At the end of the orientation camp, the program posts corps members to various regions of the country, ideally places they’ve never visited. They spend the rest of the year serving in community development activities and working with private and public organizations, including schools and clinics, while receiving a $54 monthly stipend.
The program has drawn some international interest: In 2017, Sierra Leone sent a delegation to Nigeria to observe the service corps, since it had set up its own program only a year earlier.
But within Nigeria, critics have increasingly called for the program’s removal. One major reason: Nigeria’s insecurity. Early last year, NYSC briefly suspended orientation camps in Taraba and Benue states due to ongoing herdsmen clashes.
Officials have tried to assure corps members of their safety. At the camp I attended in Rivers, a concrete fence and red gate encircled the grounds. Army officials and other security personnel stood guard at the gate.
The 2018 Nigerian budget allocated $290 million to cover the NYSC program. Some Nigerians have called it a poor investment since corps members still go on to face a difficult job market: About 30 percent of Nigerian youths remain unemployed, according to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics.
Before attending camp, I heard tales of how the soldiers wake up corps members as early as 4 a.m. to start the day’s activities, along with stories of unusable bathrooms and overcrowded hostels. I even received warnings to trade in my iPhone for a simple Nokia phone for the duration of the camp, lest it get stolen.
The conditions I encountered were not perfect: As a precaution, I carried my fanny pack with my phone and the key to my suitcase everywhere—including to the shower. I also spent seemingly endless hours standing in line to complete my registration. Yet, I believe the program still meets at least one of its original goals.
During the camp, I mingled with Nigerians from a variety of fields and backgrounds. The girl who slept on the bunk next to mine graduated with a degree in dentistry from the University of Ibadan in western Nigeria. During the hours standing in queues to complete our registrations in a wide, overcrowded hall, I made friends with Nigerian graduates from Malaysia, the Philippines, and neighboring Benin. In my hostel, some of the girls who were young mothers occasionally broke into conversation about the joys and struggles of combining motherhood with other responsibilities.
In our matching white shirts and shorts and muddy, uncomfortable shoes, we talked with each other without care of tribe or social status for the duration of the camp.