When former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon declared ‘no victor, no vanquished’ at the end of the infamous Nigerian civil war in 1970, 10-year old Nigeria was deeply fractured along ethnic lines. There was mutual distrust and hate among the tribes.
As part of the efforts to rebuild, rehabilitate and reconstruct the country, the post-civil war government formulated the National Youth Service Corps, (NYSC) and passed it into law by decree No.24 on May 22, 1973, ‘with a view for the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity.’
The scheme has grown to become an integral part of the life of most Nigerian youth. Every year, thousands of Nigerian graduates are deployed to serve the nation in various capacities but especially in the educational and medical sectors. Youths are pulled out of their states of origin and study, then sent to other parts of the country to serve the people, to learn their culture and traditions and to integrate with the people of the communities where they are posted to serve.
43 years after the NYSC was established, the issues that led to its establishment are still plaguing the nation. Nigerians are still first Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba before they are Nigerians.
Recently, a huge number of the middle-aged population has called on the federal government to scrap the NYSC, because the problems that heralded the introduction of the NYSC still plagues the nation. The downturn of the economy, due majorly to the fall in oil prices, has helped ignite the call for the scrapping of the NYSC, as a huge chunk of the budget for youth and sport development is allocated to the scheme; to pay corps members’ stipend, provide them with kits, food and housing during the orientation programme among others. But has the NYSC really failed to achieve its aims and objectives? Is it a moribund idea that should be done away with?
The NYSC coordinator in Lagos State, Mr Cyril Akhaneme, said that although Nigerians are still divided along tribal lines, scrapping the NYSC will not solve the problem. He said: ‘We still have fault lines in our unity facades, we still have militancy in the Niger Delta, Boko Haram in the north, armed robberies, inter-ethnic problems, we have crises everywhere. We need young people to come and override some of these problems. If scrapping is the issue, okay, let us call for the scrapping of the presidency, the military, and the national assembly since they too have failed Nigerians. If it is scrapped what will you use to replace it? The opportunity cost is unimaginable. If the NYSC is to be scrapped, the government should start building more prisons, because the NYSC acts as a stop gap between school and society.”
He agreed however that this does not ‘mean that the NYSC doesn’t have its own problems, it does, but the scrapping of it is not the solution.’
One unarguable benefit of the NYSC is the reduction in the level of mutual distrust among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. Before the emergence of the scheme, there were myths about different ethnic groups in the country but since corps members are sent to the 774 local government areas in the country, most of these myths have been dispelled.
A staff who has worked with the NYSC for 18 years, Mr Chijioke Agwu told our correspondent that: ‘Before now, there were many stories that people from the eastern part of the country eat human beings, corps members now understand that there is nothing like that. Some of those myths have been debunked; people now marry easily from other tribes.’
During the NYSC orientation camp, corps members from the south, north, east and west are made to live with each other, to share rooms and amenities. They are put in platoons which become their temporary families, they join groups, work together as a team, play sports and bond. In orientation camps, people forget about their tribes, they become just one thing; Nigerian youths.
Mr Tunde Ajayi who is a mobilisation officer and has worked for the NYSC for 24 years added that ‘The NYSC helps not only corps members in national integration, it also helps staff members. Me I have been in Taraba, in Maiduguri, Abuja, now I am in Lagos, there is nothing you’ll tell me about the north that I don’t know. All these things add to our knowledge and appreciation of the country.’
Apart from national integration, the NYSC employs ‘over 5000 staff, if the scheme is scrapped what happens to the over 5000 people? And it will have a multiplier effect. Is there another plan for the 5000 people, so those calling for it should think on all sides.’ Mr Agwu said. Not only the staff will be affected economically if the scheme is eliminated. Each NYSC orientation camp plays host to over 100 traders who provide laundry services, food, drinks, entertainment and other services to corps members. These traders look forward to orientation camps. It is their main source of livelihood. 14-year-old Tajudeen who provides laundry services to corps members said ‘Government should not remove NYSC, it is from this camp I get my school fees and money to care for myself and my younger ones.’
There are many other stories like Tajudeen’s, people whose means of survival are tied to NYSC orientation camps. If the scheme is scrapped, what happens to them? Still on the economy, with the rising level of unemployment, the NYSC has been able to assist corps members by introducing the Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development (SAED) training to tackle unemployment. Through SAED, corps members learn skills and move on to create jobs for themselves and employ others.
The scheme provides them with interest-free loans for their startups. Other corps members who are not interested in starting up businesses have been provided with skills to make them employable, they are taught workplace etiquette and other managerial courses. SAED still goes a step further to assist corps members with special talents through the NYSC Icon search, this way singers, comedians, poets, dancers and others can showcase their talents and SAED will assist in building them up during their service year and prepare them for the entertainment industry thereafter.
The NYSC has also contributed to social and political development. A core part of the scheme is the Community Development Service, (CDS). Through the CDS, corps members identify a need in communities of their primary assignment and team up to fix it. Corps members have built classrooms, libraries, bore holes, bus stops, provided health services to rural dwellers and carried on campaigns against diseases and social vices.
Mr Agwu who firmly disagreed with the call to scrap the scheme said, ‘Corp members who are lawyers have represented poor people who couldn’t afford lawyers, the doctors offer free medical services regularly in interior villages, corps members have built schools, libraries, taught in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. The scheme has been able to touch the lives of Nigerians. Even in the political scene, corps members are engaged as ad-hoc personnel during elections, and since they started using corps members for elections, the issue of election rigging has been reduced. Corps members have also been involved in other social development schemes such as campaigns against HIV, child abuse, drug abuse etc. The scheme is very important to Nigeria irrespective of the economic situation.’
Most hospitals are using NYSC doctors. In this 2016 NYSC Batch A stream 2 alone, public hospitals asked for 181 doctors but the NYSC had only 29 doctors.
State coordinator Mr Akhaneme added that Nigerian youths are smart and intelligent and can be prepared for greater roles in the development of the nation from their NYSC days. His words: ‘our, youths are very articulate, intelligent, these are people in the prime of their lives who the government can deploy for national development. What are the objectives of the government? Are we trying to produce more food? Then deploy youths into farming, is it to make more citizens literate? Youths can be used effectively for education, is it security? I am surprised that the government is not using youths for security purposes because corps members are in every nook and cranny of this country, they see, they hear. Why are these young people not being engaged? Corps members are in places where there are no policemen. It depends on what the nation wants to put its young people into if the nation wants to put its young people into farming, so be it. There must be a clear-cut national definition or national interest that youths can be deployed to.’
Furthermore, the NYSC acts as a stop gap, as a place of transition, between university life and the real society for Nigerian graduates. It helps to ease the transition from school to the workplace, and train youths on what to expect in the society. Mr Akhaneme said some graduates were cultists in the University, some had drug problems, and others steal but the scheme helps rehabilitate such youths and prepare them for life.
The merits of the NYSC scheme to the Nigerian graduates and society at large is of too much value for the scheme to be scrapped despite economic reasons. More than its role as an instrument for national integration, it contributes to the socio-economic development of the country by providing employments for thousands of Nigerians periodically. Recent innovations have also seen the NYSC preparing the youth for entrepreneurship, which is a major area of lack the country’s education.
As Mr Akhaneme put it, the NYSC could do a lot of things better, but scrapping the scheme will do more harm for the country than good.