Nigeria's lesson for America: civil service
Its youth service is a promising way to strengthen social bonds.
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The year-long service stint often leads to marriages, many of them intertribal. If young Nigerians meet and marry during this period, the Abuja government reportedly pays them a $600-plus bonus. That's in the same ballpark as a year's earnings for the average Nigerian.Skip to next paragraph
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Across Nigeria, university and polytechnic college graduates are inducted for three weeks of boot camp and then sent out on entry-level, minimum-wage jobs. Many of them, especially women, are ordered to fill an almost catastrophic shortage of instructors in public schools. Men are assigned to everything from working in a bank to garbage collection.
Unlike the old US Selective Service system, there are almost no exemptions and no escape. It's next to impossible to get a job here without a certificate of NYSC service, though some crafty Nigerians find ways to beat the system.
Some "draftees" bribe their bosses to get a month off. Others work to defeat the purpose of the program, manipulating the system so they don't have to live in the boondocks for a year.
To hear Nigerians tell it, the worst part of the program is the three-week boot camp. Ms. Alagbe said the food is "horrible." Others told of camp administrators buying food for themselves with federal funds and feeding inedible leftover scraps to hapless enrollees. In some overcrowded camps, sanitary facilities amounted to trees in nearby forests. "I never knew there were so many flies," TV editor Eghaboh Ilenwu recalls with a visible shiver.
The women suffer most. Sexual harassment and assault are not uncommon. Victoria Eworo, a mother and former teacher, faced unwelcome sexual advances from her boot camp commander. Resisting his advances resulted in her being assigned to teach at an outpost. She said there is no record of any NYSC administrators being prosecuted for sexual assault on female draftees. "It is a 'he said, she said,' situation," Ms. Eworo said ruefully.
When I asked one young man what he would counsel his daughter before sending her to the NYSC program, he replied, "Beware of the wolves. Teach her to say 'no.' "
Despite the horror stories, everyone with whom I spoke supported the program. Nearly all of them said it desperately needed reform. "Most of the administrators are just political hacks. Some made off with salaries we were supposed to receive," said one graduate who wished to remain anonymous.
In reality, Nigeria's program is not all that dissimilar to the role of the army in Israel, where all men and women are drafted with the distinct goal of fusing the fractious elements in that society into a cohesive national social bond.
At a time when cultural and political discourse in the United States has taken on ugly overtones, a greatly expanded domestic civilian service corps might serve the same unifying purpose as the military draft of years past, in which the great American leveler was the barracks sergeant.
It might teach Americans the meaning of tolerance and – who knows? – Americans might just learn what it means to be American again.
Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.