BY GBENGA OKE
Journalist turned bureaucrat and politician, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi is presently the Minister of Youth Development. In this interview, he responds to issues arising from the reforms in the National Youth Service Corps scheme, the security concerns facing the scheme and the controversy over the posting of corps members. Excerpts:
Why is there a need to reform NYSC and why now?
NYSC, as we all know, was established after the civil war as one of the vehicles for national integration. After existing for so long, it is important for us to review the scheme against its original objectives and the prevailing realities in the country.
So, what and what are you doing to make the scheme more effective?
We are looking at the scheme in a holistic way and trying to identify and confront issues that are standing in the way of its effectiveness. The first issue is the need to look at the areas where Nigeria needs to be served. Of course national integration is still relevant, but it is no longer a sufficient justification. We need value addition.
Also we are looking at how to shift NYSC from something that people do because they cannot escape it to something that people look forward to. The only way we can answer both is to ensure that the programme adds value to the country and the participating corps members.
On the value to the country, we need to redirect the energy of corps members into those areas where their energy is actually needed in the service of the country: education, rural health, infrastructure, and agriculture.
What we have experienced over time is a decisive derailment where you find corps members serving in all kinds of places such as banks, oil companies, government ministries and all kinds of private businesses…
Is there anything wrong with corps members serving in such places?
Ordinarily, there shouldn’t be. But there are certain down-side effects and trade-offs. When you send corps members to places where they are not really needed, it means you are not deploying them to areas where they are really needed.
So we miss the opportunity of optimally using this special resource to tackle urgent national challenges. It also means you are using public sector fund to subsidize private sector gains. There is nothing wrong with this if that was the intention of the scheme, but that is not the intention of the scheme.
Of course I have heard all kinds of arguments about how private businesses avail the corps members the opportunity to learn and how serving with them gives corps members a leg into the world of work. But there are questions around that: are we not creating a disincentive for employment and are we redefining NYSC as an internship programme? As it is today, the NYSC is not an internship programme. It is a national service programme. That is what the law says.
It seems the major issue everyone is concerned about is the security of corps members. But it seems you are side-stepping this important issue…
We are not. The security of corps members is very important to us, and as I mentioned earlier, the youth service scheme is not worth the life of anybody. But if we solve that problem, and every corps member is secure, is that enough?
Does it mean we will be achieving the objectives of the scheme? Can we solve the problem of security and still solve other problems? Yes. The way I see it is that the security of corps members comes first.
But I think it is possible to combine all— it is possible to secure corps members; it is possible to ensure corps members are deployed appropriately; and it is possible to give corps members the requisite skills they need to be more useful to themselves when they go out in the society.
Let me share we you things we are doing to show that we are taking the security of corps members very seriously. One of the major initiatives we have taken is to develop a security alert system that maps the country—some kind of early warning—and to take decision on posting of corps members based on our awareness of the security circumstances in various locations.
So we are not saying that because NYSC is national service, then we must post corps members to all parts of the country. Our pragmatic approach is to say wherever there are real or potential security challenges, we will not post corps members to such places.
We will not have orientation camps in such places and not post corps members to such places until we have evidence of significant improvement. In addition to that, we want the governors of the affected states to give us clear assurance that they will guarantee the security of corps members.
One example I will give you is the case of Niger State, which was one of the four states we decided that corps members will not be posted to during this current exercise. But the governor of Niger State came forward and made a strong case that corps members would be protected in his state.
So the DG of NYSC went to the alternative venue provided for the orientation programme and we were satisfied that the new camping ground is secure and safe. We have also set up the NYSC Distress Call Centre to ensure that corps members in distress can call for and receive help on time. The call centre is connected to the operations of the police departments and other security agencies in the zones where the corps members are deployed.
The third intervention, which has largely gone unnoticed, is to be sensitive to the mood of the country.
For instance when we did the last passing-out parade, we just issued the certificate to the corps members so as not to make them easy targets for people who want to do mischief. We are also providing self-defense training to corps members.