Some months ago, then-finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, resigned from her position, as she confirmed that her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Certificate of Exemption was forged. But, instead of her resignation providing closure on the certificate scandal, it has raised several questions.
The mother of all the questions is whether the NYSC should be scrapped. This is far from an unfounded question. The labour market restriction in the NYSC law is fundamentally flawed, not least because it is flat-out discriminatory against Nigerian graduates in their country, compared with non-graduates and, even more untenable, foreign citizens.
For instance, a lot of the topmost government functionaries in Nigeria, including the president, governors and members of both the federal and state legislatures, don’t need an NYSC certificate of participation or exemption. According to the 1999 Constitution (as amended), aspirants to these offices don’t have to be holders of a university degree or a Higher National Diploma (HND).
Indeed, the Nigerian president doesn’t have to be a degree holder. The United States has produced non-graduate presidents. By stipulating 18 years as the minimum age for running for president, France accommodates the possibility of a non-graduate president.
But it is mandatory for Nigerians who have completed their first university degree or HND programme before attaining the age of 30 to serve in the NYSC scheme. Without an NYSC certificate, Nigerian graduates cannot get a job in Nigeria.
Like the top government functionaries, who don’t need the NYSC certificate, all non-degree holders don’t have to deal with the NYSC employment restriction provision. And foreign citizens taking up employment opportunities in Nigeria don’t have to bother with the NYSC.
Worse still, Nigerians who were raised abroad and graduated from foreign institutions have to meet the NYSC labour requirement, which foreigners don’t have to meet in order to get employment in Nigeria. This makes Nigeria perhaps the only country in the world where a policy that disqualifies its citizens from labour market participation qualifies foreigners.
Those who have worked in the security agencies for nine months enjoy automatic exemption from NYSC. But this is not justified when juxtaposed with the mandatory youth service. Enlistment in the national security subsector is entirely voluntary.
There are a few other reasons to submit that the NYSC’s labour restriction was inadequately thought through. On one hand, a non-graduate Nigerian youth can set up a business, which would employ graduates, whether or not they have NYSC certificates.
On the other hand, graduates without NYSC certificates can set up businesses. Such business entities can work for the government as consultancies or contractors. The businesses can then generate far more income for the NYSC-defaulter entrepreneurs than if they had taken direct employments after completing their youth service. Ironically, or fuelled by cynicism, these business owners could insist on possession of NYSC certificate before granting employment to fellow graduates.
The NYSC labour restriction clause highlights how policies are made to preserve the privileges of the policymakers. The NYSC was designed to inculcate “selfless service” in the Nigerian youth. But the military regime that introduced the scheme exempted the military from participating in it. Why should Nigerian graduates work for one year in parts of the country far away from their states of origin and be paid stipends by the government, while the security operatives have to earn full pay from when they were enlisted?
The NYSC labour restriction clause may be best understood from the broad mismanagement of the country’s national resources. After the three-year civil war in 1970, the population of the breakaway Biafra Republic was effectively restored back to Nigeria. But instead of enacting policies to harness the population of the re-united Nigeria for economic production, the military government of the time came up with a programme that has an employment restriction clause that affects the best trained manpower in the country.
Similarly, the oil boom of that era was a big opportunity to launch a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) for the country. But a few years after he introduced the NYSC, and the spending spree of Nigeria’s oil windfall was well underway, then-military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, grandiloquently declared: “The problem with Nigeria is not money but how to spend it.”
In fairness to Gowon, part of the expenditures delivered some essential national infrastructures. But two of the Gulf States, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which started their oil-based SWFs around the time Nigeria was on a spending binge, now have combined over $1.4 trillion in savings. The countries also boast better infrastructures than Nigeria.
According to the Sovereign Wealth Funds Institute, UAE’s SWF, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), now has over $828 billion in asset under management. In 2016, ADIA recorded $50 billion in annualised return on its assets over the previous 20 years. In contradistinction, Nigeria’s federal budget of total $20 billion in 2016 had a deficit of 36%. And the Nigerian SWF, established in 2011, has less than $2 billion in assets.
The NYSC is one of many government programmes in Nigeria, which amount to poor economic policy decisions, despite the good political intentions behind them. The NYSC was introduced in 1973 as a programme of national integration after the civil war and to help young graduates absorb other local cultures. But a well-functioning national labour market can help achieve this voluntarily.
The inequity of the NYSC’s labour restriction cannot be addressed by making it generally applicable to all Nigerian youths, graduate or otherwise. That would only widen the anomalous labour economics of the scheme. In any case, government policy should seek to expand labour market participation and not restrict it.
Apart from the aforementioned labour flaws of the NYSC, the programme has been overtaken by vices. The privileged parents do everything they can to ensure their graduating children are posted to the safer cities and the ‘juicy’ agencies. It is the graduates who are not so connected that are posted to the suburban and rural areas. Even then, a lot of graduates brandishing the NYSC certificates were largely absentee participants in the scheme. A lot of the Corps members even cede their allowances to the NYSC officials as proxies who fictitiously mark them present when they are not.
It is high time we stopped the circus. The NYSC should be scrapped. This will remove its many injustices and vices from the plethora of ills in the Nigerian body politic.