In recent times, the NYSC has been in the news, this time for the wrong reasons, relating to kits and uniforms, for its youth corps members.
The National Youth Service Corps was established by the NYSC Act, to encourage and develop common ties among Nigerian youths, promote national unity and develop the Nigerian youth and Nigeria, into a great and dynamic economy. According to the establishment Act, the core objectives of the NYSC shall be to:
· Inculcate discipline in Nigerian youths by instilling in them a tradition of industry at work, and, of patriotic and loyal service to Nigeria in any situation they may find themselves;
· 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;
· Develop in the Nigerian youths the attitudes of mind, acquired through shared experience and suitable training, which will make them more amenable to mobilization in the national interest;
· Enable Nigerian youths acquire the spirit of self-reliance by encouraging them to develop skills for self-employment;
· Remove prejudices, eliminate ignorance and confirm at first hand the many similarities among Nigerians of all ethnic groups, etc.
There have been some debates about the usefulness of the NYSC scheme to national development, especially in recent times, where corps members cannot be deployed to certain parts of the country, on account of apparent danger to their lives. The court decision in the case of the former Minister of Communications, has now altogether whittled down the value of the NYSC to our national life and indeed the rationale for its continued existence. Be that as it may, the service is still ongoing.
On November 5, 2019, two female corps members, reported at the NYSC orientation camp at Mac-Gregor College in Afikpo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, where they had registered. They were provided with NYSC kits containing a fez cap, shorts, trousers and vests. On November 8, 2019, at about 5am, they reported for early morning work-out. They had their NYSC shorts on but wore short skirts on top of them, presumably to conceal their ‘nakedness’, claiming that it offends their Christian faith to be so adorned openly. To them, they regarded the shorts as a form of underwear. In similar fashion in the same NYSC camp, they saw their Muslim counterparts, wearing hijab on top of the NYSC vest, some to the waist, whilst others adorned the NYSC shorts well below the knees, contrary to the regular ones which were above the knees. They were promptly issued queries by the camp commandant and subsequently arraigned before the NYSC mobile court, found to have contravened the NYSC Bye-Laws and summarily de-kitted and sent out of the camp. When the news broke out, it was greeted with mixed reactions, most people preferring to await the official response of the NYSC authorities.
Rather than douse the brewing controversy, the NYSC, through its official statement by Adenike Adeyemi on behalf of the Director-General, compounded the issues and raised it to the level of national concern. Let us hear him:
“For the avoidance of doubt, the scheme has maintained one dress code since May 22, 1973 when it was established, devoid of ethnic, religious or gender bias. The code remains a pair of khaki trousers and shirt; crested vest; white vest; a pair of white shorts; a pair of zebra-stripped socks; a pair of jungle boots; a pair of canvas; belt and fez cap. Any other dress code contrary to the officially-sanctioned one will not promote the course of decency.”
In a complete summersault in the same statement however, Mr. Adeyemi contradicted himself as follows:
“Rather, the scheme permits the use of white hijab, which must not be more than shoulder length and must be tucked into the uniform. The policy of allowing hijab, which does not deface the NYSC uniform, is not new, as it has been there.”
Contrary to what the NYSC set out to establish through its official response, it has now confirmed that it has two sets of uniforms; one specifically for Muslim female corps members, who are permitted to wear a hijab on top of their vests, in deference to their faith and doctrine, not to appear naked and a general dress code for all other corps members. The female Christian corps members said they considered the white shorts issued by the NYSC as a form of underwear, which will expose their nakedness, so they prefer to wear it under a skirt, which is a form of ‘hijab’, to cover their nakedness. The NYSC statement stated clearly that it adopted an official policy to allow hijab for female Muslim corps member, based purely on their faith.
Under and by virtue of section 42 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended:
“A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person –
(a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of birth, sex, religions, or political opinions, are not made subject ; or
(b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of birth, sex, religions or political opinions.”
Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution as amended:
“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”
Section 1 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended:
“This Constitution shall be supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Now, if we apply the facts of this case to the provisions of the Constitution above quoted, the NYSC seem to have run foul of the law, in relation to its official policy on uniform for its female corps members. The Constitution says clearly that the NYSC should not deny any corps member any benefit that other corps members enjoy and it should also not accord any benefit to any set of corps members that others are denied of, by reason only of their faith, sex, tribe or gender. If the NYSC has accorded female Muslim corps members official recognition to practice their faith through the hijab which is external to the official uniforms supplied, then it has to, of necessity, sit down with female Christian corps members, to agree on the modality for the practice of their own faith, with regard to the white underwear.
In this controversy then, the NYSC is at fault. There is nothing sacrosanct about uniform for female corps members, Muslim or Christian. The NYSC should just have kept its old tradition of the usual kits and stand its ground. External apparel is of little significance to faith, as God dwells in the heart. Indeed, some have pointed to the attachments to the hair of the Christian female corps member who started this controversy, as an example of the hypocrisy of doctrines, but like her or hate her, she is protected by the Constitution and the apparent indiscretion of the NYSC, of recognizing one religion above the other, knowing the sensitivity of faith issues in Nigeria, has not helped matters at all.
I know very serious minded Muslims who attended Christian missionary schools and came out in flying colours, ditto for Christians who were trained in Muslim schools. Indeed, the children of prominent Nigerian Muslims are being trained in established universities in Europe and America, where the adornment of hijab is not an issue at all, but rather the content of their intellect and character. In this case however, the options for the NYSC are very clear and narrow. It is either it will abolish the wearing of hijab by female Muslim corps members, or if it will continue to allow it, then it must sit down with female Christian corps members, on the appropriate mode of dressing that will respect their faith. In the meantime, the two female corps members that were expelled from the orientation camp on account of their objection to the short ‘underwear’, should be re-absorbed immediately, as that decision is contrary to the Constitution. The NYSC having admitted that its official policy recognises a particular religion and it is protecting its members, it cannot in good conscience close its eyes to the concern of other religions, by seeking to annul their practices, through official discrimination. That is the dilemma of religion that the scheme has trapped itself into, and it must deal with it squarely, even though none of its core objectives reproduced above, allows religious biases.
TWO LEGAL GIANTS
In the course of the week, two legal luminaries marked their birthdays. Professor Epiphany Azinge, SAN, the former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, was a year older. At his birthday annual lecture in Abuja, the Guest Lecturer, the Honourable Justice Centus C. Nweze, JSC, described the Chairman of that occasion, Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN, as the Rotimi Williams of our time. Chief Olanipekun also added another year.
These two legal giants have contributed in no small measure, to the development of law in Nigeria and I join other well-meaning Nigerians, to wish them happy birthday and many more years of glorious service to their fatherland.