Kwara State — When Tolu Babayemi got the call telling her that she was being sent to Kwara State, North Central Nigeria, for national service, her heart fell.
Originally from Osun in the southwest, the 24-year-old graduate from Ladoke Akintola University of Technology had hoped to be sent to the eastern part of the country, where conditions are said to be more bearable.
Babayemi is now halfway through her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) term. She’s still not impressed. Kwara State is, she says, “one of the worst states to serve in Nigeria”.
Created in the wake of Nigeria’s civil war, the NYSC is in its 45th year. It is a compulsory one-year scheme for graduate students under the age of 30, which combines short, military-style training with community development work in the country’s hard-to-reach rural zones. Another aim is to foster national unity and love for the country — but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Babayemi is one of 300 000-odd Nigerian graduates who serve annually. It is a rite of passage and essential for career advancement.
All senior government posts require an NYSC completion certificate, as the finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, recently discovered. Make that former finance minister Adeosun — she resigned earlier this month, allegedly after her certificate was found to be fake.
If you take a road trip along any of the country’s highways, you are likely to spot corps members in their iconic uniforms — khaki jacket, cap and combat pants paired with orange jungle boots. Even in the most remote villages, you’re sure to see long-faced “corpers” mentally counting the months until they get back to their version of civilisation.
Babayemi’s NYSC stint in Kwara began with the customary three-week training camp, where each new batch of corpers is taught to march in formation and navigate physical obstacle courses.
The state of the facilities was an immediate shock. “I didn’t have my bath in the bathroom. I had to go outside. I ate the food we were served like, five times, and was always [suffering from diarrhoea],” she recalls.
Across each of Nigeria’s 36 states, the scenario is the same: 100 corpers packed tightly in dormitories meant for half that number,cold baths in the open at 4am on windy mornings,lean, tasteless meals, 5am drills and agonising hours spent queuing to register their details with officials devoid of digital tools and any sense of urgency.
Yet, as terrible as it sounds, the camp experience is the most enjoyable part of the NYSC year, admits Babayemi. Most ex-corpers will agree because, despite the hardship, the intense bonding experience sort of works.
Every morning, corps members stand at attention in precise, straight lines, face the green-and-white national flag and belt out the anthem in a myriad of tunes. They’ve all sung the anthem hundreds of times in the past but never quite like this.
Everything stops: the cars on the highway overlooking the campground, the traders who are forever coming and going, carting in goods to sell to the badly fed corpers. Even the air seems to stop moving. The hair on your arms, on the back of your neck, stands on edge. Is that a teardrop or two?
You’re not always terribly proud of Nigeria but, at that moment, it feels good to serve.The patriotism may be manufactured but it is no less powerful for it.
Corps members can be sent to dangerous places. Nigerians who fled their homes (above) in Yobe and Borno after clashes between Boko Haram and the army take shelter at a National Youth Service Corps orientation camp. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency)
After surviving camp, corps members are sent to rural areas to live and work. Babayemi, who studied anatomy, was sent to a state-funded hospital in Omu-Aran, a small town two hours south of state capital Ilorin.
She can practise her profession but most of her colleagues, who are “not so lucky”,are at schools: teaching is by far the most frequent assignment.
Babayemi sits on a single mattress in the small room provided by the hospital, her khaki ensemble moulded to her thin frame. Outside, overgrown grass, damp from a heavy rain, licks the walls of the room.
She admits that, even though she wasn’t thrilled to serve in a backwater, the scheme has helped her professionally.
“I’ve been gaining relevant and interesting work experience. It’s not too bad,” she shrugs.
In isolated areas where a government presence is rarely felt, corpers are a reminder that the residents have not been completely forgotten. But that reminder can come at a cost.
A dangerous duty
In the early hours of Wednesday, July 4, Linda Igwetu, a corps member serving in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, was shot by a trigger-happy policeman. The 22-year-old died a day before she was to leave the service. She is one of many corpers who lose their lives to Nigeria’s inefficient and sometimes dangerous security, healthcare and transport systems.
More recently, nine corpers were killed when they were caught in flash flooding in Taraba State.
Even in the training camps, surrounded by dozens of soldiers, corpers are not necessarily safe.
The year 2016 was especially dark; three corps members died in camps. Reports suggested that negligent medical examiners had allowed them to participate in rigorous training exercises that contributed to their deaths. The government denied accusations of negligence.
Corpers are sometimes sent to dangerous areas, including the northern states that have been ravaged by Boko Haram, leaving their families to live in fear for 12 months — although there are redeployment options.
When communal clashes broke out in Jos, Plateau State, early this year, corpers trapped in their homes live-tweeted their fear. Others have been kidnapped by militant groups.
The dangers associated with the national service year have energised debate about its very existence: Is it really worth it?
Too much to ask?
The NYSC was created to unite a young country hoping to bury the discord sown by the brutal Biafran War that began in 1967. By the time it ended, 30 months later, more than two million people (mostly Igbos from the southeast) had died — and relations between ethnic groups were at a historic low. The youth scheme was part of a larger plan that aimed to reconcile, rehabilitate and reconstruct the scarred nation.
But in its fourth decade of existence, there is no real way to measure whether the scheme does fosters national unity or growth. Ayo Sogunro, a human rights lawyer, author and activist, argues that asking graduates to sacrifice a whole year of their lives in the service of national unity is too much.
“If tertiary students across the country cannot be taught the diversity of the Nigerian experience through short courses and exchange programmes over their four-year course, then one year post-graduation will not radically change their mind-set,” he says. At the very least, he adds, the government urgently needs to improve camp conditions — as a matter of human rights.
Jola Ayeye, an ex-corper who completed her service year this March, has the same view.
“It’s so dangerous,” the 26-year-old says. “Corpers are some of the least protected people in this country and they die in their tens and hundreds, and nothing happens.”
She says her service year was “an absolute waste of time” — all she learnt was how to march.
The programme is expensive. The Nigerian government sinks $194-million into it every year — 90% of its youth budget — which includes a 19 800 naira [R784] monthly allowance for each corper. This is barely above the minimum wage and most corpers struggle to get through the month. Education activists argue that this money could be better spent helping to provide education to the country’s 10.5-million unschooled children.
In the 1970s, corpers were paid the equivalent of $340, which was enough money to fly home occasionally.
Critics of the NYSC also cite the systemic rot that is characteristic of many Nigerian institutions. Wealthy families are able to avoid service by paying off NYSC officials for their certificates or influencing their deployment to favourable locations.
Take Davido, the 26-year-old hip-hop superstar who signed into the Lagos NYSC camp in August. He spent only a day there — enough time to give an impromptu concert to his delirious fellow conscripts — before jetting off to perform in the United States, a move that attracted criticism for both his and the NYSC’s brazen flouting of corps regulations.
For all its flaws, the NYSC still enjoys plenty of support. Those who argue for it to stay point out that it keeps some of the country’s young people out of unemployment for at least one year — nationally, unemployment stood at 18.8% in 2017 —and that it sometimes helps corpers to find work at their places of assignment.
Gossy Ukanwoke, a 30-year-old tech entrepreneur whom Forbes once labelled “Nigeria’s Mark Zuckerberg”, reckons that the scheme should be reworked, rather than scrapped, to address the issues faced by present-day graduates.
He says that his service year was a bubble-bursting experience he thoroughly enjoyed. For Ukanwoke, the NYSC has succeeded in its main objective.
“It was never designed to give you [combat] skills,” he says. “It was designed to [get you to] know other parts of the country, other ethnic groups and regions. It has stayed true to that.”
Babayemidoes not agree but is willing to concede — on one condition. “There are rumours that the allowance will be increased,” she says. “If they keep paying 19 800 naira, it should be scrapped. If not, it can stay.”