UZOKWE'S SEARCHLIGHT

Sunday, March 14, 2021
obiuzokwe@comcast.net
Harrisburg, PA, USA
MY 1983/84 NATIONAL YOUTH SERVICE CORPS EXPERIENCE IN NIGERIA - WAS IT WORTH IT? (PART 1 OF 4)

MORE PHOTOS BELOW

n June/July of 1983, I successfully defended my thesis project at the university of Nigeria, Enugu campus. It was in partial fulfillment of the requirements for conferment of the 6-year Bachelor of Architecture degree. My thesis project was the design of a car assembly factory building and the associated multi-floor office building for the staff of the plant that included car designers and aerodynamicists.

That December, during our graduation ceremony at Nsukka, my classmates and I were conferred with the degree of Bachelor of Architecture(B.Arch). The program adequately prepared us for instant professional practice in architecture.

My classmates and I were full of hope about our future. In our optimistic minds, we had done what we were supposed to do by obtaining tertiary education from one of the best universities in Nigeria, in a discipline that was supposed to guarantee a bright future. It was Nigeria’s turn to create the enabling environment for us to succeed. Enabling environment should include good paying jobs in the design and construction industry.

However, at the time of our graduation ceremony in December of 1983, Nigeria’s political experiment in democracy was teetering on the brink. There was widespread corruption and youth joblessness. On December 31 st, the duo of General Muhammadu Buhari and his lieutenant, Tunde Idiagbon struck in a bloodless coup! They upturned the democratically elected, even if incompetent, administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Buhari’s excuse for the coup? That Nigeria’s woes lie in indiscipline and corruption and rooting it out would change her fortunes. And thus began a regime of high handedness, intolerance, as well as political and economic topsy turvy. With joblessness growing at an alarming rate, Nigerian graduates slowly began a mass exodus to overseas countries in search of relief and succor. This was the job climate under which we received our graduation certificates in December 1983. It was tantamount to arriving at the bank of a river, in a desert, just as the last repository of water was about to evaporate under the scorching sun!

Before then, in September/October of the same year, I began my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) program in Lagos, Nigeria. NYSC is a mandatory, one year program instituted by the Nigerian government in 1973 for new university graduates. It was supposed to foster the spirit of unity and patriotism in fresh graduates.

The program had two parts: the first was a month-long orientation to prepare Corpers, as they were called, for the program. After that phase, Corpers were posted to their final places of service called primary assignments. Corpers were posted to work in industries or disciplines related to what they studied.

I reported for my orientation at the grounds of Yaba College of Technology Lagos, ready to serve. Things had come full circle. Yaba College of Technology was the same place my family had lived before the Biafra-Nigeria war. My father was the Social Welfare Officer at the school but when the war was about to start, we fled to my hometown Nnewi, in Eastern Nigeria, for refuge. I had a lot of childhood memories there.

At the orientation camp, each corper was assigned accommodation in the dorm and then given a set of khaki pants and shirt, with a matching baseball-like hat and sometimes shoes. I shared a room with one Danny - I cannot remember his last name now. We had a bunk bed in the room and I slept on the top.

The next morning, I was deep in sleep when the loud and shrill sound of a bugle broke the silence of the morning. It was just 5:00am. Then the sound of people shouting: “wake up, wake up” saturated the air. Soldiers were scurrying from dorm to dorm to wake corpers up. As instructed, we dressed in the khaki uniforms and assembled in the field, in military formations. A young military officer stood in front of us. With hands clasped behind the back, he introduced himself as Captain Olubobokun and said he was in charge of the orientation program. He said it was going to consist of parade practices, obstacle training, man o war fitness drills and some lectures. At the end of the orientation, there would be a passing out parade. Exemptions from any of the programs, he said, would only be on medical grounds.

Captain Olubobokun introduced two of the sergeants that would work with him and noted that the place was going to be run like a military camp. Anyone wishing to leave the walls of the place must obtain a pass duly signed by him. At the end of it, he dismissed us and asked that folks eat and reassemble later to begin the parade practice. The parade drills became our daily routine.

During the first few parade drills, one of the corpers immediately distinguished himself. From the way he marched, one would think he was already in the military. He was instantly made the parade leader and he never disappointed. Every morning, he led the parade and we would march, march, march and march some more until everyone was very tired. At first, while some complained about the parade, I was okay with it. I have always had an eye in the military but for a different reason than patriotism. During the Biafra war, my brother Fidelis, who fought and died, exuded bravery. I admired his looks in military fatigues, adored and wanted to be like him. That feeling never went away and the parade was the closest I was to walking in Fide’s shoes.

The daily parade routine slowly became very monotonous. One weekend, I procured a pass just to get out of the place for a while. I proudly wore my Youth Corp khaki outfits, flagged down a taxi outside the camp gate and headed to Surulere. Surulere is one the residential enclaves in Lagos. At the time, the closest friends I had in Lagos were Augustine Mbajiuto and Chiedu Ngwube. They were both businessmen in Lagos. I got to know Augustine through Chiedu who is the son of my father’s best friend. He was also my elementary three classmate and friend. I stayed with them at # 7 Ogunfunmi Street Surulere when I initially came to Lagos for my youth service. Now, I was headed back to be with them from the camp.

When I buzzed the apartment doorbell, someone opened the door, and I could tell they were all happy to see me. But one of the girls in the living room, Lily, burst out laughing, basically at me. She was amused at how the superfluous corps khaki shirt I was wearing looked on me. Her reaction forced me to get a mobile tailor to slim down the shirt. When I put it back on, it was the exact “slim fit” look I wanted.

On Sunday, I departed for the camp. Before then, I had made friends in the youth corps camp with two guys: Chris and Dan. Chris studied accounting or so and Dan Medicine. When Chris found out that I had visited the United States before, he would always engage me in discussions about the experience. The America discussion became a commonality between us. Dan was very cerebral and on the quiet side and you could tell he was a very intelligent person. He spoke softly and would sometimes discuss medical conditions with us. Because the threat of joblessness, at the time, was a clear and present danger to us, Chris said if he did not get a job at the end of the NYSC program, he would consider leaving for the United States. For the same reason, sometimes during our parades, some corpers would be saying that” we were marching into unemployment.”

Dan and Chris were surprised when they saw me returning to the dorm with a guitar. During my visit to Surulere, I decided to take along my guitar with me. I originally left it behind when I was leaving for orientation not knowing what the atmosphere would be like. I now knew I needed it to break the monotony of everyday parade drills. That was the period Marvin Gaye’s song- Sexual Healing, was in full bloom. I once sang the song when my friends gathered in my room and after that, they would always request it whenever they were around.

My roommate - the other Dan, loved to sing the song too so he would join me. A tall dark fella that graduated from University of Ife, and always referred to Professor Wole Soyinka as his Oga (master), played and sang a song he said was Wole’s Soyinka’s composition. It went something like: “I love my country, I no go lie… but Nigeria needs ethical revolution.., revo revo revo kini?, - ethical revolution”. We would be chorusing “ethical revolution” whenever he played. I cannot remember his name now but after the NYSC program, I started seeing him on a TV program as one of the stars.

When I look back and think of the song purportedly composed by Wole Soyinka, it dawns on me that this man has been preaching “ethical revolution” in Nigeria for decades and yet Nigeria is still a cesspool or swamp of ethics-challenged politicians. In fact, things have worsened. Public servants continually dip into public treasury like it is their personal coffers and use the money for personal gratification.

One evening, after the parade, a handful of us decided that we would mix things up. We had planned to gather and play guitar that evening. In the past, we did it in my room but this time, we decided to do it in the field, next to the dorms. So as people were coming out for the usual walk around, grabbing drinks and/or suya(barbequed meat), I started playing my guitar and other folks who had brought make-shift instruments, like empty cans and bottles for percussion, sticks and the likes, started banging on them. I began to sing Marvin Gaye’s song. Soon and surprisingly, one of the camp sergeants, I think his name was Eddy or so, materialized from nowhere and joined us. It turned out that he liked to sing. Because I knew he was from somewhere in the then Bendel state, I started playing the song -Joromi by Victor Uwaifo. Uwaifo was also from the then Bendel state. This guy took it away and began singing, belching out all the lyrics, even if he was singing off key. I could tell that he was a little tipsy from the way he carried on. As the guy on the guitar, I could tell that the folks were singing off key too and the cacophony of sounds coming from the mish mash of instruments was sometimes ear-irritating but to me, all that mattered was that we were having fun. The fun was different from what we were used to since we checked into Yaba College.

Just then, the other camp sergeant hurried up to the area and announced that Captain Olubobokun was not going to have any of that. He saw what we were doing as unruliness and wanted us to disperse. Before sergeant “Eddy” began walking away dejectedly, he whispered in my ear: “make you no mind that man,…”, referring to Captain Olubobokun. “If he want, make he discipline me. Wetin we do wrong here?”, he intoned, meaning “Don’t mind that man, if he likes, let him discipline me. What did we do wrong here?”.

The motely group was not that easy to just disband with the wave of the hand. The sergeant kept shouting, “e don do…e don do”, meaning, “it is enough, it is enough”, while folks continued to bang away at their “musical instruments”. I stopped strumming the guitar and was sad to see the gathering slowly disband because while it lasted, I enjoyed the “organized chaos”. In fact, I was already thinking that it would become part of the activities there, albeit informally but better organized. So what would have been a successful social outing, was brought to an unceremonious end, all because Olubobokun saw our assemblage as “unruly”

This essay is an excerpt from my yet-to-be published memoir.

Continued in Part 2 of 4

Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War

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