Nigerians defy terror to keep learning

By Margee Ensign
President, American University of Nigeria, Yola

image copyrightReuters
image captionA woman at a protest in Abuja over the abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram

The abduction by Boko Haram of schoolgirls has focused attention on the threat to education in north-eastern Nigeria.

What's it like to keep teaching during a state of emergency? The president of a university and group of schools describes the urgent need to protect education.

"I need to leave early today," said the imam. We were in an urgent meeting called to deal with the increasing violence in our region. "I have to pick up my girls from your tutoring programme."

I live in north-eastern Nigeria. The emergency is the terrorism of the Boko Haram whose recent kidnapping of girl students with the threat to sell them into slavery has rocked the world.

The man worried about his daughters, our local imam, now feared being late picking up his own girls from our after-school English and maths programme.

In the two states north of us, nearly 300 girls have been kidnapped.

Nigeria abductions

image copyrightAFP

But the international media and the world are missing other perspectives. First, this level of violence and other atrocities has been going on for over a year. Mothers, fathers, and children have been murdered, the survivors living in terror and despair.

Recently I went with a peace initiative established by our university to deal with the increasing violence, to take relief supplies north to Nigerians displaced by the rampage. Women told us how their sons and husbands had been murdered by Boko Haram, their villages burned to the ground. How would their orphaned children survive?

image copyrightAUN
image captionThis weekend's graduation ceremony went ahead as planned

The peace project, the Adamawa Peace Initiative (API), is an interfaith attempt to reduce violence and build peace in Adamawa state, one of the three states under emergency rule, where thousands of displaced people are now living as refugees.

The second thing missing from the raging international discussion is that, at least in our own community and the communities we serve with our literacy projects, all families want education - for their girls and their boys.

We represent western education in the north-eastern part of Nigeria. The American University of Nigeria, which opened in 2005, was founded by the country's former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, who had American Peace corps teachers as a young man and learned the value of an American education.

As well as a university, there is a nursery, primary and secondary school. It is based in Yola, capital of Adamawa state.

It is easy to imagine from press reports that all is violence and chaos in my region. It is not. We take precautions, of course. We obey the curfew.

Security guards

Our university has hired and trained its own security force of more than 500 women and men. The guards can get an education too if they want - and they look after two campuses, the schools and housing units.

image copyrightAUN
image captionThe university was founded by a former vice-president of Nigeria

But just this weekend we held our annual graduation ceremony attended by over 4,000 of people from all over the world, with the speaker, John Simon, a former US ambassador to the African Union and White House staffer. Just as usual.

The valedictorian, Lotana Nwosu, and class speaker, Odera Okakpu, were women. They spoke of how their university experience had showed them the challenges facing Nigeria and how they could begin to tackle the country's problems.

We also dedicated our new state-of-the-art library, which has been internationally recognised for its pioneering efforts to create the finest e-library in Africa. Life goes on.

For us, security comes from not only our security force, but our development and peace programmes in our community.

'Unity teams'

Recently, I had an eye-opening experience at one our projects, which teaches local women entrepreneurship skills to generate some income here in one of the poorest places on earth.

image copyrightOther
image captionParents want their children to have a modern education

I met with about 80 women in the program, held in a school without a roof and with only a dirt floor. How is your entrepreneurship training going; what are you learning, I asked. Their answer surprised me. They had decided against entrepreneurship training, they said.

They wanted to learn English, Nigeria's official language, so that they could read to their children. In modern education, they knew, lay the only hope for the future.

Last month the Adamawa Peace Initiative held an open meeting on our campus with about 50 members of the "Peace through Sports Initiative." These are youth with some education but no jobs.

About half have dropped out of secondary or high school and over 10% have not completed primary (or elementary) school. None are employed. These are just the type of vulnerable youth so often targeted to join Boko Haram and other terrorist groups.

To get them involved and invested in the community, the university's Peace Council has created 32 football and volleyball teams where these young men and women, boys and girls, play in tournaments year round on the university campus.

Many of the teams are called "unity teams", teams deliberately constructed to have youths of both faiths and different ethnic groups training and playing with each other.

Illiteracy and unpaid teachers

The sports project gives the unemployed youth some direction and a constructive outlet for their energy, while the Adamawa Peace Initiative requires that they go through a peace curriculum, focused on building understanding and tolerance.

At the meeting these young people asked pointed and thoughtful questions: "Nothing can move forward in society without peace - how can we contribute?" asked Daniel.

image copyrightAP
image captionA rally in support of the abducted schoolgirls in Abuja this week

A very soft-spoken young man asked the local bishop, Peter Makanto and the imam, Dauda Bello (both members of the Adamawa Peace Initiative) to spread their message of inter-faith harmony, but louder. Young Mohammed asked me how he could get access to our educational programmes.

A survey of male and female members of our Peace Through Sports Initiative is instructive - education was the top priority. Educational levels, especially in the north where we are located, are very low. In Adamawa state, where the university is based, recent data shows that over 75% of the youth are illiterate.

Maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world, educational attainment the lowest. Primary school teachers have not been paid in 18 months.

The youths here face a future where they see little hope of ever having a job in a region that has no reliable electricity; no reliable safe running water, perched on the southern edge of the advancing Sahara. Nigeria is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Its population doubles every 25-30 years.

Already Africa's most populous country, it will be the third largest country in the world in about 30 years. There is a whole generation of young Nigerians without a future, and they are almost beyond our reach. If we can't find a way to help them, violence bred of despair and hopelessness will become their answer and outlet.

The youth in Nigeria are beginning to speak - some with violence. They attract attention. But others are also speaking. The question is, is anyone listening to this plea for western education, for training, for reform, for help?

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