Making NYSC Voluntary Will Increase Its Value and Prestige
In the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War which had lasted for three and half years before it ended in 1970, the Yakubu Gown regime thought of an idea intended to bridge differences across the multi-cultural nation by sending graduates to spend one year in a region other than the one they hailed from.
This was literally the idea behind the birth of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) which started in 1973, with graduates compulsorily taking part in the scheme, unless they had graduated at the age of 30 years or above, are disabled or have served in the military or paramilitary for more than a year; failure to do so will mean being ineligible for employment in government institutions, running for political office and most private establishments.
While the scheme has done a lot of excellent work in exposing Nigerians to places other than where they come from (especially in the first few decades of its existence) which has made them learn about other cultures, it has over time developed several problems: insecurity in the country has made many averse on serving in certain parts of the country and the government struggling to pay allowances as the number of youth corps members has ballooned in recent times.
But beyond the problems, there are many graduates who will rather do without spending one year of their life on the scheme — they might either prefer to go straight into employment or further their education, rather than waiting in uncertainty to live in an area they have no desire to go to, and possibly let go of better opportunities, even if it be for a while.
Yet, despite the problems that have beset the scheme, our policymakers have remained adamant about not making any changes to it. A few arguments for retaining it in its current form have been put forward, such as that many states depend on youth corps members for their teaching and health workforce, NYSC will achieve unity and scrapping it will lead to the loss of jobs of the staff of the scheme.
Let me start by saying that it is an illusion to think that Nigeria will be united through NYSC: while the scheme has done a lot of good in increasing how we understand and see each other, other efforts such as enhancing trade, opening up the economy across the country and ensuring peace and security across the country will do infinitely more in that regard, as people will eagerly move to where they know they can live better lives, and not just for a year.
While scrapping might be a bit too much, it is time we consider making NYSC voluntary for graduates, as doing so will allow interested persons to sign up for a year’s immersion in new cultures, save the government money by paying fewer people allowances, as well as retain the jobs of the NYSC staff.
Not only that, the NYSC as it is presently constituted is a blocker to having Nigeria’s large and growing diaspora population to serving in any government position — unless they had come home and served for one year, which is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition considering the socio-economic conditions in the country. A clear example of this is the case of the immediate past Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun who was accused of forging an exemption certificate from the NYSC to enable her to serve in the Ogun State Government as the Commissioner of Finance in 2011, and which led to her resignation from the federal cabinet in 2018. In the end, what should be a potential brain gain for the public service might not happen because of the strict observance of the law that having served in the corps scheme, if eligible, be a prerequisite to working in any government agency or position.
But perhaps the biggest gain that will come from making the scheme voluntary is that it will increase its value and prestige. Youth corps members will no longer be seen as participating in it because they are being compelled to, but because they are making a sacrifice, even if they are still paid an allowance for doing so.
Such a voluntary scheme could focus on having members being deployed predominantly to rural and peri-urban areas, being active in community work and fully immersed in the culture of their host communities. It could also not be a scheme with the hope that the organization that they are serving with will retain them at the end of their one year.
This is similar to how the United States used to conscript all males between the ages of 18 to 25 to serve in the military and used it in six wars from the War of Independence to the Vietnam War. While a lot of young American men served in it, many others found ways to avoid it, whether by legitimate or frivolous reasons, famously including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
However, the ending of the military draft in 1972 and the switch to an all-volunteer military has not diminished the military in the eyes of Americans; in fact, it has raised the prestige of serving, knowing that these brave men and women volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way for the defence of their country. It is very common to see and acceptable for soldiers to be given preferential treatment at airport & restaurant queues, or have strangers walk up to them to thank them for their service, and pay for their meals. Also, serving in the military is a badge of honour that many retired soldiers wear proudly, and some have leveraged on to run for political offices.
This is potentially how Nigerians can look at our own NYSC if we make it voluntary — it can be a badge of honour and evidence of sacrifice for young people to desire to serve in rural and peri-urban areas they are not familiar with as a way of serving their country.
This is one proposal that will be worth considering.