By Jude Atupulazi
Last week, in her column in this paper, Mrs Uche Amunike addressed the issue I’m going to address now. My piece this week will however take a slightly different trajectory and that hinges on the safety and comfort of our sons, daughters, siblings and relations sent away from their comfort zones to faraway lands to serve their fatherland in harrowing conditions.
My decision to write on this topic was triggered by the tales of some NYSC members working in my office; tales of hardship and deprivation that sparked outrage in me; outrage at how a nation can subject those who represent its future to conditions that dehumanize and jeopardize even their lives.
The reason for establishing the NYSC scheme is perhaps pretty well known to a lot of people. It was basically set up to strengthen national unity, especially following the debilitating Civil War that pitched brother against brother from 1967 to 1970.
Yes, no one could say the NYSC scheme has not been useful all these years. If not for anything, it has exposed our youth to other cultures in the country and destroyed some serious stereotypes that had only served to distance one tribe from another. For instance, some sections of the country see some others as cannibals or witches/wizards who must be avoided. Thus whenever their people are sent to such places, they turn to prayer warriors in order to survive. But after serving in those places, their perceptions invariably change at least to a large extent.
But beyond the initial gains, the corps members of today appear to have been abandoned by their country to suffer and die. In years past, any corps member posted anywhere was assured of accommodation. While they might not like the facilities there, at least they had a place to lay their heads.
Today, however, many employers of corps members do not offer them a roof over their heads, thus exposing them to untold danger in a country increasingly overwhelmed by danger itself. Imagine sending a first time visitor to one of the hotbeds of violence in the north and not offering such a person accommodation. The greatest need of any stranger in a new land is a place to lay their head.
But the authorities of NYSC no longer care if their charges live in the tree or in a house. Corps members now make own arrangements for accommodation with the attendant problems. I know one who was recently thrown out by his landlady and he spent days looking for where to stay, wearing the same clothes. Pray, is this what we would wish our own child to go through in a strange land? I also know a female corps member who has a similar fate and has been staying with colleagues who could spare a space in their houses.
Even at the orientation camps, corps members are made to live in horrible environments due to lack of clean and functional toilet facilities. Sometimes, even the prisons (I refuse to call them correctional centres because they are not) are a lot better than where the supposed future leaders of the country are sent to. This is callous. There is no reason why orientation camps should not be made to compare with home scenarios by way of comfort and cleanliness. I commend the Anambra State Government in this respect, having built a brand new orientation camp for corps members replete with modern facilities.
For me, any place where corps members will stay that is not decent should be shut down. No one should be forced to live in conditions they are not used to in the name of national service; after all, they are not soldiers that are often made to live under tough conditions to toughen them.
I remember my own time at a camp in Abudu, Edo State. The living conditions there were not only bad, the place was swarming with scorpions which had a field day dealing with many of us. We were scared of sleeping for fear of being stung and many of us were lying on the floor on foams.
The toilet facilities there were horrible; so horrible that many preferred to do it anywhere instead of in the designated places. Now, why should those serving their fatherland be made to live like slaves?
Then comes the issue of security of life. We all know that parts of the north of the country are now no-go areas. Yet, corps members from the south west, east and south south are continually sent there to serve, with some of them dying in electoral and sectarian violence.
I even heard this bizarre story of corps members in Gombe State being advised to go about with knives and machetes to defend themselves in case of attack by insurgents. Can you beat that? Why on earth should anyone be sent to such a place where they will be asked to take charge of their own security? Where are the police and the soldiers? Isn’t this evidence that the scheme is outliving its usefulness?
A female corps member in my office narrated how she narrowly escaped being kidnapped on her way to Adamawa where she was posted. It goes to show that many parts of the north are unsafe; yet our children are posted there. Even though many can now ask for redeployment, they will however have to first go for orientation where they have been posted before being redeployed. It was while going for orientation that the female I just talked about was nearly kidnapped by herdsmen when the car they were travelling in came under attack at night.
Is there any need talking about corps members killed in elections? What about those killed during religious crises? There just isn’t enough protection for them and this is criminal. For any parent to lose their child at this stage after managing to train the child in school can be heart breaking.
Now what is the way out? I already agreed that the essence or idea behind the NYSC scheme is wonderful. But what we see today has since eroded that idea. And when an idea becomes useless, the only thing to do is to discontinue with it.
I am therefore suggesting that the NYSC scheme be scrapped as it can no longer guarantee the safety of the young graduates. Instead, the money paid to them can still be given to graduates for one year as a means of helping them through till they get any sort of employment.
One may argue that it is a waste of money as they won’t do anything for the country in return. But in Europe and America, the government pays some money to the unemployed and even to the aged. It is better than leading the graduates willy-nilly to their deaths. That’s not the hope or prayer of any parent.
Conversely, school leavers can be posted to their regions. Under this arrangement, for example, a graduate from Anambra can be posted to any state in the southeast other than theirs. Ditto with corps members from other regions. This way, it will not be too difficult for them to settle down in their new places, given the advantage of same language and cultural affinity.
Yet again, embarking on national service can be based on willingness to do so by the young graduates. Under this arrangement, those interested in serving will indicate, while those averse to doing so will stay back and begin to pursue their future careers immediately.
Thus, anyone who has indicated willingness to serve will not blame anybody for whatever experience they may face, knowing that it is their decision. It is a lot better than forcing someone against their wish to go through experiences that are abhorrent to them.
In the meantime, however, the authorities should adequately care for their charges. There is no need posting people to areas in the north that are not safe and then redeploying them. Some had been killed while going to report and while at the places they had reported to.
Secondly, the authorities must ensure that no corps member is subjected to house hunting in a strange environment. They must ensure that anyone taking them up must provide accommodation as was the case before. It is not just about increasing their allowances. The dead don’t need allowances but the living.
Finally, the orientation camps should be made very habitable so that those not used to filthy environments can stay there for the duration of the orientation. For goodness sake, they are human beings, not animals.
Failure to improve on all these means the nation is no more interested in seeing the scheme work in which case it should be scrapped.