Is Nige­ria’s youth corps worth­while?

Nige­rian grad­u­ates must all do one year of na­tional ser­vice. It’s meant to foster unity, but it does soak up 90% of the na­tional youth bud­get

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Shola Lawal

When Tolu Babayemi got the call telling her that she was be­ing sent to Kwara State, North Cen­tral Nige­ria, for na­tional ser­vice, her heart fell.

Orig­i­nally from Osun in the south­west, the 24-year-old grad­u­ate from Ladoke Ak­in­tola Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy had hoped to be sent to the east­ern part of the coun­try, where con­di­tions are said to be more bear­able.

Babayemi is now half­way through her Na­tional Youth Ser­vice Corps (NYSC) term. She’s still not im­pressed. Kwara State is, she says, “one of the worst states to serve in Nige­ria”.

Cre­ated in the wake of Nige­ria’s civil war, the NYSC is in its 45th year. It is a com­pul­sory one-year scheme for grad­u­ate stu­dents un­der the age of 30, which com­bines short, mil­i­tary-style train­ing with com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment work in the coun­try’s hard-to-reach ru­ral zones. An­other aim is to foster na­tional unity and love for the coun­try — but it doesn’t al­ways work out that way.

Babayemi is one of 300000-odd Nige­rian grad­u­ates who serve an­nu­ally. It is a rite of pas­sage and es­sen­tial for ca­reer ad­vance­ment.

All se­nior govern­ment posts re­quire an NYSC com­ple­tion cer­tifi­cate, as the fi­nance min­is­ter, Kemi Adeo­sun, re­cently dis­cov­ered. Make that for­mer fi­nance min­is­ter Adeo­sun — she re­signed ear­lier this month, al­legedly af­ter her cer­tifi­cate was found to be fake.

If you take a road trip along any of the coun­try’s high­ways, you are likely to spot corps mem­bers in their iconic uni­forms — khaki jacket, cap and com­bat pants paired with orange jun­gle boots. Even in the most re­mote vil­lages, you’re sure to see long-faced “cor­pers” men­tally count­ing the months un­til they get back to their ver­sion of civil­i­sa­tion.

Babayemi’s NYSC stint in Kwara be­gan with the cus­tom­ary three­week train­ing camp, where each new batch of cor­pers is taught to march in for­ma­tion and nav­i­gate phys­i­cal ob­sta­cle cour­ses.

The state of the fa­cil­i­ties was an im­me­di­ate shock. “I didn’t have my bath in the bath­room. I had to go out­side. I ate the food we were served like, five times, and was al­ways [suf­fer­ing from di­ar­rhoea],” she re­calls.

Across each of Nige­ria’s 36 states, the sce­nario is the same: 100 cor­pers packed tightly in dor­mi­to­ries meant for half that num­ber, cold baths in the open at 4am on windy morn­ings, lean, taste­less meals, 5am drills and ag­o­nis­ing hours spent queu­ing to reg­is­ter their de­tails with of­fi­cials de­void of dig­i­tal tools and any sense of ur­gency.

Press-ganged pa­tri­ots

Yet, as ter­ri­ble as it sounds, the camp ex­pe­ri­ence is the most en­joy­able part of the NYSC year, ad­mits Babayemi. Most ex-cor­pers will agree be­cause, de­spite the hard­ship, the in­tense bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence sort of works.

Ev­ery morn­ing, corps mem­bers stand at at­ten­tion in pre­cise, straight lines, face the green-and-white na­tional flag and belt out the an­them in a myr­iad of tunes. They’ve all sung the an­them hun­dreds of times in the past but never quite like this.

Ev­ery­thing stops: the cars on the high­way over­look­ing the camp­ground, the traders who are for­ever com­ing and go­ing, cart­ing in goods to sell to the badly fed cor­pers. Even the air seems to stop mov­ing. The hair on your arms, on the back of your neck, stands on edge. Is that a teardrop or two?

You’re not al­ways ter­ri­bly proud of Nige­ria but, at that mo­ment, it feels good to serve. The pa­tri­o­tism may be man­u­fac­tured but it is no less pow­er­ful for it.

Af­ter sur­viv­ing camp, corps mem­bers are sent to ru­ral ar­eas to live and work. Babayemi, who stud­ied anatomy, was sent to a state-funded hos­pi­tal in Omu-Aran, a small town two hours south of state cap­i­tal Ilorin.

She can prac­tise her pro­fes­sion but most of her col­leagues, who are “not so lucky”, are at schools: teach­ing is by far the most fre­quent as­sign­ment.

Babayemi sits on a sin­gle mat­tress in the small room pro­vided by the hos­pi­tal, her khaki en­sem­ble moulded to her thin frame. Out­side, over­grown grass, damp from a heavy rain, licks the walls of the room.

She ad­mits that, even though she wasn’t thrilled to serve in a back­wa­ter, the scheme has helped her pro­fes­sion­ally.

“I’ve been gain­ing rel­e­vant and in­ter­est­ing work ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s not too bad,” she shrugs.

In iso­lated ar­eas where a govern­ment pres­ence is rarely felt, cor­pers are a re­minder that the res­i­dents have not been com­pletely for­got­ten. But that re­minder can come at a cost.

A dan­ger­ous duty

In the early hours of Wed­nes­day, July 4, Linda Ig­wetu, a corps mem­ber serv­ing in Abuja, Nige­ria’s cap­i­tal, was shot by a trig­ger-happy po­lice­man. The 22-year-old died a day be­fore she was to leave the ser­vice. She is one of many cor­pers who lose their lives to Nige­ria’s in­ef­fi­cient and some­times dan­ger­ous se­cu­rity, health­care and trans­port sys­tems.

More re­cently, nine cor­pers were killed when they were caught in flash flood­ing in Taraba State.

Even in the train­ing camps, sur­rounded by dozens of sol­diers, cor­pers are not nec­es­sar­ily safe.

The year 2016 was es­pe­cially dark; three corps mem­bers died in camps. Re­ports sug­gested that neg­li­gent med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers had al­lowed them to par­tic­i­pate in rig­or­ous train­ing ex­er­cises that con­trib­uted to their deaths. The govern­ment de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions of neg­li­gence.

Cor­pers are some­times sent to dan­ger­ous ar­eas, in­clud­ing the north­ern states that have been rav­aged by Boko Haram, leav­ing their fam­i­lies to live in fear for 12 months — al­though there are re­de­ploy­ment op­tions.

When com­mu­nal clashes broke out in Jos, Plateau State, early this year, cor­pers trapped in their homes livetweeted their fear. Oth­ers have been kid­napped by mil­i­tant groups.

The dan­gers as­so­ci­ated with the na­tional ser­vice year have en­er­gised de­bate about its very ex­is­tence: Is it re­ally worth it?

Too much to ask?

The NYSC was cre­ated to unite a young coun­try hop­ing to bury the dis­cord sown by the bru­tal Bi­afran War that be­gan in 1967. By the time it ended, 30 months later, more than two mil­lion peo­ple (mostly Ig­bos from the south­east) had died — and re­la­tions be­tween eth­nic groups were at a his­toric low. The youth scheme was part of a larger plan that aimed to rec­on­cile, re­ha­bil­i­tate and re­con­struct the scarred na­tion.

But in its fourth decade of ex­is­tence, there is no real way to mea­sure whether the scheme does fos­ters na­tional unity or growth. Ayo So­gunro, a hu­man rights lawyer, au­thor and ac­tivist, ar­gues that ask­ing grad­u­ates to sac­ri­fice a whole year of their lives in the ser­vice of na­tional unity is too much.

“If ter­tiary stu­dents across the coun­try can­not be taught the di­ver­sity of the Nige­rian ex­pe­ri­ence through short cour­ses and ex­change pro­grammes over their four-year course, then one year post-grad­u­a­tion will not rad­i­cally change their mind-set,” he says. At the very least, he adds, the govern­ment ur­gently needs to im­prove camp con­di­tions — as a mat­ter of hu­man rights.

Jola Ay­eye, an ex-cor­per who com­pleted her ser­vice year this March, has the same view.

“It’s so dan­ger­ous,” the 26-year-old says. “Cor­pers are some of the least pro­tected peo­ple in this coun­try and they die in their tens and hun­dreds, and noth­ing hap­pens.”

She says her ser­vice year was “an ab­so­lute waste of time” — all she learnt was how to march.

The pro­gramme is ex­pen­sive. The Nige­rian govern­ment sinks $194-mil­lion into it ev­ery year — 90% of its youth bud­get — which in­cludes a 19 800 naira [R784] monthly al­lowance for each cor­per. This is barely above the min­i­mum wage and most cor­pers strug­gle to get through the month. Ed­u­ca­tion ac­tivists ar­gue that this money could be bet­ter spent help­ing to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion to the coun­try’s 10.5-mil­lion un­schooled chil­dren.

In the 1970s, cor­pers were paid the equiv­a­lent of $340, which was enough money to fly home oc­ca­sion­ally.

Crit­ics of the NYSC also cite the sys­temic rot that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of many Nige­rian in­sti­tu­tions. Wealthy fam­i­lies are able to avoid ser­vice by pay­ing off NYSC of­fi­cials for their cer­tifi­cates or in­flu­enc­ing their de­ploy­ment to favourable lo­ca­tions.

Take Davido, the 26-year-old hiphop su­per­star who signed into the La­gos NYSC camp in Au­gust. He spent only a day there — enough time to give an im­promptu con­cert to his deliri­ous fel­low con­scripts — be­fore jet­ting off to per­form in the United States, a move that at­tracted crit­i­cism for both his and the NYSC’s brazen flout­ing of corps reg­u­la­tions.

For all its flaws, the NYSC still en­joys plenty of sup­port. Those who ar­gue for it to stay point out that it keeps some of the coun­try’s young peo­ple out of unem­ploy­ment for at least one year — na­tion­ally, unem­ploy­ment stood at 18.8% in 2017 — and that it some­times helps cor­pers to find work at their places of as­sign­ment.

Gossy Ukan­woke, a 30-year-old tech en­tre­pre­neur whom Forbes once la­belled “Nige­ria’s Mark Zucker­berg”, reck­ons that the scheme should be re­worked, rather than scrapped, to ad­dress the is­sues faced by present-day grad­u­ates.

He says that his ser­vice year was a bub­ble-burst­ing ex­pe­ri­ence he thor­oughly en­joyed. For Ukan­woke, the NYSC has suc­ceeded in its main ob­jec­tive.

“It was never de­signed to give you [com­bat] skills,” he says. “It was de­signed to [get you to] know other parts of the coun­try, other eth­nic groups and re­gions. It has stayed true to that.”

Babayemi does not agree but is will­ing to con­cede — on one con­di­tion. “There are ru­mours that the al­lowance will be in­creased,” she says. “If they keep pay­ing 19 800 naira, it should be scrapped. If not, it can stay.”

Risky: Corps mem­bers can be sent to dan­ger­ous places. Nige­ri­ans who fled their homes (above) in Yobe and Borno af­ter clashes be­tween Boko Haram and the army take shel­ter at a Na­tional Youth Ser­vice Corps ori­en­ta­tion camp. Photo: Mo­hammed El­shamy/Anadolu Agency

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