A Gift Wrapped As A Scandal, By Patrick O. Okigbo
Whatever the case, what is important is to extricate the NYSC CertifiGate scandal from the realm of partisan politics and use it to force a debate on how to leverage Nigeria’s professional diaspora and remove the impediments to their return. This is important for Nigeria’s social, economic and political development.
Kemi Adeosun, Nigeria’s minister for finance, is in the eye of the storm over her purportedly forged National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) certificate. There is no clarity on how this issue will be resolved, and the penalty she may face; if any at all. As usual, Nigerians have huffed and puffed and moved on to await the next scandal. What is clear is that Nigeria may miss the reform opportunity embedded in this “CertifiGate”.
The NYSC was established in 1973 to help drive post-Civil War reconciliation with the fundamental proposition that deploying Nigerian graduates to live and work in parts of the country different from those of their birth or residence would promote national unity. By law, every Nigerian who graduates from a tertiary institution before the age of 30, except for those with physical disabilities, must complete the programme to be eligible for government jobs.
A Gift Wrapped As A Scandal
However, the problem with the programme is that when it was instituted, 45 years ago, not many Nigerians could emigrate. In the 1970s, most Nigerians lived and died within a few kilometres of their birth place. As such, the government failed to envisage a time, such as now, when there would be a large Nigerian diaspora, and a need to invite them to return to assist with nation building. Even the brain drain of the 1980s – which prompted a nationwide anti-emigration campaign – did not prompt the government to reform the NYSC objectives to meet the emerging realities.
The recurring (and restricting) NYSC challenges have progressively become an albatross for Nigerians, such as Kemi Adeosun, who have been invited from the diaspora to serve Nigeria. Relocating to Nigeria is a difficult decision that is made even more arduous when returnees are expected to truncate their careers and spend a year in the NYSC programme. Take the Honourable minister’s case, for instance. According to the law, she should have declined the job opportunity in Nigeria because she did not complete her NYSC. In fact, according to the current law, she is expected to abandon her stellar career in London, enrol in NYSC and accept a posting to a rural part of Nigeria without any safety guarantees, and after one year of national service, hope to be recruited at the same level and remuneration as the initial job offer. During this period, she would have relinquished a six-figure salary in London to accept an annual salary of about £1,000 from NYSC, not to mention the financial stress and emotional strain for any individual that is married and/or with children. This mandatory one-year hiatus, clearly affects one’s role as a spouse, caregiver and/or parent living abroad.
Given Nigeria’s current level of economic and socio-political development, what is required now is a concerted debate on how to attract her best talents home. The Adeosun CertifiGate should provide the impetus for such a debate on how to address the NYSC conundrum.
If anyone needs justification for why a country must tap into its diaspora, India and Israel provide appropriate illustrations. India was a very poor country until 1991 when it liberalised its economy. The economic renaissance triggered by that policy was driven, in large part, by Non-Resident Indians (NRI) who are seen as the “backbone” of the Indian economy. The NRI remitted billions of dollars into the economy and assumed roles that enabled them to apply their Western-acquired skills to make India a leader in high technology. They leveraged their professional networks to plug India into global value chains, shaped its economy, and aided with the country’s foreign diplomacy. Likewise, Israel tapped into its diaspora to become one of the world’s greatest economic success stories. Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their 2009 book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, outlined how the country was able to achieve such economic growth that by 2009, over 60 Israeli companies were listed on the NASDAQ and this is more than those of any other foreign country. Israel’s remarkable success in high-tech and research and development (R&D) is credited, in part, to the large pool of researchers in the Jewish diaspora and the wave of returnees in the early 1990s.
Rebuilding the Fallen House
Given Nigeria’s current level of economic and socio-political development, what is required now is a concerted debate on how to attract her best talents home. The Adeosun CertifiGate should provide the impetus for such a debate on how to address the NYSC conundrum. While there are a number of NYSC reform bills currently at the National Assembly, none of them is far-reaching enough. None of the bills proposes a robust review of the structure and effectiveness of the programme vis-à-vis its founding objective and ongoing migration trends. If the programme has delivered on its post-conflict reconciliation objective, shouldn’t it be ended? If not, can a restructured NYSC achieve this objective? Is post-conflict resolution still the critical issue in today’s Nigeria or is it something else, like youth unemployment? If the latter, should NYSC be the programme to mitigate that challenge? If not, why does Nigeria still need NYSC in 2018? With these questions, the fundamental question should be how to ensure that NYSC does not deny Nigeria of the talents it desperately needs.
There are compelling arguments that NYSC may have outlived its usefulness. If so, it should be scrapped. The resources spent can be reapplied to other programmes set up to address more contemporary and pressing challenges. If the government chooses to retain it, it should consider making it voluntary, instead of mandatory. A similar model could be the United States Peace Corps, which is a government-funded youth programme to help people outside the United States to understand American culture, and help Americans to understand the cultures of other countries. There could be some value proposition to both Nigerians, at home and in the diaspora, to be part of a voluntary programme that provides social and economic development in communities across Nigeria.
Whatever the case, what is important is to extricate the NYSC CertifiGate scandal from the realm of partisan politics and use it to force a debate on how to leverage Nigeria’s professional diaspora and remove the impediments to their return. This is important for Nigeria’s social, economic and political development. Therefore, the minister’s NYSC CertifiGate is really a gift masquerading as a scandal. It should be viewed as such.
Patrick O. Okigbo wrote from London, England.