Time to rest the National Youth Service Scheme!, By Akaninyene Esiere

I did my national youth service in Akure, Ondo State in the 1991/1992 set. That was before the creation of Ekiti State. My place of primary assignment was the liaison office of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council at the Federal Secretariat. The head of the liaison office was one Mr. Ogunmoroti and I was in the media and publicity unit headed by a certain Ms. Foluso, a geologist. Few years after my youth service, she had landed a job in an oil firm. We were involved in publicizing the different raw materials we had in the country with particular emphasis on those in the old Ondo State. We attended trade fairs and made known the various solid minerals and hoped that investors would explore and develop them, especially the abundant bitumen that the state has. Mrs. Remi Aribisala was the Director General of the Council while the late Chief Rufus Giwa, of the Lever Brothers’ fame was the Chairman.


Youth service was fun; I got to meet graduates from other universities in the country; had a better understanding of the culture of the Yorubas and so many other things. Our three weeks-long orientation was at the NYSC camp Efon-Alaye, now in Ekiti State. It was during this set that the then military President, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida conducted one of those his endless elections; and I was glad we were used for the exercise given the experience and the little financial benefit. Our monthly allowance was about N250 (yes, two hundred and fifty naira only). It was hardly enough to do anything. RMRDC augmented with about N150; and towards the end of my youth service, raised the amount to N400. I used to jealous those youth Corp members who served in banks where they were paid additional N1,000; or others who had accommodation provided by places of their primary assignments. Because my allowance was not enough, I had to pair up with another youth corps member to rent a room. His name was Ernest Edoro from Edo State. A very proud Bini boy, Ernest studied English Language (or was it Literature in English!).


Because my late father, Mr. Etim Esiere, served as a youth Corp member in the 1970s after graduation from the University of Ibadan (then, youth service had no age limit), and came back with the uniforms and boots, I had become fascinated with the program and genuinely looked forward to it. I was also inspired by the youth corps members who served in my secondary school and taught us some subjects we did not have enough teachers for.


It was in the 1980s that the age limit of 30 years came into being. Any one above that age was not expected to serve but would be given an exemption certificate. This age limit came about because of the huge number of graduates from the 1980s compared to the early 1970s when the scheme came into effect. So, to reduce the number of corp members, the age limit came into existence.


Following the unfortunate events of the 1960s which led to a civil war in the country, the fabrics of national unity and cohesion had been eroded. After the war, the Yakubu Gowon military regime genuinely made conscious efforts to restore unity in the country. One of those efforts was the setting up of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a program mandating all university and polytechnic graduates to serve the country free of charge for a year in communities and states other than their own. The program was well thought out and served the country well. Many people who did not know other states and cultures were provided with the opportunity of doing so. It helped to bridge the gap between cultures, languages and people across the different ethnic groups in the country. The program was founded on May 22, 1973 via Decree 24 as part of the Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rebuilding program of the military government.


However, three main factors have contributed significantly to the need for a comprehensive review of the program. But before I get there, I need to point out that unless one is above the age of 30 at the time of graduation from the university or polytechnic, or went to college as a military or police officer, going for youth service is compulsory. If one defaults, he or she is not qualified to be employed in the civil service at any level of government, by the organized private sector or stand for any elective office or position in the country. In fact, companies that employ graduates without the requisite NYSC certificate or certificate of exemption stand the risk of being prosecuted. A few feathers in the political space have been ruffled by the lack of evidence to prove that one served the country upon graduation or got an exemption. The most famous example was that of the former minister of finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun who resigned and fled the country because it was discovered that she had an Oluwole (a euphemism for fake certificates in Nigeria) NYSC certificate.


Currently, the over 350 universities and polytechnics in the country graduate just less than half a million students each year. This has strained the service beyond what was anticipated. In my time, we used to have only one call up batch per year. Now there are three call up batches. Even at that, each batch is subdivided into streams, making it not less than seven or more streams a year for graduates to be called up for youth service. This has become too unwieldy for the students, their institutions and the Service Corps.


Not so long ago, a member of the House of Representatives sponsored a bill to scrap the NYSC program. The sponsor of the bill, Hon Awaji-Inombek Abiante listed insecurity in the country, the incessant killing of corp members, and the inability of firms to retain corp members after service due to the failing economy as some of the reasons why the NYSC program should be laid to rest. This call to end the program has been received with mixed feelings. The opponents, many of them past leaders, argue that it should not be scrapped because its gains outweigh its losses. They have no proof outside of nostalgia, just as I mentioned earlier that the program was truly fun. Those in support of the scrapping feel the scheme has lost its use and should be scrapped to avoid endangering the lives of innocent Nigerians due to insecurity and unnecessary one-year stress. That is where I pitch my tent.


If one looks at the lofty objectives of the scheme as spelled in Decree No. 51 of June 16, 1993, it will be clear that the scheme should be rested since the situations on ground do not reflect the ideals of the scheme.


Here are some of the objectives of the scheme:

* To inculcate discipline in Nigerian youths by instilling in them a tradition of industry at work and of patriotic and loyal service to Nigeria in any situation they may find themselves.

* To raise the moral tone of the Nigerian youths by allowing them to learn about higher ideals of national achievement, social and cultural improvement

* To contribute to the accelerated growth of the national economy

* To develop common ties among the Nigerian youths and promote national unity and integration

* To remove prejudices, eliminate ignorance, and confirm firsthand the many similarities among Nigerians of all ethnic groups

* That the Nigerian youths are encouraged to eschew religious intolerance by accommodating religious differences

* That members of the service corps are encouraged to seek, at the end of their one-year national service, career employment all over Nigeria, thus promoting the free movement of labor

* That employers are induced partly through their experience with members of the service corps to employ, more readily and permanently, qualified Nigerians, irrespective of their States of origin.


Have these objectives been achieved? I do not think so. Nigeria is more divided now than ever before in history. Ethnic nationalism, religious ties and even social and political differences are getting stronger despite the presence of the national youth service Corp for 50 years now. For instance, a typical Nigerian identifies himself or herself as one from an ethnic background before becoming a citizen of the country. His or her allegiance is first and foremost to his or her ethnicity than the country. And that outlook colours the person’s private and public life. If a Yoruba man, for instance, is appointed to a position of authority in the federal government, he is expected to do many things that favour the Yoruba more than other tribes by way of employment, award of contracts and provision of services and projects. The same applies to an Ibibio man, a Hausa woman, an Igbo lady, a Nupe or Ijaw person, and so on and so forth. And well over 80 percent of those in positions of authority in both the public and private sectors are people who had gone for youth service. So, how did the program positively affect their outlook? Very little, if any.


Religious bigotry is very strong in Nigeria. Apart from the Yoruba people who have lived harmoniously with their kith and kins irrespective of whether they are Christians or Muslims or Ifa worshippers, the same cannot be said of a Fulani who converts to Christianity or an Igbo man who becomes a Muslim. They are decidedly being discriminatory against because of their faith. And religious schisms are common in Nigeria, especially in northern Nigeria. Again, much of this is being instigated by the same people who observed the one year national youth service program.


Under the government of President Mohammedu Buhari, the country became more polarized along these fault lines. He deliberately favored one ethnic and religious group in the appointment to sensitive positions. Despite the several calls for ethnic and religious balancing, Buhari ensured that all his service chiefs came from the north who must be Muslims as himself.


Given the current divisions in the country, the national youth service has lost its saltiness; it can no longer season the flavor of unity and cohesion in the country. In fact, it’s long ago that it stopped playing that role. Because of this, the main legs upon which the program is supposed to stand has long been broken.


Additionally, insecurity in the country has accentuated the call for the program to be laid to rest. Much of the north east, north west and south east have been theatres for war, kidnappings and other crimes. In the last fifteen years or less, Youth Corp members have been killed, kidnapped and tortured than they had previously been since the program began. Last year alone, I got to know personally two of the youth Corp members who were kidnapped, one of them a kin’s woman and the other a friend’s daughter. The harrowing experiences the kidnapped and relatives of the victims go through cannot be described, all in the name of serving one’s country. Until one of my nieces posted to Katsina State a few years ago completed the program and returned home safely, it was a big concern for me.


If one factors the number of years it takes to graduate from Nigerian public universities now a days, the additional one year youth service is a waste of time as it delays graduates from joining the employment market early. If you set out to do a five year program in a public university in Nigeria today, you would be wise to factor two additional years for the usual academic staff industrial action. It was a particularly harrowing experience for students who gained admission to public universities between 2018 and 2022. Apart from the over one year cumulative strike action, COVID-19 of 2020 kept the students longer at home than anticipated. So, why subject them to additional one year service?


The factor of money is also important. The first batch of youth corp members sent out to serve the fatherland in 1974 was 2,364. By 2014 when the scheme marked its 40th anniversary, the number had increased to 229,016. Now it hovers between 350,000 and 400,000. That is a very high jump by any standard; clearly unanticipated at conception of the program in 1973. The number is even somewhat suppressed because not all qualified candidates have the opportunity to go immediately they graduate. Which explains why some have to wait for between one and three years before they are eventually called up to serve. My tennis coach who graduated in 2022 is hoping he will be able to go for service this month or so. This number is clearly unwieldy for a country that is struggling financially and economically. About N475 Billion was said to have been spent on youth service between 2020 and 2023. This year it would be more than the average N120 Billion yearly spend. Apart from those benefiting from the contracts awarded under this scheme, not much benefit comes to the country.


50 years after the then Lt. Col. Ahmadu Ali of the popular Ali-must-go, and former national chairman of the People’s Democracy Party led the National Youth Service Corps as its first Director-General of the National Youth Service Corps, it is best to rest the program this year.



Short Take:

The Exchange Rate


It would be unfair not to recognize the efforts of the government, particularly that of the Central Bank governor, Mr. Yemi Cardoso, to tame the spiraling fall of the Naira. In Nigeria, once things go up, they remain there or go further up. But in this instance, the Naira, which touched the roof of N2,000 to one United States dollar, has started to become stronger exchanging somewhere around N1,300/$1. It is a different ballgame how long the government can continue to keep the Naira strong.


Esiere is a former journalist!

© 2024


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