INVESTIGATION… 21 Days in NYSC Camps: How Nigeria frustrates its youths, as officials plunder lean resources
Young Nigerian graduates from universities and polytechnics are often excited about the call to serve the nation. Every year, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) mobilises hundreds of thousands of both locally and foreign-trained graduates for the year-long compulsory national service that begins with a 21-day orientation exercise across the 36 states of the federation, and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Using undercover reporters who traveled to NYSC camps in Gombe and Zamfara and Oyo states, Ripples Nigeria investigated the state of facilities, feeding, and probed how resources meant for the orientation programme were being utilised.
Nightmares! ‘There’s no year we don’t experience this nonsense with NYSC.’
It was a bright Monday afternoon in mid-July. Inside Aniekan Computers, an-ever busy cyber cafe in the capital city of Rivers State, Port Harcourt, graduates from different schools were busy staring at their dashboards via a desktop computer. Many were complaining of the slowness of the website, others shared jokes about how the website didn’t provide a list of the states they would select to be posted to, and some simply stared at the screens of their desktop computers, their faces marked by grave frustration.
Marcus Sunday, (Not real name) a fresh graduate of a university in southern Nigeria, was among those trying to register for mobilisation. Sunday said he experienced nothing short of frustration from the day he began his registration process.
On April 17, the scheme opened its portal for registration. With registration initially billed to end on May 4 (but later shifted to 15th), he rushed to the cyber cafe to make sure he was registered in time, especially so he could be mobilised with Stream 1. But for days, the portal was not accessible. It however opened later and he managed to begin registration, but was soon trapped again.
Part of the registration process was the payment of 3,000 naira, which the scheme says was only compulsory for prospective corps members who wanted their call-up letters sent to them online. By this, those who chose to pick theirs from their alma mater were supposedly exempted. But in reality, the 3, 000 naira was compulsory.
One needed to pay the money in the bank, revert back to the portal before getting a green card, a requirement in camp. Only after getting a green card could one hope to get a call-up letter. So to say, this was the beginning of extortion.
His nightmares continued. Like many, the long wait for the mobilisation for stream II got him tired. And even when he got posted to Zamfara, he could not make it to the camp. The portal was generally slow to open up for corps members to print their call-up letters, and some graduates hoping to be mobilised, complained of having to spend hours online just to get their call-up letters. Sunday learnt he was posted to Zamfara on July 27, a day after camp began. NYSC gave only July 26 and 27 for registration in camp, after which admission was closed. There was no way he could meet up. Port Harcourt to Zamfara is between 15-20 hour drive by bus.
“It’s all very frustrating. If registration period in camp was at least up to three days, I would have got to Zamfara and done the registration. So at last I didn’t even camp with Stream II,” he said. He now hopes to be mobilised with Batch B come November.
Sunday’s experience portrays what NYSC subjects many prospective corps members to. System ungrade is long overdue for the scheme. An attendant at the cyber cafe could not hide her frustration too: “Look at this N-power (one of government’s social intervention programmes). Thousands of people register every day at the same time from different locations, yet the portal is very free and accessible. But there is no year we don’t experience this nonsense with NYSC.”
‘We stayed up midnight just to get registered’
Upon arrival on July 26, all prospective corps members were mandated to begin another round of registration on camp. This registration includes the verification of documents such as statement of result before bio-metric data capture which would enable the graduates to receive tags with code numbers and kits.
At the NYSC temporary orientation camp in Government Girls Technical College in Amada, Gombe state, this registration on camp lasted up to midnight in part because of poor internet connectivity. The bio-metric data capture required internet connection for the process to be completed, but with three NYSC officials relying on Airtel and Glo modems alongside their worn-out Samsung notebook laptops, prospective corps members had to wait for long to finish this process before proceeding to get their kits.
In Amada, some of the officials were seen going around looking for network connection with graduates mobilised for the scheme trailing behind.
“I have been here since 3 pm, and we have moved from one location to another because the internet connection is slow,” said a graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, who was posted to Gombe state. “This is really frustrating, and we stayed up midnight just to get registered. If they had set up a WiFinetwork, things would have been much better.”
At the camp located in Iseyin, Oyo State, the harrowing experience persisted. Only one official was found attending to corpers, creating unnecessary gridlocks, three days after the process of registration ought to have been concluded.
Even as corpers stood endlessly on the queues, the state director, Mrs Ifeoma Anidobi passed by several times but appeared helpless or pretended not to notice that there were operational deficiencies.
The clogs in the system were worrying given the fact that NYSC budgeted N3,394,012 for information technology consulting in the 2017 Appropriation Act.
‘Wear your socks, if it’s still too big put tissue paper. It is just for one year.’
Upon completing their registration and biometric data capture, prospective corps members have another hurdle to cross: Fixing oversized kits. Most of the corps members who spoke to Ripples Nigeria in Gombe and Zamfara states complained that their kits were oversized and they had to pay between 500 to 1,000 naira to tailors at the open market on camp, known as mammy market, to get them fixed.
A session during the NYSC online registration has a size chart, to which one inserts the size range that is fitting to his body. Yet every year, the scheme is unable to use provided data to give each corps member a size range that corresponds with what he or she filled during registration, instead some corpers are issued oversized while others are issued undersized kits.
Tailored not to fit!
NYSC officials are not oblivious of this fact. “We know some of you have kit sizes that are bigger than you. When I was growing up our parents used to buy us shoes and clothes that were bigger than us. They would tell us we would grow to meet them,” the Zamfara State Coordinator joked during her first address to prospective Corps members. “So please manage it. Wear your socks, if it is still too big put tissue paper. It is just for one year.”
But who wants to wear parachute-like kits around? This was Stanley’s frustration. He was issued kits that were way beyond his size, with torn jungle boots. He took just the large-sized trouser to a tailor at the camp market, but was asked to pay 1000 naira. It costs nothing beyond 300 naira to make such amendments off camp; hence Igboanugo decided to amend only after leaving camp.
“Everything I got was way beyond my size,” complained Moses who was posted to Gombe. “The shoes, khaki trouser and shirt and the crested vest were all big, and I had to start paying to get them to my size. I spend nearly 3,000 naira because of this issue.”
Moses’ friend, Usman wasn’t smiling either. “Why would they make us fill up our sizes during the online registration when they don’t care about those details?” he asked in annoyance.
One corper at Iseyin voiced his frustration thus: “Because we were required to fill our details, including our shoe size, trousers and top size during pre-registration, I expected that we were going to meet our kits well packaged with our names written on each pack for easy identification and distribution”.
However, when the bags containing the kits were opened at the Iseyin camp, there were neither packs nor tags. The shoes, jungle boots, crested vest, cap, kaki trousers and tops, and white shoes were just given out at random irrespective of the size of the person collecting them.
When the process was queried, the platoon officer said, “if yours are undersized, go around and check for someone smaller than you and see if he or she has an oversize so you can exchange with him or her. If yours is over sized, however, you either do the same thing or you go for reshaping.”
‘Let me tell you; your feeding in camp is N500 per day.’
“Hungry corpers your food is ready,” so went the sound of the beagle on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 27. Four long lines of prospective Corps members holding food flasks soon formed in front of the kitchen.
On sighting the quality of food being served, complaints began to ring out: “This one na beans water abi na water beans,” a prospective Corper from the front row asked sarcastically. “Na coloured beans,” another responded, laughing. “Beans water, beans water,” a group chorused.
At the hostel, some corp members complained that they could not eat the beans as it was bereft of taste and basic ingredients. So, for people who could afford to buy from the open market in camp, the meals from the NYSC kitchen was never an option.
Parade ground or kitchen?
The next morning after the first meals for July 27 was served, some corps members in Gombe and Zamfara told Ripples Nigeria that they battled stomach ache and had to go to the toilet several times.
“I have had stomach upset and used the toilet several times since I ate that beans. I will never eat their food again no matter how hungry I am,” Grace, a female corper at the NYSC Permanent Orientation Camp in Tsafe Local Government Area, Zamfara State, said. If there was a thing Grace and others hated mostly, it was the fact that throughout the 21 days in camp, the beans meal constituted more than 50 percent of the food served. It usually comes in the form of moi-moi or normal jollofbeans with garri to complement it.
At least Promise, a US-trained graduate, was optimistic enough to believe food quality in camp was going to improve over time. “Let us just wait and observe for a few days. Maybe the quality will improve,” he assured himself.
He was wrong. Promise soon learnt that whatever was served; be it rice, baked cassava flour with soup, the stomach-churning beans with to-be-sucked cassava flakes (garri), the pap with beans cake (akara) that was alternated with a tiny piece of bread with smoke-smelling tea (corpers called it coloured water) as breakfast; one thing was sure: none had taste, neither close to a balanced diet.
“The first time I got the tea, I couldn’t believe what I saw. We call it ‘coloured water’ and it’s just the right term for it. I was so angry I threw the tea away,” Umar, a graduate of a university in Edo state, said.
‘We help ourselves’
At the NYSC Temporary Orientation Camp in Government Girls Science Technical College, Amada, Gombe State, similar complaints about the meals were also reported. But the graduates at the camp usually get chicken added to their rice every Sunday, and when they complained that their breakfast was “coloured water” disguised as tea, the Gombe State coordinator of NYSC Mr Tobias Ibe asked for egg to be included in the morning tea served. Batch A stream II corp members also got a large chunk of beef as cows were constantly herded into the camp and slaughtered for consumption.
Four days before the end of camp, Promise didn’t get what he was expecting.
“Look at my meal ticket,” he said, pulling it out from his waist bag. “I only collected their food three times. Those three times, I gave them to people. The soup is more or less like water (referring to the watery, tasteless okro soup served the previous night). I just fix myself at the mammy market,” he added.
Placed on the scale of World Bank’s new international poverty line, the quality of food served in camp does not measure up. It reduces corps members to people living below the poverty line.
According to the World Bank, anybody living on less than $1.90 a day is living below the poverty line or in extreme poverty. A dollar is currently exchanged for between 360 naira and 370naira, bringing $1.90 to about N684. This means that going by the World Bank’s poverty measurement, living on anything less than N684 a day is living in extreme poverty.
***Tomorrow, read how ‘eye-service’ governs the operational mode of NYSC officials, corpers are ‘silenced’ and extorted, and how government may be unwittingly frustrating the scheme by depriving it of its budgetary allocation
This report, supervised by Etaghene Edirin, was conducted by our investigative team, whose identities have been kept secret to protect them from possible victimisation, as they are still undergoing the national service.