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Monday, 10 October 2011

Should Zambia have a mandatory national service?

The Government is allegedly considering making national service training for youths mandatory.

According to Defence Minister GBM, “National service can also be used as skills centres and hopefully this will turn round the situation of high levels of unemployment among the youth in the country". Some have called it “a well thought proposal” which would address the youths “who are languishing on the streets”.

This initiative will of course come with costs and benefits. Interestingly, this proposal is not in the PF Manifesto.  Its also not clear whether other models will be considered e.g. some form of privates sector involvement.

Are you in favour of Zambia introducing a mandatory national service for youths?  If not, what approaches do you think Government should consider? 

A sample of responses from "properly identified persons" will be published under our new column - Readers Weekly.

Those on Facebook can leave their comments here.


  1. No it should not be mandatory. If we have a national service and if youth are taken into national service they have to at least be fed and clothed. Things are so desparate I would think that there is a sufficiently large number of youth who would join voluntarily just for food and clothing. If it is introduced, let it be optional. Let others serve by getting a good education or skills training so that they can contribute to the economy by being employed or self employed. It would probably be more benecficial to the nation to increase the number and quality of secondary and tertiary institutions covering both academic and practical subjects. Reducing the cost to the student by increasing government funding of such education would widen access to more students as well.

  2. While I realise that this was not the case with the previous national service system, nor is it normal with such systems worldwide, at least in the USA the "mandatory" part of the system is registration and response if called on to serve. All American males (sexist I know) are required to register with the Selective Service Administration on their 18th birthday, and in the event that the Congress declares a military draft to be in effect, any registered person may be contacted to report for duty. The politicians and generals learned their lesson after Vietnam, so they rely solely on volunteers and positive incentives for military recruiting now, but the registration portion of the system remains "mandatory".

    Again, I realise that this is probably not the meaning of "mandatory" which the Defense Minister had in mind given the historical context, though there is a slim chance that this was the case, and I wouldn't want to appear to be offering up a semantic loophole to alter a potentially unpopular stance already taken, but incidentally here is a semantic loophole that alters the potentially unpopular stance that has already been taken.

  3. The last mandatory national service I recall was in view of the real threat of war posed by the forces to the south of Zambia and for that reason was 'mandatory', disregarding the huge drain on the nation's coffers. It was a necessary duty. In absence of real or imaginary threat, a national service is but a cost to the nation, unless understood in another sense, such as a productive value adding, national building national service. But then, if this is the sense, why not opt for a mandatory apprenticeship scheme which could be both music for the industrious youth as well as real potential for spurring real growth by its very nature - skills transfer, progression etc. This is the sort of national service that Zambia needs. The role of government in such will simply be to provide the necessary stipends for the apprentice while the enterprises will provide the environment/duties - a win win capacity building set up. Forget the 'concentration socialist/communist/NAZI gestapo sort of national service, it sends a cold chill down the spine of even stoutest of men.

  4. Yes - HOWEVER National service does not have to be "army" based. It can be community/production project based - and involve real everyday skills: carpentry, beekeeping, agricultural skills, community projects, sports etc....

  5. What more would a small firm just taking off need than young apprentices whose stipends are met by the collective national tax, to jump start operations? The biggest equations most entrepreneurs struggle with besides capital is the cost of labour and an apprenticeship scheme will clearly lessen the burden while drive production in the positive and stir the entrepreneurial spirit.

    If that is what govt has in mind, way to go!

    But if the national service envisaged is the gestapo type, then good bye to fluidity and welcome retrogressive skill-stifling menial labour camps!

  6. " Are you in favour of Zambia introducing a mandatory national service for youths? If not, what approaches do you think Government should consider? "

    I'm not for mandatory anything. It will create a lot of resentment among young voters, and I don't see the point.

    If they want to transfer skills, put everyone in school. Give them free shooting range classes if that's the idea.

    Also, it is an idea from a different era. Let's get serious about employment and education.

  7. National Service is a good move and should for citizens who have the fitness, health, and also willing to do so. The High school recruitment are good target because many young people are seeking a direction and vision for their lives. Basic military training would be useful but engage also in emergecy, disaster and business skill. The skill learned in ZNS was what many people in my father's generation ended up using such skills for career advancement and development Increase open recruitment and offer more incentives such as tuition assistance, skills training, especially in vocational related field. Engage the youths in national development, community projects and infrastructure. Do I support increased ZNB move yes the number of youth recruited but may be optional but not mandatory. Ages 18-30 may be a good age to promote and encourage youths in within this category but offer the cons and pros to the candidates before they sign on.


  8. National Service! We seem to be in the flashback phase. We seem to have began to romanticize the KK era. Nice things happened back then but for 20 of those 27 years we were in reverse gear. Zambia was a terrible place to be in in 1990!

    National Service was one of those ideas that contributed to us moving from postive balance at independence to the famed 7 billion debt in 1991. We are at +2.3 billion balance in 2011. Do we want to be go back to the deficit days.

    National Service was a big drain to the treasury. Conditions at the camps were terrible. If memory serves me well, the plug was finally pulled on the scheme in 1982 when there were massive disease outbreaks at some camps in Luapula and Eastern province. There could even have been some deaths. Can someone with better memory confirm or give us the facts?

    To digress, as a people , we do not document our history enough. We don't seem to have an active culture of recording events. And as a consequence romanticized oral accounts are in the ascendancy .

  9. Dear Kaiba,
    Your memory is not correct. ZNS was not a terible drain on the economy shc that it caused economic downturn. Our economic problems are well documented. Huge subsidies, over valued currency, structural rigidty which did not allow the economy to adjust to changing global economic conditions. Most of the $7 billion was incurred in bilateral debt to the IMF, World Bank and Government to support an unsustainable policy of subisdising consumption.
    Much has been made of the terrible 1980s but there were upsides, like less corruption, better working health services, less poverty and a far better functioning educational system.
    National service was abolished due to poor sanitation leading to dysentry and Luamfumu in Luapula and this was due more to poor leadership than anything else. the standards in terms of food and general outlook of recruits was not bad at all with ZNS training actually gaining weight and developing impressive physiques. one thing National Service brought was a real sense of nationhood and a breakdown in tribal barriers. All ZNS trainees were imbued with a love of the country and a patriotism that todays youth cannot match.
    ZNS was closed own after the systemic failures at Lumfumu where procedures and standards broke down.
    Mr. Kaiba I detect the demonise Kaunda era tone in your posting. Do some real research.

  10. Interesting and contrasting perspectives! It is the young people who will have the opportunity and burden of whatever system may be adopted going forward, but it is the older generation that has real world experience with the old system in practice. I for one would like to hear more from both groups and the diversities within them:

    K. Musanga,

    I wonder if you can provide any more details about the nature of your father's service period? Nothing classified of course, more day to day things, housing, food, instruction, tools. What lessons should be carried over and what should not be repeated? Such experience would be very valuable at this juncture.


    I appreciate your lament over the general lack of documentation, and you provide an opportunity for me to point out that it is never to late to record some oral history from an elder person. Even if it seems muddled and elaborated to you, let the historians worry about that after you get the data. Digital video with original audio is best of course, but handwritten notes are enough, the important part is the recording before the knowledge is gone from this world.

    I am interested to know which aspects of the previous national service system you, or those you have access to, found to be unworkable. I am specifically curious as to the budget impacts to which you allude, and overall any threads towards accounting for that 7 billion to which you refer? MrK probably knows more about the history of Zambian official debt during the Cold War, and the government relationships with the IMF and World Bank, and resulting effects on domestic spending priorities, than I do, so he may be able to help out with some specifics here.


    Got anything on the previous Nat Serv system and where historic debt crisis came from for us to chew on in this context?

    To the Anonymous poster from 11 October 2011 09:22,

    While I respect your anonymity, I wonder if you would object to my assigning to you the ZE standard "AnonOne" moniker for purposes of this thread only, so as to distinguish your comments from others who may wish to post anonymously as well? If the response is "Yes", then please indicate at the start or end of your text by sticking AnonOne in there somewhere (if only to reject it in favour of a better one). Otherwise you will have to forgive mistaken identity as conversation progresses.

    I am impressed by the amount of access your comment indicates to first hand experiences under the previous National Service system. I wonder if you feel it possible to share more about the system itself, how it was structured and run in various aspects, what daily activity was like and how skills were transmitted to trainees? Was tribal diversity within individual units a result of policy or random chance? How great were the tensions between tribes to begin with, and would you judge them to be greater or less than the tensions between PF youth cadres and those of the opposition parties at this time?

    Was the general feeling at the time that the failures of a single project site in Luapula were "tip of the iceberg" indicators of rot within the entire system? Or perhaps this incident was seen as the excuse rather than the cause of removing the programme? Other than the obvious lapses in sanitation, can we identify other standards which might indicate the nature of these systemic and procedural failures?

    If Zambian Youth are to be charged with the responsibility of serving their Nation, let us give them the most accurate picture of what that may look like that past experience and tempered wisdom can provide, combined with the current needs of the State and aspirations of youth in general. Hopefully they don't look too different from one another and we can all have realistic expectations.

  11. Dear Anonymous
    I am happy that you have corroborated my recollection on what led to the curtailment of the post Form 5 ( Grade 12) mandatory national service. Yes, dysentery broke out in the ZNS camps in Luapula. That is the part of my memory that i wanted re-jigged.

    The part of ZNS being a waste of resources does not require corroboration. That part is an opinion-my opinion - arrived at from personal experience and from facts I can look up and will share below.

    I agree with you on the factors that you list that contributed to the massive debt burden. You list ‘unsustainable policy of subsidising consumption‘ as one of the key factors. But why did you not consider that ZNS was a consumption centre. Young men and women in the prime of their lives were cared for by the state for up to 20 months. They were clothed and fed at great expense with very little tangible benefit accruing to them or to the state. If that expenditure by GRZ is not termed as for consumption then what is consumption? If GRZ takes over the feeding and clothing of all school leavers for 20 months is it not a subsidy to parents ?

    I also agree with you that some people could have derived tangible and intangible benefits from the 20 months stint at ZNS. (The period was 6 months for those selected to UNZA and other tertiary institutions.) Those benefits were miniscule in comparison to the massive cost to the nation. Cost benefit analysis was not one of strong points for the KK regime. Policy changes, reshuffles, appointments and dismissals were often pronounced abruptly at press conferences with scant regard for the consequences.

    This is not to demonise the Kaunda regime. This is to provide balance to this ascending narrative that it was all rosy under Kaunda. Granted it wasn’t all gloom either. But the fact is that we regressed economically!

    The facts (data obtained from GDP per capita data series on the IMF website) are that in 1964 when Kaunda took over till 1991, when he lost the election, we regressed economically. On a per capita basis we went down by over 30% to US$ 416. Chiluba also took us back another 19% to US$ 340 in 2001. Mwanawasa until his death in 2008 brought us back to life and we grew by 290% to US$1160. During Rupiah’s three year reign we grew 16% to an estimated $1355.

    If we drew a league table for economic performance and we annualised the growths and declines to account for the different number of years in office -, Mwanawasa would top that table. The two leaders at the bottom are Kaunda and then Chiluba.

    Clearly poor policies and poor responses to the external factors caused these declines. This ‘new’ cabinet contains a sizeable number who served under Kaunda and under Chiluba- the same period when we taking long strides backwards. Are they the source of these bad ideas?. This ZNS idea is a bad idea from the bad past. Let us learn from History- let’s leave mandatory national service in the past!

  12. There was a commission of inquiry which established that ZNS systems had failed at Luamfumu with poor sanitation and poor conditions. This was laid at the door of poor administration with officers not bothering to ensure standards were kept and not doing the necessary paper ork on time to order the necessary items from Central Stores. an overly centralised supply system was also blamed with supplies which were supposed to be in camps stacked high in warehouses in Lusaka. Furthermore the officers messes were well supplied with the usual officer type luxuries yet the recruots were lacking basics like soap which were stuck in stores in Lusaka because the paper work was not done. Colonel chanda Sosala who was in charge at Luamfumu had to resign. He re-appeared as a noisy and vocal backbencher MP.
    Every government system has waste and every government has its prestige projects and white elephants but on the balance for me, National Service was an eye opener and a great experience. I travelled to parts of Zambia I never hoped to ever visit. I mixed with people of many different tribes and cultures and we worked to gether as a team. I feel my love for this country and my patriotism was nurtured at National Service. Carefully managed and with achievable goals, National service could be a valuable means of:-
    1. Harnessing idle Manpower for Development
    2. Bring Social Services and Developemnt to Remote Parts of Zambia
    3. Impart practical skills to the youth
    4. inculcate discipline, hard work and self reliance into our youth.
    5. Enable rural areas to benefit by using the Service personnel as basic education teachers etc.

    I still wake up at 0500 hours on the dot and get to my office 0700 every day. It was a habit that National service hammered into me. I think some sort of national Service could be designed that would provide some benefit to the nation

    1. Sosala was a drunk when he was at Katete Camp
      Was out every night drinking and the recuirts on sentry duties looked forward to their stint on the gates as they would harras Sosala who would be so drunk that he would not remember the pass word.
      During the first year of National Service the toilets were always blocked in the mornings and he did nothing. It was the warrant officer we called ONOLE who would got the water sorted out at midnight and got the detainees to flush the toilets everty hour spared the camp with dysentry

  13. Aha, a picture is beginning to form on the former period with mandatory ZNS. My thanks to you both for sharing these recollections. I have been searching for a digital copy of the reports by the Commission of Inquiry into the dysentery and related problems, so far without success. In practice it sounds very similar to the Depression Era Civilian Conservation Corps programme under Roosevelt in the USA, only mandatory instead of economic safety net.

    The CCC built a lot of things that are still around today. From what I hear the stories were very similar to your recollections of ZNS activities and daily life. Based on President Sata's latest statements to the effect that feeder roads and bridge construction will no longer be tendered but instead performed by the military branch, I would venture to guess that he has in mind something between CCC and Army Corps of Engineers.

    There is a lot to be said for military construction, and it certainly does not degrade military readiness in the least if the combat record of engineers through history is any indication. Heck Ronald Reagan even tried to call his invasion of the tiny island nation of Grenada a "war" because the hundred-odd Cuban engineers extending the airport runways held out for days. Hollywood got Clint Eastwood to star in the movie about the "heroic" taking of the airport and the evacuation of American medical students (in some cases against their will).

    The downside is legal accountability, which the world's various military organizations seem to be rather immune to. Just ask Harry Shearer about the legal stranglehold the US Army Corps of Engineers has over the New Orleans levy system, and why the residents of the lower Ninth Ward and others still have no legal recourse for the flooding in spite of proof the Corps was at fault. Can't even try to sue them, it is written into the law that gave them jurisdiction over the levies in the first place. So if the ZNS is going to be used to save money and provide greater direct government control over secondary road and bridge building projects, then there should probably be some attention paid to what happens if they screw up.


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