By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

Outside the way in which he concluded the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970, the best legacy General Yakubu Gowon left for Nigeria as head of state is the National Youth Service Corps. The scheme, established in July 1973, is aimed at mobilizing the country’s youth for national development, promoting national unity, training the country’s youth for national leadership and bridging the gap between the rural and urban areas through community service from trained professionals. In his book ‘Gowon-The Supreme Commander’ Olufemi Ogunsanwo stated that the original plan of the Gowon government was to turn the NYSC into a ‘measure against youth unemployment, designed to provide healthy work orientation for young, unemployed school leavers.’  The writer points out that the government of the day undertook the programme without adequate planning as to which category of school leavers would be involved, length of service year, pay, and other issues related to the scheme. Small wonder it was initially greeted with protests spearheaded by university students, though in principle they were not against the initiative.

Over the years the NYSC has performed creditably in the effort to take Nigeria to the next level. Many young Nigerians have formed lasting bonds, including marriages, with Nigerians from other parts of the country they would have known nothing about. Community development projects initiated by corps members have brought modernization to areas hitherto sunk in the abyss of backwardness. They have been the vanguard for development in many places and in times of national duty such as the April 2011 elections they have not been found wanting, even paying the supreme price.

However, the dynamics of contemporary Nigeria require that we take an unemotional look at the NYSC. Against the backdrop of the massacre of serving corps members in last year’s elections in Northern Nigeria; the routine feeding of corps members to the bloodthirsty religio-politcal lions of that area; the open season declared by kidnappers in the South-East and South-South on them; and sundry other threats to life and limb of these youngsters, quite a few people think the scheme should be scrapped. A few opine that Nigeria was never united in the first place so what unity does the NYSC protect and promote? Yet others argue for an overhauling, with corps members not being sent to flashpoints and conflict-riddled states excluded from the scheme or indigenes of such states going to their home-states for the service.

I believe the NYSC should be militarised if it must remain relevant. First, if its brief must  go beyond forming a pool of cheap labour for one year in the lives of vibrant and skilled young men and women who can devise ways of building their lives after graduating, then military service is imperative. Before I am misunderstood, this does not mean that the corps members will become cannon fodder raw recruits for the Nigerian military forces. The service could be patterned thus: the usually 2-4 week orientation for freshly called up graduates should be expanded to three months. Within this period the corps members will get basic military training, including weapons handling, unarmed combat, first aid, communication skills and basic intelligence gathering, processing and utilization.  Other elements of the orientation exercise should not be eliminated. Upon completion of orientation the corps members will, in addition to their endurance trek, be tested in their military skills. They will pass out with reserve commissioned ranks of Second Lieutenant and proceed to their primary postings.

If we look at Israel and USA’s national service programmes which are the basis of this suggestion, we will discover that both nation and individuals benefit. For Israel, it provides a ready pool to draw upon in times of national crises. It creates a spirit of unified national consciousness; the military becomes a part of the people’s consciousness, not some alien coup plotting behemoth. Time and space will not permit an in-depth description of the nature of the Israeli national service. For individuals, there are lifelong economic benefits. Those of them who aspire to a military career have opportunities; the self-discipline and skills learnt serve them for life. They, by virtue of serving, enjoy educational, travel and exchange programme benefits. In USA there exist the ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Corps) and JROTC (Junior Reserved Officer Training Corps). While the former is for young university students to combine education and military training with the prospects of a military career if they so desire, the latter is for high or secondary school children. USA’s programme is optional.

Obviously, for now, Nigeria is not ripe for a full-scale copying of both schemes. But we need to militarise the youth service in our interest. First, NYSC members will be more capable of protecting themselves when things get crazy in their states of service. Then-let the truth be told-there is no assurance that the demon of ‘coupology’ has been totally exorcised from our regular armed forces. Ambitious officers might think twice if they realize that their access and capabilities with instruments of coercion is not exclusive. I dare say that as things stand, Nigerians cannot stop a coup. The plotters will simply rally tanks and mow the people down. Third, police and military maltreatment of civilians on the flimsiest excuse will reduce.  Few deterrents are as effective as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).  Of course, as reserve Second Lieutenants for the duration of service year, the corps members get the pay and other benefits due to those guys in the services. Those who wish to become career officers will be fast-tracked into the armed forces after service. Such a programme, if faithfully implemented, will bond our youths who mostly have a hostile attitude to our uniformed services to them. Even after service NYSC members can think and act on their feet in times of crises, courtesy of their training. Finally, NYSC members will imbibe a self regulation and mental development that will serve them for life. They will be less attuned to unrealistic expectations of the Nigerian state if they learn that they are the Nigerian state. Of course other empowerment skills introduced for serving members can be combined with the military component.

A million arguments can be raised against the militarization of the NYSC but the fact is that the scheme is at the crossroads and if it is not reconfigured, it will go the way of the dinosaur. National military service is an imperative in the face of Nigeria’s challenges.

•Onyema is a writer, historian and teacher. Email: [email protected]