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Nigeria's lesson for America: civil service

Its youth service is a promising way to strengthen social bonds.

By Walter Rodgers / June 19, 2009

Oakton, Va.

Americans rarely look to Africa for inspiration or example, but given President Obama's efforts to ramp up civil service at home, a closer look at Nigeria's mandatory National Youth Service Corps is instructive. It points to an undeniable record of accomplishment in West Africa on one largely unreported front.

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Conceived in 1973, in the aftermath of Nigeria's civil war that killed more than 1 million people, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was created by General Yakubu Gowon to bind the nation's deep wounds and forge more than 250 tribes into one nation.

More than three decades later, and despite grievous management problems, I could not find anyone in Nigeria who wants to scrap the NYSC. In close to 40 interviews with female and male veterans of the program, each endorsed it, although their responses ranged from the begrudging to the enthusiastic.

"Things would be a lot worse without it," said Oni Adewole, a political reporter for a TV network. "It dissolves stereotypes.... Every Nigerian government over [the past] 30 years embraced it."

At the very least, Nigerians in the program learn to talk to one another and juggle countless regional dialects.

America's divisions are not as great as Nigeria's, but our nation's social fabric does appear to be fraying from such strains as illegal immigration and the culture wars. A greatly expanded service corps could help restitch it.

Mr. Obama's plans are already taking shape in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which the president signed into law in April. Among other provisions, the act aims to triple the number of AmeriCorps volunteers. Obama links greater service to both a "new era of responsibility" and a reinvigorated "American dream."

Nigeria's youth-service program had an even more ambitious goal. The National Youth Service Corps has largely reintegrated Africa's most populous country, bonding many disparate tribes and peoples, and forging one nation. This is no small accomplishment, considering a population that is 50 percent Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and 10 percent animist.

Today, despite clashes between guerrilla rebels and the Nigerian Army in the southern, oil-rich Delta region, words such as "secession" and "civil war" do not seem to be on anyone's lips. The NYSC "is a good glue that holds this country together," said Tosin Alagbe who works in the IT sector.

Marching orders for Nigeria's university graduates to go live in the most primitive rural areas still engender some unease, however. Things become tense when some Christians draftees are sent to live in the north's overwhelmingly Muslim cities, such as Kano.

TV anchorman Onimizi Adaza shared those apprehensions. He dreaded the Saharan heat, the desert, and the dust, as well as "hostile conservative Muslims who keep to themselves." But as his year in service passed, the scales fell from his eyes, and he concluded, "They weren't bad as a people. I still keep in touch with one friend up there."