By Tonnie Iredia
Since the death of many Nigerians in the post-election riots of last month, the media have been replete with reports on the subject. The figures being published for those affected are quite disturbing.
Although every one deprecates the episode, we appear to have somehow narrowed the issue to the corps member-victims as if they were the only targets. It is as if we love our corps members so dearly these days when in actual we are only as usual demonstrating the nation’s high degree of hypocrisy. No matter who was killed, every citizen should be as precious as the other to his country.
The more we amplify the pains of the kith and kin of the dead youth corps members, the more we create the unfortunate impression that other deaths arising from the same episode are immaterial. The truth is that the nature and timing of the disturbances show quite clearly that the targets were not just NYSC members but election personnel. This is why leaders of our political parties must be held vicariously liable for the mayhem.
Meanwhile, a few things have been done which symbolically show some observable level of official sensitivity. First was the dispatch of relief materials to displaced victims of the violence in some cities by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). This was followed by the payment of a token compensation to wipe the tears of some affected families and then the setting up of a panel to investigate the disturbances. It is hoped that the panel will do a good job and that its report will not be distorted by government’s white or green paper on it. After that, what next? Should we scrap NYSC?
There are divergent opinions. Many don’t think we should. General Yakubu Gowon, the man who initiated the scheme has added his weight to this school. But other people feel quite strongly that the scheme should not just be reorganized but scrapped entirely.
For example, ‘review NYSC or scrap it now’ was the message of the Association of Traditional Rulers of Oil Minerals Producing Communities,TROMPCON, as contained in a statement at the end of their meeting last week in Port Harcourt. One strong point in support of this viewpoint is that were it not for NYSC, the dead corps members would have had no business in the places where they were killed.
We believe, however, that how the NYSC policy has been implemented over the years must be distinguished from what prompted the establishment of the scheme. If we are to follow the sentiments of those who for safety reasons think that everyone should serve in his own state, we may defeat the policy of the NYSC as a tool for national unity and integration. This is why we agree with the Tribune, which, in one of its editorials, entitled ‘Rethinking NYSC’ appealed “to those who have called for the scrapping of NYSC to thread with caution.”
Luckily, a rather more robust dimension has emerged with a legal position taken by a group known as the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP. The group, according to reports, has dragged the Federal Government to the Economic Community of West African States , ECOWAS, Court of Justice for what it described as the failure of government to prevent the post-election violence that resulted in the killing of 10 NYSC members .
SERAP is praying the court to declare that the failure by the defendants and/or their agents to provide protection and to exercise due diligence to prevent the post-election violence that claimed the lives of the 10 NYSC members serving their country was unlawful as it constituted a violation of Nigeria’s international human rights obligations and commitments.
How the Court deals with the matter will no doubt throw some light on the issue. But the NYSC Director-General, Brigadier-General Maharazu Tsiga, appears confident that the scheme would not be scrapped. He was quoted to have said in Ilorin last Wednesday at the 2011 NYSC Annual Management Conference that those calling for the scrapping of the scheme were ‘enemies of Nigeria’. How would Tsiga classify the 276 Lagos youth corps members who were evacuated from the North by their state government and who have publicly vowed never to return to the North?
The pain for us in all of this is that as a nation, our attention had to be drawn to a neglected but positive public policy like the NYSC by the death of some worthy young patriots. We need to be honest enough to agree that NYSC has been assaulted many times before the April disturbances.
Indeed, only a few days back, there were reports that some armed robbers raided the residence of the NYSC in Ogun State. In Osun State, a traditional ruler, the Alowa of Ilowa-Ijesa, Oba Adebukola Alli, is being tried for an alleged rape on a female corps member posted to the state. The last time I ran into some corps members newly enrolled in the scheme, they told me that the appropriate meaning of the NYSC, based on their experience in the camp, was National Youth Suffering Camp. One member disclosed that the camp in Nsit atai in Akwa Ibom State is located in a bushy reptile-infested location without window louvres.
At the end of the camp period, many youth corps members have to roam the streets searching for places of primary assignment. In breach of the law setting up the scheme, many organizations reject youth corps members as if it is a favour to accept them. In some organisations that are bereft of ideas, the only assignment for a Corper is to buy groundnut, banana, recharge cards etc for the permanent staff.
The scheme now functions as a source of cheap labour with its members earning pitiable allowances as if poor pay increases patriotism. Since the scheme is a national service, why does it not attract salaries like the ones our legislators pay themselves or are legislators not into national service?
As at today, NYSC is probably the only organization whose career officers cannot rise to its Chief Executive position. Rather than being prompted by these to ask for substantive reforms, many people are playing to the gallery by eulogising NYSC only after 10 youth corps members were killed in active service. Even the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, only last Monday met in Kaduna to support NYSC with a detailed statement on the merits of the scheme.
Let us say it point blank that ACF does not qualify to speak because for as long as the North remains a hot zone for violence- northern leaders who have failed to put their house in order should learn to know when silence is golden.
And, if the rest of us must shed tears for those youth corps members killed in the North last month, let us not be in doubt that the tears belong to the crocodile.