The challenge that this generation of leaders now faces is how to channel this latent potential into active transformative power for the development of this nation. We must engage the youth, not ‘encage’ them.
As the Senator posited in his submissions, the youth are the trustees of our country’s posterity. A disillusioned and disengaged youth spells doom for a country and its vision. The goal shouldn’t be to punish the youth who are suffering because of the bad system; it should be to fix the system. How can we finance the education of our youth without enslaving them in debt? These are the pertinent questions that we should seek to answer. Our graduates should don on caps, and not cuffs. Here is where our freedom lies. And the liberation of the young is ultimately the liberation of the nation.