August 22, 2011 – THE three weeks I spent in the NYSC Orientation camp in Argungu, Kebbi State in 2002 were some of the best weeks of my life. A Lagos ‘boy’ who schooled in Delta, I used to think that the sun rose and set in the South. So you can understand my surprise at the wonderful things and people I discovered during the NYSC orientation and later as a year-long resident of Birnin Kebbi, the capital of Kebbi.
It was my first practical training on the plurality, vastness and beauty of this country; and it provided me too with the opportunity to shed some of the rather dangerous stereotypes I had acquired over the years.
But none of it would have happened if I hadn’t been part of the NYSC scheme. Chances are that my worldview would have still remained limited and some of the great friendships of my life wouldn’t have happened. So whenever the NYSC issue comes up, I am always emotional about it. And lately there have been no shortages of conversations about what to do with the NYSC, to make it deliver on its original mandate, and much more.
These debates were triggered off by the killing of nine youth corps members in Bauchi and Kaduna states during the post-election violence that erupted in parts of the country. The fact that youth corps members had played a vital role in the success of the 2011 general elections which were adjudged to be the fairest since the return of democracy in 1999 did not in any way shield them from attacks.
The death of the corps members naturally caused furore and drove home the urgency for reforming the NIYSC. But like most Nigerian debates, everyone has an opinion on what the best strategies should be and what should constitute the key ingredients of the reforms. From the heated conversation, however, one could glean some common concerns.
These include: How successful has the scheme been in delivering on its primary mandate of serving as a platform for national integration?
More than 40 years after the civil war that led to its institution and 38 years after its setting up, is the scheme still relevant? Does the scheme serve any practical purpose in preparing the corps members to face modern day challenges like unemployment? Is it possible to refocus the scheme on current national challenges, while still delivering on its original mandate?
As the debate was raging, a fresh batch of university and polytechnic graduates were being called up by the NYSC, just as the new administration was taking shape with the appointment of ministers. It thus seemed as if the questions raised in the debate were being directly posed to the new Minister of Youth Development, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, in whose portfolio the scheme falls. Incidentally, he assumed duty at the Ministry when the newly deployed corps members were just about rounding off their one-month orientation exercise. In keeping with President Goodluck Jonathan’s charge to hit the ground running, the Minister hit the road to visit some camps to see things for himself and personally give his gospel of transformation to the corps members. The Minister visited the camps in Nasarawa State and Kubwa in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Mallam Adullahi was not oblivious of the discussions going on about the NYSC. In fact, just before the trip to the orientation camps, the Minister had attended the first meeting of a brain trust, made up of top experts and professionals on youth development, which he set up to help him deliver on his mandate. Mallam believes that one person or institution cannot claim to have all the answers and that these days there are more answers out of government than in it. At the meeting, the issue of the NYSC came up again and again, and while there was no consensus on one grand approach, it was generally agreed that the scheme is in need of reforms.
It was this gospel of reforms the minister took to the NYSC camps. In Lafia, he told the corps members that refocusing of the scheme will go more than just ensuring the security of corps members. “Security is a very important issue but the kind of reforms we plan must be able to bring huge returns on the investment, not only to the participating youth corps members but also to Nigeria as a country,” he stated. The thinking of the Minister was that while security is the current concern driving the call for the restructuring of the NYSC, any reform of the scheme will need to go deeper than just ensuring the safety of corps members if it is to provide quality returns on the huge funds invested in it yearly. The Minister hinted on the direction the planned reform would go when he stated that “we think that national integration is no longer enough justification for the NYSC. We have to also start to think of the role that the scheme can play in the President’s agenda for national transformation”.
The NYSC was founded about 38 years ago after a bloody civil war had left the country polarised. General Yakubu Gowon, the then Head-of-State, initiated the scheme as one of the strategies to achieve national reconciliation and heal the wounds of the war. Over the years, the NYSC has fulfilled this vision by producing broad-minded Nigerians who have become more knowledgeable about their country and familiar with other cultures and people, apart from their own. This role has no doubt deepened integration and in spite of our contentious politics, produced Nigerian citizens with a pan-Nigerian outlook.
Gen. Gowon deserves kudos for making national integration one of the key goals of the NYSC, but the challenges facing the country, especially the youth today are deeper and more complex than integrating the different segments of our society. The number one concern of young Nigerians today is lack of jobs. Among graduates, this is usually the result of low capacity, or not having the right kind of training that the market requires. It has got so bad that if a reputable company or government agency should advertise 10 vacancies, tens of thousands of applicants are likely to turn up. No nation can make real progress when its most important resource, its youthful population, is out of work.
Resolving this low capacity puzzle will take a multi-sectoral approach, with the Ministry of Education playing the lead role. It may require reviewing our current curriculum to prioritize training that will produce job creators rather than job seekers. But that is the world as it should be. What can we do now? What role can the NYSC play to help close the skill gap and prepare our young graduates for a life of productivity and employment? Should it be used as a finishing school where graduates in camp are provided additional training to adequately prepare them for life after service?
These are some of the questions that come up in the debate about what to do with the NYSC. Whatever shape the reforms will take, one thing is sure and that is the coming makeover of the scheme will be deep-rooted and will ensure that Nigerians and Nigeria get real value for the huge investment in it.
Julius Ogunro is Special Assistant on Media to the Minister of Youth Development