The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) means different things to different people. To some it is a laudable initiative, an opportunity for young Nigerians to physically contribute their part to the development of their nation. To others, it is a way to temporarily solve a bit of the massive unemployment problem that plagues Nigeria today. NYSC provides jobs to fresh graduates of tertiary institutions, temporarily preventing them from sitting at home idle after graduation. Another group of people see NYSC as a social excursion; a chance for youths to get out of familiar environments and explore their country, meet new people from other ethnic groups, learn new philosophies of life and generally widen their understanding of what being a Nigerian really means. NYSC is all these things, but it also has another name: menace.
NYSC commenced in 1973, the brainchild of the Head of State at the time, General Yakubu Gowon. The objectives were noble enough. NYSC was supposed to unite the country after the Civil War. Its aims were to foster mutual understanding, love and respect among young Nigerians of various ethnic groups, by introducing them to the culture and tradition of people in parts of the country they had never been to before. NYSC was to also provide a platform for those youths to help in solving whatever problems they found in their new environments.
I was not even born when NYSC began so I cannot tell what the experience was like for that first set of corps members in 1973/74. But I can boldly tell anyone what NYSC has become now in 2011. The NYSC of today is a menace, a great exploiter of youth for miserable wages, an uncaring organization using the children of ordinary Nigerians to do thankless work under the guise of service to the nation. And all of this is done with the active cooperation of the Nigerian Federal Government.
Let me just state here that the aim of this piece is not only to inform, but also to implore the reader to take action. Speak out. Something needs to be done. A lot of people, especially but not limited to serving and ex-corps members, have all sorts of complaints against NYSC. “NYSC did this” and “NYSC did that” they say. But no one does anything because the service is compulsory and so people treat it as if it is invincible, untouchable. This is a lie! We do have a choice! We can either stick with NYSC as presently managed and let thousands of corpers continue to suffer each year or we can finally say enough is enough and do something about the sheer waste and exploitation that currently characterizes the NYSC service year.
I recently became an ex-corps member, having served in Taraba State from March 2010 to February 2011. I was posted to a secondary school in Sunkani, the headquarters of Ardo-Kola Local Government Area. From the first day I arrived at the NYSC Orientation Camp in Jalingo to the last day when I collected my Discharge Certificate, I have this to say: that almost every day came with a new bad experience which helped create my negative feelings about NYSC. The things that happened to me and to other corpers around me during that service year led me to two conclusions as regards NYSC: (Note that these are my personal views. Anyone is welcome to dispute them.) One, NYSC does not deeply or genuinely care about the welfare of corps members. Oh, they pay us lip service enough but there is no proper concern about or actions taken on corpers’ problems. Two, until NYSC is scrapped or extensively reorganized, there will be no true development in some parts of this country.
I will start with the first conclusion.
My first experience with NYSC’s carefree attitude was the night I arrived at Government College Jalingo, the site of our Orientation Camp. I arrived at about 12 midnight, tired and stressed after travelling all day, only for me to get there and find out that there was no accommodation for me. The officials in charge told us pointblank that we couldn’t get a room that night and we should sleep wherever! I couldn’t believe it! That first night, together with many other corpers who arrived around the same time, I slept on the dirty corridor of a classroom block. It might have been pardonable if it was just that night, but the next night, after a full day of camp activities, we still slept on that dirty corridor! It took 2 full days for the NYSC officials to organize a classroom for us to sleep in. There were 26 of us who eventually squeezed our way into that classroom and before that most of us had been sleeping on those dirty corridors. But a few had been sleeping on the bare ground in front of the classroom blocks!
Now what sort of incompetent planning is that? Was NYSC not aware of the number of corps members coming to the camp? Why couldn’t they have provided proper accommodation for everybody? And since when did sleeping on the floor 26 to a room become proper accommodation for graduates of tertiary institutions? As bad as the hostels of Nigerian universities are, at least students do not sleep on the floor 26 to a room! If NYSC knows it cannot handle the number of graduates participating in the scheme, then why make it compulsory? And if NYSC feels that the orientation is supposed to be a ‘camping’ experience, then why not get proper tents and lets all go deep into the bush for a real camp-out! Meanwhile, corpers are suffering, sleeping in crowded rooms while NYSC officials are sprawled out on jumbo mattresses with standing fans cooling their own rooms in the orientation camp.
Again, I know NYSC has little regard for corps members because, after spending hours on the death-traps that are Nigerians roads travelling to Taraba, when the time came to reimburse us for our travel expenses, they gave us a measly 2500 naira. What was that for? Did we ride okadas to camp? And even if we did, can 2500 naira cover the petrol expenses from wherever to Taraba State? Most corpers who came from Lagos, like I did, took buses. The cheapest fare was about 6000 naira. There were also those who took 30,000 naira flights to Yola and travelled down to Jalingo from there. So what was the 2500 for? Snacks? Puff-puff? Is it that NYSC does not believe that it is their full responsibility to transport newly mobilized corps members to their orientation camps so they can begin their national service?
Third, it is obvious that NYSC and the Federal Government have little esteem for corps members when the value they place on us, our intelligence, our education and qualifications, and our services throughout an entire month is a meagre 9775 naira! That amount translates to about 40 pounds or 70 dollars a month. Pure poverty! That amount is the definitive indication that in the FG’s eyes, corpers are nothing more than cheap labourers. Corpers should probably be happy that they pay them at all.
Think about that sum again: Nine thousand, nine hundred and seventy-five naira. It is deplorable, contemptible, mean, shameful, vile, useless, worthless, appalling, outrageous, reprehensible, lamentable, heartbreaking, scandalous, a slap-in-the-face to all Nigerian graduates and a national embarrassment! After years of studying, of sacrificing pleasure, of putting in lots of effort, for NYSC to now tell us that our entire worth, our usefulness for a month is 9775 naira?! Is that fair? Never mind that in that one month, most corpers are teaching complicated concepts to students that barely understand English, we are feeding ourselves, clothing ourselves, transporting ourselves, and in some cases even accommodating ourselves all within that wretched amount. Plus, we’re expected to devote a day each week to Community Development Services (CDS) sometimes funded from our own pockets. And still 9775 naira?! Let us tell ourselves the truth. Corpers are now slaves.
Fourth, NYSC does not make adequate provisions for or show sufficient concern about corps members’ health. We all know the healthcare situation in Nigeria. Even in the more developed South, there is a shortage of well-equipped hospitals with properly trained and motivated medical staff. In the severely underdeveloped North and Middle-Belt, the situation is so much worse. In a lot of places there are no hospitals at all. Having served there for one year, I make bold to say that the number of hospitals in Taraba State that can handle ANY kind of medical emergency are not more than 3. This is in a state that is geographically third largest in Nigeria in land area. The distance between some local governments in Taraba can take up to 8, 9 hours to cover by road. Some places, like Gembu in Sardauna LGA, are so far that corpers posted there are jokingly referred to as serving in Cameroun! Still, NYSC posts corpers to all these places; places with no electricity, no easily discernible source of clean water, no accommodation except mud huts, no toilets except pit latrines, no banks, no means of communication or network coverage and most importantly no hospitals!
In Sunkani, where I served, we were lucky enough to have a First Referral Hospital because Sunkani is the headquarters of Ardo-Kola LGA. However corpers in other parts of the LG were not so fortunate. Corpers who served in places like Tao, Pamanga, Zangon-Kombi etc. will attest to the fact that there are no hospitals in all these places. Even in Sunkani, that First Referral Hospital could only handle so much. After all the entire place only ever had 2 doctors, one of whom was a corper who sometimes didn’t get paid his salary. One of the corpers in Sunkani who somehow contacted hepatitis during the service year, had to leave Sunkani altogether and go to Jalingo for treatment. Thank God, the case was not so severe because the journey to Jalingo alone could have killed him.
The road between Sunkani and ATC/Jalingo is without a doubt the worst I have seen in my entire life. It is a masterpiece of potholes, gullies and ditches masquerading as a road. All of us who served in Sunkani have horror stories to tell about that road. Not less than 2 corpers had ghastly accidents on the road and one was so badly injured that other corpers had to be called to come and help transport him back to Sunkani. Thank God he did not die.
During our orientation in March 2010, we heard that a corper at the Yikpata Orientation Camp in Kwara State died after being bitten by a snake. What came of that death? Didn’t NYSC realize that with the camp being in the middle of the bush as it was, there were bound to be snakes and some might be poisonous? What preparations did they make? What steps were taken to protect corpers? We’re still waiting for answers.
Fifth, NYSC does not make adequate provisions for or show sufficient concern about corps members’ security. During our orientation in Government College Jalingo, we were each given a Security Tips Handbook by NYSC officials. We also had a lecture on security handled by a joint team composed of officials from the Nigerian Police, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and the State Security Services (SSS). The lecture was quite unnecessary since all the officials did was read from or quote the handbook. The truth is in the face of real danger, both the handbook and that lecture are not very useful. Other corpers have received both before and they still ended up dead. In the 2008 Jos crisis, it is common knowledge that some corpers were killed in a particularly horrifying fashion; their relatives forced to listen via a phone call to them being murdered. Also, some years ago, a corper called Grace Ushang was killed in Maiduguri, Borno State by unknown hoodlums. Her crime was that she went for a stroll in the evening wearing trousers.
Other corpers have been killed. Some have been kidnapped. Others have been physically assaulted by people in their local communities. A corper in Sunkani was slapped by a local youth because they felt he was too proud or something like that. This corper didn’t even trust NYSC or the Police enough to report the incident.
We live in a country where sometimes even the Police and officials of the government or security services at whatever level cannot be trusted. A country where public officials have become so corrupt and apathetic that murders, kidnappings, bombings and so on are now the order of the day. This is the country that still has not been able to unmask the culprits behind the bombings that took place in Abuja on our 50th Independence Anniversary! Even now we still don’t know the villains who masterminded the death of our then-Attorney General, Bola Ige! And those are just a few among myriad unsolved crimes.
NYSC has shown us that they don’t care enough to follow the murder case of a corper like Grace Ushang to its logical conclusion. WHERE ARE GRACE USHANG’S KILLERS? I was bold enough to ask the SSS official who handled our security lecture that question. The answer he gave was so predictable, I almost laughed. “The investigation is ongoing,” he said. What if a top NYSC official was the one who was killed? Would they repeat the same thing?
I will end this first part of my argument against NYSC on a somewhat lighter note compared to the above. Why do I know NYSC has little concern for corps members? I know this because even the NYSC kit they give to us at camp is a low quality mess. My experience with my NYSC kit was as follows: My cap’s visor broke into two on the very day I got it. The pockets of my khaki jacket were also torn when I received it. The buttons on my khaki trousers were almost gone entirely before we even left camp. My crested vest had such poor elasticity that now after repeated washings, what was supposed to be a short sleeved T-shirt now has long sleeves. Also the back of the vest is now much longer than the front.
The white shorts I got would be better described as ‘hot-pant’; I always felt so self-conscious wearing them. My white T-shirts shrunk and tore in numerous places after washing. My jungle boots were a size too small and I never wore them after the Swearing-In ceremony. My tennis shoes, the only item of the lot I have any kind of affection for, lasted till I finished service only because I handled them with extreme care. Still, they’re unusable now. The soles are ripped and the sides have torn open so that if I wear them now you can see my feet or socks through the sides of the shoes. All the materials are useless now, after using them for just one year.
Other corpers have similar tales to tell about their kits. You only have to ask them. Some even sewed their own khaki uniforms and bought their own tennis shoes to avoid using the inferior ones provided by NYSC. So the question is if NYSC cannot even take the trouble to provide good quality uniforms for corpers, then how can they look us in the face and tell us we really matter to them?