by Olufemi Ogunseye
Just after the civil war in the early 70s, the Federal Government under the leadership of General Yakubu Gowon devised strategies for the integration of the country. The NYSC was birthed as a result of that quest. Nigeria wasn’t the first country to have such a scheme where young graduates “serve” their nation for one reason or the other. In the US, UK, Israel and many other nations, they’ve all had sorts of service schemes designed for their youths for various reasons, but often, for defense. That’s why Nigeria’s scheme, which is an adaptation of those obtained in some other countries where it had existed, has the para-military flavor. But of all the youth service schemes all over the world, Nigeria’s was the only one established solely for the purpose of integration. It’s also important to note that almost all such schemes world over had been phased out or massively reviewed, after serving the purposes for which they were created, except Nigeria.
The NYSC was an instant success. For many reasons; first, it met the dire need of integration. Often, graduates fell in love with their host communities during the service year, and created a bond that never did exist before. National unity was strongly enhanced. The NYSC also provided much needed emergency labor among disadvantaged communities. Some rural areas were blessed with such skilled laborers like doctors, nurses, architects and engineers, who were delighted to positively touch their communities. The educational sector was the most impacted. Many schools owed their continued existence to corps members. These numerous advantages made the NYSC such an important part of our national life that it became part of our identity. And, many undergraduates often look forward with excitement to that period when they would adorn their Khaki and serve their country with pride. And by the decree that established it, it was made compulsory for all graduates. So, employers of labor and post-graduate colleges made it a pre-requisite for admission. I believe that was the first undoing of the scheme.
By making it compulsory, and making the discharge certificate an almighty requirement for any meaningful post-school sojourn, Nigerians were left with no choice even when it became obvious the scheme was fading away in relevance due to the omnipresent curse of mismanagement and corruption in Nigeria. The discharge certificate soon ultimately displaced all the ideals of the scheme in the reason for the swelling number of participants. But, that’s not even the issue.
It’s been said that only a mad man would keep repeating something and expect a different result. No reasonable idea can survive the forty-two years the NYSC has “survived” without being reviewed. Even successful ideas require periodic re-jigging and re-branding to keep it fresh. The NYSC has remained for over forty years without any re-packaging, even to reflect present day realities. The NYSC is still living in the past, and has expectedly lost almost all of its relevance.
The issue of integration has been achieved. As a matter of fact, not only have we integrated since the civil war years, we have started disintegrating dangerously again, in spite of NYSC. Those days, their host communities protected corpers. Today, their host communities hound corpers. Indigenes are as hostile as ever to corpers in many areas today. If there was no hostility towards corpers in time past, it may be because they “served” them well. Maybe they see no real impact made by these “government pikin(s)” again. Apart from very few fantastic individual projects carried out by some corpers, very many youth corpers simply stroll through the service year absent-mindedly, and have as their aim, nothing but their discharge certificate. But can we blame them?
Corruption has sustained the scheme for this long. Just like the Boko Haram war, which has remained due to the money many people make from such disturbances, so has the scheme, which has remained a huge pipe used to siphon our commonwealth. For a scheme where numbers can be easily manipulated without any serious authentication techniques, you can just imagine what goes on. They are probably thousands and thousands of ghost corpers who get monthly allowances from the Federal Government. They are not ghosts. Actually, many of them are NYSC and government staff that has devised immoral means of enriching themselves. Then the procurement process for kits! I learnt a single corps member’s official wears, jungle boots and all, costs over seventy thousand naira on the budget. Although, they may as well go for as low as ten thousand or even less in the real market. So, thrice a year, someone makes over fifty thousand naira on the head of over a hundred thousand corps members. As if we have no more urgent national needs that require every kobo we can gather. But if corruption is a national problem not exclusive to NYSC, then there’s more.
If one year of one’s life can be said to be spent in nothingness, then the service year would adequately pass for it for many people. With hundreds of thousands of graduates churned out yearly especially with the increased number of private (many of them, mushroom,) universities, the labor market is chocked, even with corpers. Consider the fact that very few people would want to serve where service is really needed – by that, I mean, in the north – the very few that are there even find it difficult to tie down a place where you are to serve your own country. Very many employers out rightly reject corpers. The few that accept do so grudgingly. The only place where they are most welcome is the primary and secondary schools, where they are used for cheap labor, often with little or no extra remuneration. So, NYSC recently claimed all corpers, apart from doctors are to serve in schools. Probably to reduce the embarrassment constant rejection of corpers has brought on the scheme. And in connivance with the NYSC, satanic politicians like local government chairmen and legislators, both at federal, state and local levels, do arrange for female corpers to “serve” in their homes. Others posted to local government councils are left redundant, or redeployed to the official residence of his Excellency, the executive chairman of the local government. At least, I know of a former female corps member whose service to her fatherland was to be the extra-mural tutor of the kids of the local government chairman! In the north, serving corps doctors are treated well because of their importance. Others are often disdained. In places where there is little electricity, mobile phone service or even clean water, corpers in rural areas, the real heroes of the scheme, are left to fend for themselves, and survive that hardship all year round. At the end of the service year, after suffering rejection, discrimination and frustration, many leave with no joy of serving their country. Very many even do not “serve” at all, and work out arrangements with NYSC staff on how they can have their certificates mailed to them in the comfort of their homes.
The recent upsurge in terror attacks finally nailed the coffin of the scheme. Government wisely agreed to allow corpers reject postings to the north. Whereas, if there’s any part of the country still benefiting marginally from the scheme, it’s the north. But very few are going there today. In the south, where 90% of corpers swarm to, they are hardly needed. Thanks to INEC, we recently found out that corpers can serve as electoral officers, a reasonable service indeed. But that occurs averagely once every four years at the national level.
The post-election violence of 2011 where ten corpers were killed is still fresh. Gone are the days when the corpers uniform was a protective seal and a badge of honor. Today, it counts for little. And there are sorts of stories, many of them chilling, of violence against corpers by indigenes in many parts of the country. There are many others who have lost their lives while on the fateful journey to serve. Today, adding the risks, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages of NYSC, if there’s any left.
For the benefit of places still in dire need of emergency and skilled services, it’s better the scheme is retained, but as a skeletal one. It should become voluntary. And corpers need not serve in Lagos, or Abuja. They are not needed there. The scheme should be re-branded to reflect present day realities. The few graduates who still feel pressed to give to their country should be allowed to do so. And those who don’t feel like shouldn’t be condemned. The certificate should be prestigious enough to be recommendable, but shouldn’t be a pre-requisite for anything! And Government should beam its searchlight on corruption in the scheme. If the billions spent on the scheme were diverted towards job creation, many graduates would not be as frustrated as the feel now. Even with B.Sc, M.Sc and NYSC discharge certificates, the jobs are still not there.
So, if government still doesn’t know what to do to the NYSC, I have a suggestion. Scrap it. It will save graduates. It will save the country. Then we can think of better ways of meeting needs of rural communities now that it’s obvious we are no more serious about national integration.
Olufemi Ogunseye is a writer and a journalist. He tweets from @olufemisp.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.