WAEC. JAMB. NYSC. Those three institutions have pretty much shaped the educational lives of generations of Nigerians for decades. With five credits at a go or combos from two sittings, WAEC eased your way through JAMB to university as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, you go through the mandatory one-year service as a youth corp member starting with orientation camp before your place of primary assignment. At 50, THEWILL looks at NYSC not only as a melting pot for youths from different ethnic backgrounds and institutions of higher learning (excepting Colleges of Education) but also the scandals, tragedies and controversies that have plagued the institution. Michael Jimoh reports…
The voice boomed from the darkness of the dormitory, waking up those in the early stages of sleep. It was a little past 11pm. There were about three, four dozen or so of them lying supine, sideways or face down in single beds, some snoring, some partially awake, some wide awake. They were all male, under 30, all of them graduates from Nigerian universities and polytechnics in an orientation camp in the numbingly cold, breezy, hilly ranges of Awgu town in Enugu state.
It was April 1992, lights out in the hostel and, perhaps, unable to sleep or out of sheer curiosity, one of them threw the question to the house.
“Who is the author of King Solomon’s Mines?” The obviously inebriated voice wanted to know. Rider Haggard, someone replied. Thus encouraged, the voice boomed again: “Who wrote 1984?” George Orwell, another voice responded. From different corners and out of the dark, voices began to ask questions, mainly about books and their authors.
The answers were prompt. Only once did a responder get it wrong. He mistook Allan Quatermain for the name of an author instead of the title of a novel. Someone quickly corrected him out of the dark: AQ is a book by the same author of King Solomon’s Mines and, most famously, She. From that night on the questions never stopped coming, becoming something of a nocturnal ritual we looked forward to. Think of “Who wants to be a millionaire?” anchored by Frank Edoho for MTN syndicated on television stations back then, though without the cash prize – plus there were no phones or help lines.
From night to night, we all engaged ourselves in that intellectual spot, widening it to cover African authors particularly African Writers Series and even Pacesetters paperbacks most of us read pre-university. We were all fresh from university or polytechnic, coming together for the first time in a campus-like ambience and from different background as well. And here we were in the dark making the most of the time we had.
I can’t remember how it all started but it happened one night and from then on, most of the corp members in that hostel participated fully, asking and answering questions in the dark just as they were sure to make the early morning drills at about 5, 5.30 the following day. It was fun.
Somehow, it got most of us closer. We later got to know who began the spontaneous literary quiz: Akin Adeoya, a graduate of the Department of English from Obafemi Awolowo University Ile Ife. There was Dr. Jide from University of Lagos, tall and handsome with a matching baritone voice who answered some of the questions correctly. There was the rangy corp member from University of Sokoto, charcoal-black with teeth yellow as maize, a stoop to his shoulders and unassuming manners.
If you wanted a perfect picture of a disheveled genius, he was it. His bed was unmade sometimes. Nor did he pay much attention to his sartorial sense when some others looked military-smart in their regulation ajuwaya, copashun khaki uniforms, white vests and boxers, complete with orange coloured ankle-length boots and white tennis shoes. And he just didn’t care though he made his parade ground appearances like the rest of us daily for three weeks. We later found out he was a Maths prodigy from the school since renamed Usman Dan Fodio University Sokoto. We nicknamed him Dan Sokoto.
While the quiz sessions united the dorm chaps at night, the daytime morning drills brought the rest of the corp members at Awgu Camp closer in the parade ground, an open and level field fringed on one side by mango trees, lush cashew trees bearing yellow-ripe fruits and ancient acacias under which a few pregnant corp members sit languidly, watching their colleagues do the 100 metre dash, clamber up ropes commando-style but without weapons. There was a range of exercises like pushups, frog jumps and roadwork.
The same would have been repeated in several other orientation camps in all the state capitals. Certainly the exercises were part of the training but the underlying reason for the programme itself was national integration following the three Rs – Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation – initiated after the civil war in 1970.
Contrary to popular belief, the youth programme originated from the most unlikely source, from the vanquished after the Nigeria/ Biafra civil war. Tagged East Central State Youth Volunteer Service Corps (ECSYVSC) and founded by Professor Timothy Uzodinma Nwala it pooled together hundreds of war-weary Igbo youths for self-help and community development projects in the war-ravaged region.
With time, more youths joined in as volunteers, building back their broken homes, clearing the rubble from the streets and generally making themselves useful in a dozen different ways. Such was the success of ECSYVSC that when Nwala suggested a similar idea to the Gowon administration in 1971, the military head of state accepted. In appreciation for what the Igbo youths were doing to get a hang of their lives, Gowon gave the East Central State Administrator Dr. Ukpabi Asika seventy-five thousand pounds.
By May 22 1973, the National Youth Service Corps took off as an institution not unlike the ECSYVSC, though on a national scale. Now a solid institution at 50, NYSC has had its fair share of upheavals.
Scandals, Tragedies and Controversies
Eleven years after its formation, NYSC was enmeshed in one of the biggest scandals to ever beset the institution. The Director General at the time, Col Peter Obasa, faced accusations he couldn’t quite wriggle out of. Under his watch, the new military regime of Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon in 1984 charged the DG for N200 million fraudulent contracts. There were other accusations bordering on wastage and inept record keeping. Obasa got a lengthy jail sentence for his troubles.
More trouble was to come NYSC’s way, this time the serving corp members themselves. It was April 2011 and the Secretariat had deployed youth corp members for national elections as it had done for some time. During the presidential election of that year, 10 NYSC members on electoral duty were killed in an orgy of violence in Bauchi state. It was unprecedented for innocent youths on national service who were neither politicians nor those seeking elective office to be dispensed with in such a savage manner.
Almost immediately, Nigerians began to rethink the entire concept of NYSC. If innocent people had to be sacrificed on the altar of political greed and violence, then it was time to scrap it. Be done with it, irate Nigerians thundered from the rooftops. The violence against corp members continued unabated, up to last February’s presidential polls. In one polling booth in Rivers state, for instance, a male corp member was shot in the arm for failing to acquiesce to hoodlums’ request to handover some voting materials. The call for scrapping NYSC reached a national crescendo.
Even so, some other Nigerians have countered them, insisting that NYSC must be allowed to stay. Chief among them is the founder of the project itself, Prof. Nwala. In an interview soon after the gruesome killing of the corp members, the Philosophy professor let on that “the irony of the whole situation is that the NYSC emerged as a movement to gradually, systematically overcome the same forces that have been responsible for the death of these poor chaps. I mean to overcome religious bigotry, political intolerance and ethnic fanaticism. These are the things the NYSC rose to combat and it is these same forces that are now responsible for the death of the corps members. If you call for the scrapping of the NYSC because the youths are being killed, it is like saying, dissolve the security forces because security men are being attacked or being killed by armed robbers. I think it is the same thing.
“What I think the society needs to do is to honestly address the issue of religious bigotry, to address the issue of intolerance, political, tribal divisions and realize that the people responsible for using these forces to divide this country are the politicians. It is not the youths, it is the leaders. Our initial idea was to mobilize the youths so that they can relate with themselves and be able to overcome this thinking.”
Despite Nwala’s hopes for continuing the scheme, he told THEWILL through a WhatsApp interview last Friday his expectations for what he started 50 years ago has not been met. Have you seen your dream come true the way you imagined, envisaged?
“No,” he replied because “the politicians and state administrators have diverted the NYSC from its original vision as an instrument of national reconciliation and integration. It is now a mere instrument to provide workers for governmental institutions.”
Following the killing of the unfortunate corp members in Bauchi state, Nwala had said at the time that youths should “realise that Nigeria is not going to break into pieces as Gaddafi predicted. It is the same message we gave to the youths of Igboland after the war. We told them that the result of the war showed that everybody was meant to live together and, therefore, we must begin to address how we can live together. And the message is that, it is the youths that will help to determine the conditions for this togetherness, not the politicians.”
Governor-elect Peter Mbah and NYSC face-off
If politicians are responsible for putting corp members in harm’s way, it now seems they’ve notched up their performance in ridiculing or bringing to disrepute the very institution responsible for corp members welfare. Just last week up until Friday, Nigerian newspapers were awash with the current controversy over NYSC discharge certificate of a governor-elect in the southeast.
By now readers are familiar with the ongoing verbal exchange and counter accusations between NYSC and Peter Mbah of the Peoples Democratic Party who won the gubernatorial election in March. Mbah had presented a discharge certificate to INEC. He claimed to have received it from NYSC.
A group Total Support for Rule of Law and Justice Initiative and Enugu Progressive Forum in Enugu had taken the newly elected governor to task charging that he forged his NYSC discharge certificate.
Coordinator of the group, Cynthia Mabeokwu, presented journalists with a letter to that effect at a news conference in Abuja. “We are pleased to inform you that the Certificate of National Service belonging to Mbah Peter Ndubuisi with Certificate Number: A808297 forwarded for verification was not issued by the NYSC.”
Continuing, Mabeokwu said that “as part of this quest for information, we wrote to the INEC and obtained Certified True Copies of all the documents and qualifications submitted by the various candidates to the commission.” The candidate, according to them, should explain to voters in the Coal city “the circumstances of the alleged forgery. This explanation should be in clear precise terms leaving no doubt in the minds of any person. It should not be with any prevarications, insults, deflections or evasion of the facts.
“Where candidate, Peter Ndubuisi Mbah has no explanation for this turn of events, we call on him to immediately apologise to our people and withdraw from the race forthwith and hand himself over to the police, confess his crime and be prosecuted.”
Of course, that weighty allegation against a governorship candidate elicited responses from party stalwarts. Speaking on the charges, Nana Ogbodo who is Director of Public Communications and Spokesperson of the Enugu State PDP Campaign Council, denied the allegations. “There is no truth whatsoever to the allegation,” he said, stating further that “we make bold to say that Dr. Peter Mbah was duly mobilised for the one-year mandatory national youth service in Lagos in 2002, duly completed the exercise and was issued with an NYSC discharge certificate.
“We state unequivocally that these purveyors of malicious falsehood are the real forgers, as everything about the letter they claimed to have emanated from the NYSC bears all the imprimaturs of forgery; the language too inelegant and unofficial to have emanated from the NYSC.”
But the NYSC Director of Corps Certification, Ibrahim A. Muhammad said no such certificate was ever issued to Mbah.
To prove that they mean business and cocksure of their position, Peter Mbah proceeded to sue Muhammed and NYSC for N20b as “exemplary damages” for “conspiracy, deceit and misrepresentation of facts.”
The suit followed a judgment by a Federal High Court presided over by Justice Iyang Ekwo who agreed to “an order of interim injunction restraining the defendants, NYSC and Muhammed from issuing, publishing further disclaimer that the NYSC certificate dated January 6, 2003, with certificate number: A808297 issued to the plaintiff… by Section 11 of the NYSC Decree No. 51 of 1993, was not issued by NYSC pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed in this suit.”
This may have riled the bosses at NYSC to no end. The response this time was quick and damning. It was the DG himself, Brigadier General Yushau Ahmed who pronounced with oracular finality: “Enugu governor-elect’s certificate not from NYSC.”
For now, Nigerians are waiting for the outcome of the certificate saga. Who is fibbing and who is not? THEWILL asked the founding father of NYSC Nwala.
His response was as terse as it was precise: “It is difficult to believe Mr. Mbah and not the man who controls NYSC records.”
Overall, how does he feel about the institution he helped nurture to life now at 50. “I feel very sad,” the don told the newspaper. “It is a negation of the noble vision that inspired its formation. Because politics in Nigeria is the game vampires play, all the great institutions whose foundation I have helped to lay with other patriots have been destroyed.”