Activities to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, gained momentum across Nigeria last week.
The frenzy online, on the streets and across cities evoked nostalgia, excitement and wistfulness as stakeholders (mostly generations of Nigerians who themselves had served in the past as corps members) reflected on the long-term impact of the scheme on Nigeria and its citizens.
NYSC, established on May 22, 1973, through Decree No. 24 by the administration of General Yakubu Gowon, has the overarching goal of fostering national unity and integration following the civil war that crippled the country from 1967 to 1970.
The war had prompted Nigeria to seek a permanent solution to discord among its ethnic components.
It was to this end that the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon, in pursuit of its “Three Rs” policy (of reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation), established NYSC as an organ of national unity.
In good and bad times, NYSC weathered the storm. On Monday, May 8, 2023, authorities of the NYSC formally commenced activities to mark the 50-year milestone of the institution.
The journey so far
Without being sentimental, NYSC has been an avenue for true service to the fatherland for young Nigerians.
Members of the corps (famously called corpers) spend 12 months contributing to the development of various sectors, most prominently the education and health sectors.
In its half-century existence, the scheme has continually reinvented itself to meet the demands of the day, with the most recent evolution being its Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Department, SAED, which has been facilitating job creation for its teeming members.
Far from being a vestige of the past, NYSC, as an institution, offers young Nigerians a gateway to their future in a country of ethnic and religious pluralism where peaceful coexistence is paramount.
Stakeholders, who spoke to xandertech, commended the scheme for its efforts so far in uniting the country despite the perennial ethnic, political, and religious polarities that perpetuate divisions among Nigerians.
The respondents also spotlighted areas where NYSC could be strengthened as an institution.
According to the President of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), Alhaji Yerima Shettima: “The intentions for the establishment of NYSC were good to an extent; we must acknowledge the fact that it has impacted positively on the lives of Nigerians.”
He underscored the role of NYSC in promoting unity as it provides opportunities for young Nigerians to leave the environment of their birth and upbringing and “go to where they have never imagined.”
Said he: “Intermarriage among corps members is also part of the reason for the establishment of the scheme. The aim was to unite the country so that we can see ourselves as one nation.”
In the same vein, the President General of the Coalition of South East Youth Leaders, COSEYL, Goodluck Ibem affirmed that the scheme had helped Nigerians to acquaint themselves with people of other languages and tribes, a development that fosters peace and harmony in the country.
He also credited the NYSC for fostering peace through inter-ethnic marriage among young Nigerians.
“The NYSC has improved intermarriage among our youths from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, which ordinarily would not have been impossible.
“But as corps members met and interacted during their service years, they discovered that what their political leaders told them about people of other tribes was not true but a lie,” he articulated.
Ibem enumerated other benefits of NYSC thus: “One, the scheme has helped our youths discover their talents and business opportunities in areas where they are posted for their primary assignments.
“Two, NYSC helps our youths learn new languages and cultures of their fellow Nigerians, which ordinarily would have been impossible if not for the scheme. As they learn new languages and cultures, they understand better how to relate freely with their fellow countrymen and women.
“Three, the scheme has helped the advancement of education in rural areas where ordinary Nigerians wouldn’t have had the opportunity of access to education. This is possible as corps members, in the spirit of service to the fatherland, help to build schools and teaching centres. Their sacrifices establish trust and unity among Nigerians.”
Another respondent, Ademola Joshua, a youth leader in Ondo State, highlighted the area of weakness in the scheme.
According to him: “Most Nigerians served their country only during the one-year compulsory service; after the NYSC programme, the majority of Nigerians don’t have the opportunity to serve their nation again. This is bad.”
He continued: “The federal government should find a way to create jobs for these young Nigerians or extend the service beyond just one year and pay them well. How can you pay them N33,000 and expect them to save and start a business afterwards?
“Parents struggle to pay school fees for their children, and even during service, they still struggle to feed them, this is not correct.”
Expanding national assignment and growing concerns
The past few decades have seen the NYSC take on weighty responsibilities, especially with the return to democracy, whereby corpers have become pivotal to Nigeria’s electoral process.
In every electioneering season, corps members in their numbers serve as Presiding Officers (PO) and Assistant Presiding Officers (APO) at polling units.
For instance, not less than 200, 000 corpers were enlisted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) during the 2023 elections, constituting 75 percent of the election workers.
Similarly, they serve as part of the workforce of the National Population Commission (NPC) during census exercises.
They are consequently exposed to the hazards of these assignments as witnessed during election periods when they are frequently targets of political violence.
In addition, the insecurity situation of the country has made the “service year” (the dream of graduating students) fraught with dangers.
In the past years, several corps members have paid the supreme price and fallen victims of bandits, insurgents, unknown gunmen, and other criminal elements wreaking havoc across the nation.
The disturbing development is giving patriotic young Nigerians and their parents grave concerns.
This concern was also shared by the AYCF president, who pointed out that the insecurity situation in the country is a discouraging factor for young Nigerians, who now worry about being posted to states affected by banditry or insurgency.
“I am optimistic that the security challenge will go away one day. And I commend the government; despite the security challenges, they never considered scrapping the scheme,” Yerima stated.
Speaking on the security of corps members, the Cross River State coordinator of NYSC, Zemoh Andrew Jebo told xandertech that the scheme does not post its members to volatile areas, especially during elections.
“There is a directive from the Director-General; we don’t post corps members to volatile areas,” he affirmed.
Finance side of the scheme
For serving corps members, the monthly stipend from the government is their mainstay while serving their fatherland, sometimes, in very demanding circumstances.
In 2002, corpers were paid N11, 000, and 21 years later, they are earning N33, 000, following the implementation of the national minimum wage by the Federal Government in 2020.
Owing to the current economic reality of the country, the allowance, however, can hardly sustain them for a month.
On this, all corps members are in agreement: There is a need for an immediate review of the monthly stipends.
Galloping inflation, which translates into skyrocketing prices of food items and other essential commodities daily, renders their monthly stipend insufficient, from one payday to another.
The trio of Ochoche Maria, Jane Ugwu and Anthony Omoha, who are currently serving in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT Abuja, told xandertech in plain terms that their current allowance is “inadequate.”
According to them, they still rely on their parents for financial support.
“Life was better when we were in school. At least, people helped because they knew that, as students, we needed money; now, not everyone understands our situation- the N33,000 finishes in just a week. Transportation, food, rent, and everything else is just too expensive in Abuja,” Jane Ugwu complained.
She reflected solemnly: “When they started paying the N33,000, people were able to save from it because the economy was not that bad; now, N33,000 cannot feed one person for two weeks.”
Her condition, sadly, is representative of the generality of corpers.
As NYSC marks its milestone of 50 years, this is certainly an area of concern for all stakeholders.
There is, however, a ray of hope in this regard, arising from the declaration by Emmanuel Njoku, spokesperson of the National Salaries, Incomes, and Wages Commission (NSIWC), who on January 16, 2023, declared that the process of reviewing the national minimum wage will commence in the first quarter of 2023.
Such a positive development will definitely trickle down to corpers.
As Nigeria continues to deepen its nationhood, the NYSC remains an enduring symbol of the country’s unity, and a functional institution that is making valuable inputs to the corporate existence of Nigeria.