When in 1973 the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was introduced, it was to ensure unity and integration between the mainly Muslim northern parts and mainly Christian southern parts of the country in the aftermath of the 30-month long civil war. It was also to ensure the participation of youths in national development. From an annual enrolment of 2,364 participants to the scheme at inception in 1974, the scheme now has an annual enrolment of 229,016 participants with a projection to hit 300,000 participants by 2020. Forty-two years have since gone since the scheme was introduced. But calls for its scrap have gained currency recently more than any time in the life of the scheme. Politicians, celebrities, and even ex-corps members have joined the growing antagonists of the scheme. As a young graduate participating in the mandatory one year national service in Benue State, I think I should join this all-important debate.
The extent to which the scheme has fostered national unity is certainly debatable. While some have argued that the scheme has achieved national unity, others have differed. I do not think the scheme has done perfectly well in fostering national unity. But the scheme’s failure in fostering national unity could be attributed partly to the Nigerian factor. Prospective corps members and their parents have over the years connived with some corrupt NYSC officials to influence their postings. Some prospective Corps members even know well beforehand states, and institutions or organisations where they would be deployed for the national service! The failure of the scheme to foster national unity therefore stems from the willingness of its officials to subvert the system and not a defect in the original plan of the scheme.
Fostering national unity is however not the only goal of the scheme. The NYSC has facilitated infrastructural developments in many places in the country especially in rural areas. This may not be clearly seen if one evaluates developments brought by the scheme in the mega cities of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. It is however important to note that the number of places where government presence is felt in Nigeria is less compared with those with government-funded infrastructures. Corps members have through personal initiatives instituted and completed developmental projects such as boreholes, street lights, classroom blocks, renovation of health and educational facilities etc. It would have been difficult, if not impossible for indigenes of these communities to succeed in enlisting the support of the locals for such projects given that corps members are seen as people of integrity and could come under sanctions from the NYSC management should they mismanage such projects. Many of these societies are poorly governed and have little or no government attention. Such projects provided by the corps members go a long way in ameliorating the plight of the people of their host communities.
The involvement of the corps members in national exercises such as the conduct of elections, census and immunization exercises etc is another milestone in the series of achievements so far recorded by the scheme. The scheme has in years past provided ready adhoc staff for such exercises. The NYSC has become the last resort for the supply of qualified manpower needed for such exercises. Moreover, the existence of sixteen Community Development Service (CDS) Groups in the scheme has taken its relevance to the peak. Some of them include the disaster management group, MDGs, anti-corruption group, road safety group etc. The main tool used by many of these groups in actualizing their developmental efforts is advocacy and sensitization exercises. In a country characterized largely by dysfunctional agencies like Nigeria, the NYSC scheme becomes the agency at the grassroots through which people at that level could be reached. Many of the government agencies saddled with handling such issues already being tackled by the NYSC CDS groups unfortunately do not even have offices in many of these remote areas where corps members are posted to. Corps members have successfully filled the gap created by these docile governmental agencies. The corps members themselves learn in the process of the advocacy programmes.
Education, especially primary and secondary in the remotest parts of this country would have suffered were the scheme to be scrapped. Government and proprietors of schools in a bid to save cost have persistently resorted to employing inadequate number of teachers despite burgeoning number of new intakes in primary and secondary schools. In these ‘corps members-driven’ communities, much of the teaching staff are corps members. In some of these communities, the teachers are not just inadequate but also improperly trained. Corps members have been filling this gap to say the least.
For the corps members themselves, the scheme has become an empowerment scheme through its entrepreneurial programme which gives loans to corps members with good business proposals. The Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development Scheme (SAED), which forms part of the three weeks pre-deployment orientation programme is another avenue to provide skills to the corps members. The SAED programme has the capacity to reduce drastically unemployment in Nigeria if properly coordinated.
President Buhari’s recent assertion that the Federal Government would not scrap the scheme is heart-warming. While I am on the same page with the President on this, I think the scheme should keep on evolving with a view to making it a truly 21st century organization that is biometrics-driven to reduce incidences of ‘ghost corps members’. More innovations should also be adopted by the scheme’s management to make more Nigerians benefit from the services rendered by the scheme as a development agenda driven by the youth is bound to be successful. Scrapping the NYSC will amount to throwing the baby away with the bath water.