To some Nigerian youth, it is the newest way to gainful employment in service —the symbol of career opportunity in a society beset by acute joblessness, even among university graduates.
To existing government agencies, though, it is an irritant scheming to make inroads into insufficient public coffers while also exploiting the forlorn situation of the jobless youth to swindle them.
A host of existing law enforcement agencies led by the police and the State Security Service loathe the Nigerian Peace Corps, and they won’t stop at just that; they would also do all they can to ensure it is not registered.
Like the security agencies, other government paraastatals like the electoral commission, INEC, and the Head of Service also opposed the legalisation of the Peace Corps.
But Nigerian lawmakers, who remain optimistic about the group’s potentials — especially in the area of job creation— are standing with its promoters.
On February 28, the Nigerian Army, police and the SSS in a coordinated mission stormed the Peace Corps’ head office in Abuja, arresting its founder, Dickson Akoh, and other national leaders while shutting the facility down.
The next day, the police paraded Mr. Akoh and his officials, 49 in total, and accused them of running an outlawed organisation with intent to perpetrate fraud and jeopardise national security.
The police said a 2013 “official gazette” of the Nigerian government “dissolved and proscribed illegal security outfits” which included the Peace Corps.
Mr. Akoh, who heads the Peace Corps as its national commandant, and his officials were later released, but their office remained shut nationwide. He was, however, rearrested on Sunday.
Last week, authorities slammed a 90-count charge of recruitment scam, money laundering and impersonation to the tune of N1.4 billion on the Mr. Akoh and his comrades.
The incident came amid intense efforts by the Nigerian parliament to complete final adjustments to the harmonised version of the Nigerian Peace Corps Bill and dispatch it to the executive for assent.
The Nigerian Peace Corps was established in 1994 by Mr. Akoh, a former Nigerian Army cadet officer; and he ran it for four years until 1998 when he formally registered it as a non-governmental organisation.
Amongst the objectives of the organisation were capacity building for youth creativity and intervention; capacity building for youth development and empowerment in agriculture; and peace education and conflict resolution.
According to documents from the Office of the National Security Adviser, Mr. Akoh originally named his group Nigerian Leadership and Marshall Corps when he first floated it in 1994.
In the ensuing years, Mr. Akoh, 43, gave his group different names until he finally settled on the Nigerian Peace Corps in 1998.
Soon afterwards, Mr. Akoh began mobilising the youth for different paramilitary missions across the country.
Today, the organisation said it has no fewer than 113,000 regular officers and volunteers scattered across its formations in the 36 states of the federation and Abuja.
The group targets Nigerians in the 18-35 age bracket.
Mr. Akoh said he is promoting the Peace Corps to create employment for the Nigerian youth who will “promote the culture of peace” by providing community service and neighbourhood watch for nation building.
His drive has earned him immense popularity among many Nigerian youth, especially the unemployed or underemployed graduates.
“Three years ago, I graduated from the University of Ilorin, which is amongst the best-run universities in this country, yet I haven’t been able to get a job,” Adeola Ogunsemowo told PREMIUM TIMES Saturday.
Mr. Ogunsemowo, 28, said he stumbled on a forum on the Internet where his contemporaries were highlighting the exploits of the Peace Corps and he became sold on the idea.
“I was completely blown away,” Mr. Ogunsemowo said. “I saw their website and saw the activities of the organisation and immediately registered with them.”
He said he received training from the Corps’ facility in Agege, Lagos, in 2016 and had since been issued a certificate.
“I’m someone who has always been fascinated by community service,” he said. “Now, I’ll be getting paid to do what I love.”
OPPOSITION TO PEACE CORPS
Before the latest raid and closure of its facilities, the Peace Corps has been having a run in with existing law enforcement agencies regularly over the past 15 years.
In 2003, for instance, the SSS launched a nationwide crackdown on the group and shut down its operations for about four years, according to Mr. Akoh in this 2011 interview with Nigerian Tribune.
Shortly after the group resumed activities in 2007, the SSS moved against members of the Corps again, prompting a civil lawsuit that had remained stalled in the courts, according to court documents.
The Peace Corps said it had won at least 11 cases against different security agencies over the past 15 years. The police will neither confirm nor deny this assertion.
Apart from the police and the SSS, some ministries, departments and agencies also opposed the Nigerian Peace Corps Bill when it was still at the committee level in the parliament.
The Head of Service of the Federation, Independent National Electoral Commission, National Security Adviser, Ministry of Interior and the Federal Ministry of Health all submitted their respective memoranda, warning lawmakers not to legalise the group.
Each of the agencies listed specific reasons for objecting to legislative backing for the Peace Corps.
In its submission to the House Committee that handled the Peace Corps Bill, the Head of Service, HoS, reminded the lawmakers of the country’s already bloated public service.
The office said several government agencies with similar mandates as Peace Corps already exist and listed the Ministry of Youth Development and Ministry of Employment, Labour and Productivity and Ministry of Environment as examples.
Other existing agencies include: Ministry of Education, Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, National Orientation Agency, National Poverty Eradication Programme and, National Directorate of Employment. The list is far from being exhausted, the HoS said.
Consequently, the HoS urged lawmakers to consider “the implications of the proposed creation of Nigerian Peace Corps on the cost of governance and duplication of duties of existing agencies.”
The Peace Corps Bill also said the group would deploy personnel for election registration duties, provide orderlies for parliamentarians, judges and members of the executive. Other activities include: Creation and management of toilets in local government areas and checking all forms of examination malpractices.
The Ministry of Interior and INEC found all these functions, and others as clear instances of duplication of duties, unnecessary and, in some cases, unconstitutional.
INEC said it remained the sole body with constitutional powers to deploy personnel for elections, either permanent or ad-hoc officials.
The police in their memoranda listed all the duties delegated to the Peace Corps by the National Assembly and provided names of existing government agencies currently undertaking them.
The police concluded that the Peace Corps, “from all intent and purposes, will undertake overlapping functions and with existing law enforcement agencies.”
The Office of the National Security Adviser described the Peace Corps as “a carefully calibrated programme to attract attention, secure recognition and, therefore, patronage by politicians.”
A lawmaker, Adams Jagaba, however, dismissed claims that lawmakers received or were looking forward to receiving any gratification for passing the bill.
The SSS, in its submission, accused Mr. Akoh and his officials of employment racketeering.
“There’s no gainsaying the fact that huge sums of money these youth are ripped off go to line the pockets of the promoters of this organisation,” the secret police said in its submission to Mr. Jagaba’s committee, adding that Mr. Akoh should be allowed to continue running his group as strictly an NGO.
Mr. Ogunsemowo admitted that he paid to join the Peace Corps, but noted that he didn’t find it suspicious.
“I paid,” Mr. Ogunsemowo said. “But everyone else also did and we received three weeks’ training.”
Mr. Akoh acknowledged taking N40,000 from prospective members of his group in an exchange with PREMIUM TIMES in January, but denied allegations of fraud.
“The ICPC has investigated us in 2004 and established that the money is going towards training materials and we’re not extorting money from the youth,” Mr. Akoh said.
Nigerians comfortable with Mr. Akoh’s mission largely dismissed the allegations against him, saying he was being persecuted and that his situation is no different from what promoters of the National Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, experienced decades ago.
DARLING OF LAWMAKERS
Despite the opposition by the various agencies, Nigerian lawmakers passed the Peace Corps Bill.
However, both before and after its passage, the Peace Corps has been a darling of many public officials, particularly lawmakers.
In recent years, the group held several events that drew many top administration officials and senators.
Last June, the Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, was a guest of Mr. Akoh at the 18th anniversary of the Corps.
Its end-of-the-year party on December 21 attracted senators and House of Representative members, including Usman Nafada, Dino Melaye and Mr. Jagaba.
Mr. Nafada, who reportedly represented Senate President Bukola Saraki at the event, described the passage of the Peace Corps bill one of the best legislative actions last year.
Mr. Jagaba, Chairman of the House Committee on Interior, said the Peace Corps holds so many potentials for the country’s teeming youth.
“There are so many things that they will do for this country in the near future, . “I understanding they will participate in different emergency situations.”
When asked why his committee brushed all the submissions of existing agencies aside, Mr. Adams said the Peace Corps activities will focus more on helping communities reeling from natural or man-made disaster.
“If a community is hit by an emergency, people will rush there to support them initially,” Mr. Jagaba said. “But after a while, they’ll leave.”
“The Peace Corps will select members from its national database and deploy them to such community and help them cope with the rebuilding phase.”
But critics accuse lawmakers of duplicity.
“It’s quite plausible that they’re pushing to give federal backing to the Peace Corps so they can secure job slots and give to their cronies and constituents,” public affairs analyst, Chris Ngwodo, said.
The analyst said giving federal backing to the Peace Corps could prove disastrous to national security in the long run.
“A private individual created an NGO and because of intense lobbying lawmakers want to transform it into a government entity.
“This could be disastrous for our national security however you look at it,” he said.
Mr. Ngwodo urged lawmakers to focus on enhancing the capacity of existing agencies rather than creating another one that is “highly unnecessary and of no use.
“I see Peace Corps as absolutely waste of time, waste of resources and even national security threat.”
“We should focus on modernising the police rather than creating paramilitary forces all over the place.
“The police are already cannibalised with the creation of EFCC and NSCDC,” Mr. Ngwodo said.
Like the Peace Corps, the civil defence prior to its legalisation also received a lot of antagonism from established security agencies.
Ultimately, President Olusegun Obasanjo successfully liaised with the parliament to craft a legislation and the NSCDC Act has been in effect since 2003.
Officials and supporters believe the Peace Corps is deliberately being victimised, a charge the police deny.
“The Peace Corps is not the only group we’re clamping down on,” police spokesperson, Jimoh Moshood, spoke on Saturday. “Other illegal groups like the Nigerian Maritime Security Agency and the Nigerian Merchant Navy Corps were also shut down and their promoters will face the law.”
Mr. Moshood said his office has received “enormous complaints” from the public about the activities of the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps countersued the security agencies last week, seeking billions in damages.
Although President Buhari is yet to state his position on the Peace Corps Bill, young graduates like Mr. Ogunsemowo are hoping his assent will give them a career head start.
“Or it could turn out to be some people’s meal ticket from the shrivelling national cake,” Mr. Ngwodo said.