The Argument Against NYSC
I am a fairly recent graduate of the Nigerian Federal School system, and even though I am required by law to participate in the National Youth Service Corps program (having graduated aged less than 30), I have, as a matter of principle, no intention of doing any such thing. The short argument is that I think it is an immense waste of time and also potentially life-threatening. The longer argument is contained in the next few paragraphs.
For those who may not be aware, the NYSC was established in May 1973 “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity”. Since then, despite the many changes in the civic and political landscape, Nigerian university graduates have continued to be flung at random to the furthest reaches of the country to spend a year of their lives ‘integrating’ and ‘contributing to national development’. Needless to say, as with many (all?) things Nigerian, the current face of NYSC is a far cry from what it started out as.
There are many things about the way the scheme works that I find problematic (although if we are being honest, we have to admit that it does not work at all). There does not appear to be any regard for the lives of people mobilised from the relative safety of their homes; a simple google search will reveal the horrifying rates at which people die – very avoidably – in the course of their national service. My brother was posted to Sokoto state and barely survived an arson attempt on the Christian Corpers’ lodge that he lived at. A childhood friend posted to Plateau state told us how two people in her camp were hacked to death. Every year there are stories of lost lives, and there is never any action beyond canned apologies and ridiculous pacifying gestures.
Another constant feature of NYSC stories is the absolutely dismal quality of the entire experience of service. The system is so inefficient as to appear set up with the specific purpose of frustrating the corps members. The registration process upon arriving for the three-week orientation program is hellish, with low-level administrative staff being notorious for taking out their frustrations on corpers; every Nigerian is familiar with the stories of people queuing up for days trying to figure out how to navigate registration. When they eventually succeed, their ‘accommodation’ is often the stuff of nightmares; the standard features appear to be the absence of any kind of infrastructure – no toilets, bathrooms, beds or in many cases even roofs. The gear is made of low-quality materials and nothing ever fits. The food is often inedible. The activities are arduous and pointless; what does getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to sing drinking songs have to do with national development in a democratic state, I wonder? Corpers pass the time by bribing soldiers to get out of activities, drinking copious amounts of overpriced beer, and having lots of (likely as not unsafe) sex in open spaces.
Once camp is over, the real nightmare begins. Traveling to one’s place of primary assignment (often the worst-neglected, furthest reaches of whatever state one has been assigned to) is always good for future anecdotes, as is the deplorable state of whatever government agency one is supposed to commit a year of one’s life to working in. Depending on the corpers’ luck, their Zonal Inspector might be easy to bribe and help them facilitate a hasty retreat to epileptic electricity and home-cooked meals, or they might get someone full of resentment against the cushy city life they represent. Those unlucky ones never have anything but tales of even greater woe to share whenever they manage to escape – the most unfortunate of the lot have to spend the entire year fetching water from wells, teaching students who barely speak English subjects they never imagined revisiting after secondary school, walking great distances to make phone calls (forget about internet access), and fighting strange illnesses with one big box of Paracetamol and prayer.
For women, the dangers are even greater. Sexual harassment and assault, things which are rarely tackled with any sensitivity or skill even in urban centers in Nigeria, are part of the package. A close friend who was assaulted on camp was told by NYSC officials, “don’t take it personal(sic).” Another was harassed by a soldier who I imagine was put on camp to facilitate drills and provide security. Yet another who was posted to Nasarawa was sexually harassed by her neighbor, her students and the principal of the school she taught at. Another friend told me that a part of the orientation speech directed at the women on her first day in camp was ‘be careful how you talk to the men here, you know how men are, we can’t handle any trouble.’
I am certain that nothing I have said so far is news – these are stories Nigerians laugh at both before and after NYSC. And this is what I find most amazing; we ALL acknowledge that the scheme is deeply flawed and grossly ineffective, yet we all continue to participate. I am aware that people in my parents’ generation have fond memories of their service year, but everyone in my circles who has ‘served’, as we term it, has done it due to external compulsion and/or a nebulous fear that not having an official Discharge Letter from the Corps will somehow limit their opportunities in the future. (I am also aware that this ‘get it over with’ mindset is very middle-class, and that there are people who look forward to their service year. However, as far as I know, this anticipation has nothing to do with the actual experience of NYSC and is related to the guarantee of receiving at least the minimum wage every month before joining the 50% that is Nigeria’s unemployed youth population.)
I think that part of why Nigeria’s problems persist is that Nigerians accommodate them. It is widely acknowledged, even by those who insist on young Nigerians doing it, that the scheme is deeply problematic. What baffles me is that in the same breath where people admit “NYSC is useless!”, they insist that I do it anyway, “for the sake of your future.” I insist that the future is what we make it, and I don’t intend to join the throng of people saying out of one side of their mouths, ‘so-and-so needs fixing’ and out of the other, ‘but let me manage it like that’. The NYSC currently serves as little more than a thrice-yearly source of manpower for the sadly neglected public school system. It behooves the government that insists on limiting young Nigerians’ opportunities on the basis of an outmoded scheme, to address the real issues, instead of exposing us to all manner of harm just so someone can continue to get fat off supply contracts.
If the Federal government insists on keeping NYSC around, they need to fix it. Address the many logistical and infrastructural problems with the system. Update the structure (a N1500 ‘bicycle’ allowance in 2014 is the biggest joke since our national decision to vote for a certain shoeless man) and put measures in place to monitor the effectiveness and long-term impact of whatever service corpers provide in their places of primary assignment. Make the system voluntary. Stop posting people to dangerous parts of the country. The list goes on and on, much like any list attempting to address any of our numerous issues as a nation, but my point remains this: until someone in government decides to do something about the current state of NYSC, I’m going to take my chances with not doing it. Khaki green was never my colour anyway.