Engagements By Chidi Amuta.
In a foiled state, institutions established to reaffirm national solidity and integration can at best be caricatures or at worst monuments of collective self -delusion. This looks like the present plight of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC).
The NYSC has returned to the front page of national news. In the wake of election-related crises and bloodletting a year ago, the service was for a long time the object of concern on account of the magnitude of fatalities it recorded in the post election gale of violence in some parts of the country. Now the context has shifted slightly. Some states have gradually slipped into structural anarchy on account of Boko Haram and related terrorist upheaval. The question has arisen as to whether the NYSC can operate in these zones of an undeclared war.
Understandably most Nigerians are hesitant and indeed opposed to having young graduates posted to these increasingly dangerous places for the NYSC scheme. It ought to concern us that somehow the NYSC has become a veritable barometer for measuring the degree of security in different parts of the country. When corps members can be posted anywhere in the nation and complete their service peacefully, then the nation is at peace. The converse is tragically true, which is where we are right now.
Perhaps the most important challenge that the current atmosphere of general insecurity has raised is a re-assessment of the continued relevance of the NYSC scheme and the kind of reform it urgently needs if it is to remain a relevant feature of our national life.
At the time of its inception, the state of the Nigerian nation was different. The NYSC scheme was one of the various structural mechanisms designed to psychologically re-unite the country after a bloody and fractious civil war. There was a consensus then that all Nigerians, especially the youth and highly educated, needed to be made to feel at home in all parts of the country.
More importantly, lateral inequalities in the availability of needed manpower dictated that some federal initiative be undertaken to send teachers, doctors, engineers and social workers to the places where they were mostly needed. The original NYSC was at best a misguided affirmative action decreed into place by a military that was still conscious of its mission as a national integration force. It was marketed as a national unity scheme. Those of us who served in the first sets of the scheme felt welcome in the faraway places where we went to serve.
We were respected, utilised and, in many cases, encouraged to take up employment in the states where we served. In some cases, some corps members found in their places of posting new relationships, new challenges and new places that they could perhaps call ‘home’. We were also protected. Then we were a post-conflict nation united by the fear of our violent immediate past and eager to face the challenges and reap the rewards of rebuilding the nation. That was then.
Now, we are in a very different place. Our priority has shifted from national integration and unity towards a crisis of governance and plain simple mismanagement of public expectations. The danger posed by bad governance is today far greater than any threat to national unity. By far the greater threats to Nigeria’s future include epic incompetence, the domination of the public services and strategic institutions by expired, incompetent and very corrupt people. Worse still, this arm of the elite has organised itself into cabals for the protection of clique interests and huge portions of national wealth. An NYSC scheme that was originally designed to forge cosmetic unity is functionally useless in today’s circumstances.
Even judged by the specific reasons for which it was established, the verdict on the necessity of the NYSC is arguably damning. As I e-mailed my friend and brother, Eddie Iroh, the other day in the context of a raging THISDAY Editorial Board online debate, the NYSC has united nothing. Nor has it created any more patriotic citizens. Unity and patriotism require more fundamental variables than periodically shuffling young people to places they would rather not go to on a starvation stipend. Every adult Nigerian knows one thing for certain: he or she is a Nigerian.
Regrettably, there has developed in recent years a misalignment between the manpower need assessment of states and the number of youth corps personnel posted to them. The sight of NYSC personnel roaming from one establishment to the other begging to be allowed to serve is now common in some states. If the NYSC was designed to ease pressure on the job market with a one year delay in effective demand for jobs, that too has failed. There are no jobs out there. With or without the NYSC, 95 per cent of our graduates output in a year cannot find jobs.
In an increasingly dangerous national space, preferential posting is the sensible thing for parents to opt for. Wanting your ward to serve in a safe place is enlightened self interest. Those who insist that their wards be posted to safe places are not less patriotic than those who have left the fate of their wards in the hands of the NYSC only to be greeted with returning coffins a few months into the scheme.
Basically, then, the NYSC scheme in its original format has become dysfunctional. What is required is a fundamental re-thinking of the scheme to bring it in line with the changed manpower need profile of the nation.
In this regard, distinct possibilities present themselves for immediate exploitation. Firstly, our skilled manpower requirements are no longer strictly geographically defined. They are more sectoral as far as the public services are concerned.
For instance, the general educational profile of our armed forces requires upgrading if we are to attain combat competitiveness in a world where technological advantage determines the outcome of wars. Our police force, for instance, requires similar manpower upgrading in a situation where crime prevention now requires that law enforcement stay several steps ahead of the smartest bad guys in terms of intelligence. Our immigration services need more psychologists just as our narcotics interception effort requires more forensic experts. Other deficiencies requiring more enlightened intervention abound.
States and services that really require corps members should formally requisition for them and be ready to enter written undertakings to protect and meaningfully engage these personnel. Increasing insecurity in the land dictates that states take out substantial insurance coverage for corps members they request. A minimum cover for death or permanent disability should not be less than N25 million.
The other approach is to use the NYSC scheme to gradually replace our present decadent military and security apparatus through a progressive national compulsory two-year military service for all NYSC recruits. Nigeria is full of citizens but in dare need of patriots. History has shown that the easiest way of creating patriots out of citizens is by getting them to sign up to bear arms in defence of the fatherland. We need a security force with a reasonably high level of educational base line to compete in today’s world.
NYSC graduands from this scheme should be incrementally used to replace an equivalent number of the multitude of near illiterates currently dominating the armed services. Those disengaged can be retrained for civilian life in appropriate roles. You cannot aim to become G-20 when your security forces are medieval.
A re-conceptualised and re-structured NYSC will necessitate a massive educational reform to upgrade the abysmal quality of the graduates that the system is currently spewing out.