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Obeying the clarion call

A member of Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps sounds off during a drill in Owerri, Nigeria. (Jon Gambrell/AP)

Nigeria

Obeying the clarion call

In Nigeria’s national youth service program, campers socialize and march in mud, rain, and matching T-shirts

It was a wet Tuesday morning last year when I arrived in Nigeria’s southern Rivers state, towing a suitcase packed with white T-shirts and shorts, white rubber tennis shoes, and a fanny pack.

Those articles were the basic uniform requirements at the military-style camp where I planned to stay for the next three weeks. The place brought back memories of boarding school: The fenced compound included single-story buildings, a vast field, and freshly cut grass. The hostel where I was to sleep contained 34 metal bunk beds, each with provisions for a mosquito net.

For me and about 2,800 other university graduates at the camp, attendance was not optional—it was part of a one-year service requirement for all Nigerian college graduates, a program known as the National Youth Service Corps.

The NYSC program began in 1973—three years after the Nigerian civil war ended—with the goal of rebuilding and reconciling the war-torn country. To kick off their year of service, prospective corps members must attend one of the paramilitary camps scattered throughout the country. Critics have called for an end to the program, but the service corps may still fulfill a worthwhile goal, as my own camp experience suggests.

The camp I attended operated on a tight schedule. At about 5:20 each morning, officials blew a bugle and sounded whistles to hustle out the “corpers,” as they referred to us. We jogged to the field in our white shirts and shorts with little flashlights lighting the way. In the background, soldiers yelled, “Double up!” and “If you’re walking, you’re wrong!”

We got in line according to our designated platoons and started the mornings with Christian and Muslim prayers. Next came the national anthem, announcements, and parade activities for the day.

The rules included prompt obedience and punctuality. One morning, my hostel block was slow in coming out for the morning parade as the soldiers blew their whistles. We found an army official waiting for us at our hostel’s entrance. He asked us to kneel on the concrete, then issued a stern warning before releasing us to join the other corps members jogging to the field.

One line of the NYSC anthem goes, “Under the sun or in the rain / With dedication and selflessness.”

That statement applied to us on an almost daily basis. Some mornings, clouds darkened and rain drizzled down while we stood in line. I appreciated my uncomfortable rubber shoes only for their easy-to-clean feature after the daily run through muddy grounds.

Less-tedious camp activities might include a carnival, pageants, or a bonfire night. Corps members could also attend training sessions on tailoring and baking, among other skills. 

NYSC came after the country’s civil war that pitted the eastern Igbo ethnic group against government security forces. The ethnic group complained of marginalization and demanded to secede from Nigeria. The youth service program emerged as one attempt to reconcile the country, where about 250 ethnic groups coexist.

Jon Gambrell/AP

A soldier shouts at a group of NYSC corpers. (Jon Gambrell/AP)

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.