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Vanishing dream of national unity through NYSC, schools

By Iyabo Lawal
03 April 2017   |   3:06 pm
The declaration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the April 16, 2011 presidential election had sparked off riots in some northern parts of the country following disagreements over election results.

NYSC members

In this report, IYABO LAWAL interrogates how efforts and investments in promoting unity in diversity among Nigerians through various educational policies such as the federal unity schools, National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and appointment of vice chancellors for federal universities are proving more divisive than unifying.

The declaration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the April 16, 2011 presidential election had sparked off riots in some northern parts of the country following disagreements over election results. By the time the dust finally settled, many Nigerians were left dead while several others sustained injuries of varying degrees and property worth several billions of naira also destroyed.

Among the dead were 10 corps members who were answering the call to foster national unity by serving their fatherland outside their states of origin. The killing of members did provoke outrage and national debate on whether the scheme initiated as a post-civil war healing strategy of the fractured polity had not outlived its usefulness.

“To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done,” said General Yakubu Gowon during the 1967 – 1970 civil war that claimed over a million lives in an effort to keep a multi-diverse people together.

Has the price of keeping Nigeria one become too steep with incessant ethnic clashes among the various groups that make up the country?

However, the political class thinks otherwise. Some consider it a personal failure if they preside over the balkanization of the country hence every government clamps down on any secessionist movement. Yet, no government has ever bothered through a referendum to find out if the people they are keen on keeping together actually want to stay as one.

Nigeria’s political and economic structure appeared to have been configured to advance a disordered unity. For instance, the constitution makes provisions for federal character in appointments at the national level and all too often, proportional representation trumps competence.

Perhaps, there is nowhere this schism is felt more than in the country’s educational system where there are policy initiatives such as the NYSC, establishment of unity schools to foster national cohesion. Part of the bridge building efforts is manifest in the hitherto appointment of vice chancellors at federal universities where attempts were made to ensure appointees were from a region different from where the school is located.

However, many believe these policies have done little to actually foster integration; rather they have widened the gulf among the various ethnic groups.

National spread in vice chancellors’ appointment
The power to appoint a vice chancellor in a federal university in Nigeria rests with the governing council of each university according to the provisions of the Universities Autonomy Act 2003.
Section 3 of the Act as amended states explicitly that the governing council is empowered to appoint the vice chancellor, but the visitor must be duly informed after the appointment has been made. The provision was purely for his information.

It also specifies the exact procedure that must be followed, which goes thus: “There shall be a vice chancellor of a university (in this Act referred to a “the vice chancellor”) who shall be appointed by the Governing Council.

“Where a vacancy occurs in the post of a vice chancellor, the council shall advertise the vacancy in a reputable journal or widely read newspaper in Nigeria, specifying the qualities of the persons who may apply for the post, and the terms and conditions of service applicable to the post, and thereafter draw up a short list of suitable candidates for the post for consideration; constitute a search team consisting of a member of the council, who is not a member of the Senate, as chairman; two members of the Senate who are not members of the council, one of whom shall be a professor; two members of congregation who are not members of the council, one of whom shall be a professor, to identify and nominate for consideration, suitable persons who are not likely to apply for the post on their own volition because they feel that it is not proper to do so.”

The vice chancellor is the principal academic and administrative officer of the university. He or she chairs the council of the university, the General Board of the faculties and the finance committee of the council.

It is interesting to note that there is nowhere in the act that geo-ethnically limits the choice of a vice chancellor, but there was somehow an unwritten rule in the beginning. Then, it was not common to find someone from the east presiding over a university in the north or vice versa.

The list includes Prof Oladipo Akinkugbe, a Yoruba who served as the VC of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria; Prof Adamu Baikie, a Northerner, who served successfully as the VC of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), he even got a second term; Prof. J. Ezeilo, an Igbo and Christian, who served as the VC of the Bayero University Kano (BUK).

Also, Prof. Essien-Udom, an Ibibio was at the University of Maiduguri, the late Prof. Tekena Tamuno, an Ijaw served as the VC of the University of Ibadan (UI); Prof. Cyril Onwuemechili, an Igbo, who was at the University of Ife as the VC; Prof Emmanuel Ayandele, a Yoruba served as the VC of the University of Calabar; Prof Ishaq Oloyede, a Yoruba from Ogun State served as VC, University of Ilorin (UNILORIN).

Data from Nigerian University Commission (NUC) website indicates that none of the 40 federal universities in Nigeria has a vice chancellor from another region in the country, despite the fact that in the senate and governing councils of some of these universities, there are lecturers from different regions.

The appointment of a vice chancellor in federal universities unapologetically disregards any pretence to federal character. In recent times, it has been reduced to a clannish affair where traditional rulers of the host communities, chancellors and pro chancellors, state governments, ministers of education or even the presidency show interests in who becomes the vice chancellor.

In 2015, some lecturers under the aegis of the “Cross River Northern Senatorial Zone Academics” at the University of Calabar, Cross River State, sent a letter to the state Governor, Prof. Ben Ayade, demanding that someone from the zone be chosen as the vice chancellor alleging that they had been sidelined for too long.

To stave off criticism about academics being clannish, they hinged their demand for the vice chancellorship on the institution’s academic tradition requiring experience measured in years.

An excerpt from the letter reads: “While it is an established academic tradition that whoever is to be considered as the vice-chancellor must be a professor, the details of years of experience as one and other prerequisite are drawn by the governing council, taking into cognisance the peculiarity of the university.

“It is for that reason that the years of experience as a professor for appointment of vice-chancellor vary from university to university. Thus, in the University of Calabar, it range from five to seven with the present vice-chancellor being seven as professor as of the time of his appointment in 2010.”

National Youth Service Corps
The NYSC does not seem to erode the nation’s primordial sharp ethnic divides. The scheme is a one–year compulsory programme for students under 30 years who studied in Nigerian tertiary institutions or abroad but intend to work in Nigeria.
It was created through Decree 24 of May 22, 1973 by the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon.

Principally, the objective is to foster national unity and development. At inception, it was described as “an organisation that is well motivated and capable of bringing out the best qualities in our youths and imparting in them the right attitude and values for nation-building; an organisation that serves as a catalyst to national development, and a source of pride and fulfillment to its participating graduate youths,” according to a statement on the scheme’s website.

So the core objectives of the scheme include discipline, fostering a tradition of work, to teach ideals of national development, develop skills for self-employment, remove prejudices and eliminate ignorance and promote national integration.

But critics have argued that the decision to continue a scheme set up to fill an immediate need created by the fractious civil war for 44 long years is the clearest indication that the war never ended and that unity remains elusive.

Hence, following the killings of corps members in northern Nigeria, many called for the abolition of the scheme.

The arguments against retaining the programme include that it is a waste of funds, loss of lives of corps members in crisis-prone areas, leads youths to engage in illicit behaviour during orientation camps where supervision is minimal and even adds little value to host communities as young graduates with no formal training in teaching are assigned to teach children in rural areas.

But the strong argument against the programme is the alleged defect in the operational framework of the scheme, which critics say has made attainment of its objectives difficult.

The principal objective is cross-cultural re-orientation of Nigerian youths such that primordial sentiments, which often fuel conflict, could be moderated through familiarisation with other cultures.

The scheme started on a 12-state structure, which were North-Western, North-Eastern, Kano, North-Central, Benue-Plateau, Kwara, Western State, Lagos, Mid-Western State, Rivers, South-Eastern and East-Central State.

Education Minister, Malam Adamu Adamu

During this period, corps members from the western region for instance, made up of Ogun, Oyo and Ondo were not allowed to serve in any of these states; instead they were deployed in either the north or south eastern states for the one year scheme and vice versa.

This move was to develop common ties among the Nigerian youths and promote national unity and integration. Also, it was intended to remove prejudices, eliminate ignorance and confirm, at first hand, the many similarities among Nigerians of all ethnic groups.

But with the present balkanization of the polity into 36 states, cross-cultural posting of corps members is hardly achievable. The consideration is on state of origin not necessarily on the geo-ethnic bloc of the intending corps members.

Therefore, there is practically nothing to imbibe by a corps member of Ekiti State origin who serves in Ondo. Same as a movement from Edo to Delta; Benue to Plateau; Imo to Abia; Anambra to Enugu; Kaduna to Katsina; Kano to Jigawa; Kebbi to Sokoto; Yobe to Borno; Kwara to Kogi and so on. These were hitherto same states, which got separated mainly for administrative convenience. On this alone, the grand objective of the scheme of cross-cultural exposure of Nigerian youth appears obliterated.

More than this, prospective corps members with people in prominent positions manipulate their postings to states of their choice hence defeating the purpose of the scheme.

What appeared as loss of focus is the use of corps members as ad-hoc staff by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) during elections as it has exposed them to violence. Last year, Samuel Okonta, serving in Rivers State, was shot dead by unknown gunmen.

To address the concern of parents about insecurity, the scheme now allows corps members to choose to serve in states of their choice or reject postings to volatile areas, totally defeating the goals of the scheme.

However, there are those who strongly believe it should not be scrapped. The Vice Chancellor, Crawford University, Igbesa, Ogun State, Prof. Olurotimi Ajayi, said the scheme should be protected and preserved, since its objective was the promotion of national unity among Nigerians, which he said, was fulfilling.

Prof Ajayi said the scheme was set up to achieve a target of fostering unity among the ethnic tribes in Nigeria, and that it is helping youths to visit other parts of the country and interact.

The don said rather than abolish the programme; government should look at the challenges facing the scheme such as insecurity, poor incentives and welfare of the corps members.

Nigeria spends billions of naira each year to pay allowances of thousands who enroll each year for the NYSC programme across the country. In 2016, the Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports Development was allocated N75.4billion of which N66.8b or 86 per cent was for NYSC.

Yet, this is barely sufficient to meet the necessities of mobilised students who are paid a stipend of N19, 800 which in December last year was not even enough to buy a bag of rice.

The slots are not even enough for all the students needing mobilisation and many who serve only do so because it is required by employers despite the fact that experience has little value to what they bring to the job.

In October last year, the Kwara State University told its recent graduates who should be part of the next year’s NYSC mobilisation that the institution has slots for only 500 despite graduating thousands.

The NYSC, headquartered in Abuja, last year reduced the number of corps members from tertiary institutions going for national service from 2,314 to 894, this is despite mobilising students twice a year rather than once when it was established.

The last part of the trinity of efforts made by the federal government, through education to promote a united Nigeria, are the unity schools. Are these schools actually uniting the citizenry?

How unifying are the unity schools?
Another attempt made to foster national unity and cohesion after the bloody 30-month civil war was the establishment of unity schools. As the name implies, the schools were meant to unite Nigerians especially youths and teach them a new direction. The regime of Gowon authorized, in 1973, that these schools be established across all the 12 states of the federation. The earliest ones were Federal Government College, Sokoto, Federal Government College, Warri, Federal Government College, Odogbolu and Federal Government College, Enugu.

In 2009, during the 15th plenary of the Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA) which held at the Federal Government College Jos, Gowon, said only four unity schools existed in the country at the time he became head of state, but when he went on a visit to the one in Sokoto in 1973, he was so impressed with the congenial spirit among the students irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds and this spurred him to establish more across the nation.

From 12 schools in the 1970s, the number of unity schools has grown to 104, only that Nigeria has not got more united with the establishment of scores of those schools.

Worse still, promoting unity as the core objective of the institution has been lost as parents rarely allow their wards travel to other regions of the country for schooling preferring to keep them in schools located within their areas of origin. This has removed healthy competition among children seeking admission into these schools and has resulted in disparity in both placements and admission quotas.

The current reality is that in southern parts of Nigeria, admission marks are higher and places are over-subscribed while in the northern parts of the country where there seems to be indifference about western education, there are often high numbers of unused slots and abysmally low entry barrier.

But this is not the vision for which unity schools were founded. Nigeria’s unity schools upon establishment admitted students based on the following criteria: 30 per cent on merit; 30 per cent state quota; 30 per cent environment; and 10 per cent exigency.

The 30 per cent admitted on merit can gain admission into the colleges of their choice, irrespective of their states of origin if they excel well above the cut-off mark.

NUC Executive Secretary, Prof. Abubakar Adamu Rasheed

The state quota criterion requires the colleges to select 30 per cent of their candidates from each state of the federation; while the environment criterion is reserved for candidates from the host state/community of the college. The 10 per cent criterion is based on exigencies.
Sadly, merit is no longer a prime consideration for admission into the unity schools and standard of education has since fallen.

The policy of sacrificing merit for an all-inclusive approach has institutionalised disparity in cut-off marks suggesting that diversity is preferred over excellence. In some states, only two marks can get a student a place while in others, more than 130 would be required. This has created a different kind of doubt in young Nigerians as the child from Anambra State, for instance, cannot understand why in a unified Nigeria, he or she with a high score of 70 per cent is denied a slot and another child with 10 per cent is considered.

Little wonder, the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo moved to privatise the unity schools during his second term between 2003 and 2007.

Professor Babalola Borishade, then Minister of Education, justified the attempt at privatisation arguing that concerns about access, quality and cost warrant the privatisation of the schools.

The reform, introduced in the twilight of the Obasanjo’s administration was however suspended by the late Umaru Yar’Adua when he assumed office in 2007.

Scholars Ndukwe Chinyere and Nwakamma Chibuzor, in their research on the implications of privatisation of unity schools noted that “public-owned institutions in Nigeria especially, public schools have performed abysmally poor. This has necessitated government’s policy of privatisation.” Each year, the results of students from these unity schools corroborate the truth of the statement.

Last year, Nigeria’s four Federal Government Colleges did not produce a single candidate that scored five credits that included English and Mathematics, needed to gain admission into the university.

Federal Government Girls’ College, Bajoga (Gombe State); FGGC, Bauchi (Bauchi State); FGGC, Gboko (Benue State), and the Federal Science and Technical College, Kafanchan (Kaduna State) did not produce a single student with a credit in English and Mathematics.

Beyond cosmetic approach at fostering national cohesion
Other countries have developed successful models for national cohesion using education as a platform. Many focus on orientation rather than just mere symbols that ought to mean unity.

A study by David Njeng’ere, a director in Kenya’s Institute of Curriculum Development, on the role of curriculum in fostering national cohesion and integration, said the Kenyan government lays a lot of emphasis on using education as a vehicle towards the achievement of the duo.

This dimension is operationalised through a subject syllabus provided by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), which is the national agency mandated to develop curriculum and curriculum support materials for all levels of education and training, except the university.

KICD further provides teacher’s handbooks for all syllabuses to help teachers interpret and implement the syllabuses. KICD also evaluates and approves all electronic and non-electronic instructional materials used in schools to ensure their appropriateness with regard to conformity to syllabus requirements and responsiveness to national values. Teachers are expected to develop schemes of work and lesson plans to implement the curriculum.

The national goals of education in Kenya provide the curriculum developers with the general intended outcomes of education. Out of the eight goals, five provide opportunities for fostering national cohesion and integration.

These include: fostering nationalism, patriotism, promoting national unity, promoting social, economic, technological and industrial needs for national development, promoting sound moral and religious values, promoting social equality and responsibility, promoting respect for and development of Kenya’s rich and varied cultures.

When national cohesion is included as the goals of education and is reflected through curriculum, experts say it helps foster unity. Nigeria does not even admit the teaching of its history to students reinforcing the need to overhaul the fundamental objectives of its educational system.

Some have argued that the NYSC scheme and the federal unity schools should be abolished as they have outlived their purpose or in the very least, repositioned to add value to society.

In an economy that is in recession, some have argued that the funds spent on the programme yearly should be used to equip graduates with useful skills especially in information communication technology to make them relevant in the work place.

Banks in Nigeria spend millions each year re-training graduates from Nigerian universities because the majority of those who graduate lack skills to function in the workplace.

The country also has dearth of skills as skilled labour for a lot of construction jobs is imported from neighbouring countries like Benin Republic and Chad. A training programme in acquisition of useful skills during the year spent on NYSC programme would equip young graduates with skills to become self-employed.

Rather than keep up with the pretence of federal universities, experts recommend that government should allow the universities function on their own and charge competitive tuition fees and have real autonomy.

Only recently, the federal government sacked the vice chancellors of 12 federal universities and the vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) without recourse to the governing councils of the universities, a flagrant abuse of the law of the Universities Autonomous Act.

The current system gives universities autonomy in name alone as these institutions are still tied to the apron strings of government who provide funding.

Education experts have insisted that quality standard of education would be delivered if these institutions are allowed to run on their own and charge competitive fees instead of the current pretence at uniformed standards that clearly fail to meet national needs.

But the NYSC in justifying its creation said the scheme, introduced to reconstruct, reconcile and rebuild the country after the Nigerian Civil war, in addition to enhancing the development of common ties among the youths of Nigeria and promotion of national unity has modestly tried to achieve its mandate all through its 44 years of existence.

The Director, Press and Public Relations, Mrs Bose Aderibigbe said when corps members are mobilised and posted to areas other than their states of origin, they have the opportunity to explore first hand, the similarities, differences and notions about the other communities of the country. This gives them a better understanding about our unity in diversity.

“On arrival at the various orientation camps, corps members are grouped into platoons irrespective of their ethnic, religious and social backgrounds. These platoons are made to compete with one another in sports, dance, drama and other activities on camp. This spirit of competition instils a consciousness of camaraderie, unity and tenacity of purpose among the members of the platoon, who now consider their platoon mates as closer than a brother and which leaves life-long memories, acquaintances and attitudes.

“Furthermore, the citizenship, traditional and other allied lectures in camp afford corps members another opportunity after their civic education lectures in probably primary school, to discuss and brainstorm on what binds us together as a nation in terms of where we were, where we are and where we wish to be as a people.”

Besides, Aderibigbe noted that the NYSC group community development system creates the convivial environment to harness the spirit of oneness of the corps members irrespective of their ethnic, religious and social group, in order to expend this on a corporate social responsibility pedestal to their host communities.

“This is realised through the common patriotic flame bonding them as a unit serving its host communities.

“In the same vein, the appointment of some corps members in the civil service of some of the host states has gone a long way in building the much-needed trust, confidence and brotherliness among the people of Nigeria.

“Again, NYSC has afforded the country a lot of inter-tribal marriages which have gone beyond merely bringing together the man and his wife to the building of bridges of love across ethnic, regional and religious lines. A classic example is the marriage of the Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu and his wife from the eastern part of the country which was brought about by the NYSC process.”

According to Aderibigbe, the NYSC has lived up to expectation in terms of meeting its mandate even in the face of current daunting challenges of insecurity and paucity of funds.

In the same vein, the Federal Ministry of Education has justified the relevance of unity schools to the nation’s continuous existence as a corporate entity. According to the Director, Press and Public Relations in the Federal Ministry of Education, Mrs. C. P. Ihuoma, government efforts at bringing Nigerian boys and girls from different religious, cultural and social backgrounds together to appreciate one another and see themselves as one has been a unifying factor.

“Long after their graduation, they still come together to celebrate their reunion and achievement via their alumni associations; they have built long inter-cultural lasting friendship, some of which have culminated in marriages, thereby unifying the nation; Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA) is a platform/umbrella body for uniting graduates of unity colleges.”

Apart from the fact that all admissions into unity schools take into consideration all states within the six geo-political zones, Mrs Ihuoma said the different cultures are promoted and celebrated. She added that the students imbibed the social-cultural behaviour and studied the language of the environment where the colleges are situated while all the three recognized languages in the country, namely Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba are taught in the colleges.