On May 22, this year, the National Youth Service Corps rolled out its drums to celebrate its 40th anniversary of scheme aimed at uniting Nigerian graduates across the country, but not many people believe that the programme is still relevant
| By Olu Ojewale | Sep. 23, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
IF you did not know what Victor Olise does for a living, you would think he is an official of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC. Olise, who owns a fashion designing shop in Ogba, Lagos, never hesitates to tell anyone how he got his business breakthrough while serving as a youth corps member in Kebbi State in 2002. “I never thought I would be doing this business today. I learnt how to make clothes a long time ago but I didn’t take it serious until I went to Kebbi in 2002 for my NYSC. There, I made beautiful outfits for politicians and other rich people and that was how I got my breakthrough in this business.”
Like the flipside of a coin, Jude Oria’s account of his NYSC days in Enugu, is a stark contrast of Olise’s. Unlike Olise, who was actively engaged all through the service year, Oria, who studied electrical engineering, felt like a fish out of water during the service year because he was posted to teach in a primary school. As such, in his estimation, the scheme is nothing but “a waste of time and should be scrapped.”
Based on personal experiences, there are many youths who hold the same view like Oria. They are of the opinion that the NYSC scheme, which was established mainly for the purpose of integrating Nigerian youths, has outlived its usefulness and is no longer relevant. Judith Awuzie is one of the youths in that school of thought. She, however, did not develop that attitude overnight. In fact, Awuzie was excited when she was posted to Bauchi State in 2011 for the national service. But her excitement turned into tears after a near death experience in the state. “I looked forward to serving with so much excitement. I prayed that I would be posted to a far place like the north because I had never been there before. Some of my friends worked their postings to nearby states but I didn’t because I really wanted to explore the country. So, when I was posted to Bauchi State, I was very happy,” she said.
But less than two months after she resumed as a teacher in a secondary school in the state, Awuzie regretted her going to Bauchi State because she almost lost her life in the post-election violence that erupted in Bauchi and other northern states in 2011. Recounting her experience, the Delta State University graduate of Bio-chemistry, said that the experience made her lose faith in the NYSC scheme. “I lost faith in the scheme after that brutal experience and I am not sure I ever want to go back to that state again. I slept in a single room with about nine other corps members for two nights. We were terrified as we did not know what was going to happen to us. We heard rumours of our colleagues who had either been killed or severely injured. At some point, I had to call my parents asking them to pray for our safety; it was a very tense situation,” she said.
Peretimi Apeli is another youth corps member who, luckily, escaped being lynched by irate youths who were protesting the outcome of the 2011 presidential elections in Katsina, Katsina State. Like most of his colleagues, he lost everything except a faded shirt, a pair of trousers and the bathroom slippers he was wearing before the mob came. “It was around 10:30 am. I was in front of the house picking the beans I wanted to cook when a guy ran into our lodge and told everyone there to run for their lives,” said the graduate of Niger Delta University, Bayelsa State, adding: “It was when we were running into the car outside that I saw the mob. I saw death. That we are alive today is by God’s grace because if they had met us in the house, they would have killed us all. We had to drive through bush paths before we managed to escape to the Daura Police station.”
While Awuzie and Apeli live to tell stories of their escape, some of the NYSC members were not so lucky. On August 26, 2012, Stephen Nwosu, a graduate of Animal Science, who was a Batch C corps member in Adamawa State, was killed in a military assault on suspected Boko Haram members in the state. Nwosu’s death stirred up series of controversies because his body was paraded alongside two other youths in Gombi, where he was serving, as members of the deadly Boko Haram sect by men of the 23 Armoured Brigade, Gibson Jalo Cantonment, Yola, Adamawa State, who allegedly shot him.
As families, friends, government and the NYSC officials tried to unravel the circumstances surrounding Nwosu’s gruesome death, the question about the relevance of the NYSC scheme was once again brought to the front burner. As expected, the debate has generated mixed reactions. On one side were those who proposed a review of the scheme to reflect present day realities and on the other were those who pushed for an outright abrogation on the grounds that the scheme had outlived its relevance.
Long before the post-election violence in 2011, there had been several calls for the scrapping of the NYSC scheme. In fact, when it was introduced in 1973, some students protested and described it as a “waste of time.” But since then Nigerian youths have accepted it as a fait accompli. But in the wake of the ethno-religious crisis which rocked Plateau State between 2007 and 2008 and claimed the lives of several corps members, parents, students and stakeholders from various quarters were again up in arms calling for scrapping or a review of the scheme. The development became a source of worry for many Nigerians including members of the House of Representatives, who directed the NYSC authorities to cancel posting of corps members to volatile states in the North such as Yobe, Borno, Gombe, Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi and Plateau states, which were facing security challenges at that time.
The threat of insecurity also divided opinions amongst parents and guardians with some going as far as asking the government to scrap the NYSC programme if the security of corps members could not be guaranteed. Dorcas Umoren, a parent with three undergraduate children, opined that scrapping the scheme was a viable option instead of risking the lives of innocent children. “There is no parent who will want his child to be posted to a place where he will be killed. If government cannot guarantee the security of our children, let it scrap the programme. How do you expect a parent to feel after spending so much money to train a child in school only to lose that child because he is serving his fatherland?”
But James Usen, another parent, posits that scrapping the NYSC scheme may not be the best option as it is the only scheme that can foster national unity. “Scrapping the scheme because of these recent challenges would amount to throwing away the baby with the bath water. As far as I’m concerned, the NYSC scheme is one of the best things that have happened to this country. Maybe, what we need to do is to restructure the system by posting people to their geo-political zones, but scrapping the scheme is definitely not a good idea,” Usen said.
Aside from the security challenges, there are many other problems afflicting the NYSC scheme which have made the voices of those calling for its abrogation louder than that of those who want it retained. Issues such as postings, delays in mobilisation, difficulties in getting exemption letters for those not eligible to participate in the scheme, logistics and the unwillingness of employers to absorb corps members posted to their organisations after service have made the scheme unattractive to many.
But the goal of the scheme, according to the founding fathers was to foster national unity of the country after the civil war which Nigeria experienced from 1967 to 1970. Established on May 22, 1973, the scheme was one of the measures taken by the General Yakubu Gowon administration to rebuild and reunite the country after the bloody civil war. The NYSC was established by decree No.24 of May 22, 1973, which stated that the scheme was being established “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity.” Hence, the NYSC was charged with the responsibility of mobilising, deploying and administering youths who are graduates of tertiary institutions for a one-year compulsory national service during which they would be groomed in leadership. The objectives of the scheme which compel youth graduates to serve in states other than their own includes removing prejudice, eliminating ignorance and confirming, at first hand, the many similarities among Nigerians of all ethnic groups and to develop a sense of corporate existence and common destiny of Nigerian people.
To drive the integration objective, the NYSC encouraged inter-tribal marriage among serving corps members. Under the arrangement, the weddings of such corps members were to be sponsored by the NYSC and the government of the state where they were serving. But judging from what now obtains in the scheme, the NYSC’s quest to unite youths from various parts of the country looks like a forlorn dream as many participants of the scheme have devised a way of influencing their posting to their preferred destinations. Investigations by Realnews have shown that many youth corps members serving in states like Lagos, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Abuja actually influenced their postings.
Rita Ndume, a former corps member, said her parents paid some NYSC officials to ensure that she was posted to Lagos. “I served in Lagos because my parents didn’t want me to be far away from them. While my friends worried about where they would be posted, I was sure of coming to Lagos because my mother already paid an official of the NYSC to take care of that,” Ndume said.
Just like Ndume, Collins Izuchukwu also had to grease the palms of some NYSC officials to ensure that he was posted to Abuja in 2011. According to him, he was not ready to leave his comfortable life in the city for some rural places in the name of service. “I didn’t want to take any risk going to a place I was not familiar with. I paid some officials to work for my posting to Abuja,” he said.
Above all, the major purpose of the scheme is primarily to inculcate in Nigerian youths the spirit of selfless service to the community, and to emphasise the spirit of oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians, irrespective of cultural or social background. But the fact that some corps members can influence their postings appears to have defeated the integration objective of the NYSC scheme. Under the scheme graduates from various parts of the country are supposed to interact with other Nigerians and be integrated in the society. But this is not achievable when corps members like those mentioned above who are supposed to serve in places outside their places domicile are able to pick and chose the state they want to serve.
While those eligible to participate in the scheme have found a way to influence their postings, it is not so easy for those who have passed the mandatory age of 30 and those who for some other reasons are ineligible for the scheme to get their certificates of exemption. The NYSC law stipulates that those above the age of 30, member of staff in certain military and paramilitary organisations and some other organisations are not eligible to participate in the scheme. Such persons are entitled to an exemption certificate. But the process of obtaining this exemption certificate is so tedious that many of the applicants are often frustrated.
Godfrey Ehibomhe was above the 30-year age when he graduated from the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, in 2010. Since then, he has been battling to get the NYSC exemption certificate but failed to do so. “The last time I went to the student affairs office in my school, I was told that the certificate had not been sent from the NYSC office in Abuja. I am frustrated because I need that certificate to do so many things,” Ehibomhe said.
The posting policy of the NYSC is yet another reason why so many people have become very critical of the scheme. The current NYSC posting policy is geared towards developing sectors such as rural health, primary and secondary education; rural infrastructural development and agriculture. Hence many corps members are posted mainly to primary and secondary schools regardless of their disciplines. Many corps members are opposed to this policy because it makes them redundant in certain organisations.
For instance, Bukola Fashakin, a graduate of Economics from the University of Lagos, was posted to a local government office in Kogi State for her primary assignment in 2011. But throughout the service year, according to Fashakin, she “practically did nothing.”
Like Fashakin many corps members consider the one year service as a waste of time and they would gladly trade it off for something more rewarding. Hope Ofobike, a graduate of Mass Communication, who served in Niger State, said it was as if, she was cursed to waste a year. “The experience is not worth it because I was made redundant for 11 months. The best way to engage corps members is to repeal the policy, which makes all corps members to teach or serve in rural communities. I studied Mass Communication and during the service year, I was supposed to be posted either to the print or electronic media. But I was asked to teach. Now, employers will be asking for two or three years’ experience in journalism. My brother, where will I get that when I was posted to a rural school?” Ofobike asked.
Charles Israel, who served in Kokona Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, said serving in the North was depressing for him. Israel said apart from being asked to teach, he discovered that the blocks of classrooms in the secondary school where he served had all collapsed. “I don’t know how they want us to survive in such environment,” he said.
The unwillingness of many employers to retain corps members posted to their organisations is yet another reason many have called for a review and a possible abrogation of the scheme. An official of the NYSC who did not want his name mentioned because he was not authorised to speak told Realnews, said that one of the reasons the body stopped posting corps members to private organisations was because many employers adopted the habit of “use and dump” scheme. “Before the policy was reversed, we used to send corps members to private organisations. But we stopped it when we noticed that many organisations would request for them, use them, pay them meager allowances and just dump them after the service year. But now that the policy has been reversed, any private organisation that requests for corps members must sign an agreement to keep them after the service year if they perform well,” he said.
But despite these negative views, there are still a few persons who have benefitted tremendously from the beleaguered scheme and still want it retained. Nath Amadi, who served in Sokoto State in 2007, shared his experience. “The people were nice to me. In the morning, a good number of families would be the first to wake me up with their traditional meals which I did not want to taste at first. But when I tasted the ‘tuwo shinkafi’, I never stopped eating it until I left the North. Contrary to the present general notion that Hausas are very hostile people, they supplied me with all kinds of farm produce and bush meat and showed me great reverence as though I was a deity. It was real fun and I hope the current security situation would not lead to the eventual collapse of this laudable scheme.”
His views are in tandem with that of Bolaji Abdullahi, former minister of Youths Development. In an interview with some journalists in Abuja, in 2012, Abdullahi, who has now been moved to the ministry of sports, said the NYSC was still very relevant to the development of the country. He called for a reform of the scheme rather than abrogating it. “The scheme was set up primarily to achieve national integration and to create avenues for young people to contribute meaningfully to the development of the country. I don’t think anybody can argue that Nigeria no longer has a need in these two areas. The challenges of national integration and unity, despite the success that the NYSC has achieved, are still as relevant as they were when the scheme was started. What we need to do is find a way to make the NYSC more relevant in line with present day realities. We need to ensure that there is commensurate return on investment to all its stakeholders,” Abdullahi said.
For the youths, who have not been able to participate in the NYSC scheme, it is a mixed grill. While some of them look forward to being mobilised and posted to any part of the country, a few others are not willing to take the risk. “If serving my fatherland puts me at the risk of death, I will rather be exempted from the NYSC scheme. Who wants to die as a corps member?” asked Oluchi Obika, a second year student of the University of Lagos.
During its 40th birthday celebration in May this year, the directorate said there were reasons for the corps to celebrate especially for its continued existence and the scheme’s achievements vis-à-vis its objectives. In an editorial written in the NYSC News, to commemorate the occasion, it acknowledged the post-election violence in which 10 corps members were killed in Bauchi State, and which led to a nation-wide outcry that the scheme should be scrapped. But it argued: “However, weighed against the benefits derivable from the scheme, in addition to the fact that the NYSC remains the only organisation with deliberately planned programmes for leadership development in Nigerian youth, the first point of acquiring practical experience for Nigerian graduates youth, and the continued relevance and desirability of its objectives, these drawbacks do not warrant the calls for the scrapping of the scheme.” Apart from security issue, the paper said another major problem facing the scheme “is inadequate funding by the three-tiers of government as statutorily provided for in the NYSC Act. This is further compounded by the challenge of managing the ever increasing corps population.”
Apart from those challenges, what is also creating fears in some Nigerians is that the scheme is as corrupt as any government organisation in the country. It is now easy for any corps member to leave his or her post and share the monthly stipend with the staff of the NYSC. Ray Ekpu, former chief executive of Newswatch Communications Limited, and one of the pioneers of the scheme, in an interview with Realnews said that corruption is also robbing the scheme of its value.
“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,” Ekpu said.
He said those who use excuses in order not to serve their fatherland are the ultimate losers because they may never have the opportunity of knowing the culture of the people outside their states of origin. Ekpu similarly argued that the post-election violence in April 2011 should not be used as an excuse to scrap 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,” he said. (See Cover Box).
He thus urged the government to work at improving the scheme by reducing the adverse effects and limitations that have given the scheme the wrong impression. Ekpu’s opinion is in tandem with that of Adebayo Adedeji, professor emeritus of Economics and the founding chairman of the National Governing Board of the NYSC. In an interview to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the scheme, Adedeji said that the recent security challenges were not envisaged when the scheme was established. “Though many developments have taken place in the past 40 years such as the recent unfortunate attack on corps members; those were never envisaged when we established the scheme. Sometime ago, I was interviewed and someone said we should abolish the NYSC, and I replied, abolishing the NYSC would be short-sighted. The problem is not the NYSC; the problem is lack of security and that should be addressed. Every young man and woman must be given protection by the federal, state and local government authorities and even the local community. Everybody was given protection when we started and we should revert to that,” he said.
Indeed, if the gains outweigh the risks involved, a good number of Nigerians will gladly want the scheme to remain. What the operators of the NYSC need to do, is perhaps, to redesign it to make it more youth-friendly and provide adequate security that will encourage parents to be willing to release their children and wards for the service. Forty years is a long time that would have helped to integrate the youths of this nation, but if that is still floundering, there is need for the federal government to go back to the drawing board, redesign it and help the programme achieve its objectives.
Reported by Anayo Ezugwu