National Service: A relevant strategy for personal and social change?

There comes a time in all our lives when we are forced to acknowledge that a change is needed. The question though is do we get innovative and create something completely different or do we improve an old format?  With this in mind, I read with interest, the BBC’s recent report that “the French government has introduced a plan to bring back national service for all 16-year-olds.”  President Macron’s objective for this change is “to encourage young French citizens to take part in the life of the nation and promote social cohesion”. The go-live is aimed for next year.

As to be expected, there are resistors to this change – and all with a variety of perfectly good reasons ranging from costs to the practicality of the implementation. Consultations have started and I hope that French citizens with experience of the previous national service (scrapped in 1996) will also be consulted too.

Like many countries mentioned in the BBC article, Nigeria also has its version of national service – called the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC). Introduced in 1973 (three years after the Nigerian civil war ended), the NYSC is a one year, none military conscription programme, which mandates young university graduates to participate as a pre-requisite to gaining employment.  Amongst its many objectives reviewed and updated in  Decree No.51 of 16th June 1993 are:

  • To raise the moral tone of the Nigerian youths by giving them the opportunity to learn about higher ideals of national achievement, social and cultural improvement and entrepreneurship
  • To develop common ties among the Nigerian youths and promote national unity and integration, remove prejudices, eliminate ignorance and confirm at first hand the many similarities among Nigerians of all ethnic groups.
  • To encourage employers, partly through their experience with members of the NYSC, to employ more readily and on a permanent basis, qualified Nigerians, irrespective of their States of origin

To facilitate this, the NYSC programme assigns the participants to jobs in regions and States other than their States of origin. At the end of their one year national service, the participants (known affectionately as “Youth Copers”) are encouraged to seek employment all over Nigeria, thus promoting the free movement of labour.

There are 36 States in Nigeria.  My family’s roots are embedded in the southern Christian States. Our ethnicity is Igbo which is one of the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria. I did my NYSC, many years ago (photo above), in one of the northern, Muslim states where I practised Law in one of the prominent Law firms of the time. There, I learnt a lot about the Hausa people and culture and of myself. Working in a different culture to mine, I developed my flexibility, adaptability and strong stakeholder management competencies which continue to be my USP today. I also learned about what I wanted to do with my life and the value of nurturing diverse relationships which have stood the test of time.

The NYSC programme has been criticised of late and many, just like in France, question its relevance.  I completely get it. The ethos, I think, is still a good one and very relevant today especially in cultures that want to foster diversity, tolerance and collaboration. It also supports the development of the required resilience to overcome obstacles and the ability to challenge and reframe one’s beliefs, values and life purpose. Looked at through this lens, national service is very much relevant for just about every society .  The challenge though lies in its implementation and integration specifically, in the alignment of:

  • The level of dissatisfaction with today’s social and cultural problems (i.e. the intensity of the burning platform), with
  • The desirability of the vision, objectives and outcomes of a possible new future, with
  • The practicality of the implementation steps (i.e. in terms of the type of national service to be introduced and the risk and impacts to time, budgets, personal, national and economic sacrifices), with
  • The integration of the outcomes with the working practices and culture; and
  • The honest appraisal of the benefits individually, nationally and economically – both in the short and long term.

Change is constant and as in all business change strategies, one size of national service doesn’t fit all burning platforms. It is therefore vital that a constant re-alignment of intention, actions and outcome is proactively pursued to check for relevance and congruence especially once the national service is implemented and is up and running.  With respect to Nigeria for example, I would argue for a change to incorporate all youths  – both graduates and non -graduates. The above NYSC  objectives are just as relevant to both and the process should be fairly and uniformly administered. This is especially  true in cases where youths are seeking to represent Nigeria on a national level, such as in international sports like football. However, if like me, you can foresee how this will be impractical for elite sportsmen living and playing for teams internationally, then surely, that rather lends to the case for a change in the implementation not the vision or goals.  After-all, no one really throws away the baby with the bath water … they?

Share Button