Youths obey the clarion call; Let us lift our nation high,
Under the sun or in the rain, with dedication and selflessness,
Nigeria is ours, Nigeria we serve: NYSC Anthem
The year was 2001 and the month was April. I had just graduated law school and like thousands of graduates like me, I was loafing around waiting for our call up letter. We had waited several months and it was not forthcoming. Then one sweltering day, a friend arrived with the good news. “We have been called!” she exclaims. We set out celebrating with all manner of dances. At long last, we were about to become “corpershun” (a colloquial term used to describe youth corpers, a mixture of corper and attention, the latter apparently referring to the military command used to assume an erect posture. NYSC is afterall a quasi military programme).
I set out for Law School Abuja to collect my letter. My posting to the North Central zone precisely Benue state was received with mixed feelings. While it was true I wanted to go as far as the core north in order to learn Hausa, I didn’t consider Benue state northern enough. Infact it is the only state in the whole northern region where Hausa was not the lingua franca. Nevertheless, I chose to enjoy the experience. After three weeks of gruelling manual labour, military parades, endurance treks, climbing ropes, hanging out in mammy market, playing cops and robbers with the Commandant and RSM, we passed out from the NYSC camp and entered the real corper life. My place of primary assignment was the Police headquarters Markurdi. I was offered a surprisingly habitable accommodation in the barracks, next to the headquarters and opposite the NYSC secretariat. Our allowance (popularly known as allowee) was tripled and arrears paid. It was the very life.
Determined to experience as much as I could of my host state, I canvassed the length and breadth of Benue from Adikpo London (gist had it that the first man to ever travel overseas presumably London was from Adikpo in Kwande LGA), to Vandeikya, Katsina Ala, Zakibiam, Okpoga in Okpokwu LGA, Konshisha, Ogbadibo, Gboko, Oturkpo and a host of other places. As part of my community development scheme, I joined the dance and drama group. I learnt to dance and sing Tiv and Idoma music (A very laudable feat I must add for the flexibility required to twist to those Tiv dances can only be suitably compared to the elasticity of a rubber). I made so many lifelong friends. Then calamity fell.
The Tivs, militant in nature and their nearest neighbours the Jukuns from Taraba State fell out over land and territorial boundaries (What else could they be fighting over? Space Technology?). It was a bloody combat that took many lives and rendered many more homeless, limbless and hopeless. The dreaded MOPOL and the Nigerian Army waded in and a dusk to dawn curfew was imposed. Youth corpers were advised to wear their NYSC Khaki uniforms at all times in order not to be mistaken as Tiv or Jukun by any raging mob from either side. The few times we ran into the mobs (comprised mostly of jobless youths), we escaped their wrath for the mere fact that we were “Obasanjo’s pickin” as corpers were popularly called. No one laid a finger on any corper and the ones who dared got banged up a little for their trouble.
Fast forward ten years later. The scene can rightly be likened to the chaotic Middle East or Armageddon whichever that is more ferocious. Bombs, machetes, guns and every imaginable small and light armed weapon were unleashed on the unsuspecting civil society as a result of an election that didn’t quite go as planned. Several corpers, some of whom acted as returning officers were burnt alive trapped in a police station. Since then, violence on corpers has been the order of day.
I have always believed that the NYSC was one of the most brilliant schemes embarked upon by the Nigerian government. Decree No.24 of 22nd May 1973 (which has now been repealed and replaced by Decree 51 of 16th June 1993) created the scheme in a bid to reconstruct, reconcile and rebuild the country after the Civil war “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity”. Together with the establishment of Unity schools, the NYSC was seen as a vehicle to promote unity in diversity. The Unity schools have now gone the way of horse and carriage but that is the subject of another woeful write up. Many a youth who would never have had the opportunity of experiencing life outside their place of origin or birth, are exposed to the mode of living of people in different parts of the country, bridging both the religious and cultural divides that delineate the Nigerian society. That in itself is the greatest accomplishment of the scheme.
It goes without saying, however, that due to matters arising, the time has come for us to go back to the drawing board with an eraser and wipe out certain programmes, schemes, etc., which have outlived their usefulness or at least have been rendered moot by certain happenings in certain quarters. The bloodbath which occurs on a daily basis in the North is highly regrettable but even more deplorable is the fact that the Nigerian government cannot guarantee the security of lives and property of its youth whom it has mandatorily sent all over the country as cheap labour. To further stoke the fire of dissidence, the government had not paid the corpers their monthly “allowee” since March. Imagine a parent’s pain after all the sacrifice to better the lot of their child and subsequently theirs, he/she is cut down in their prime by some despicable religious bigots who can’t wait to get to heaven and amass seventy virgins all to themselves.
That being said, I join the clarion call to serve the nation under the sun and in the rain but not while dodging bullets and scaling fence. The service of one’s nation is not and should never be considered as a call for martyrdom. If the Federal government cannot guarantee safety of their youth, then they have absolutely no business expecting servitude in guise of patriotism. Furthermore, if the NYSC authorities yield to the immense pressure to post corpers and relocate the ones currently in service to other more peaceful regions, then the very purpose of NYSC is massively defeated.
If however it comes down to a balancing test between service to one’s patria and the preservation of life, the interest advanced by the latter outweighs the burden imposed on the former. Self preservation is afterall the first law of nature.