Nearly two months since we learnt that Minister of Finance Kemi Adeosun probably scammed her way through NYSC, and the Minister remaining silent through that period, the importance of NYSC has been questioned. Even the head of the President's anti-corruption body deemed the story irrelevant.
The NYSC debate is not just theoretical. Last year, the National Assembly voted to remove the decree establishing NYSC from the constitution, making it easier to change the scheme by amending the law.
But what changes should be made?
Critics of NYSC often argue for one of three things: that it should be made voluntary, turned into a job creation scheme or terminated altogether. But each of these may be counterproductive at best. Nigeria needs national unity now more than ever, and the problem with NYSC lies not in its mission, but in its implementation.
To Unite a Nation
For all of Nigeria's existence, ethnic and religious differences have been too frequently weaponised by those seeking to obtain or retain political power. Given this history, expecting a program to bring national unity is a tall order, one that NYSC has struggled to fill. Some would argue that Nigeria is no more united now than it was in 1973 when NYSC was created. Even if this were true, it is an invalid comparison. What we should be asking is: would Nigeria today be less united if NYSC did not exist? That question may be difficult to answer, but looking abroad could lend us some perspective.
As Nigeria loses faith in its national service program, many countries are bringing theirs back. In June, France reintroduced a mandatory service requirement for all 16 year-olds in the hope that it will foster nationalism and counter the youth restiveness caused by high unemployment rates. The French scheme will cost $1.8 billion next year, six times the NYSC budget of $290 million, despite Nigeria's population being thrice as large.
You could argue that the NYSC budget would be better spent on improving civic education in schools but deficiencies in Nigeria's education system would limit the effectiveness of an improved civic education curriculum. Furthermore, France's decision to invest in a national service program, even with the civic education option available, is telling.
Meanwhile, if national unity is the goal, then making it voluntary would defeat its purpose. People with better-paying opportunities elsewhere would opt out. And because the rich tend to have better access to political power, this could lead to a situation where the political elite charged with fostering nationalism missed out on a significant nation-building opportunity. And that is what makes the allegations against the Minister of Finance so worrisome.
Still, it would be disingenuous to pretend that NYSC is perfect. One of the scheme's major shortcomings right now is its misuse of human capital—for a lot of people, it is a waste of time. Too many corpers get assigned to government offices or community development service (CDS) groups that do not utilise their skills in any meaningful way.
Some believe that the best way to tackle this is to transform NYSC into a job creation program like N-Power. Rather than send engineering graduates to teach English in primary schools, corps members can use the time to learn skills for entrepreneurship or boost their CVs with relevant work experience. NYSC already does this to some extent through the vocational training of the Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development (SAED) that commenced in 2012.
However, such a shift in NYSC's focus would be a mistake for several reasons. First, job creation programs have a patchy record with tackling unemployment when labour demand is low. Secondly, the skills taught through SAED do not add much value to a university degree, which seems inappropriate given the program's demographic. But most importantly, pivoting to job creation detracts from the purpose of NYSC: serving your country. Although it would be nice if individual corps members did get some useful job experience in the process, that should not be the primary objective.
A More Effective Service
So, how do we reform NYSC? By doubling down on what it gets right. Despite its flaws, NYSC is critical in the health and education sectors. The NYSC Health Initiative for Rural Dwellers has benefited thousands of underserved Nigerians, many of whom would not have gotten access to proper health care without this program. Likewise, corps members have helped plug teaching gaps in rural schools.
And let's not ignore the role NYSC plays in ensuring INEC meets its staffing needs in the run-up to elections. Before its collaboration with NYSC, INEC struggled to hire ad hoc staff because too many volunteers had unverifiable addresses and could not be held accountable. Corps members are ideal volunteers because they are already registered with the government and are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics during their service year.
These kinds of placements serve two important functions: the country benefits from a temporary solution to some of its pressing issues, and at the same time, corps members gain a better understanding of the nation's problems and may be motivated to find lasting solutions. Therefore, NYSC needs to ensure that its participants are properly equipped to serve the country in the areas in which they are needed. For example, training for corps members assigned to teaching positions should take place during orientation camp and could be the modelled after the USA's Teach for America, whose volunteers are initially trained for several weeks before they are sent to the classroom.
A Note of Caution
Knowing Nigeria, using corps members in this way may create moral hazard: as long as NYSC provides these public services, the government has no incentive to address the underlying issues that forced corps members to intervene in the first place. Though this is a valid concern, NYSC is not the reason these services are underprovided; a government that cared about its citizens would provide these services anyway, while a corrupt or inefficient one would fail to do so—with or without NYSC. Therefore, eliminating NYSC wouldn't make the government more responsive in the short term, and many communities would be made far worse off than before.
Finally, for NYSC to succeed, corps member safety has to be taken seriously. This is especially true because the national service scheme by design separates corps members from the safety nets that Nigerians have to come to rely on: their families and communities. Since corps members are considered government pikin, we should expect that the safety of corps members be given particular priority.