(By Ameh Ejekwonyilo)

The so-called “ambassadors of selfless service” usually flagrantly display ethnic as well as other discriminatory tendencies. This can be seen in the exemption of some corps members from camp orientation exercises, because of their connection to the “powers that be” in the society. These literally abandon the orientation camp only to resurface on the day of closing ceremony. Painfully, this trend is not in line with the core values of patriotism, integrity, commitment and teamwork, which the scheme seeks to instill in the Nigerian youth.

THE service year should be the moment when, by common consent, corps members pause to become conscious of their national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what their country has done for them and to ask what they can do for their country in return. Moved by this sheer patriotism to contribute my quota to national development, as required by the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Decree, now an Act that established it, I resolved to heed the clarion call on November 15, 2011, in defiance to entreaties from family members and friends not to report to Zamfara State for the mandatory one year NYSC scheme.

They tried to dissuade me because of the intractable onslaught of the dreaded Islamic sect, Boko Haram, in some northern states of the country, which they saw as war-torn area. I arrived safe at the NYSC orientation camp in Zamfara State. I went with the mind to be among whatever number of survivors to come out of the worst violence to occur in Zamfara during the service year. Before I could settle down after the orientation course, protests by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) over fuel subsidy removal had started. That was in January 2012. A group of hoodlums took advantage of the crisis to unleash terror on us at our corpers’ lodge but for the swift intervention of an armed team of military personnel, who came to our rescue.

It was an incident I could not tell my people back home, because I stood the risk of being disowned by my parents. They could have said, “Did we not tell you Zamfara is a war zone?” I was not perplexed by the protests because I knew it was only temporary, and we eventually got over it. Nigeria’s colonial history and experience in the immediate post-independence era were characterised by ethnic loyalty, mutual group suspicion and distrust, which culminated in the traumatic, bloody civil war. The government sought to address these issues through the NYSC scheme.

As lofty as its goals of promoting national unity and youth empowerment are, the NYSC is fraught with a lot of irregularities that have brought the scheme under fierce criticisms bothering on whether it is still relevant to the Nigeria of today. In recent times, some people had called for its repositioning to meet the current realities in the country, while others called for its outright scrapping, arguing that the scheme has outlived its usefulness.

The many anomalies in the NYSC are perpetrated by its stakeholders such as parents and corps members, as well as influential citizens, who cut corners to ensure that their children are posted to choice places. On arrival at the orientation camp, I observed with horror the high level of corruption among the NYSC officials, who are the “apostles of selfless service” phrase. At every event or activity, corps members are often reminded of the need to be selfless in the discharge of their duties and responsibilities. Sadly, these so-called proponents of the sacrificial service are the ones who go behind to frustrate every good intention the scheme represents.

The NYSC, as a microcosm of the Nigerian society, is bedeviled by the problem of tribalism. It is against this backdrop that the late renowned Nigerian journalist and co-founder of Newswatch magazine, Dele Giwa, once remarked that, “tribalism is like a dye which colours everything in Nigeria.”

The so-called “ambassadors of selfless service” usually flagrantly display ethnic as well as other discriminatory tendencies. This can be seen in the exemption of some corps members from camp orientation exercises, because of their connection to the “powers that be” in the society. These literally abandon the orientation camp only to resurface on the day of closing ceremony. Painfully, this trend is not in line with the core values of patriotism, integrity, commitment and teamwork, which the scheme seeks to instill in the Nigerian youth.

On noticing these anomalies, I felt demoralised, feeling like giving up the zeal with which I came to make the desired impact in the service year. The trend continued unabated till the end of the orientation course, with the posting of corps members to places of primary assignment (PPA), where tribalism and nepotism as well as other “Nigerian factors” were at their peak. Highly connected corps members as well as those who could pay either “in cash or in kind” were posted to juicy establishments, especially banks and other well paying organisations for their PPAs.

Merit was thrown to the dogs. But thanks to the new NYSC posting policy that limits the posting of corps members to key sectors of the economy such as health, agriculture and education, it is now becoming impossible for the influential people to influence the posting of their relations to the Central Bank of Nigeria as was previously the practice among the political elite and other influential members of the society, who are known for their notoriety in circumventing the law.

Another area of grave concern is corps welfare. The NYSC health insurance is not any different from the monumental decay in the Nigerian health sector. It is a disturbing fact that the country has the worst health indices in the world, yet its public health office holders continue to embark on health tourism abroad instead of channeling attendant resources to develop a first class health sector that would be the envy of other nations. As a result, corps members find it hard to access the so-called health insurance scheme, as designated hospitals do not offer services because of the non-release of funds by the NYSC. In some cases, when minor ailments are treated, they would compel such corps member(s) to fill forms for treatments that are never administered to enable the designated hospitals be reimbursed by the NYSC.

I had the perception from the orientation camp that the NYSC scheme would not be viable to cater for corps members’ health needs, as the camp clinic is not any better than a first-aid box that was attached to a kindergarten wall in the colonial days. This ugly scenario often forces corps members to seek alternative medical treatment in private hospitals, which are even unaffordable. The big question is: who takes the funds that is appropriated for the NYSC health insurance scheme?

Similarly, in the October 2012 edition of Zamfara Kofa, an end of service year magazine of the Zamfara NYSC, the State Co-ordinator, Mrs. Ruth Bakka, lamented the deplorable condition of corpers’ lodge in some council areas of the state. This is one of the numerous cases of inadequate accommodation facilities for members across the country. Most of the corps members, especially those serving in urban areas, have to provide shelter for themselves as against the NYSC accommodation policy that makes it mandatory for employers to provide them with accommodation, and where it is not possible, to pay a reasonable amount in lieu.

Recently, the NYSC Director-General, Brig.-Gen. Okorie-Affia, visited the 2012 Batch ‘B’ corps members during their orientation course at Tsafe, Zamfara State, where he remarked that the orientation course content has been reformed in line with emerging trends and the contemporary challenges of the nation’s socio-economic development. He stressed the relevance of the scheme’s War Against Poverty (WAP), which he said was geared towards addressing youth unemployment. At the end of his remarks, he charged corps members to be selfless and dedicated in the discharge of their duties.

What is equally mind-boggling is the fact that towards the end of every service year, a team of NYSC officials is dispatched from the agency’s National Directorate Headquarters to all state secretariats to evaluate the scheme through interactions with outgoing corps members. It is with a view to repositioning it to meet current challenges in Nigeria. Also, during the winding-up programmes and passing-out parade, corps members are given questionnaires to fill to enable policy makers formulate policies that would reposition the scheme to meet its mandates. Despite these steps being taken to put it on track, however, the scheme continues to deteriorate due to lack of commitment on the part of the NYSC management to implement the findings of the evaluation team.

Realistically, the scheme has not been repositioned to tackle the issues of youth unemployment and national disunity as claimed by the NYSC boss, Gen. Affia. How can the NYSC-WAP initiative be considered viable for youth employment when it only makes provision for about 300 corps members out of the tens of thousands of them in the scheme?  The NYSC claims to be addressing youth unemployment through entrepreneurship when it literally shuts out the larger chunk of members from the WAP programme.

Amid the foregoing challenges threatening the existence of the programme because of the warped mindset of stakeholders and the high level of corruption among officials, with participants at the receiving end, the NYSC still says that selfless and sacrificial service remains its hallmark. In conclusion, corps members, as agents of change, must rise above the Nigerian quagmire of tribalism, nepotism and religious intolerance, and above all forms of corruption threatening national unity and development. We must remain resilient and patriotic in the discharge of our responsibilities despite the prevailing challenges in the country.

Nevertheless, government must take practical and urgent steps to reposition the scheme to tackle current realities of the Nigerian state and equally address the issue of youth unemployment, because a grave danger is looming in the air. What could capture the NYSC mantra of “selfless service” more vividly than the death of about 10 serving members, who were gruesomely hacked down in their prime in Bauchi State during the 2011 post-election violence? Obviously, these fallen heroes offered the supreme sacrifice for the enthronement of credible elections in Nigeria.

• Ameh Ejekwonyilo is a graduate of Mass Communication and an ex-corps member.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”