The Zonal Inspector in my National Youth Service Corps days was a strict woman who monitored our compliance with the scheme’s rules and regulations to the point of infantilising us.
She did not tolerate AWOL from any corps member, and she had sneaky ways of ensuring we stayed at our places of primary assignment. We thought her standards were unyielding until we learnt about a female colleague who had travelled to the USA to have her baby.
When the ZI was asked why the corper could leave the country while still serving, she replied, “You people too should pray to have a husband that will send you to America to have children. Leave her alone.” Much later, I learnt from the ZI’s assistant – also a corps member – that the ZI was not only aware the corper travelled out of the country, but she also forges her signature on the payroll register, collects her allowances, and protects her from any retribution for absconding from duty.
These days, when I see the media obsession with how the singer, David Adeleke (Davido), was on a US music tour while he was supposed to be a youth corper serving Nigeria with all his strength, “under the sun and in the rain”, I remember my ZI and the kinds of compromises the NYSC officials themselves make for the so-called “big people.” Davido’s failure to stay at his place of primary assignment starkly highlights the fact that modern reality has overtaken the mandate of the NYSC. Davido and the Kemi Adeosun saga are compelling enough reasons to revisit the law that established the NYSC scheme and amend it to make it optional for Nigerian youths. You do not even need to be a graduate to hold positions in public offices in Nigeria, so why does the NYSC matter that much?
The NYSC officials themselves have been known to conspire with corps members against the spirit of the scheme’s founding. My ZI was one of the many instances of the NYSC officials shortchanging the ethics of the system for pecuniary gains.
The NYSC – a national programme to foster national unity and patriotism – is a bright idea that has dimmed after 45 years of its founding. On the NYSC website, they have some poorly written and poorly edited prose lauding the scheme as some great mobiliser of a national patriotic spirit. Even President Muhammadu Buhari, when he met corpers in his hometown at Daura recently, echoed a similar sentiment about the NYSC facilitating cross-cultural bonding among young Nigerians who get to travel beyond their abode (and for some of them) for the first time in their lives. Indeed, for the young and the adventurous, the NYSC can be an invaluable experience. My service year in Abia State afforded me the opportunity to visit every state in the South-East and the South-South (minus Ebonyi!). I enjoyed my experience, and till date, I still carry with me the fond memories of the beautiful people I lived and worked with while in Umuahia. Yet, I am not sentimental about the relevance of the NYSC to everybody’s lives. Not everyone should be corralled into a half-hearted scheme our leaders pretend can create a utopian nation-space where we all get along because we lived together for a year.
The goal of the NYSC is noble, and it would have been worthier if the burden of national unity was not placed on the children of those who lack the means to influence their posting to familiar locations where they are either able to hijack lucrative opportunities, or even leave the country altogether. How many of the children of our leaders serve Nigeria “under the sun and in the rain” like their counterparts are enjoined to do every time they sing the NYSC anthem? It is the children of ordinary Nigerians who are drafted to rural areas at grave risks to their lives to fulfil a national agenda that is already being undone even before those corpers cast the building blocks of national unity. So, why not reserve the NYSC experience for those who actively desire it and exempt those who want to do other things with their lives?
The NYSC was conceived in post-civil war Nigeria where most youths had defined career trajectories. At that time, they were mostly going to work in the civil service, teach, or take up employment with private organisations. Those who designed the scheme did not consider that a time would come that Nigerian youths would be creatives and innovators whose careers cannot withstand a one-year sabbatical. For an artiste like Davido, it is implausible to expect him to take off an entire year off his singing career, go to a village school to teach English comprehension in an indigenous language, and then resume his regular schedule as a singer after dutifully completing the passing-out parade. It just does not make sense. The NYSC officials too might have granted him a leave to go for a music tour abroad because of his fame but what about other younger people who also have to pursue their lives? What about those who get job opportunities, international fellowships, postgraduate degree offers, and are forced to defer or give up such opportunities because of the NYSC?
Besides, the Adeosun certificate forgery saga should cause us to re-think the NYSC as a compulsory scheme. Nigerians are pouring all over the world as economic nomads in search of greener pastures. While they are at it, they are breeding children who will acquire knowledge that Nigeria will find invaluable at some point. If those children decide to come back home, will their expertise be refused because they do not have the NYSC certificate? People who have migrated abroad for decades and in some cases married people of other races will not send their children to unfamiliar terrains in Nigeria for the NYSC.
Another reason to rethink the NYSC is the billions of naira it costs. When the programme was first conceived, our entire population was about 50 million people with a median age of 18.7. There were fewer universities in Nigeria, and the number of graduates was wieldy. Today, Nigeria’s population is projected to be hitting some 200 million people with the median age of 17.9! In the next 25 years, our population might hit 250 million with an even younger median age. Is the NYSC eternally capacious to absorb the stream of fresh graduates being churned out of the assembly lines of the increasing number of public and private universities? In 2016, even the NYSC admitted that lack of funds stalled the mobilisation of Batch A corpers. What happens when the number of graduates hits 1,000,000 considering the NYSC is not a revenue-generating enterprise? There are also reports of a massive backlog of corpers who are awaiting mobilisation for the scheme. They are stuck in limbo; they cannot get a job or advance their degrees, they sit on a spot and wait for the bureaucracy to remember them.