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Let’s Rather Say it Dirty: NYSC and the Culture of Deliberate Silence

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Ebenezer Agu

And the naming of the intolerable is itself the hope—John Berger

Kano, northwestern Nigeria, approximately fifteen hours drive from the east, hot city, hard water, and dry weather. After a weary night journey in a bus packed tight with passengers and luggage, I stepped down in Kano with swollen feet and with a sagged body. I joined a shuttle to Kusala where the NYSC permanent orientation camp is located beside a dam. There seems to have been a priority on remoteness in locating the camp; about an hour drive from where the bus dropped us to a large, fenced compound surrounded by bushes around where the dam didn’t cover.

I wheeled my box towards a police officer holding a bomb detector before the gate and presented my ID to his smiling face and cheerful inquiry about my journey. Two more security checks and I signed into camp.

I had carried a feeling of unease with me throughout the journey, a result of the ultimatum on Igbos to leave the north by October 1. It felt like the order contravened the very purpose of the national youth service—a cause to integrate the diverse ethnicity of Nigeria. I knew the history of violence in Nigeria and the likely danger if the northern groups that issued the ultimatum were to carry out the threat. But the camp, the arrangement of it, the cheery officials at the gate, had an alleviating effect.

The official who checked my luggage, a Hausa man from his accent, had looked into the box and said, “Your bag is arranged well. I should not make you scatter it. You don’t have any drugs, abi?”

“No.”

“Okay. Go and sign in.”

The woman who signed me in was the same; calm and patient, giving the same instruction twice without snapping. The compound shared the same attitude with the officials, expansive with rows of bungalows painted the palest shade of yellow. To the right of the gate was a football field, which also served as the parade ground, and mounted at the edge of the field was a heavy machine gun inside a military booth. The Man O’ War ground was by the left, with full facilities and a keep-off sign for all corps members unless accompanied by an officer. And then there were the blocks lining the road into the camp on both sides; almost at the end of the road was the multipurpose hall where registration was ongoing.

Inside, a woman was speaking through a megaphone, giving announcement that was muddled up in the echo of the hall. The place was rowdy with activities and the movement of people. There were about three arrangements of plastic seats for different registrations and I joined the group for the verification of documents. We moved in rows, from back to front, standing up after intervals to join the row in front of us as the first row joined the verification queue. There was a group of Muslim women beside us. They were dressed in traditional attires; hijabs flowing over their heads and shoulders, flower patterns on their hands and feet made with henna. Each of them was addressed as “Hajia”, and their attitudes were uniform—graceful and regal—as if they all came from an institution where women were taught to be delicate and demure. They also were prospective corps members even though they didn’t look as ruffled and dishevelled like the rest of us. They definitely were not allowed to mix with the rest of us; there was a calculated withdrawal to their manners. They listened more and acted as they were instructed, hardly speaking or asking questions.

I was getting giddy by the stuffiness of the hall and the noise, wishing the line would move faster. Our row has gone past halfway to the front and I could notice the man directing the movement; tall and big, dark skinned and animated. He kept trying to make jokes that came out flat to my dull senses.

By the time we were at the second row, a mistake happened in his absence and left three places in the first row. Somehow people were going to correct the mistake when he came shouting them down, asking in our direction who asked them to stand up. There was something about weariness, plus his harsh manners, that made me cranky. My voice must had been a notch higher, piqued by his impolite behavior, as I was trying to explain to him that we asked those in front to fill up the unoccupied places. The verification stopped when he asked me to step out because he was fuming and I refused to back down. He said I was rude and couldn’t say “simple” sorry and I told him I wasn’t going to apologize because I had done nothing wrong. But somehow we made up and I eventually apologized.

What happened would have been a case of mere misunderstanding but the man at the last point of verification looked at my call-up letter and called me Nzube. Odd, because he couldn’t pronounce the name right and Nzube is my second name, which I’m not used to. He asked what tribe and state I was from and I said Igbo and Enugu. Then he looked at me and said, “You’re Nnamdi Kanu’s brother? And that is why you quarreled with that man?” I stared at him for some seconds, unable to reply. Then I shook off the dumbness and told him that Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of IPOB, and I were both Igbo but weren’t brothers.

He was smiling but I felt harassed. To think he’d lumped Nnamdi Kanu and me together in a malicious judgment, intentionally neglecting our individualities. This was a man who couldn’t hold down his prejudice, assuming that I had to belong to the group of Igbo people agitating for Biafra just because I’m Igbo, hanging the weight of ethnic consciousness on an otherwise common misunderstanding. I had forgotten the tension between the south and the north for a brief moment, but here was a grim reminder that beneath the orderliness of the camp was a brittle coexistence.

An Igbo was the hall governor in my hostel with a northern deputy. The Igbo boys were most articulate, seeming to dominate their spaces even without being consciously committed to that purpose. A pronounced living is almost genetic for the Igbo, something they carry from various family cells. It is risky for the insensitive ones. Most of the northern boys were unanimously quiet to the point that one could easily mistake them as timorous. The challenge was that some Igbo boys took them for granted and some of them had a general misjudgment of the Igbo.

Some of my Igbo roommates didn’t mind saying things that were provocative to a Muslim or a northerner, even when our northern roommates were there lying on their bunks. Those who applied for redeployment were open about their reasons: not because of the weather or health conditions, but because they couldn’t live with northerners or Muslims. I could place the historical and current legitimacy of their insecurity because I shared in it, whether or not I chose to build my life around it. But there was disgust in their voices the day they returned from church and said they couldn’t serve as priests in the north, because the priest who had celebrated mass told them that some local governments in Kano had only one parish. I told them that I knew of only one mosque in Anambra State—the one in Onitsha Main Market, which was recently sold. It was ridiculous that they would expect to see many churches in a place that is predominantly Muslim. Making them understand why they shouldn’t say certain things about the north and Islam was difficult; they either didn’t know that words could be provocative or just didn’t mind it.

The first day on the parade ground was like a circus came to town; military officers trying to break civility from a bunch of clumsy, funny looking youths in white clothes and matching white shoes, donning the service visor hats. While they were drilling us, I was thinking of making Muslim friends and talking Islam. But it wasn’t until way into the period of our camping that I made my first Muslim friend—Zainab. Beautiful Zainab, with a sweet Arab accent, a clear fair skin, a tiny voice, and a nose so tapering I always teased her about opening tins with her nose. She was a devoted Muslim and had an unusual mind, an unbending honesty about her feelings and thoughts. The things she said showed she had an unapologetic idea of the supremacy of Islam and the Fulani/Hausa race, but it was obvious her idea was childlike, an understanding of the world that was handed down to her, which she exercised because she had known nothing else. It made the off-putting things she said rather amusing.

On the first day we really had a conversation, she looked at me and said, “Igbo people are wicked. And our elders have asked your people to leave the north.” It was a blow I didn’t expect, but I rather felt pity for her; I knew she was only repeating something she’d heard over time. Then I told her she was expressing a stereotype and she didn’t know what a stereotype was.

“If one Igbo person, or a group of Igbo, does something wicked, it doesn’t mean every Igbo person is wicked. Just like all Muslims can’t be terrorists because Boko Haram members claim to be Muslims. You should learn to say ‘this person’ instead of ‘this people’.”

I was the first Igbo friend she’d had, and when she told me she felt bad after the Muslims and Christians in Kaduna were segregated, that before the segregation, her family would go over to celebrate Christmas with their neighbors, just as the neighbors would join in their Islamic celebrations, I thought of some of her unflattering statements and wondered how such antithesis could exist in one person. Later, during a phone conversation, I would remind her of what she’d said about Igbo and she said, “That was what we were told. But I met you and you changed my thinking. When I came home, I told my sister I met a southerner and he was really cool.” We talked Islam but our memorable conversations were when we talked national issues.

Every time I think of Zainab, even of another friend, Bello—the sadness on his face when he lamented the insecurity of the many Igbo who applied for relocation, as if their insecurity was an unfair treatment of the north—I became surer of the need for unguided conversations to happen. The problem of Nigeria has reached the level where youths have become insensitive and unaware. A culture of silence is entrenched in the consciousness of the nation and this is drowning the country. Twenty-one days in camp, with every region of the country represented, and nothing was said about the main challenges haunting the country, no effort to encourage conversations. There was the Orientation Broadcasting Service which only read news, made announcements, and hosted shout-outs. Parties were hosted and everyone was forced by the soldiers to attend. Pageantry was conducted, dancing, drama, and cooking competitions, carnival, a debate that featured insignificant topics, plus the variety nights when Fast and Furious 8 was shown. The whole thing felt like a scheme designed to circumvent the main cause.

The national youth service was an item in the Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, and Reconstruction program initiated in 1973 by Gen. Yakubu Gowon as a way of rebuilding a country scourged by a civil war. The NYSC Act states that the program runs “with a view of”:

  1. The proper encouragement and development of common ties among the Nigerian youth.
  2. The promotion of national unity.
  3. Development of Nigerian youth and Nigeria into a great and dynamic economy.

There was hardly an activity on camp to cause these goals to happen; corps members passed out with a vague idea of why they spent three weeks within a regimented, walled space. The reason is that the camping was all about social activities and parade, long winded lectures in a crammed hall and unequipped Skill Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development programs; that is before corps members passed out to become cheap labor for both private and public sectors.

The camp was run efficiently. Corps members were treated with respect, soldiers were checked against abuse; but there were no interactive sessions for corps members to discuss the nation and our history.

The systematic elimination of voices is the reason Nigeria may not work. We hasten to smother our history whenever the unanswered questions about it come up, the same thing we do to all of our problems. Nobody speaks of the civil war—things that happened before, leading up to the war, things that happened during the 31 months of incessant killings, and things that happened after. No lessons to learn from it. The north and other parts of Nigeria are still angry with Igbo, Igbo is still smarting from the war, with some foolhardy enough to speak of being ready for another clash. Some topics are taboo; Biafra, IPOB, Igbophobia, the tottering presidency, Fulani herdsmen, the economic recession, or the truth that Nigeria is a mismatch of people who are steadfast in their hate for one another. Press releases and national conferences are faux, the citizens are the ones who matter; the common people need to talk about their prejudices, stereotypes, fears, grievances, hurt. Nigerians need to talk dirty. The Hausa/Fulani think of the Igbo as an insubordinate junior, the Igbo disregards the Hausa/Fulani as unworthy of their place, Hausa/Fulani/Igbo are united in their suspicion of the Yoruba, fickle and undulating in allegiance, the minorities are too small to matter. And we are a people on a mission to build a greater, united Nigeria.

Being in NYSC orientation camp was like looking at Nigeria up close through a microscope; all the attention was on the things that didn’t matter. We would rather live false than true, nobody cared.

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