For any outsider, NYSC Orientation Camp is the ultimate introduction to Nigeria. The Camp is a three-week precursor to the service year. It is also a microcosm of the ills that plague the country: hustling, corruption, bureaucracy, posturing, poor organization, duplicity, and, if you so choose, bribing your way through a place where nothing — not even what is supposed to be — is given for free.
The National Youth Service scheme is a game of survival of the fittest, so the hustle is epic. On arrival at camp, you’re inundated with traders selling the necessities for camp. Buckets for bathing; knapsacks to keep your valuables safe from thieves; staples and copying facilities for the many documents you will compile; NYSC paraphernalia; white shorts, vests, and shoes because those that are provided are so poorly constructed and ill-fitting that even after I attempted to wear them, they fall apart at the seams before the first wash.
But the hustling isn’t unique to the enterprising hawkers and market people. Because essentials are not given, it leaves Corpers especially those with less access to resources, in a precarious situation. The more privileged can pay the mounting costs of kitting, feeding, and entertaining themselves for three weeks. But money isn’t the only currency in camp. Another widely used bargaining chip is sex. Women sleep with soldiers and staff to avoid parading, to exit camp, and for various other quid pro quo arrangements.
Circumstances are worsened by endemic corruption. Like so many other areas of government, the NYSC bureaucracy has mastered how to profit from its own inefficiencies and incompetencies, mostly passing the costs on to the Corpers. Despite alleged appropriations of N60,000 to kit each Corper, it’s a struggle to find even N10,000 worth of value in the goods given. In Batch A of my camp alone there were over 2,500 Corpers registered. Multiply that by the three times that Camp takes place annually and then by the 35 other state camps. The product is an astronomical sum that’s probably looted to fatten pockets.
The pervasive lethargy and incompetence that has become synonymous with civil service is another defining feature of Camp. The solution is to feign worship of Camp staff. My registration process both at and before camp were characterized by unnecessarily long lines and wait times, poor attitudes, and a total lack of organization. As if this wasn’t enough, Corpers are often abused by NYSC staff for the way that we look and speak; for diligently following orders given by other staffers; or for trying to compensate during the many instances when no direction is given at all. The amount of self-deprecation it takes to appease the angry and arbitrary NYSC deities and the frustration that this breeds among conscripted Corps shouldn’t be the skills that Nigeria teaches its citizens.
But the poor organization isn’t confined to pushing papers. The amount of time wasted in camp due to a lack of or inferior programming is criminal. Even the pre-dawn parade hours are not used effectively. Instead of structured drills and paramilitary training, Corpers fumble about trying to follow orders that haven’t been broken down, so the military tenets of precision and attention to detail are lost. If Nigeria requires its graduates to participate in a three-week long orientation, every moment spent from parade at 4:30AM should be used productively, rather than sitting through inaudible lectures or suffering through sloppily taught drills. There is too much work to be done in Nigeria to waste such opportunities.
Furthermore, the living conditions at camp are abysmal. When I told my Naija-based friends that I was doing NYSC, they prepared me by lowering my expectations. Don’t expect edible food, bring your own clothing, make fifteen copies of everything, the toilet’s don’t flush so bring your own bathroom too! Luckily for me, we had showers in our camp and the luxury of somewhat functioning toilets.
But beyond its cosmetic problems, at its root NYSC has stopped fulfilling its mandate. NYSC was created to foster interaction between the different regions of Nigeria, to promote unity among youth, and to mobilize what should be the most energetic and capable demographic in the country. Each of these is a noble and worthy aspiration, enough to, on their face, make any Nigerian (diaspora or otherwise) proud to serve their country. However, it is clear that the perversions of corruption, greed and expediency have outmanned the vision.
During a question and answer session with the camp commandant, she made clear that 99% of those posted to Lagos had requested it, impliedly through various channels of maneuvering. Most of those I met were in fact from Lagos; and participants in the camp were overwhelmingly Yoruba. Born in Kaduna, and having only worked in the North, meeting fellow Yoruba people was a welcome luxury for me. But it did little to affirm the scheme’s goals of inter-cultural and regional exposure for the majority of Corpers there.
And if just some of the money embezzled from the Corper kits (just as one example) was used to create liveable conditions in Camp, its effect on morale could be exponential. It would foster greater pride in Corpers to serve their country rather than be a drain on their dignity. More Corpers would stay in camp rather than fake maladies to escape the deplorable conditions.
In one sense, NYSC (like living in Nigeria) seems designed to awaken one’s internal hustler. For the foreign-trained, it confers street credibility. But at its core, NYSC should be about service in an under-developed country where most things are broken. If the Corps were properly implemented, if all the young minds and talents were busied, it blows my mind to imagine what could be accomplished.
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