NYSC at 50: My story as pioneer Executive Director in 1973- Dr. Ahmadu Ali
By Clement Adeyi
The National Youth Service Corps (NYCS) has hit a milestone, having clicked a record 50 years since it was given birth to in 1973 by the military government.
Former Head of Federal Military Government, General Yakubu Gowon (rtd), got the pregnancy and gave birth to it as the founding father, but it was Col Ahmadu Ali (rtd), one of the then top military officers, that served as the midwife and nursed the baby to adulthood that is currently being celebrated across the country at 50 with pomp.
Ahmadu Ali told the story in his book: “The Many Colours of a Rainbow”
Although efforts to make the scheme see the light of day were met with brick walls and or oppositions by lecturers as well as students who felt that it would delay their journey to the next level in life after graduation. For them, there was no need to waste one year on any national service instead of going straight for employment or postgraduate studies after graduation.
Consequently, they embarked on a series of demonstrations in university campuses across the nation, when the scheme was proposed.
But Ahmadu’s doggedness and determination to make it a reality brought it to limelight. He then made history as the pioneer director of the scheme.
Fifty years since inception, the NYSC has remained a shining light in the firmament of national schemes in the country.
Apparently, it has become a pillar of national unity, culture and development as well as a pivot that harnesses the potentials of young graduates towards national growth, especially since the Civil War after which it made a debut.
The NYSC has remained a shining light in the firmament of national schemes in the country
Not only has the scheme reached an appreciable mileage, following fulfilments of the objectives for which it was set up, it remains a dream that every tertiary institution graduate looks forward to realizing by serving his or her father land through it.
The Insight retells the story of Ahmadu Ali’s experience of the birth of the scheme in retrospect.
The NYSC is a product of the Federal Government proposal in 1972 to establish a kind of a national service scheme in the class of the American Peace Corps.
When Yakubu Gowon defied students’ and lecturers’ protest and summoned a meeting of senior Army officers, he sounded them out on the need to set up the scheme and they reached a consensus on it.
Later, Ahmadu Ali was summoned to Dodan Barracks and offered the position of Executive Director of the NYSC by Gowon. That was on May 18, 1973. He thrusted a file to him and asked him to peruse it and come up with a take off blueprint. The file contained papers and opinions from diverse sources such as the Israelis, the American Peace Corps, the Ujamaa Programme of the Tanzanian Government, the late Dr Dickson of the British Voluntary Service Overseas.
At first, Ahmadu was not enthusiast about accepting the offer.
However, he said: “Alright sir” to General Gowon who asked him to make up his mind within two weeks.
As he turned to take his leave, Gowon called him again and gave him another file containing minutes and documents of various meetings of the Federal Executive Council on the proposed scheme. When he flipped through it, he discovered that 12 names of prominent personalities were on the list of those vying for the position. It was at this point that he realized that there must be something special about the scheme.
Later, Gowon explained to Ali that: “Any politician with structures on the ground in all the 12 states of the federation will have a tremendous advantage. The director of NYSC will have a ready-made structure on the ground when politics begin after the military has gone back to the barracks. That is why some cabinet ministers were vying for the job.”
With this explanation, Ali’s fire to accept the job got kindled, especially because of his die-hard passion for politics right from his days as a student.
Then he accepted the offer and told the General: “You can make the announcement right away sir. I am not afraid of challenges.”
Then Gowon handed over several files that contained information and theories about the youth scheme in different countries with an emphasis that the NYSC was to be our own domestic service scheme for the Nigerian youth.
He then asked Ali to go through the files and come up with a suitable scheme for Nigeria.
Ali spent two weeks in an exclusive room allocated to him in the Cabinet Office at Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, to study the files.
At the end, he came up with the blueprint for the NYSC.
With the take off, the scheme became Ali’s response to the earlier clamour by Nigerian students and their lecturers for national service during the Civil War from 1967-1970. Many of them had expressed willingness to participate in the war in reaction to the participation of the students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, on the side of Biafra.
But Gowon did not accede to the demand as he did not want to sacrifice the lives of youth when there were enough trained soldiers to fight the war.
When the war ended, another wave of opposition arose within the ranks of students and their lecturers with violent demonstrations on university campuses.
However, Ali remained unruffled and undertook a country-side tour of campuses to quell the riot and worm the scheme into the hearts of students and lecturers.
At UNN, some flacks, jeers and hoots were meted out to him by the protesters. They even called him names.
It was only at the University of Ibadan that he got a little warm reception because he was an alumnus of the school, students leader and activist then.
Acceptance of the NYSC on campuses then was at a very low ebb. Even the media, particularly Daily Times, under the leadership of Editor -In-Chief, Adeoye, was also in the vanguard of the opposition, following intense negative criticisms of the scheme on the newspaper’s page 7 (opinion page).
But Ali’s diplomacy with the Editorial Board of the paper ended the opposition.
Acceptance of the NYSC on campuses then was at a very low ebb
Other reasons given for the opposition were parents’ fear of safety of their children outside their home states, chances of being killed and eaten by cannibals believed to exist is some parts of the country in those days as well as general hatred for the army believed to have overstayed their welcome in government.
However, Ali gallantly went ahead and designed the scheme and put it under the military command because of the necessity to equip it with some military practicals bordering on training and discipline which can only be provided by the army.
By the end of the third year of the scheme, Ali was able to stabilize it, following his knack for realisation of any cause that he believes in.
At the start of the scheme (in 1973), there was a paralysing railway strike which hampered the transportation system. It became difficult to transport uniforms and equipment to the NYSC orientation camps. Even, the corps members were stranded. But with doggedness, Ali mobilized the Air Force with its Donier aircrafts to ferry people, equipment and uniform around the country. And the scheme was able to take off against all odds.
Interestingly, the primary objective of using NYSC to promote national unity in a country that had just come out of a horrifying civil war due to ignorance about unity in diversity, became a reality.
At 50, NYSC, like the biblical rejected stone that became the head of a corner, has become a big pride and pillar of national integration and dream fulfilment among participating graduates who now enjoy it and testify to its values.
A lot of participants got jobs, married, settled down in states where they served and also imbibed the cultures and traditions of the people of the land.
Apparently, the NYSC, a national phenomenon, has continued to live up to expectations in fulfilment of the basic objectives that underscored its birth.