My first encounter with the National Youth Service (NYSC) was through the lens of my childhood gaze. My aunt who was newly recruited into the scheme had come to live with us after being posted to Lagos. In the mornings, sitting in front of the mirror with her white powder and pale green khakis, I would watch her with an innocent childlike hunger, waiting impatiently to grow up and do adult womanly things.
Back then, NYSC seemed so necessary and urgent. My aunt told me she was serving her country. And hearing this, I would imagine Nigeria as a round-bellied Uncle who required cold beer to be served to him on a tray. I so badly wanted to serve Nigeria in that direct and seemingly tangible way. I still do. But years have passed, and as a full-grown woman who has also gone through the scheme, I ask myself sometimes: Really? Is that what we really do during NYSC?
After School, What Next?
Every year, thousands of Nigerian youth graduate from the University and join the mob of people waiting for a job. Or waiting to proceed into a business or pursue a post-graduate degree. NYSC feels like that awkward but unescapable pause between you and your plans. It is like that relative you are barely close to but whom you must introduce your fiancé before the engagement can be finalised. I am saying this because even though I feel that serving your country is a wonderful thing, I still think you do not need to be force held by a compulsory scheme to do that.
Look around you. Young people are volunteering in literacy programs. They are funding social causes, holding leaders accountable and running businesses that drive the engine of the economy. Young people, even when they feel disillusioned and frustrated by leaders, continue to serve the Nigerian dream in one small way or another. Many of them are returning from foreign countries, hanging on to the slippery idea that there is something beautiful and rescuable about this country.
Young people, through their personal excellence, are also serving their country. Is that not how it should work? That the success of the citizens rubs off on the brand of the country?
It doesn’t also help that a lot of times, even when the scheme insists on being about service, the corpers are posted to places of assignment with no real engagement. You find people stationed in local governments with nothing to do. Then there are the camps with their terrible living conditions. And sure, we get to meet other people from across the country, but even that comes with its haunting revelations. You find your fellow corp members who can’t speak good English, yet who will go on to teach students.
I know that some might argue that NYSC is not only about service. After all, from its inception in 1973, we see that it was initiated with a National integration agenda after the Civil War. I also admit that there is there is a natural empathy that occurs when people immerse themselves in other cultures and systems. But apart from flinging people across several parts of the country, I wonder, is the program really designed to facilitate this national integration?
Are there Government-led initiatives that ensure a deliberate openness and experience to other cultures? What is the mode of assessment in place? Who is gathering the data and feedback forms? Is anyone not bothered by the effectiveness of the scheme? Or is it one of those things about us that stays silent and perfunctory?
Confidence in NYSC?
All the above is not to completely write off NYSC. In all fairness, it has its advantages. For many people, it is their first leg into the corporate space. For others who get posted to reasonable organisations, they at least learn a skill or gain professional experience. Still, I think the scheme in itself is long due for our honest assessment. And our leaders and stakeholders should hear us out.
In the least, let us have a Government-led orientation or awareness of how the NYSC scheme affects both the participants and the country. Our confidence in the scheme has to be inspired. Our willingness has to be earned. And most importantly, let us remember that no law is sacrosanct unto itself. Everything, n matter how well intended, is always open for change.