By TONNIE IREDIA
When we harped in this column last week on the imperatives of competitive ethnicity in Nigeria, our premise was that for longer than makes sense, the Nigerian nation has made no appreciable effort to embrace the integration of its multi-ethnic constituents which should have made everyone to subordinate his self interest to the general good. In reality ‘One- Nigeria’ has remained a slogan as each grouping continues to pursue its own agenda.
As a people, we donot appear to believe in the provision of Section 15(2) of the 1999 Constitution which states that “national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited”.
We have in essence, refused to respect some of the frameworks put in place to guarantee the continued existence of Nigeria as a nation. One of such bastardized arrangements is the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) – a scheme which was introduced in 1973 by the government of General Yakubu Gowon to enthrone unity and a sense of oneness in the country.
After 38 years of shoddy implementation of the policy, Nigerians appear unanimous on the view that all has not been well with the scheme. Indeed, the recent resolution of the Senate which urged the Federal Government to re-evaluate and reorganise the scheme so as to attain its original objectives says it all.
In truth, if Nigerians were to vote today on whether the scheme should be scrapped those who would support the motion would obviously be in the majority. We imagine that the verdict would be the same even if we use the Lagos INEC’s DDC machines to operate the voting. But it is not hard to explain why our people have lost faith in the NYSC scheme. During the post election violence in parts of the nation earlier in the year, no less than ten corpers were murdered in Bauchi State alone. It is virtually impossible at this point, to know the exact corper-casualty in the unending crisis in Jos in the last two years. In addition, the Nigerian Press has been replete with reports of acts of violence against corpers in different parts of the country.
In Osun state, a traditional ruler was put on trial for allegedly raping a female corper serving in his domain. At about the same time, some armed robbers raided the residence of the NYSC in nearby Ogun state. In short, the situation of the safety of corps members has deteriorated to a level where it has become necessary for the authorities of the scheme to set up distress call centres in all parts of the country to monitor corps members.
According to the Director-General of the scheme, Brigadier-General Nnamdi Okorie-Affia, corps members are now to submit their telephone numbers to their state coordinators, which would in turn be uploaded to the NYSC data system at their places of primary assignments.
The director-general told corpers at the NYSC permanent orientation camp in Yikpata, Kwara State last week, that, “if you call any of our numbers with your GSM numbers, everything about you will appear including your place of primary assignment. So, you will be contacted fast and easy if you are in trouble”. Good plan but it remains inexplicable that this has become the faith of corpers who are expected to be seen all over the country as agents of unity and who like our national flag and emblem; are not expected to be handled roughly. So who caused all of this?
For us, the first culprit is government which has very little value for the corpers. First, their remuneration is ridiculously low notwithstanding the recent upward review.
Why can’t NYSC members be placed on the salary scale of graduates which they are? It is unfair to place them virtually on a minimum wage status when as we all know; no one on a special national service is under paid in Nigeria- a good example being our national soccer team. At state level, the body language of government is even louder in the negative as many states donot accept the part of the scheme that is their mandate. The provision of an NYSC camp by state governments is poorly handled. The nauseating environment in some camps can make the NYSC, to appropriately stand for ‘National Youth Suffering Camp’. Indeed, some of the camps are in bushy reptile-infested locations without basic things like window luvres.
At the end of the camp period, many Corpers have to roam the streets searching for places of primary assignment. In spite of these hard times, when their safety and welfare are uncertain the corpers accept their postings without complaints, but, in breach of the spirit of the law setting up the scheme, they are rejected by government ministries, departments and agencies as if it is a favour to accept them.
In the few organizations where they are not rejected, the situation is simply humiliating as their only assignment is usually menial-to buy groundnut, banana, and recharge cards etc for permanent staff.
Having seen that government- the father of the NYSC- has little regard for its baby, others have joined in devaluing the scheme. Many organizations particularly banks have turned the scheme to a cheap labour market. Every year, they request for corps members on to avoid hiring qualified hands who would earn huge salaries.
Those of us who thought that government was probably unaware of the trend were better educated the other day during a media briefing by the Minister of Youth Development, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi. He did not only decry the current situation in which private institutions go ‘round tripping’ by engaging numerous corps members whom they pay peanuts, he also recognized that after the service year, the exploited corpers are not retained.
It is therefore obvious that a review of the National Youth Service Corps is over- due. To start with, the scheme needs to be handled as a service organization. Consequently, as was done during the last elections, corps members should be deployed to only those areas where the nation is in critical need.
Thus, the old practice of posting corpers to every type of organization as if it is an industrial training scheme should stop. Any private sector body which requests for corpers must at the end of the service year be made to retain no less than 50% of the number posted to them. Second, the NYSC deserves to be better managed as an organization rather than as a task force which it was at its inception. As at today, it is probably the only organization whose career officers cannot rise to its Chief Executive position.
That is not good for the organization because career officers with ample wealth of experience as insiders are more likely to turn around their organizations. In earnest, the frequent posting of one military officer or the other to the NYSC which is not even a para-military body does not leave the organization in the hands of persons who have a stake in its continued survival.