The Minister for Youth and Sport, Sunday Dare, recently reopened the debate on the continued relevance of the National Youth Service Corps scheme. His assertion that the one-year compulsory national service for young Nigerians graduating from higher institutions should remain based on the main goals of the program’s founders represents just one current of public opinion. In a democracy, all national programs are subject to discourse. The NYSC cannot be an exception.

Officials and others who advocate retaining NYSC have their reasons, but so do many others who say the program in its current format has outlived its usefulness and must be reshaped in light of current realities.

This newspaper aligns strongly with the latter option. Since the Yakubu Gowon military regime launched the NYSC in 1973, circumstances have changed radically. But like their founding fathers, Dare and other promoters are mired in ideas of “national unity” and see the scheme as an important tool in that quest.

Dare said: “…the fundamental reason was the need to promote the unity of this country. And you know that the guiding thread of any nation is its youth. Once the youth are captured, their patriotism is captured and can spread throughout the country.”

Undoubtedly, the amalgamation of more than 250 diverse ethnic nationalities, religions, cultures and territories fused into an American-style “melting pot” or a cohesive union of nationalities like the UK has defeated the Nigerian union. The dream of “unity in diversity,” where loyalty to the federal union would override loyalty to ethnic nationality, has eluded the country.

Attempts by the military rulers who forcibly supplanted civilians in 1966 to decree unity through various centralizing administrative schemes have been unsuccessful. Instead, the dismantling of the walls of federalism, the erosion of fiscal federalism and control of resources, as well as the centralization of the police and the abuse of the principle of federal character, have proved even more divisive.

The NYSC grew out of these unifying considerations. Its foundation received impetus when the country had just emerged from the horrors of a civil war (1967-1970) sparked by fierce mutual ethnic animosities. Gowon Decree No. 24 of 1973 established the NYSC “with a view to the proper encouragement and development of common ties among the youth of Nigeria and the promotion of national unity”.

It was hoped that it would instill patriotism and the spirit of selfless service in the youth. Furthermore, the young Nigerian graduates sent to unknown territories other than their home states would not only build bridges but also provide much-needed manpower support like doctors, teachers, engineers and others in rural communities.

It has recorded some hits; many young people have become familiar with other cultures; its community development program component has had a positive impact on many communities in education, health care, water supply, tourism and agriculture. Corps members have also been available for national tasks such as censuses, elections, immunization and other awareness campaigns.

Over the years, some participants have also found employment, settled in their target areas and acquired new skills.

But challenges abound, and as Dare admitted, reforms are constant needs as new realities emerge. For one thing, the number of participants has skyrocketed, posing huge financial and logistical hurdles. Now, each year of service has multiple batches. The abuses have been established; corruption scandals occasionally arise.

Accommodation has also become a challenge, based on the large number of people. Influence peddling abounds, and favored corporations get the ads of their choosing. Some others spend the entire service year without securing a stable placement for their primary assignment.

Therefore, the scheme requires a radical revision. The government recognizes this and has adjusted it over the years; from extending it to graduates of the college of education, allowing for exemption on request for graduates over the age of 30, to the recent option to refuse publication in states infested with terrorism. Anticipate more.

The reforms should be more radical. First of all, it should be optional. At its takeoff in 1973, Nigeria had just six universities and a handful of polytechnics; today, the National Commission of Universities lists 220 universities: 50 federal, 59 state, and 111 private. The National Board of Technical Education accredits 165 polytechnics: 40 federal, 49 state and 76 private. Combined, the universities produce around 500,000 graduates each year, joined by hundreds returning from study abroad.

The number is just hard to handle. Funding is limited and has always been a sticking point.

Therefore, the NYSC must be restructured to admit only a manageable number of corps members. The scheme should be made voluntary with only one batch per year of service. Proof of one year’s service should no longer be a requirement for employment or a criminal offence.

Based on current national aspirations, the program should identify areas of need; such as doctors and other medical professionals, engineers, and teachers (especially science and math). Priority should be given to critical disciplines for some rural communities in the states.

This requires collaborating with states and employers, who will express their areas of need in advance and agree on the minimum compensation, accommodation and welfare they will provide to volunteers.

The NYSC is not a national military service. Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, and others, depending on their security needs, have conscription for their youth; Nigerian does not. Instead, like his Technical Assistance Corps scheme and the United States Peace Corps, the NYSC should be a volunteer corps.

The argument that some communities do not have qualified personnel and services is not convincing. Sixty-two years after independence, it is the responsibility of states and local governments to promote workforce development through sound education plans. In the past, regions, states, and LGs have provided schools, scholarships, grants, and student loans for their indigenous people.

They must also provide basic services, infrastructure and security, promote productive activities and job creation and attract investment. Sending a handful of young people to disadvantaged communities will not repair this abdication of responsibility.

The various governments should undertake effective job creation programs to get the millions of unemployed youth off the streets.