Before we destroy our National Youth Service programme

By Ikem Okuhu

Those who are finding it convenient to keep quiet over the certificate scandal involving the now sworn-in governor of Enugu State, Peter Mbah, do not know how the localisation of the challenge and its perception as the concern of the people of Enugu State has the potential to create a carnivorous national malaise capable of denuding what arguably is one of the surviving vestiges of arguably the remaining symbol of Nigeria’s national unity.

At a time that the country should be celebrating the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme, which marked its 50th anniversary this year, it is most disconcerting that such a historic national landmark has had certificate forgery as its biggest talking point. More worrisome is the fact that some shades of opinion, driven by what looks like selfish political purposes, appear to be bent on allowing this avoidable sore to fester.

Even with all its challenges, one cannot deny the fact that one of the strongest legacies that Nigeria still holds on to in the difficult, endless journey to unity and integration remains the NYSC. As political and religious fractures continue to threaten the wholeness of the country, this programme, initiated by former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, in 1973, has remained the only project that holds the country like a stubborn thread together.

At this stage in the country’s journey as a nation, every person who wishes Nigeria to survive should be involved in the intentional safeguard of all icons, institutions and even some intangibles that still prescribe and point to national unity, and the NYSC stands tall and strong among the few that have survived the centrifugal forces threatening to pull the country apart.

At 50, the NYSC has proven its importance. It has survived several military interventions, lived through failed and successful democratic experiments and helped heal when divisive actors flanked the country with religious and tribal upheavals.

But nobody expected the sudden and inexplicable attack that is emanating from the political class and the judiciary. Every Nigerian, irrespective of class or creed, vocation and avocation, should rise in patriotic collaboration to not only condemn these coordinated attacks but also work hard to arrest the slide before it is too late.

In the case of Governor Mbah, the awarding institution has made it clear, verbally and in writing, that the certificate he parades was not issued by it. The struggle, therefore, to force the NYSC to admit having issued a certificate they have so serially disclaimed cannot lead anywhere else but a regime of devaluation of the NYSC and, by extension, all certificate-awarding institutions in Nigeria.

It is important to stress this because of the direct implication the fate, good or bad, or the corps could have on the country’s unity. If the political class is allowed to lead the onslaught against the NYSC, and, if the judiciary lends itself as a tool to downgrade what was hitherto a sacred national symbol, nothing will be sacrosanct in the country again.

Before now the NYSC discharge certificate was held in high esteem by every Nigerian. It was a document people displayed with pride. The advent of social media of information has highlighted this quite strongly, as young people proudly display their discharge certificates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to announce the end of their service to their fatherland.

People may have taken this for granted, but the period that marks the end of each service year announces the end of youth and dependency and heralds the commencement of responsible adulthood. Many things change in the lives of people at this stage, including the consciousness that the time has come for those discharged from the scheme to become economic value creators.

It is this consciousness that triggers the energy for industry and the quest for careers by young people. And the same way the Western world celebrates adulthood at 18 or 21, the Nigerian celebrates maturity with the completion of NYSC.

Many people may not be conscious of it but the NYSC discharge certificate is the only one of its types in Nigeria. It is the only certificate that is uniform for every Nigerian graduate. The secondary school certificate, though issued by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC), still bears the name of the secondary school one graduated from. Each bachelor‚Äôs degree belongs to and bears the name of the university that issued it. But only the NYSC certificate of discharge is uniform for all those who participate in the compulsory national service. Of further significance is the fact that this certificate bears the watermark, ‚ÄúFederal Republic of Nigeria‚ÄĚ all over its surface, highlighting the connection between it and the Nigerian nation.

It is, however, saddening to witness the relentless attacks against such an important institution by persons and institutions who otherwise should owe the corps the duty of protection and preservation. It is impossible for the vegetable plant to survive when the insect that is eating it lives inside of it. In the same way, the surging battalion is imperiled if the general commanding it leads them into enemy enclave.

This is what we are witnessing in Nigeria, where a person whose participation in the compulsory national programme has been sworn in as governor of a state, and, even as the matter is still in court, he has shockingly received some major leverage from the Nigerian judiciary that, through the instrumentality of a court, has ordered the NYSC and its agents to stop commenting on a certificate that it has, through the lawful opportunities provided by the Freedom of Information Act, repudiated what this person presented as his discharge certificate as part of qualifications to stand for election.

In a matter of months, ‚ÄúGovernor‚ÄĚ Peter Ndubuisi Mbah of Enugu State, will, if he so pleases, mount the podium at the NYSC Orientation Camp in Awgu to take the salute from corps members that would either be completing their onboarding programme or are being discharged after completing their full year of national service.

One would be forced to wonder what Mbah would be thinking behind the privacy of his mind about those young people, given that during his own time as a youth he refused to perform this national duty, as letters from the NYSC and the public statement of its director-general have suggested.

If Nigeria were not a country at war against its own systems and processes, a country where the financially mighty are always right and incapable of doing wrong, the person currently sitting as the governor of Enugu State should have either voluntarily given up that position or duly been prevented from such Olympian ascent by the systems and institutions of the state.

At 50, NYSC should not be facing such a battle by someone who would rather prevent the institution from engaging the public on what clearly looks like a case of forgery of its certificate than prove that he did serve his country, just like every other university graduate who wished to take up public office has done from 1973 till date. By his actions, Mbah is actually telling Nigerians that the NYSC has outlived its usefulness. More worrisome is also the implied message that one can circumvent anything in Nigeria. Anything!

This should worry every Nigerian, particularly as we all reflect on this landmark year of this national institution. It is obvious that the integrity of the NYSC and what it represents to the Nigerian nation are under attack, and I dare say that no one should feign indifference or nonchalance because the implications of destroying the authority of the NYSC or any other certificate-awarding body or school to remain the only voice for authentication will be far-reaching and dangerous for everyone.

One does not need to be reminded that a certificate is not the property of the person to whom it was awarded. On the contrary, a certificate legally and rightfully belongs to the awarding institution. It is only held to the extent that the holder remains worthy, as determined by the awarding institution, based on certain prescribed character parameters.

In the case of Mbah, the awarding institution has made it clear, verbally and in writing, that the certificate he parades was not issued by it. The struggle, therefore, to force the NYSC to admit having issued a certificate they have so serially disclaimed cannot lead anywhere else but a regime of devaluation of the NYSC and, by extension, all certificate-awarding institutions in Nigeria.

Mbah would not be the first to attempt this circumvention. Quite a number of people had tried it in the past but were either checked by the system or admitted wrongdoing and slunk out. But rather than toe this path, it seems the Enugu governor wants the Nigerian system to bow to him. His bravado and attempts to bully the NYSC to submit to his desires suggest nothing else.

If he’s allowed to get away with this, what it means is that the system is encouraging people to sidestep virtually all official quarters of obtaining certificates in Nigeria thereby rendering certificates obtained in Nigeria worthless.

And that is why I said at the start that seeing this challenge as one that affects Enugu State alone is dangerous. Nigeria is being put on trial. Our school certificates, our fancy bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees are all in grave danger of derecognition. When it happens, it would be happening to all Nigerians, rather than to just those from Enugu State.

Fifty is a great milestone year for the NYSC. Let us celebrate this. But more importantly, let us rise against any person, persons, institution and/or institutions that, covertly or otherwise, has, is or could do something to tar the hard-won reputation of this institution, perhaps the only of its kind remaining in Nigeria, that is without blemish.

‚ÄĘOkuhu writes from Abuja

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