THE Minister of Youth and Sports, Sunday Dare, recently reopened the debate on the continued relevance of the National Youth Service Corps scheme. His assertion that the compulsory one-year national service for young Nigerians graduating from higher institutions must stay based on the primary goals of the scheme’s founders represents only one strand of public opinion. In a democracy, all national programmes are subject to discourse. The NYSC cannot be an exception.

Officials and others arguing for the retention of the NYSC have their reasons, but so also do the many others who say the programme in its present format has outlived its usefulness and should be retooled in line with current realities.

This newspaper aligns strongly with the latter option. Circumstances since the NYSC was launched by the military regime of Yakubu Gowon in 1973 have changed radically. But like its founding fathers, Dare and other promoters are stuck on ideas of “national unity” and see the scheme as a major tool in this quest.

Dare said, “… the central rationale was the need to promote the unity of this country. And you know that the livewire of any nation is its youths. Once the youth are captured, their patriotism is captured and can spread across the country.”

Undoubtedly, fusing the amalgam of over 250 ethnic nationalities, diverse faiths, cultures, and terrain into a United States-style “melting pot” or a cohesive union of nationalities like the United Kingdom has defeated the Nigerian union. The dream of “unity in diversity,” where loyalty to the federal union would override fealty to the ethnic nationality, has eluded the country.

Attempts by the military rulers that forcibly supplanted civilians in 1966 to decree unity through various centralising administrative schemes have not succeeded. Instead, the dismantling of the ramparts of federalism, erosion of fiscal federalism and resource control, as well as the centralisation of policing, and abuse of the federal character principle, have proved even more divisive.

The NYSC arose out of those unifying considerations. Its founding received impetus as the country had just emerged from the horrors of a civil war (1967-70) sparked by the fierce mutual ethnic animosities. Gowon’s Decree No 24 of 1973 established the NYSC “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youth of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity.”

It was expected to inculcate patriotism and the spirit of selfless service in the youth. Besides, the young Nigerian graduates posted to unfamiliar territories other than their states of origin would not only build bridges, but also provide much-needed manpower support as doctors, teachers, engineers, and others in rural communities.

It has recorded some successes; many youths have become familiar with other cultures; its community development programme component has impacted positively on many communities in education, health care, water supply, tourism, and agriculture. Corps members have also been available for national assignments like census, elections, immunisation, and other sensitisation campaigns.

Over the years, some participants have also secured jobs, settled in their areas of posting and acquired new skills.

But challenges abound and as Dare admitted, reforms are constant necessities as new realities emerge. For one, the number of participants has exploded, posing huge financial and logistical hurdles. Now, each service year has multiple batches. Abuses have set in; corruption scandals crop up occasionally.

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Accommodation has also become challenging, a function of the large numbers. Influence-peddling abounds, and favoured corpers get postings of their choice. Some others spend the entire service year without getting a stable placement for their primary assignment.

The scheme therefore requires radical overhaul. The government acknowledges this and has been adjusting it over the years; from extending it to college of education graduates, allowing for exemption on request by graduates over 30 years old, to the recent option to decline posting to terror-infested states. It envisages more.

The reforms should be more radical. First, it should be optional. At its take-off in 1973, Nigeria had only six universities and a handful of polytechnics; today, the National Universities Commission lists 220 universities – 50 federal, 59 states and 111 private. The National Board for Technical Education accredits 165 polytechnics – 40 federal, 49 states and 76 private. Combined, the universities produce about 500,000 graduates each year, joined by hundreds returning from studies abroad.

The number is simply unwieldy. Funding is constrained and has always been a sticking point.

Therefore, the NYSC should be restructured to take in only a manageable number of corps members. The scheme should be made voluntary with only one batch per service year. Evidence of having undertaken the one-year service should no longer be a requirement for employment or criminalised.

Based on current national aspirations, the programme should identify areas of need; such as doctors and other medical professionals, engineers, and teachers (especially science and mathematics). Priority should be given to disciplines critical to some rural communities across the states.

This requires collaborating with states and employers who will express their areas of need in advance and agree on the minimum compensation, accommodation, and welfare they will provide to the volunteers.

The NYSC is not a national military service. Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, and others, based on their security needs have compulsory military service for their youth; Nigeria does not. Instead, like its Technical Aid Corps scheme and the United States Peace Corps, the NYSC should be an all-volunteer corps.

The argument that some communities do not have qualified personnel and services is not compelling. Sixty-two years after independence, it is the responsibility of states and local governments to promote manpower development through sensible education schemes. In the past, regions, states and LGs provided schools, scholarships, bursaries, and student loans for their indigenes.

They should also provide basic amenities, infrastructure, and security, promote productive activities, and job creation and attract investment. Posting a handful of youths to deprived communities will not redress this abdication of responsibility.

The various governments should pursue effective job creation programmes to take the millions of unemployed youths off the streets.