Unending controversy over NYSC dress code

The sacking of two corps members in Ebonyi state for refusing to wear trousers has sparked a flurry of reactions. SAMSON BENJAMIN in this report examined the correctness or otherwise of their action.

Two members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Okafor Love Obianuju with registration and Odji Oritsetsolaye, who were supposed to be currently undergoing their three-week orientation course for the 2019 Batch C Stream 1 in Ebonyi state, were sent packing from the orientation camp.

The corps members were sacked for refusing to wear trousers. Blueprint Weekend learnt that the duo refused to wear trousers because it was against their faith and as such preferred to wear skirts.

The spokesperson of the NYSC in the state, Ngozi Ukwuoma, disclosed this in a press statement on Saturday stating that that they were caught by the camp director, Mrs Isu Josephine, and her team during routine inspection.

“When they were accosted and interrogated, they disclosed that they could not wear the white shorts and the trousers given to them by the NYSC since it was against their faith.

“Efforts were, however, made by the office of the Camp Director to make them see reason why they must obey the rules and regulations guiding the orientation and NYSC, but all efforts to do that proved futile

“The corps members were queried and subsequently made to face the camp court where they were found guilty,” she said.

 Infringement on freedom of religion

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, a legal practitioner Barrister Silas Maji described the action of NYSC as a breach of the freedom of worship of the corps members as guaranteed by the Constitution.

He said: “In law and morality, the action of those stopping those ladies from participating in the one year compulsory national service is wrong. Undoubtedly, the freedom to practise any religion in Nigeria is guarantee and circumscribed in Section 38 (1) of 1999 Constitution as amended.

“It states: ‘Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

 “By the virtue of this section, it is crystal clear that their rights to practice their desired religion is guarantee under the law and as such, are entitled to dress in ways that portray their faith.”

Speaking further he said, “Furthermore, in my opinion, the constitution guarantees the rights of all religions’ adherents to practice their religions in the best way as stipulated by the tenets of their religions. Section (1) of the 1999 Constitution further goes to declared itself to be supreme and above any other law and enactment. Sub-section (1) states that ‘this Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on the authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“Also, by the virtue of the supremacy of the Constitution, Section 38 of the Constitution, Sub-section (1) and (3), states that, ‘If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.

“Consequently, the regulation laid down by NYSC contravenes the provisions of the Constitution and as such, it is null and void.”

Action divides Nigerians

Meanwhile, other respondents, who spoke with our correspondent, expressed divergent opinion on the issue. For a fashion designer, Regina Okon, said the ladies were unjustly treated because of their faith.

“I am not surprised that this single act will promote them to a life where integrity and honesty are needed. Ignorant people can be making noise because they don’t understand what it is to be obedient to the supreme authority.

“I once heard of two girls who were allowed to wear skirts unchallenged in Sokoto state during their NYSC, why must we treat ours differently? This is a question of faith. I also believe this won’t happen if they were to have been Muslims. It is a paradox of religion that what was supposed to be an instrument of peace has become a weapon of confusion.

“In Nigeria, concerned authorities are not helping matters. Sometime ago, a similar resistance over hijab came up and the affected person had her way. Now it is the turn of some other persons with a different faith and the world is watching,” she said.

Religion not excuse

However, an IT expert Maxwell Daniel said religion is not an excuse for disobeying constituted authority, noting: “I think they rather should not participate if their belief does not agree with ethics and code of conducts of NYSC. It is absolutely wrong to allow personal, religious, ethnic or any other cultural sacrosanct to modify a unified institutional ethics purportedly created by secular laws.

“What of if traditional believers decide also to wear masquerade dress? They should go home. It is about time we stopped using religion as an avenue to disrespect constituted authority. They were aware of the NYSC uniform even as students.

“If their faith was against wearing those uniforms, they should not have bothered coming for the programme. They should have applied for exemption based on religious grounds,” he said.

CAN faults NYSC

However, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) faulted the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Speaking on the dismissal of the ladies in an interview with a national daily, the Special Assistant on Media and Communications to the CAN President, Rev. Adebayo Oladeji, said the corps members should not be victimised for holding their faith.

Urging the NYSC to be more tolerant he said: “The fundamental rights of the people as regards religion must be respected.

“And that is why, a few months ago, when some Muslim women were protesting over the wearing of hijab at the Law School, we refused to speak against it because it is their right and thank God, they won it. We are appealing to the leadership of the NYSC to revisit the matter.

“In this country, religious right is an inalienable right that must be respected. They must allow the people to practise their religion.

“If our government agencies have no regard for the way people worship God, then it means they are satanic. Any system that does not respect religion is satanic.”

Oladeji urged the affected corps members to go to court, citing how Firdaus Amasa sued the Nigerian Law School in 2017 when she was prevented from being called to bar because she refused to remove her hijab.

MURIC backs CAN

Similarly, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), an Islamic human rights organization, has declared support for CAN.

MURIC leader, Professor Ishaq Akintola, in a statement on Tuesday, November 12, said those expelled have the right to satisfy their conscience regarding what to wear and what not to wear in public.

“There is freedom of religion in the Nigerian Constitution and NYSC is flagrantly violating Section 38 (i) and (ii) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. NYSC is behaving like the notorious Gestapo. It is time to liberalise”, it said.

“It is not just a religious matter. Morality is involved here. NYSC seeks to destroy our norms and values. Our sons and daughters who were trained in good Christian and Muslim homes are stripped nude when they go for NYSC. This is unacceptable. Something must be done urgently if this is the mission of NYSC.

“It is absolutely wrong to force our daughters to appear in short knickers in public. It is against strict Christian and Islamic teachings. It is also an assault on the dignity of their human persons. They feel humiliated. It is a big shame. NYSC is flagrantly infringing the Nigerian constitution.

“NYSC was introduced to instil patriotism and discipline in Nigerian youth. But what kind of discipline can NYSC instil in corps members if the female members are instructed to wear atrociously short knickers that expose sensitive parts of their anatomy to prying eyes? This is a direct way of encouraging immorality and corruption.

“We invite CAN to join us in the fight against corruption and immorality. We can stop moral debauchery in Nigeria if we can all come together. Greed, avarice, massive accumulation of wealth and criminality will reduce drastically if Christian and Muslim leaders speak with one voice against all vices. This is better for Nigeria than being at logger-heads all the time.

“We commend CAN leadership for speaking out in support of the two Christian girls who wish to dress decently. Nonetheless, we call CAN’s attention to the plight of Muslim female students who are facing persecution in South Western schools on account of hijab. It is a tale of two girls.

“The Muslim girl and the Christian girl from good homes, both of them wish to dress decently. They feel assaulted if they are disallowed from doing so and they are both prepared to face the repercussion for challenging the status quo.

“We call on the new director general of the NYSC to intervene in the issue of the two Christian girls expelled in Ebonyi. Those two girls should be recalled. We also advise the new NYSC leadership to set the machinery in motion for a review of the NYSC dress code in line with the issues raised by religious groups,” the statement read in part.

Sack followed due process

However, the leadership of NYSC has insisted that it followed due process in the sack of the two corps members from the orientation camp state.

The Ebonyi State Coordinator of the NYSC, Mrs Ann Ibe, while speaking with journalists in Abakaliki, pointed out that the scheme relied on various sections of its bye-laws to carry out its decision. She said the NYSC decision action to de-kit the two corps members was based on due process.

According to the NYSC boss, the corps members were queried for flouting Schedule 1 Article 3 (b) (ix) of the NYSC Bye-Laws 1993.

The article, she added, deals with code of conduct of corps members especially as it relates to the mode of dressing.

She explained that, Schedule 1, Article 3 of the bye-laws states: “Every member shall observe the following code of conduct during the period for which the code relates.

“It further states in (b) (ix): That during the orientation course, every member shall wear the various uniforms provided for activities,” She said.

Mrs Ibe further stressed that the bye-laws also stipulated punishment for offenders in Schedule 2, Article 1(I) (a).

The said Schedule 2, Article (I) (a) states that “Failure to wear the uniform provided for any particular activity, the corps member should be informed to go and wear the uniform, failing which he or she will be decamped.”

She noted that the two corps members were decamped in line with the recommendations of the NYSC Camp Court, stating that the court was the Corps Disciplinary Committee which handled cases that arose in the camp.

“The Court considered their cases and gave them the opportunity to defend themselves for not being properly kitted in line with service regulations which includes undertaking to keep to the rules and regulations of the scheme.

“They were properly defended by a corps lawyer and at the end, the court found them guilty and recommended they be decamped and de-kitted.

“Though they were de-kitted and decamped in line with the bye-laws of the NYSC, the matter has been forwarded to the headquarters of the scheme for final determination and necessary action,” she said.

Dress code maintains decency

Meanwhile, the Director-General of NYSC, Shuaibu Ibrahim, has expressed concern over the recent controversy on the dress code for corps members.

He said NYSC prevents female corps members from wearing skirts in orientation camps to avoid indecency during training and other activities.

He noted that its dress code since May 1973 had been maintained and not tied to “ethnic, religious or gender bias.”

The scheme boss explained that it was inappropriate for female corps members to embark on obstacle crossing, and other training activities on camp wearing skirts as this will “obviously expose her indecently, thus, leaving little or nothing to the imagination.”

Ibrahim in a press statement by the NYSC Director of Press and Public Relations, Mrs Adenike Adeyemi, on Monday, November 11, said: “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 dress code remains, depending on the activity; a pair of khaki trousers and shirt; crested vest; white vest; a pair of white shorts; a pair of zebra-striped socks; a pair of jungle boots; a pair of canvas; belt and fez cap.

“It is imperative to state that the NYSC, predicated on discipline and decency, is a training ground for corps members. Any other dress code, contrary to the officially sanctioned one will not promote the course of decency.

“It is apt to state that the NYSC does not issue hijab as part of the dress code. 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,” he said.

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