Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nigeria's 2011 Elections I: What Happened to the Love for Government Pikin?

Few weeks after the conclusion of Nigeria’s 2011 elections, the media has been flooded with news reports of the state funerals held in honour of the national youth corps members who were slain during the post elections violence. The thought is heart rendering as debates ensue as to whether or not the victims should be immortalized by naming a national monument after them, given national honours and whether the national youth service corps (NYSC) should be scrapped. While the federal government has announced plans to compensate the families of the deceased financially and otherwise, a lot of Nigerians insist that the NYSC scheme has lost its worth, stating that corps members have constantly been victims of ethnic and religious clashes over the last few years. They suggest that the recent killings are not a first but have only been accorded much attention because of number of individuals involved and the link to the national elections.

While I appreciate the sentiments and also question the success of the NYSC as to whether it has met it objective of national unity and integration, I recall that it had some merits and created some sense of pride back in the day.

We are told that the NYSC was instituted as a post-civil war initiative aimed at national integration and unity. The scheme is set-up in such a way that university graduates are expected to serve the nation for one year prior to securing permanent employment. They are posted out of their geo-political zone of origin to another zone to serve in different capacities largely as teachers with a view to reducing the level of illiteracy, bridging the manpower gap in the education sector, as well as in other endeavours. So, Southerns get posted up north and vice versa. Corps members learn of new cultures, psyches, languages, cuisines etc. and are better able to appreciate the lifestyles of people from a different geo-political zone. While a laudable initiative, the recent killings suggest that the initiative hasn’t quite met its objectives. However, it hasn’t been all bad.

Nigeria has six geo-political zones - the south-south, south-west, south-east, north central, north-east and north-west. I was born, grew-up and schooled in the south-south region of Nigeria. For my NYSC, I was posted to the south-west region and it marked my first time away from home and my family besides student vacations. And as a matter of fact, that is the situation with the average youth corps member.

As a youth corps member in 2000, I recall that we were fondly referred to as “Government Pikin”, were highly revered and cared for by the citizenry. Pikin in local parlance means child, implying that we were state property. I remember the first time I was referred to as a Government Pikin. It was mid-week and I had boarded a commuter bus from the NYSC secretariat where we had convened for the compulsory community development exercise popularly called CD. Fully clad in my NYSC uniform, I was beckoned upon to pay my bus fare and as I opened my purse to pay the fare, all other commuters in the bus reprimanded the checker (bus conductor as they are called in these climes) all chorusing “can’t you see that she’s Government Pikin?” Instantly, the checker apologised and moved to the next passenger. Though not a government pronouncement, it had become a rule that all corps members were exempt from paying transport fares and that was my experience throughout my national youth service. I was either never asked for a fare by the checker or there was always someone to remind the checker I was exempt. The NYSC uniform was known to open doors. It created a sense of pride and belonging for corps member and it was a good thing to be reckoned with! It gave the emotional value to education.

Four years later, my brother had an even more interesting experience. He was posted up north and to one of the states where the recent killings happened. He was well received as the new math’s teacher alongside other corps members. Being in a remote village, clean and portable water was farfetched in the real sense of the word. So the community rallying around to make the corpss member comfortable ensured that the school pupils (their children) fetched him water from the community borehole every day after school as well as run any other errand. They introduced him to the local delicacies and taught him their dialect. He returned home several months later very excited and grateful for the experience. Seven years later, we had this national crisis in the same vicinity and I wonder where did the love go?

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