The National Youth Service Corps, NYSC scheme established in 1973 under the military regime of Gen. Yakubu Gowon is known to be his brainchild. However, in a twist of history, Prof. Uzodinma Nwala, a philosopher and academician, said the idea of establishing NYSC was a Biafran ideology founded under the name East Central State Youth Volunteer Services Corps, ECS-UVSC – but was hijacked by the Gowon led government.
The scheme was basically establishment to be an instrument of national integration after civil war in 1970. Successive governments has also embraced the scheme as instrument of national integration. The scheme has had its success stories but in recent times, numerous Corp members have been killed in an outburst of political and religious riots in the North, while many have experience serial kidnappings in the Southern part of the country. The fall out of these have been the calls in some quarters for the abolition of the scheme in that the major aim of being an instrument for national integration has been defeated.
Prof. Nwala at different fora has been saying that the establishment of NYSC was his initiative, insisting that Gen Gowon has not debunk his claims rather according to him the former head of state has been avoiding making statement on the issue.
Recently, he reechoed his claims in a paper he presented at a forum of coalition of Igbo youths in Abuja titled ‘The Origins Of The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) And The Making Of A Nation: An Excursion Into Nigeria’s Social History.
In his presentation, he made the issue a subject matter. noting that he is not against the hijack of the scheme which to some extent has serve as a unifying factor for the country, but that for the sake of history, preference should be accorded to him and other Biafran patriots of the then East Central State Youth Volunteer Services Corps, (ECS-YVSC) who work tirelessly to established the volunteer scheme on who’s blue print Gowon’s government hijacked to establish the NYSC.
Stating his points, he went down memory lane on Nigeria’s history and the eventual civil war, emphasizing on the overbearing destructive effects the war had on the Igbo ’s which he said engendered the need for an ideal reconciliation, re-construction of infrastructures and reintegration in the zone, which compelled him to come up then with the voluntary organization.
He aligned his thesis in segments starting with Divisive Tendencies in the Country: The rivalry between Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo, between Awolowo and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, and among the three major ethnic groups, as well as the struggle of the ethnic minorities to free themselves from the strangle-hold of the major ethnic groups in their various zones, added major centrifugal forces tearing the federation apart. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe could not assume power as Premier of Western Nigeria following the Victory of his party = the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) because he was not a Yoruba man.
The Igbo presence in the North and dominance in many parastatals of Government because of their social mobility and higher level of educational attainment were resented by the leadership of the North who aroused anti-Igbo feelings.
The slogan of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) One North One People was symptomatic of the divisive spirit of the politics of that time. The Party formation followed exactly the same ethnic divide, with the N PC in control of the North, the Action Group (AG) in control of the West while the NCNC controlled the East and the Mid-West.
The lgbo Predicament in Nigeria
The Igbo’s were mostly in the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle in Nigeria. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, was the doyen of African and Nigerian nationalism, others were Mbonu Ojike, Mbadiwe, Amanze Njoku, Jaja Nwachukwu, Okpara, etc. such incidents as those associated With the Women Uprising of 1929, the Enugu Colliery Workers Strike in 1949 and the Zikist National Vanguard noted for it vociferous radicalism.
The British colonial authority saw the Igbo as their number one enemy, therefore, resented Igbo political ascendancy in Nigeria and to punish the Igbos by ensuring that they were politically marginalized in Nigeria.
Ironically, the young majors led by major Kaduna Nzeogwu, who carried out the January 15, 1966 coup, did so in order to install Chief Obafemi Awolowo as Prime Minister of Nigeria. So if that coup is to be defined as anybody’s coup, it is appropriately to be called Awolowo coup. There is no way Chief Awolowo could be ignorant of the coup for which he was to be the principal beneficiary. Unfortunately, it A was called Igbo coup by both the British agents who knew better and their collaborators.
The Nigeria-Biafra War
The high-tide of the instability of the Nigerian Federation was the Biafra-Nigeria war of 1967-70, the bloodiest civil wars in Africa. It claimed over two million lives and displaced thrice that number. Consequently, a national and international coalition was brought under the leadership of both Gen. Gowon and Chief Awolowo against the Igbos in a bloody war that lasted over 30 months and claimed over 1 million Igbos and devastated the entire Igbo territory.
For 30 months, Biafra was subjected to land and air bombardment. Life in the war-ravaged zones of Biafra was horrible -sea blockade, land and air bombardments, destruction of lives and property, displacement of millions of people who became refugees with nowhere to go; kwashiorkor and mal-nutrition, hunger and disease, rape of women and girls, thousands of disabled soldiers who fought on the side of Biafra, massacre of thousands of ablebodied men and youths, etc. During the war, some of us worked in the Biafra Propaganda Directorate. Mr. Ekeanyanwu from Atta and I set up the Propaganda Directorate in the old Owerri Province, covering the present Imo State.
After the war all savings of Biafrans were frozen, and irrespective of the amount, everyone was given £20.00 (twenty pounds only). This was the most post-war punitive action of the Federal Government against the defeated Biafrans. They justified it by the dictum many ascribed to Chief Awolowo that hunger was a weapon of war. In other words it was continuation of the war by other means.
The Story of the State Volunteer Services Corps (SVSC) of the East Central State…
When the war officially ended on January 15th, 1970, the Republic of Biafra had ceased to exist as a political entity. The mainland Igbo found themselves in the East Central State which was created by the Gowon regime in 1967; while the rest of the Igbo found themselves in the Mid-Western State, the Rivers State and some in what was then called South-Eastern State (now Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers States) Everywhere was in ruins, over two million refugees, battered economy, industries, schools, public institutions and infrastructure, most houses in the war-affected areas, especially the cities, had been destroyed people had nowhere to go. There was insecurity, all these provoked my thought to bring together youths as volunteers to undertake reconstruction and reintegration programmes in the East.
Soon, the programme attracted, thousands of youths graduates, undergraduates, school leavers, workers who had lost their jobs in other parts of Nigeria, etc. A formal election was held and I formally emerged as the leader of the group. The tasks at Enugu campus were too small to absorb the energies and enthusiasm of the volunteers. The programme was next expanded to other parts of Enugu metropolis.
State Adoption of the State Volunteer Service Corps (SVSC) Formal Memorandum on the formation of SVSC of East Central State.
Having realized the great potential of the unfolding movement, my colleagues and I proceeded to formalize the organization of the Corps and to seek a Governmental backing for it. A Draft Memorandum on the formation of an EAST CENTRAL STATE YOUTH VOLUNTEER SERVICES CORPS, with the initial acronym ECS-YVSC was prepared by me and discussed with my colleagues. It was later discussed with Mr. Patrick Graham, the Chairman of the Rehabilitation Commission. The Memorandum spelt out the aims and objectives of the Volunteer Corps. It was eventually submitted to the State Government through then Commissioner for Economic Development, Mazi S. G. Ikoku. Mr. Asika’s Government eventually gave its blessing to the establishment of the Corps. The cardinal objectives of the SVSC as stated in the memorandum amongst others – To promote the spirit of volunteer service in prosecuting the State’s initial Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Physical and Social infrastructure, Adult Literacy, Enlightenment, Revival of Cultural life of the Communities, Medical and other services, Inter-Community Reconciliation.
Reconciliation Programme and National Tours – Memo to Gowon
We, therefore, drew up a programme of National Reconciliation Tour. On September 30, 1970, my delegation arrived Lagos at 9.00 pm carrying a Memorandum for the Federal Military Government headed by General Yakubu Gowon on the subject. The delegation included Mr. Ukwuije, an ex-President of the Student Union, Enugu Campus of the University of Nigeria, Mr. Abaji, Dr E. N. Ukpaby who was the Dean of Student Affairs, as Adviser to the delegation. The delegation met With government officials including the Secretary of the National Youth Council of Nigeria, Mr. E. A. Adebiyi.
Our tour coincided with the first post-war Independence Anniversary, therefore seeing the Head of State and key Ministers was not realistic. However, the Memorandum was received on behalf of the Federal Government by Mr. M. M. Habib, a Senior Assistant Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Labour, who assured the delegation that he would convey the memorandum and message through his Minister to the Head of State.
Our delegation also visited Ibadan and several other places, and held meetings With government officials and officials of several youth organizations. Discussions centered on the issues of national reconciliation and integration, the mobilization of students and youths in a volunteer service movement through the creation of a National Youth Service Corps in line with the one created and experimented in the East Central State (ECSYVSC), promoting inter-state visits of traditional rulers, government officials and other categories of citizens, etc.
“After the war all savings of Biafrans were frozen, and irrespective of the amount, everyone was given £20.00 (twenty pounds only). This was the most post-war punitive action of the Federal Government against the defeated Biafrans. They justified it by the dictum many ascribed to Chief Awolowo that hunger was a weapon of war. In other words it was continuation of the war by other means.”
The Place of ECS-SVSC in Nigeria’s Social History
An instrument of national integration SVSC was a byproduct of the civil war – Nigeria-Biafra war, meant to help heal the wounds of the war. In its psychological and social thrust, it was a healing (occupational) therapy for the morally, spiritually and psychological devastated and disoriented youth, who otherwise would engage in crime and other social deviant behaviors. No one can underestimate the danger of letting loose over 100,000 youths, well trained soldiers to roam about the streets and the countryside.
The SVSC Undergraduate Long Vacation programme was later christened Undergraduate Volunteer Services Corps. In fact this class of youths was those who were practically involved in the war as soldiers, propagandists and mobilizers of the people. They were the people who practically fought against each other during the war, not Gowon, nor Ojukwu. They are the people from whom reconciliation should begin. It is sad that no official mention is made to the SVSC, the goose that led the golden egg called National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Nigeria. It is the same attitude of the post-war Federal authorities of Nigeria to the great inventions of the Biafra War scientists. Col Ogbemudia was reported to have advised Gowon to create an institution to house and tap the immense potentials of the Biafra war scientists, but Gowon refused, because according to him, creating such an institution would give credit to Biafra.
However, General Gowon after seeing our memo, understood the importancy of our proposed scheme, gave the Asika Government of East Central State a grant of £75,000 (seventy five thousand pounds) in appreciation of the initiative and achievements of the pioneers of the (ECSYVSC). He later set up the necessary machinery which culminated in the formal establishment of the NYSC programme that came into force in 1973.
Unfortunately, nowhere in the history of the NYSC is credit given to the youths of the former East Central State. Perhaps it is for the same reason that the Biafran youths who were the brains behind of the birth of the NYSC are ignored, for giving them credit would amount to giving credit to Biafra.
PROF. T. UZODINMA NWALA, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy, University of Abuja. President, Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADP).
Culled from: The Investigator Nigeria, Vol. 5, p34-36, June-July, 2017.