Families seek justice for loved ones lost at the hands of Awkuzu SARS, a notorious station in southeastern Nigeria.
It was about 3pm on a Sunday in mid-May when 27-year-old Kelechi* looked out of the front window of the 18-passenger mini-bus taxi he was travelling in.
A graduate of the University of Calabar in Nigeria’s Cross River state, he was making his way to neighbouring Benue, which had become a hotspot for attacks by armed groups and bandits.
The Benue state government had banned motorcycles in the area and set up checkpoints along the roads. But as his minibus joined a queue of vehicles at a checkpoint, Kelechi saw a motorbike approach. The men on board were carrying guns. They opened fire, killing two people.
“People were running helter-skelter,” Kelechi recalls, describing how the men then climbed back on their motorcycle and fled.
When Kelechi reached his apartment, the numbness he had initially felt subsided and he realised “it could have easily been me [who was killed]”. That night, and on the nights that followed, he struggled with insomnia as what he had witnessed that day played out in his mind over and over again.
Normally, Kelechi would have been at home in Calabar, where he grew up in a working-class family. But when he graduated from university, he was ushered into Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) – a mandatory one-year programme for graduates of tertiary institutions – which eventually placed him in Benue.
Completing a year of service with the NYSC is mandated by Nigerian law, with fines or jail time prescribed as punishment for those who fail to do so, although experts told Al Jazeera these penalties are never implemented. As part of the programme, which is a requirement for those who want to work for the government and some other private companies, corps members are posted far from their hometown. The aim is to foster intercommunal unity and peace. In exchange, the corps members receive a monthly stipend from the government.
Although some graduates find ways to skip the programme, many working-class Nigerians – whose job prospects are already limited – cannot sacrifice the potential opportunities that come with an NYSC certification.
That was why Kelechi signed up with the NYSC in 2019. But the experience has not been what he expected.
When he first applied, he was posted to Taraba state in northeastern Nigeria, along the middle belt region between the north and the south – an area plagued by interethnic conflicts and banditry. But, after just three months of teaching at a secondary school there, he left. Clashes between different ethnic groups in the area made him fear for his life, he explains.
“I tried to redeploy [to another state], but it did not work and my parents said they were not ready to lose their child,” he says with a tone of resignation.
In 2020, he reapplied, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck and parts of the programme were temporarily halted. He tried again in 2021, which was when he was sent to Benue.
When he spoke to an NYSC official about the shooting he had witnessed there, he says they told him there was nothing they could do about it, and that he should just be careful.
“I was sort of angry. I knew about the insecurity issues, I listen to the news but my hands were tied basically,” he says. Although corps members get some say in the type of post they would prefer, they cannot turn down a post once it has been offered.
When asked to comment on why corps members are sent to insecure areas, an NYSC spokesperson responded by text message. “NYSC does not post corps members to insecure states; there is a synergy between the scheme and security agencies and corps members are posted based on security advice from relevant security agencies,” the message read.
Mending the wounds of war
When the NYSC was created in 1973, three years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, its purpose was to mend the wounds of the war and to inculcate a spirit of nation-building.
According to a former director general of the scheme, 300,000 graduates (from public and private universities and polytechnics) are mobilised annually to assimilate into another culture and live among Nigerians from other parts of the country.
All corps members first undergo compulsory three-week paramilitary and skills acquisition training under the Skill Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Department (SAED), in orientation camps across the country. The purpose of the SAED programme is to equip members with additional skills that could make them more employable or improve their future economic prospects. With that in mind, they are taught things like cooking, shoe-making, bag-making, painting, makeup artistry, photography, and sewing.
After the camp, they are posted to a place of primary assignment (PPA) for a year, on a monthly allowance of 33,000 nairas (about $80). Depending on their placement, members may also receive an additional sum directly from their PPA.
In 2020, approximately 161 billion nairas (about $391m) of government money was allocated for the scheme. However, as Nigeria’s economy has suffered and the opportunities for graduates have shrunk, the relevance of the scheme has been questioned by some experts and corps members.
Even for those who do not find themselves worrying about their safety, living conditions can reportedly be challenging and job placements less than ideal.
When the posting letters for the NYSC orientation camp arrive each year, members who spoke to Al Jazeera say one thing is certain: they will be expected to travel a long way from home. Graduates scramble to find the easiest and cheapest means of travel. Those who can afford it go by air, but many others make their way by road – sometimes arranging buses and travelling together. Such road journeys are not always safe, and there have been accidents, but corps members brave it anyway.
The trip can take a few days and most graduates arrive feeling tired. But they must immediately sign in, register for their camp IDs, submit their documents, get their mattresses, secure their bed space, and change into their white camp uniforms. Anyone caught not wearing their uniform will be punished.
Every morning, corps members must wake at 5am for physical training. Lateness can attract penalties from the soldiers training them: frog jumps for two minutes or more before they are allowed to join the parade lines. Members march until the sun comes up, after which they are dismissed for breakfast – which can be anything from pap and akara to bread, tea and a boiled egg or rice and stew. But members say meals are often substandard, and those who can afford it eschew them and instead buy food from the more expensive camp market.
Margaret*, a 21-year-old graduate from Crawford University in Ogun state, is an active corps member who was posted to Kwara state in north-central Nigeria, where the population is comprised of a Yoruba majority and Fulani minority. She attended an orientation camp in May in Yikpata, an area on the outskirts of the state. The camp housed 2,000 people, similar to other orientation camps described by corps members.
Margaret says the camp was unhygienic and the food substandard. “I had to pretend to be sick to use the clinic toilet, and I pretended a lot,” she explains. “The hostel toilets were bad and not modern, more like a pit latrine. Even the bathing area was really disgusting.
“The hostel had only an iron door at the main entrance but none of the rooms had doors. Even the walls [of the cubicle] were transparent, I could see from one cubicle into another. If I was dressing up, others could see me. There was little to no privacy.”
Corps members who trained at other camps report similar conditions.
Al Jazeera approached the NYSC for comment but the spokesperson declined to answer any questions. The Lagos state coordinator for the NYSC did not respond to requests for an interview and emails sent to the director general of the NYSC did not receive a reply.
Margaret says one positive side to the scheme was that she “connected with people”.
As for the skill acquisition component, she attended photography training but says, “I don’t think I really learned much.”
For Olasupo Abideen, a youth development expert, this is an extension of the Nigerian education system, which he says does not equip students with the requisite knowledge needed to thrive in a proper work ecosystem.
“The same thing we have with the Nigerian education system is the same thing we have in camp. The education system does not prepare you for the work environment. Entrepreneurship is taught on the board in black and white and that it is irrelevant. The same thing with the SAED, they are teaching obsolete stuff,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“Skills that make graduates more employable could be taught in camps [instead] – leadership skills, communication skills, emotional intelligence skills, digital marketing skills, and others. These are skills 21st-century corporate organisations need …”
By the end of the orientation camp, most corps members are eager to return home. But it is just a temporary break before they embark on their placement.
Although the NYSC says it “takes into consideration the areas of specialization of Corps members” before assigning a PPA, members say they are not placed in positions that necessarily make use of their skills and qualifications.
Moses*, 22, graduated in human anatomy from the Federal University of Technology Akure in Ondo state and was posted to Kwara state where he taught mathematics in a primary school. “To say I was disappointed would be to put it lightly,” he says of the role and school facilities.
“I wrote with chalk on a chalkboard made of cement and dyed black with charcoal. The chalk grated against the surface, and by the end of each workday, I was coated in the white haze from the chalk dust,” Moses adds.
His disappointment did not end there. The principal of the school told him that his monthly compensation from the school would only be 2,000 nairas ($5) per month. Even with the government stipend, it was not enough to pay for his accommodation and transport.
The NYSC says it prioritises postings in rural areas and in the agriculture, health, infrastructure and education sectors. Primary and secondary schools are one of the main destinations for deployed corps members as most states have a chronic shortage of teachers.
But Oyeyemi Jekayinfa, a lecturer in education at the University of Ilorin in Kwara state, says using graduates who have not qualified to teach is “ineffective”.
“They must be well-grounded in education. You cannot just go into the class and teach anything,” she says.
“It affects [the quality of education] because most of them are not specialists, they don’t have what it takes to teach.”
Moses would discover that the school was chronically understaffed with just four staff teachers and five corps members. “To make up for this, the school would solicit corps members from the local government. Corps members were dispensable and an easy way to get the work done for less,” he says.
Criticism of the NYSC scheme has come from outside the ranks of members too. Awaji-Inombek Abiante, a lawmaker from Rivers state and a member of the House of Representatives, put forward a bill this year calling for its discontinuation.
According to the bill, the NYSC has led to the “incessant killing of innocent corps members in some parts of the country due to banditry, religious extremism and ethnic violence; incessant kidnapping of innocent corps members across the country”.
While there have been cases of corps members being killed or kidnapped, there is no data to suggest they were targeted because they were part of the NYSC.
However, as security worsens across the country – with the army deployed to 33 out of the 36 states last year to help combat it – corps members face a growing danger.
“The destinations that are safe for members of the NYSC are becoming fewer and fewer,” says Kunle Adebajo, a journalist who has covered conflicts in the country for years. “Of course, the purpose for the establishment of the programme is so that Nigerians from different regions of the country can intermingle and become detribalised, but you then find that the essence of the programme becomes undermined if there are lots of places you can’t go.”
Nigeria faces several security crises that put the corps members at risk.
In the northeast where the armed group Boko Haram, literally meaning Western education is forbidden, holds sway, the green and white corps uniform worn by the graduates represents Boko, Adebajo explains. While in the northwest, corps members are considered a possible source of a hefty ransom if kidnapped. And in the southeast, where secessionist groups operate, they are viewed unfavourably as they symbolise patriotism to the Nigerian state.
‘We will rather have you at home’
With the level of insecurity rising, there have been growing calls from government officials to convert the NYSC into active paramilitary forces. Recently, the director general of the scheme was widely reported to have said members can be mobilised for war because they are “part of the nation[al] defence policy of Nigeria”.
Hamzat Lawal, a social justice activist, agrees.
“We need to do a total review of the scheme and maybe use this scheme to provide combat training for young people and let them serve in the military, maybe you can have a scheme for one year where you will be deployed to Nigerian security agencies like the police, army the custom or civil defence where you play a critical role in countering the insecurity,” he says.
“When you look at the scheme currently, we are not getting any value for money.”
But for young graduates who want to pursue a career in the field of their choice, being mobilised as part of a paramilitary unit is far from what they signed up for.
Kelechi joined the NYSC because of the potential for better employment prospects. But he says he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Whenever I see any, crowds or motorbikes, I get agitated,” he explains. “I hope this is something I deal with later.”
He knows he needs to complete the programme, but he is worried and so is his family.
“My parents were on my neck, saying we will rather have you at home, rather than leave to go and die in the north.”
*The names of all NYSC members who spoke to Al Jazeera have been changed to preserve their anonymity, as corps members are not allowed to speak to the media.