The Building Bridges Initiative widely known as the BBI has been a hot topic in Kenyan political corridors ever since the famous ‘handshake’ transpired in March 2018. The ‘handshake’ represented the joining of forces between the two main presidential aspirants of the 2017 General Elections- Uhuru Kenyatta (the incumbent) and Raila Odinga (opposition leader) – as a sign of peace and unity. It was occasioned by the chaotic aftermath of the elections that had left the country divided; unfortunately, a trend in post-elections Kenya. Subsequently, the unlikely union conceived the Building Bridges to a United Kenya Initiative (BBI) that was recently pompously launched after the Report of the Steering Committee on the Implementation of the Building Bridges Initiative to A United Kenya Taskforce was released in October 2020.
The commencement of the BBI journey was marked by the selection of a taskforce commissioned by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to probe into and make propositions around the nine thematic areas they identified as the problematic national issues. These are: National Ethos, Responsibilities and rights of citizens; Ethnic antagonism and competition; Inclusivity; Divisive Elections; Shared Prosperity; Corruption; Devolution; and Safety and Security. The propositions are centred on these matters to address both the software and hardware of the systems in the social, political and economic spheres of the country towards a positive trajectory.
The Taskforce set in motion and endeavoured to ensure that the process was inclusive by seeking the opinions of citizens, civil society, faith-based organizations, cultural leaders, the private sector and experts. The BBI suggests a broad range of amendments and additions into the law spanning almost all sectors of the Kenyan economic, social and political atmosphere. Arguably, the most outstanding recommendation made by the document is the audit of the Executive arm of government to set up the office of the Prime Minister with two deputies and the allocation of seats in the Cabinet to Members of Parliament; as a possible remedy for the culture of divisive elections in Kenya.
Young people in Kenya are among those groups whose needs have been repeatedly recognized by the BBI Report. Of the nine themes recognized by the report, inclusivity and shared prosperity strongly stood out in raising the issues of the young population in Kenya. It is well-known that the youth in Kenya are among the special interest groups granted special rights under the Constitution of Kenya among women, children, minorities and marginalized groups, people with disabilities and older members of the society. The historic enfranchisement of these groups of people demands these special rights as affirmative action measures.
Consequently, the theme of inclusivity as a justification of the BBI process, featured some of the concerns of the young people in Kenya through selected representatives. Inadequate job opportunities, stringent barriers to entry into employment and business, among others are some of the issues raised as the causes of the widening gap of exclusion of the younger generation. On the other hand, the theme of shard prosperity suggested that the most pressing hindrance to intra-generational equity in Kenya is the lack of capacity to generate sufficient jobs and employment for the youth. The Committee recognized that youth represents the period in which individuals transition from childhood to adulthood and take actual control of their lives and therefore gave recommendations to facilitate this progression.
In addressing the concerns raised by the youth representatives engaged by the Steering Committee under the two themes, the Committee made several recommendations to that effect including:
- Establishment of mechanisms to ensure more accessibility into the job market especially at the entry level.
- Elimination of barriers to accessing the 30% procurement provision and the already existing youth funds.
- Exhaustive execution of the Youth Development Policy, 2019.
- Establishment of policy, legal and administrative structures to the effect that the youth admittance into the job market as well as elective and appointive positions and business opportunities.
- Decreasing the expenses incurred in starting and sustaining business enterprises.
- Granting a tax holiday of at least seven years to start ups by young people.
- Ensuring that 30% of opportunities in the counties and wards are reserved for youth and other marginalized persons.
- Need to formulate a policy framework for harnessing, promoting and marketing the creative potential of young people in sports, music, dance, arts, ICT and other creative industries generally.
- Revisiting the curriculum to focus on technical subjects from early stages as a significant initial stride to nurture and open opportunities for children and youth.
- Creation and promotion of business incubation and industrial parks for small-scale innovators and business owners.
Despite these extensive recommendations for the benefit of young people in the document, it is important to appreciate that this is not the first time that the youth have been promised reforms in Kenya. The plight of the youth addressed in the Report such as unemployment, social and economic exclusion and education gaps are not at all new but merely stanzas from a song that has been sung for ages. From time to time, significant changes have been made politically, socially and economically by various stakeholders including government itself to address the plight of the younger generation. Therefore, it is necessary to take a closer look at the BBI recommendations with regards to the youth in Kenya in light of the existing framework dealing with these issues. On account of this observation, it is crucial to analyse the youth-centred recommendations of the BBI vis a vis the systems and structures that are already in place.
“The plight of the youth addressed in the Report such as unemployment, social and economic exclusion and education gaps are not new but merely stanzas from a song that has been sung for ages.”
In a bid to incorporate the above recommendations into the final BBI report and subsequently ensure that the issues raised are absorbed into the laws and policies of Kenya, the Steering Committee proposed amendments and additions into the national legal and policy framework for the benefit of young people in the country. A close examination of these propositions however suggest proximate similarities with the prevailing legal, policy and institutional landscape for the youth in Kenya. These amendments, which will be delved into critically in the subsequent paragraphs are; tax holidays for new businesses, establishment of a youth commission, formation of business incubation centres and the introduction of a HELB grace period.
“A close examination of these propositions however suggest proximate similarities with the prevailing legal, policy and institutional landscape for the youth in Kenya.”
The first legal and policy reform recommended under the BBI for the benefit of the youth in Kenya is the institution of an official national tax policy i.e. Kenya National Guide on Tax Policy. One of the objectives of the proposed tax policy is to minimize taxation of new and small businesses by giving them a tax holiday of at least seven years as a support to youth entrepreneurship and job creation. The provision of the tax holiday will also be anchored in the suggested Micro and Small Enterprises (Amendment) Bill, 2020 to amend the Micro and Small Enterprises Act, 2012. Even though this provision is the first of its kind and its intention is to facilitate entrepreneurship among the youth, it is questionable whether it would have been better to reduce the tax rates instead for an overall sustainable business environment. In addition, setting up such a blanket provision wrongly assumes that the youth population is homogenous. The reality is that not all persons under the age of thirty-five in Kenya are economically challenged. The effect of this assumption is indirect discrimination against the youth who are actually in need as they are expected to compete with others with economically able counterparts. Further, the provision does not address the obstacles to entry into the business landscape bulwarking youth such as bureaucratic due diligence procedures, lack of management skills, difficulty in attaining initial business and unavailability of market.
The second proposition is a constitutional amendment to set up a youth commission as one of the commissions set up under Chapter 15 of the Constitution is yet another promise to the young people should the referendum be passed. Some of the functions of the body will be: to advance the participation of the youth in all spheres of public and private life, to ensure the mainstreaming of the youth perspective in planning and decision-making, to advise the national and county governments on the design, implementation and evaluation of policies and programs to secure sustainable livelihoods for the youth, promotion and preservation of African morals, traditions and culture among the young people, among others. As much as a constitutional body set up solely to deal with youth issues is non-existent, there are other bodies already set up under various laws and policies addressing similar issues. For instance, The National Youth Council established by the National Youth Council Act granted various mandates such as mobilizing resources to support and fund youth programmes and initiatives; promoting and popularizing the National Youth Policy in line with other policies affecting the youth; inspiring and promoting the spirit of unity, patriotism, volunteerism and service among the youth; lobbying legislation on issues affecting the youth; and promoting the inclusion of youth in decision-making bodies and other such entities. It is quite obvious that the proposed functions of the Youth Commission will overlap with those of the National Youth Council. Furthermore, there exists the State Department for Youth under the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender and the National Youth Service. How then will these bodies co-exist in the event that the BBI is passed? Is it necessary to have a constitutional body addressing youth issues when a statutory body of a similar nature already exists?
Thirdly, the Report further proposes the formation of Business Incubation Centres across the country for the purposes of providing business advisory services which includes access to capital and government contracts. In addition, the body will register and certify enterprises owned by young people, women and people with disabilities. The authority will be an establishment of the Micro and Small Enterprises (Amendment) Bill, 2020. The incubation centres will seek to solve the bottlenecks of due diligence bureaucracy in registering businesses and in adding the youth n business management through advisory services. Despite this being a step in the right direction, the fact that there are other structures in operation serving the same purpose challenges the extent of thought and research that these propositions were informed by. The Constitution under Article 55 mandates the state to set up affirmative action programmes to tackle the predicaments of the Kenyan youth. Case in point is the Kenya Youth Development Policy, an execution machinery instituted to provide an opportunity for improving the quality of life of the youth through their involvement in the economic process. Further several funds have already been set up for the purpose of affirmative action such as the Youth Enterprise Development Fund and the Uwezo Fund.
Finally, the Steering Committee suggested the amendment of the Higher Education Loans Board Act, 1995 to accord loanees a grace period of 4 years from the date of completion of their studies. Afterwards, they can commence the repayment of the loans advanced to them. Further, it amends the Act to exempt loanees without a source of income, upon application to the Board, from paying interest on their loans up to the time they commence earning an income. Like the provision on the tax holiday, this grace period is a blanket stipulation that may lead to potential indirect discrimination. In addition, it would have been more prudent to provide solutions for their inability to pay the loans such as unemployment and high interest rates instead of postponing the inevitable payment. The youth in Kenya have from time to time petitioned the president to waive the HELB Loans altogether, recognizing that most of them are not evading payment but are in fact genuinely unable to pay back the loans. The weight of this loan then becomes a barrier to their development as they are not able to secure other loans for other purposes because of Credit Reference Bureau blacklisting.
From the foregoing, it is evident that the dilemma of young persons in Kenya is a vicious cycle featuring gaps in the education system, lack of employment opportunities, barriers of entry into businesses, inability to access and pay back development and education loans and exclusion from decision-making positions. These five major problems are delicately connected to each other making it difficult for the youth to seamlessly transition fully into the economy of the country. However, these setbacks have been a part and parcel of the Kenyan youth narrative for years now and different policy and legal interventions have been developed to remedy the situation. The propositions made by the BBI report are countermeasures that resemble those that are already in place in many ways as seen above. It is therefore important for the youth and youth organizations to critically examine these provisions so that we don’t have parallel policies, laws and regulations that do not translate to positive elevation of the livelihoods of the youth in Kenya. Only if these provisions are well thought of and effectively executed will they aid in solving the menaces grappling the current youthful population in the country.
Click HERE for the full BBI Report.
First published on The Youth Café website