AS the National Youth Service Corps clocks 40 this year, Ray Ekpu, former chief executive officer, Newswatch Communications limited and pioneer member of the scheme, recalls his experiences, shocks, benefits and why it should be sustained. He was talking with Anayo Ezugwu, Realnews reporter, in Lagos. Excerpts:
Realnews: As one of the pioneers, how did you feel when the National Youths Service Corps, NYSC, was introduced?
Ekpu: Thank you very much. This scheme was introduced during the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon in 1973. I think there wasn’t enough publicity or public enlightenment about this scheme and we the final year students who were to start the scheme thought that they were recruiting and conscripting us into the army without our agreement with them. So, there was a massive protest all over the country by students. We said we didn’t want to undergo the training or to undertake the scheme and for several weeks, there were a lot of violence and demonstrations by students. I think it was largely based on false or inaccurate information, mainly about what the scheme was about, what we would be doing and how much we would be paid which seemed to suggest to us that this was going to be a slave labour. But Gowon didn’t want to take a No for an answer. He used Air Force planes and carried all of us and dropped in various state capitals. I think we had 12 states at that time. I served in Sokoto which was then part of the North Western state.
Realnews: What were your experiences in your place of primary assignment?
Ekpu: Well it was a new programme and I had never been to Sokoto before. We had heard stories about the place and that was the year they opened the first air-conditioned hotel in that town called Sokoto Hotel and the first welcome was at the place, very hot. It was still a local community, the streets were not named so you couldn’t send or receive letters unless you mention the area. But, for course, all of that changed with rapid developments that have gotten into the place and I also received what I would call culture shock. I saw that the women there were very sophisticated. We saw women smoking. That level of sophistication, I thought belong to well-educated women. But those women that we found used to go to night clubs to drink and dance; we saw these women smoking and they were barely literate, which means that they were quite ahead in terms of sophistication. That was for me a culture shock because I said these women were supposed to be at home and they were out there smoking. That surprised me because I didn’t know that such a thing existed. But we got acclimatised to the weather. The weather was a problem, very hot. When it is hot you have to pour water on your mattress to be able to sleep. Within 30 minutes it will dry up and you have to pour water on it again to be able to sleep. But we enjoyed ourselves and the assignment. We started by learning Hausa language, it was fun.
Realnews: What about your secondary assignment, what did you do?
Ekpu: I served in the ministry of information, the features department. I served along with a guy from Akwa Ibom, who graduated from University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in journalism too. He name was Eseme Essien; he just died recently, I think last year. So, both of us shared the same desk at the features department and under the supervision of a Yoruba guy called Mr Popoola, who just came back from Britain at the time and was employed by the North western state government. He was trying to build up the features department and Eseme and I were the pioneers under the supervision of Mr Popoola.
Realnews: What was your experience in camp during your one-month orientation?
Ekpu: I hope I can still remember. A lot of drills and training programmes, not military drills but physical education to keep us fit for the work we were supposed to do. That basically was what happened and I think that is still what they are doing today. They teach us the local language, culture and we do exercises; that was specifically what we did.
Realnews: How did you interact with the people of Sokoto town, considering the fact that you come from the southern part of the country?
Ekpu: It was interesting. Apart from the people we worked with, we also had other corps members. We lived in a big compound all of us were corps members coming from different universities and different states of the federation. So, we interacted very closely and the people we worked with were very nice because they were in need of our service. That department where we worked was newly created then; some tines we had to work overtime up to 6 or 7 pm before closing. They appreciated it and gave us bigger roles to play in the ministry. For instance, I was assigned to go to all the local government areas in the north western state. I think that should be about four states now, Sokoto, Niger, Kebbi and Zamfara. I was given a landrover, a driver and a photographer. I travelled with them to all of these places because Gowon, who was the head of state at that time, was going to come on a state visit. So I was assigned to go to all of these places and do a write up on each of the towns that Gowon was going to visit so that I would prepare a press package that I would distribute to the press people when they arrived. So, I went to all of these places, took photographs and did write ups on each of those towns. When Gowon came on a state visit, I was also assigned to go with the team. I helped the journalists in filling their knowledge gap about north western state and distributed the write ups about the towns to each of the journalists. I actually enjoyed my stay there.
Realnews: Apart from the culture shock what else did you learn from the scheme?
Ekpu: That it is possible for people from different parts of the country to work together without much friction. All of these things we know now and hear are artificial. I didn’t see anybody discriminating against me because I was from the south. I don’t know whether because they knew I was only going to be there for just one year. But I doubt that that was the case because I was actually asked to stay back. They wanted to give me a job after the service, but I didn’t take the job because I already had a job in the Nigerian Chronicle in Calabar.
Realnews: How much were you paid as allowance then?
Ekpu: I think it was N120.
Reanews: Forty years after the scheme was established, would you say that its objectives have been achieved?
Ekpu: I think so. Most of the objectives have been achieved. One of the objectives that you can see is that it has improved the knowledge of the young Nigerian graduates who would otherwise not have known anything about the states in which they served. I think it filled the job gap in some of these states. You know the manpower gap in some of the states which have low manpower. I believed that those two objectives have been achieved. I don’t know whether it contributes to building Nigerian unity. Obviously, it should because it helps in improving understanding and knowledge of people from different parts of the country.
Realnews: What of culture assimilation?
Ekpu: Well, you know Nigeria is a big country. We have so many tribes and cultures, and you might find similarities in some aspects of their culture. I don’t think that there is any group in this country that does not have some kind of cultural affinity with other parts of the country. I think there is an aggregation culture. The cultures are being merged and that is achieved through constant interaction among the various groups. For instance, the way Nigerians bury people and do weddings, I see strong similarities between the Yorubas, Hausas, Igbos and the minorities. I don’t know who is influencing who, but there are a lot of similarities today. The way they wear uniforms, share gift items and so on; you find that there is a lot of similarities. Obviously one or two of these cultural groups might be influencing the other and the others don’t mind being influenced because apparently, they think those changes are useful and interesting for them to adopt. So, we are gradually increasing the area of convergence in the country and by that way, I think that the areas of divergence are getting smaller. We may fight over sharing of resources and appointments, but I think that the things that we share and things that are close to our hearts are very many.
Realnews: In view of what is happening now, some Nigerians are calling for the abolition of the scheme, do you subscribe to such call?
Ekpu: No. One incident that happened in one place, not repeated in the 36 states of the federation is not enough to call for the scraping of the scheme. The NYSC scheme has more benefits to offer to Nigeria and Nigerians than we can ever imagine. If you remove the NYSC as a unifying force, perhaps, it is only football that you can think of as something that Nigerians can stand up and say yes, I am a Nigerian. It is one of the best schemes that have survived military regimes and civilian administrations. It is a pity that a number of people have been complaining about the high expenditure; of course, the high expenditure is expected because as more young people graduate from schools, the numbers have to increase. I think they are looking for excuses to reduce the number. It is a scheme that is worth preserving in spite of its limitations. Government should work at improving the scheme, reducing the adverse effects and limitations that give the scheme wrong impression. Of course, there are all kinds of strange things that are happening in the scheme. Some don’t serve at all, they would only do the one month orientation camping and strike a deal with people in charge of their secondary assignment to share the money and disappear. Some do trading while others work elsewhere at the end of the month, they will share the money. Some don’t even stay; they keep on bringing all kinds of medical certificates to be able to change to their home state and so on. All these can be checked. I think they lose eventually because they limit their knowledge of the country. I don’t see what you will lose by staying in a different part of the country for one year. Those are the limitations in the scheme; they are not important to warrant someone to call for the scraping of the scheme. I think it is a positive contribution to national development and unity.
— Sep. 23, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT