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.
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."
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.
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.