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Nigeria's lesson for America: civil service

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

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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.


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