Iheoma Sunday, a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member posted to a rural community in Kogi state, stood outside a freshly painted classroom block in her khakis last year. Previous photos showed the peeling ceiling, scratched blackboard, and dirty walls.
In a March post on LinkedIn, Sunday said she renovated the classroom as a personal community project. “I am so fulfilled to have done my own little contribution to the society,” she noted. “I look forward to doing more this year.”
After the Nigerian Civil War ended in 1970, the government instituted NYSC under the “3R’s” program —reconstruction, rehabilitation, and reconciliation— to bridge ethnic and religious gaps in Nigeria and to foster the spirit of Nigerian nationalism. The program is a mandatory one-year service for graduates younger than 30. The NYSC certificate is needed to apply for jobs. Despite the great intent, the program faces multiple problems. Many Nigerians say the program has lost its relevance and demand its end.
Even though the federal government apportions about 70 billion Naira ($194 million) to the program yearly, NYSC, like many other Nigerian establishments, is full of mismanagement and corruption. Additional problems include corrupt officials administering the scheme, a general lack of faith in the NYSC, and complacency among the participants. The program deploys youths to unfamiliar locations for a year to execute community projects while working in sectors relevant to their academic degrees.
In reality, however, the system mostly deploys youths to teach in local schools to make up for the states’ educational shortcomings rather than finding suitable job assignments geared toward their interests. Consequently, “corpers” feel undervalued and view themselves as a source of cheap labor for the government. Graduates who have the financial resources can “work it” — use connections to serve in choice locations — or “ghost” — secretly not take part in the service. Those who do participate often face uncertainty over their safety and welfare.
In 2019, corpers deployed to help the electoral commission during national elections narrated how they had no restrooms, beds, or food to eat at various restoration area centers after officials delayed the poll. “We are graduates for God’s sake,” one corper, Grace, told Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper. “We know what we came out for when we answered the clarion call but we were treated as slaves in return for our patriotism.” In December, one service member died when armed robbers opened fire on about 17 of them while they traveled along Jere-Abuja expressway after completing their orientation program at a camp in Ede, Osun state.
The question that comes up is, has the NYSC been successful in achieving its primary objective of “developing common ties among the Nigerian youths and promoting national unity and integration?” For all its faults, the answer is still yes, to some extent. By posting corpers to unfamiliar places to interact with people from different backgrounds, the NYSC brings together Nigerian youths from diverse socio-economic and ethno-religious backgrounds. It helps to bridge the ethnic and religious divisions in the nation by providing exposure to other ethnic groups, which is a positive step towards building a stronger nation.
The scheme also aids social integration by providing opportunities for cross-cultural interaction that has led to inter-tribal marriages, reducing inter-ethnic stereotypes and suspicions prevalent during the period after the war. It further serves as an employment buffer by offering some corpers full-time jobs after their service. Finally, NYSC fosters a sense of patriotism among Nigerian youths: Many graduates view participation as obeying the clarion call to serve the fatherland since there is no military conscription in Nigeria.
But the need for reform and increased emphasis on corpers’ welfare became more glaring after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In January, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 said 731 corpers tested positive for the virus. The Nigerian government had threatened to shut down NYSC orientation camps that failed to comply with pandemic safety protocols.
Sunday Dare, the youth and sports minister, expressed this concern during one of the PTF COVID-19 briefings. He said the management of the NYSC couldn’t afford to risk the lives and health of the corps members.
Going forward, any state that refuses to cooperate fully in the aspect of COVID-19 protocol adherence, full testing using the Rapid Diagnostic Test kits and data management by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and also the trained doctors, will have its orientation camp shut down,Sunday Dare
“Going forward, any state that refuses to cooperate fully in the aspect of COVID-19 protocol adherence, full testing using the Rapid Diagnostic Test kits and data management by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and also the trained doctors, will have its orientation camp shut down,” he said.
With the persistent cases of violence and secession demands across the country, the need for the NYSC remains high. It illuminates the fact that the scheme is far from achieving its mission of fostering national integration. Based on the design of the NYSC, it is a good scheme and a great avenue to promote nationalism in Nigeria.
Even with all its mistakes, there is still hope for the Nigerian Youth Service Corps, but it must be reviewed, updated, and better managed to preserve and strengthen the cause of national unity. The federal government should also allocate enough funds to ensure the availability of the needed infrastructure to enable strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols.