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Opinion: Youth, Death and Challenge of National Service in Nigeria, By Dr. John I. Abhuere


Expectedly, the death of corps members during their orientation in Kano, Zamfara and Bayelsa States for national service has generated harsh reactions to the NYSC- the harshest being call for the scrapping of the scheme.
For instance, there had been suggestion for reform, a comprehensive review, elimination of the military drill from the training course to check ‘the rigours of physical exertions’, make it voluntary- optional service, provide room for choice of places of service, posting of youths to serve near home to “save the country from ethnic tensions – ethnic bias”, reorganise the NYSC and even scrap it to save funds, stop ‘exposing our young adults to unnecessary risks’ in the ‘quest for national unity’ because the scheme is now “obsolete”.
While some called for improvement of the orientation camps in precarious conditions in most of the states, many imputed cause of death to national service.
Flowing from this many called for the scrapping of the scheme being as it were the harbinger of death. A good example here is The Nation of 8-12-2016 which in its Editorial” observed that the NYSC was obsolete and thus needs a rethink or scrapping”. In its view, while “we all desire national unity, it can not be wished into existence by exposing our young adults to unnecessary risks”.
It is really difficult to understand the way of death- its antics. In many respects, death is cruel, largely irrational, sadistic and unpredictable. Why should a young person die before an older man? Why should a child die before his/ her parents? Why should good people die before the wicked? These were some of the questions in my mind when a friend called to inform me of the sudden death of his first son few hours he showed signs of discomfort. He was in his late twenties. I was still on my way from a condolence visit to my friend when I received the news of the death of three corps members during the orientation for national service.
And I began to shudder: why is death so cruel and insensitive? Children are the hope and joy of any family and the youth are the live wire and future leaders of society. They must be developed and empowered today for better tomorrow . They should not die young. It is an abomination of sort to die young, and a far much more agonizing loss and pains to bear by loved ones especially parents. But that is the stupid and strange way of death: it ends life, terminates ambitions, makes victims and their loved ones helpless onlookers and absorbers of pains. But life goes on. Man and society must face the challenge of existence. Of necessity individual improvement and national development must continue in spite of the ever presence and threat of death.
The purpose of this article is to show that the NYSC is not obsolete and not a risky affair. It serves the dual purpose of developing the individual participant and society at large. It should not be scrapped.
Youth constitute about 60% of the population and the NYSC is the most effective platform for their participation in the development process of the country. It has made useful contribution to the unity and development of the country especially through regular labour supply to all sectors and regions and holds the prospect of continued selfless service and quality contribution to national unity and development .
Before anything else, I hereby condole all those who had lost their loved ones especially my friend Mr Kingsley Ikekhua of Unuwazi, Uromi and the parents of our departed dear corps members on national service. Theirs was a short but successful life capped with noble death in the service of fatherland. And the entire nation mourns them. May God grant their families the fortitude to bear the pains of loss as we pray for the souls of the departed to rest in peace.
I will rather say NYSC is a misunderstood organisation.
Generally, calls for the scrapping of the NYSC reflect a misunderstanding of the organisation and its essence today in our national life. Basically the scheme is still as relevant today as it was in1973 when it was established.
This is because it is charged with a continuous task of nation- building. While our nation’s history and set objectives of the scheme should make its continuing relevance clear, a careful review of the current reactions shows some of them such as choice of place of service is already in practice.
Some others such as military component are misunderstood, yet others such as voluntary service may be counter- productive -lead to inequity, discrimination and even corruption in the selection process and others.
For instance death is beyond the NYSC and in deed any human being. However, common to the reactions was a collective concern for the welfare of our children and future of our country.
There is no doubt that the NYSC needs reform especially improvement of its training camps, enrichment of the content of its lectures to make them more ideological with greater emphasis on patriotism, nationalism, publicity and funding but it is certainly not obsolete. It should not be an excuse to abrogate the only thing the youth could truly call their own and had closely, warmly and fondly identified with over time. What will replace it – to help tame youth and win their souls to the state rather than to anti- state agencies such as criminal groups, ethnic militias, religious extremists?
Against its set objectives and scope of operation, the NYSC is severely handicapped by poor funding and low value premium due perhaps to gross under- estimation of its critical role in moving the nation forward.
The scheme also needs due understanding and appreciation and support at policy level and positive change of attitude by the political elite who must among others place higher value premium on the NYSC. On the whole, the situation calls for careful repair and not scrapping or abrogation as some had suggested.
The objectives of the scheme should make this clear. They are life-long in thrust. The NYSC is given a tall order- promotion of national unity and development but starved of funds and other forms of support to pursue set goal. At what point must a nation stop worrying about her unity, development and well-being of citizens? While there is really no such time, the problem at hand is not even a question of falling resources per se but low value premium, misperceptions and mis -priorities at policy level. Generally the vote for youth development has been low compared with other sub sectors of the economy and the commitment to orientation camp development by the states has not been encouraging
Those who call for its abrogation of the NYSC must reckon with our history especially where we are coming from as well as the gains of the scheme so far including saving in terms of social costs and heightening of national consciousness That history was more remarkable for low level of patriotism ,nationalism and near absence of national sentiment. Tribalism, nepotism, corruption and related profane values dominated the scene after independence.
They must also sincerely answer the question: how truly far have we travelled on the unity and development lane? If no much mileage has been covered is retracing our steps or halting the journey abruptly the wise and right thing to do especially if we are on the correct path? The NYSC is on the right here. As stressed in the NYSC handbook the purpose of the national youth corps is to “inculcate in the Nigerian youth the spirit of selfless service to the community and to emphasise the spirit oneness and brotherhood of all Nigeria irrespective of cultural and social background”.
It is needless to say that it takes a long time and much dogged effort and commitment to dissolve such deeply entrenched negative values and implant positive ones as contained in the NYSC book. That is why the achievement of the scheme including gains in ethnic and religious tolerance though enormous still remains small on national scale like a pin drop in the ocean.
Properly understood and appreciated, National Service is not a risky venture but opportunity to serve, develop, share and affect positively the destiny of the nation state. It does not kill but prepares the youth mentally and physically for greater responsibility in society. Generally, man was born to die, but when, he knows not. In this respect, death has been cruel- simply unkind, fluid and dastardly in its stinging effect on both the young and old anywhere, any place. It operates on its own terms with its antics. It is no respecter of age or position or places. Some had died in their homes, others far outside. And some have died young, old or in high offices as was the case of General Sani Abacha and President Yar’Adua in Nigeria.
Thus the NYSC is not necessarily the cause of death and should not be the cause for call for the abrogation of the scheme. Death is inevitable and far beyond the control of mere mortals. The scheme may provide the context- the reference point, but as the saying goes, “death will come when it will come” -at its self appointed time and place to strike. It is part of the mystery of life- an inevitable part for that matter and the best thing is to ignore it and forge ahead with life by doing useful things. NYSC is good and useful.
So far it has not been a source of mass death and shall not by God’s grace . Death should therefore not be the reason for scrapping a beautiful scheme such as the NYSC with all its achievements and promises. Like brave soldiers we should have the courage to carry on in spite of death to win the war against disunity, poverty, underdevelopment etc in Nigeria.
There are million reasons for this not the least being the inevitability and unpredictability of death itself. It still pains and saddens me to recall that a fellow student at UNILAG died in his sleep at home in 1977 on the day he finished his final examination. He was a brilliant chap. Around 1973 in Mba street, Ajegunle , Apapa,Lagos, a lorry ran into the sitting room of a family having breakfast killing some members in a happy moment of togetherness. Without notice my younger sister Agatha fell ill at home and died an hour later at a hospital in 1993. She was a kind hearted and beautiful lady.
Celebrated journalist Dele Giwa of Newswatch magazine was in his study when death came calling via a letter bomb that killed him but spared his visiting staff, Kayode Soyinka .Some families had died after a joint meal and an infant had survived an accident that claimed the lives of her parents. Death is cunning, masochistic and beyond understanding and capable of shaking faith and shattering hope. So being at home or outside does not make much meaning to death when it is time for it to strike. Many people who died during the Ogunpa rampage in Ibadan and in Boko Haram crisis in the North East of Nigeria were in their places of abode when death came calling.
In history we read of disasters such as the Lisbon earth quake which happened on a holy day- all saints day on November 1 1775 in Portugal killing millions of people some of them at places of worship.
There had been Black Plague which reportedly claimed nearly 33% of Europe ‘s population, Indian famine in the 14th century that killed ten million Indians, the potato famine in Europe 1845-8 which claimed over a million lives, the drought in China1876 79 killing over 9 million people , the global flu of 1918-19 with its 3-5 million deaths, African drought 1981-84 with over a million deaths, famine and drought in North Korea 1981-4 with about 3million deaths etc.
This is what I find strange in the attitude to death in the NYSC family -the tendency to believe that death should not happen in the scheme with an average of 300,000 corps population at any given time and in a world where death hits both the old and the young alike. In other words when death happens elsewhere we bear or tolerate it with equanimity or due understanding as an inevitability, but when it happens in the NYSC we change our posture and call for its scrapping.
Sincerely, my heart bleeds each time I am informed of the death of a corps member – in deed any young person. I sincerely believe that people should not die young. For sure I am not sadist. My effort is to show the stupidity, senselessness, oddity and inevetability of death. But there is nothing much one can do other than to express sympathy, mourn, and ignore death with its stupidity.
As the wise man says: “man proposes and God disposes”. While God the Almighty Creator knows better, I take consolation in the fact that there are noble and ignoble deaths and the death of a corps member is not ignoble but noble- dying for one’s country.
While many people die daily unnoticed in Nigeria, no corps member dies unsung and unmourned by the nation.

Dr. Abhuere is a retired NYSC Director and founder, Centre for Child Care and Youth Development, Abuja

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