NIGERIA: President resists calls to end graduate scheme

Ten graduates who were serving compulsory national youth service were murdered during Nigeria's recent elections, allegedly by political thugs. The graduates were among some 100,000 people working as electoral commission agents. The killings sparked strident civil society campaigns for the abolition of the National Youth Service Corps.

Only hours after Goodluck Jonathan was declared the winner of April's presidential elections, and the international community and foreign observers hailed conduct at the polls as free, fair and credible, Nigerians were plunged into grief. The brutal murder of the graduates in the northern state of Bauchi was carried out by agents of a political party whose candidate lost the presidential elections to southerner Jonathan, said security agents.

Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the April elections were heralded as among the fairest in Nigeria's history but they also were among the bloodiest.

Post-election violence killed 800 people in April during three days of rioting in 12 northern states, according to a story on the Human Rights Watch website. It said many youth corps members who served as ad hoc staff during the elections in the north suffered traumatic experiences during the violence.

The killing of the graduates prompted strong reactions from civil society with a range of proposals, including scrapping the compulsory National Youth Service Corps or NYSC, which was launched 38 years ago by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon.

But Jonathan, backed by vice-chancellors, is resisting calls to scrap the scheme. He met with the families of the murdered NYSC members at the presidential palace in Abuja to offer his condolences. As a form of compensation, each of the families was given about US$83,000 and the president also promised employment to one of the unemployed graduate siblings of a late corps member.

"No cash amount or recognition accorded to the deceased can adequately compensate for the void that their passing away has created in each family. These murdered graduates are heroes of democracy, whose names will be permanently engraved in our minds as an enduring source of inspiration to all," said Jonathan.

But this did not prevent the Nigerian public from criticising the NYSC. There were broadly three categories of reaction: first, some Nigerians advocated for the scheme to be modified. Among them was Africa's first Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, a professor of comparative literature at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, who recalled that two of his children who graduated from the university had served, under the scheme, in Northern Nigeria.

"In the light of this gruesome murder of these graduates, I don't think I will send my children to serve in some parts of the country," he said. Soyinka criticised a section of the northern elite for funding the violence as a reaction to Jonathan's victory.

"Why do we call ourselves one Nigeria, when we did not go to the polls with the same mind?" he asked.

Second, some Nigerians called for the outright scrapping of the NYSC. They recalled that the project was established to foster unity and national integration in Nigeria.

"The university graduates were seen as the bedrock of the Nigerian nation in the making. Unfortunately, leaders of a section of this country resent the scheme. We must protect our children from further killings," said Cole Tumobi, a human rights activist in Lagos.

"Serving in the northern parts of Nigeria has become a suicidal adventure. And soon only those with suicidal instincts will opt to serve there. Government has a sacred duty to protect these corps members", declared Pat Anyadubalu, a lawyer.

Third, many former and serving vice-chancellors are against abolishing the scheme. Most of them served in the NYSC as graduates when it first commenced and are proud to be beneficiaries of an experiment they describe as unique in Africa.

Professor Abdul Rasheed Na'Allah, Vice-chancellor of Kwara State University, argued forcefully against the abolition of the youth corp: "Scrapping the scheme is not in the best interests of Nigeria. It could be counter-productive. One of the reasons for the scheme is that we interact as a nation. We still need people from different ethnic groups to interact with one another through the NYSC scheme."

The Vice-chancellor of Bells University of Technology in Ota, Lagos, Professor Isaac Adeyemi, said: "I don't support the cancellation of the NYSC programme because it is a laudable programme. It should be encouraged to stay, in the sense that it enables our youth to understand what Nigeria looks like."

According to reliable sources, the Committee of Vice-chancellors has advised the president and Vice-president Namadi Sambo not to do away with the scheme. The committee reminded the two they were also direct beneficiaries of the scheme, in the sense that serving as NYSC graduates had helped them understand the complexity of the country, with its diverse languages, religions and traditions.

"We have succeeded in persuading the president and the vice-president not to demolish the NYSC. Adequate security should be provided for those who serve under the scheme so that they can serve the nation better", declared one of the vice-chancellors who requested anonymity.

The Nigerian élite and the government should stop using the Nigerian youths as guinea pigs. All undergraduates should be asked if they still want to undergo the NYSC scheme, and it should not be made compulsory for those students who may decide otherwise.

Both the antagonists and the protagonists of the NYSC scheme have left out the opinions of young people in the pursuit of their vested interests. It should be noted that sustainable development would elude any country that ignores the views and interests of its young people. Sustainable development requires participatory approaches. The question of continuity or discontinuity of the Nigerian NYSC scheme should not be based on propaganda. Also, both the strengths and weaknesses of the NYSC scheme should be reevaluated in the context of logical analysis.

Beyond the thinking that that NYSC scheme promotes unity and national integration it constantly promotes the rising spate of unemployment and underemployment in Nigeria. This fact cannot be ignored. It is clear that thousands of Nigerian graduates are annually used and dumped as cheap labour. The stipends they get is barely enough for their upkeep.

Dr Akeem Ayofe Akinwale