by Solomon Osadolo
Youths obey the clarion call
Let us lift our nation high
Under the sun or the rain
With dedication and selflessness
Nigeria’s ours, Nigeria we serve.
The first time I heard and learned that anthem I was standing on a bare parchment of grass that made up for a field at the epicenter of an otherwise intimidating forest. It was 5 am and it was dark and chilly. The night before had been unpleasant for all two thousand of us standing out there that morning. Many hardly had any sleep. Those who did would admit to having had way better nights.
Standing there that morning, huddling together to fight off the blistering cold and wincing (some of us reacted with subtle disgust) at the barking orders of very eager soldiers, some official was trying to teach us the lines to the anthem. We weren’t exactly brimming with the desire to learn it, apparently.
Given the ambient conditions/scenarios, if I didn’t know any better I’d have assumed we were all doing time at a correctional facility, stripped of any sense of dignity left for us to cling on to. Except that I couldn’t recall the crime. It wasn’t jail. It was the Orientation Course/Camp of the National Youth Service scheme.
Two thousand youths with various college degrees, it was first like the first day at school all over again, only that this time we already suspected we wouldn’t enjoy our stay. It didn’t matter though. We were obeying the clarion call.
No, this is not another story about the NYSC Orientation camp. The stories have already become so over-told to the point they now elicit mythical reverie. The appraisal of the entire scheme so as to ascertain its relevance, purpose and the challenges bedeviling it is far more interesting.
The National Youth Service Corps was created in 1973 by President Gowon’s government primarily to foster national unity (especially as the country was in dire need of that after just having ended a blistering civil war) by sending college graduates on a mandatory one-year period of national service at another state/region different from theirs, where they’d be attached to an establishment for that period.
Apparently, it was intended that this cross-pollination would result in people learning about and experiencing other cultures and ethnicities other than their own and therefore engender a sense of kinship propped up on service.
The ideology behind the scheme is cute, albeit puerile, at best, but the failure to holistically factor in many other variables such as how to ensure a vibrant economy, an engaging technology, security and strengthening of the existing parastatals are carefully propped upon the shoulders of these teeming, eager and well “educated” youths – factors that matter just as much as unity to a developing country, more so, one that had just survived a war – makes the logic flawed, I think.
At the inauguration of the scheme, Nigeria’s economy was on stilts and much was wrong with us in many respects. But the timing was almost perfect to rebuild with an influx of graduates who, arguably, were recipients of a better higher educational system than the one in place today. The government of the day was too focused on sending the graduates off on a quest to stamp a sense of unity on our collective conscience that they most likely ignored the purpose (or the core usefulness) of higher education to a nation altogether.
Postings were almost always arbitrary; with less regard for the disciplines the graduates had spent most of their time in college studying (This may also be due to the fact that the ratio of available, proper establishments to graduates was inadequate, to begin with). So, what we had was lots of people getting posted to new territories and stuck with jobs for which they had virtually no interest or training. They were stuck in limbo, career-wise. Of course some people did (and still do) get posted rightly but the margin for error in arbitrary posting is unacceptable.
Because humans are mainly sociable creatures, inter-ethnic interactions (which, though a basis for the much needed unity, isn’t necessarily the same thing as unity) occurred because of the scheme, of course. The only problem was that the aspirations and dreams of a generation of graduates who, if properly harnessed, could have helped build a stronger nation in every respect were made to come second to one of the natural by-product of human interactions: unity.
It would have been better to ensure people got posted to places that would afford them the chance to feed their ambitions, learn, contribute and serve, while at the same time fulfilling the national unity project. We would have been a much better and stronger country for it.
Is NYSC Still Relevant Today?
Along with nearly every fabric of our national life, the NYSC scheme has devolved into an institution so handicapped that it can’t possibly achieve its original purpose. The system is fraught with so much arbitrariness.
The staggering figures of those who attempt to influence their postings are a pointer to the fact that the integrity of the system is largely compromised. The problems of security (in some parts of the country), inadequate welfare of Corp members, etc, are an all too frequent part of the tale of the scheme today.
But it is not totally useless, one could argue. It’s not a perfect system but it serves some purpose. It affords many graduates entry level job opportunities that could pass of as internships, depending on which establishment they get attached to.
The relevance of NYSC is a much debated topic lately. Some have called for it to be scrapped, citing the aforementioned problems and another candid point that it’s been hijacked by corrupt officials out there to enrich themselves.
I don’t think scrapping it is absolutely necessary though. I just think we need to re assess and remodel the entire system to make it more effective. A friend of mine actually suggests that the scheme be made optional so that graduates can either opt to participate or not. Yes, there’d be people who’d be willing to serve while others would botch it. This may help reduce the strain on the system and make for better logistics.
Whatever side of the argument you’re on, one thing’s for sure: The NYSC scheme needs to be addressed and its many issues sorted out. We’re talking about the first year after school in the lives of university graduates here. It could be the difference between having a class of disoriented employees or an ivigorated work force to drive our economy.