The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) is in the news again, but for the wrong reasons. This time, it is making the headlines for covertly imposing the practice of Islamic Sharia law on corps members at the just-concluded orientation in Abuja.
The dust being raised by the development is on account of the fact that Abuja is not one of the states in Nigeria where Sharia is practiced. As centre of unity, where different ethnic and religious groups converge, it is taken that no religion should be imposed on anybody, not even corps members.
Until 1999, Sharia laws were alien to Nigeria, at least officially. It was instituted as a main body of civil and criminal laws in nine Muslim-majority states and in some parts of four other states in 1999, when ex-governor Ahmed Sani Yerima of Zamfara State began the push for the institution of Sharia.
Some equally argued that as implemented in the North, Sharia violates the Constitution of Nigeria. Nevertheless, the laws gained prominence in the core northern states after 1999.
When the news first filtered in that corps members at the Abuja orientation camp, who concluded their exercise last Wednesday were grumbling over the introduction of Sharia practice, many residents dismissed it as fake news.
The man at the centre of the controvercy happens to be the FCT coordinator of NYSC, Mallam Bello Ballama.
In accordance with Islamic laws, there was a ban on the sale of alcohol and open socialisation between female and male corps members in the camp.
Under the arrangement, the NYSC introduced separate lines for female and male corps members in the Kubwa camp of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Ballama was alleged to have said: “It is sinful for him as a Muslim to head a camp where alcohol is sold.”
The doubts were dismissed last Wednesday, when the chairman of the NYSC board, Mr. Oladimeji Hassan, gave reasons at the closing of the 2018 Batch ‘A’ Orientation Course in Abuja, for the introduction of Sharia laws.
He disclosed that the NYSC decided “to stop the sale of alcohol during the mandatory three-week orientation camp in the FCT to enable corps members perform optimally.
“When you go for camp, maybe you are a footballer, or a sports person, within that period you are in camp, there are some rules, which you have to follow.
Look at the rigours they are going through, some of them will do Man O’ War and by the time you drink and you get weak you cannot participate.
“Anything that will not give them maximum performance we do not encourage. For the three weeks, everybody should be disciplined.
It is not an issue of banning it; it is an issue of regulation. Any regulation you give in camp must be followed.”
Some corps members who spoke to Daily Sun, called on the relevant authorities to investigate the practice and put a stop to it.
Because of the sensitivity of the issue and the fear that they could be victimised, the corps members spoke to our correspondents on the condition of anonymity.
“We saw the early signs as soon as we got into the camp the first day,” a female corps member said.
“As soon as we got into the camp, officials and security agents told us to maintain different lines during registration.
At first, we thought it was a joke, until it was announced that male and female corps members should not be seen together.
“When it was time to eat, we maintained separate lines. It was a taboo to be seen with somebody of the opposite cex. Those who flouted the rule were punished.
During parades, male and female corps members were barred from staying on the same line. They were very strict about it.
“Things got really scary when we were told that alcohol had been banned in the camp. They threatened that anyone who dared to smuggle it in would be dismissed from the camp.
Throughout the three-week period, no one sold alcohol. I have never seen such a thing in a place like Abuja, where everybody is not a Muslim.
“It got to a point that members started deserting the camp. Many people got gate passes and left the camp until the last day. For someone like me, I did not even get to interact with any boy because we were barred from doing that. If this does not stop, it will send a wrong signal that Nigeria is now a Sharia country.”
A male corps member from Jos, Plateau State, narrated a similar experience. He said they were frequently threatened with expulsion by officials of the camp, not to be seen with female corps members:
“I am 23 years old and I am old enough to decide what I want. I take alcohol, but moderately. I am not gay and I like women. I could not talk to female corps members because I was told it was against Sharia laws, even though I am not a Muslim.”
Reacting, the NYSC management, in a press statement, said it “views this allegation very seriously and wishes to state that there is nothing like introduction of Sharia practice in any NYSC orientation camp including the FCT Camp.
“However, management wishes to state that the scheme runs a prototype policy in all NYSC orientation camps nationwide. The camps are coordinated with a uniform timetable. There is also freedom of worship for both Muslim and Christian corps members.
“On the issue of restriction of socialisation of male and female corps members, this again negates the whole essence of the scheme as it is not possible for any camp management to stop the social integration of corps members in an orientation camp.
For the avoidance of doubt, corps members are grouped into platoons and it comprises both male and female and they carry out all camp activities together.
“The general public and especially serving corps members should disregard the issue of introduction of Sharia in FCT or any other orientation camp nationwide.”