Ensign: FG Should Make Groups With Good Knowledge of Local Communities Pivot of North-east Reconstruction Policy

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For a university founded on the core principles of learning and development, the American University of Nigeria, located in the North-east state of Adamawa, could not have found a better location. The development challenges in the zone have worsened considerably since the beginning of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, and AUN has been involved in the search for solutions. The institution recently held a graduation ceremony for 209 students in its class of 2016. President of AUN, Dr. Margee Ensign, tells Onyebuchi Ezigbo how the school has been using education to rebuild lives and livelihoods. Excerpts:

AUN is one institution that takes great in trying to transform people through a technology-driven learning system. How does the school do this?
I think it has already started actually and I think it’s fair to say we are building the Nigeria Silicon valley and it is not in Lagos, it’s in Yola. We are graduating young people who can write apps that the world is looking for. They have done it through our Technology Enhanced Learning for All (TELA) programme. They also teach thousands of children out of school. We do massive training in the city because it is not just about our students; it is about ensuring that this community has access to technology. Few days ago, we graduated 300 people in Yola, which include gardeners, farmers, drivers and you may be wondering why they will want access to technology. They do because farmers can get information about prices, where they can sell their cows and get the most money. It is really our vision not to only develop the technology but to ensure that everybody, even the poorest, have access to the world’s knowledge that is on the net. Sometimes, innovation happen in funny places, you would expect it in Lagos or any other big cities, but it is happening here.

Is your institution partnering with other state governments in the North east?
We are actually partnering with every university in Nigeria. The Vice Chancellor of the Maiduguri university and Adamawa State University were here and they said they would like to be doing what we are doing. So our teaching and training people out of school is not just on tablets but with apps and they said if we could get them through with the work books, they would do the same thing. Think about it, if we could get all the major universities in this region to do what we are doing, I believe we can wipe out illiteracy in two to three years.

Are you partnering with relevant agencies in connection with the federal government’s reconstruction agenda for the North-east?
I was asked to testify in the House Committee on IDPs last week but, unfortunately, after announcing two days of hearing, they only held one. Some of us were ready to testify but I was only allowed to submit a written statement and what I encouraged them to do is to work with actors like the AUN Adamawa Peace Initiative, who have structures now in the North-east, and local community leaders who really know who needs the help. This is not the moment for people who don’t need help to take it. It is really important that the funding from the federal government is channelled properly. The EU and US were here and we helped the UN with their NEEDS assessment. Increasingly, Adamawa Peace Initiative is seen as honest brokers and people with good local knowledge. I hope and pray that the federal government reaches out to groups like ours and even the civil society organisations. They really have lots of knowledge of the local community.

What are some of the activities the Adamawa Peace Initiative has been involved in?
It was formed in 2012 and before the insurgency got worse we had trained about 10,000 young people, elderly people, vulnerable people on information technology, literacy, women entrepreneurship. We were building this programme when the IDPs started to come into Yola. At the height of the insurgency, we were feeding every week 276,263 people. For 18 months, that is all we did. Now, we are able to get back to some other important projects and the really important one is that we have begun reconciliation efforts. Communities have asked us to come and get people back together because in past, neighbours were against neighbours. We were in Michika recently working with religious leaders, women, children in school who were calling themselves hate names and making hate speeches and it could be the beginning of things starting again.

We have done reconciliation work. Last week, the US government reached out to me to know if I would assist the state government in delivering 100,000 seeds to vulnerable people in the North-east. It will be done in weeks because the rains have started. They want to use us because they trust us to identify the vulnerable people. Members of the AUN can say, in this community, here are the 20 families who have nothing and so on. Once the seeds come in, we are in charge of giving them to the right people. I think that is a very effective use of our peace initiative.

Do you have a target in terms development in Adamawa State and, indeed, the North-east?
First of all, let’s think of how this university was started by His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar, who came here to Yola. He had American Peace Corp teachers here and he started thinking, American education is different, it is focused on problem solving. People ask, why Yola? Of course, it should be here. It is a developing university and this is where it belongs, this is where the challenges are the greatest. So, we are very proud to be here and there is no doubt, we are making a huge impact. If you look at the economic impact of this university, $100 million is pumped into this region yearly. Who else is doing that with the people we employ? We buy from this community to build these building, the contract you see coming are all local. So the economic impact is huge. The social impact is also huge. We have trained a lot of people and we are right now training 750 women to have income of their own, to generate their own income through the Waste to Wealth programme.

The educational impact is also huge and I know the peacemakers kept alive 300,000 people because no one was here. Government was not here, the international community hadn’t responded. I think these last four years have defined what it means to be a developing university. What is most important is that our students are out there, delivering food, teaching people how to read, teaching women how to have income and producing projects to keep their families going. There is much ahead. We are going to be using technology even more now as we go forward, not only in training people. We are getting ready to set up some incubators, that is how Silicon Valley did it and our best students will get some prizes to keep going here and to keep generating these great applications and so on.

I think the future is very bright but it is really important you understand that none of this would have happened without His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar. He keeps the institution running, he pays the salaries, he keeps the light on. This is not about politics; this is about a man who is the biggest philanthropist in higher education in the world. There is no one contributing more to higher education. What he does is extraordinary.

How are the rescued Chibok girls you accommodated here?
Guess who sang the national anthems, I didn’t tell you, that was them. Those beautiful young women on the stage sang the anthems. They formed a singing group. They are extraordinary; they are excelling in their academics, the fact that they have the confidence to stand in front of 4,000 people to sing the national anthem shows that they are doing well and we have 27 of them with us out of the 58 that escaped.

What do you think is wrong with Nigerian education system?
I think what is important is the demographics. Nigeria is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Nigeria’s population is at 180 million now. Do you know where the population will be in the next 26 years? Just double it and that will make Nigeria 360 million. How are you going to educate those kids? It is really important that your policy makers think about it because the other piece of statistics that is really unfortunate is that you have more children out of school than any other country in the world. You have 14 million and now with the insurgency, two million more.

Do you think you have time to do it the traditional way? That is what the policymakers are saying. They are saying you should build schools, train teachers but the fact is that many of the children in schools now don’t get an education that will prepare them to have an income or prepare them to be productive citizens of the country. I really believe there is only one way to do it and that is technology and that is why we are pioneering the use of technology in Yola and the North-east. The solution for Nigeria’s rapidly growing population and for education is technology. We can do it well, it is not the second best solution, I think if we do it well, Nigeria will leapfrog. If we don’t do it in the traditional way, we are going to teach these kids how to learn by accessing information, by having critical thinking skills to evaluate things and they will be the model for the world. But we are not there yet because we don’t have approval to do those things and that is why someone needs to shakeup the people at the top really hard.

What kind of approval are you seeking?
No university in Nigeria right now can do distance learning programmes but the rest of the world are doing it. I would love to have the approval to offer this education in a blended format in every major city in this country so that people can learn both online and in person. The research shows that it is the best way to do it. It is not the second best solution to use technology but the best but the policy makers are not there yet. The distance learning programme will be at all levels if approved. We have a programme called Feed and Read. It is the children on the street who are learning how to read, half of them are listening to radio while half are on tablet computers. The schools are like this and this is why the US government said I should do it all over the region because the kids learn in months.

With the programme, the children read well, they have confidence and that is how you are going to change Nigeria quickly and you must do it quickly because you don’t have a lot of time and if you don’t educate the two million who are out of school in the North-east plus the 14 million who are already out of school, you are going to have social unrest for a very long time. These people must have education, they must learn how to have income, they must learn new skills. We are basically doing model projects in Yola and it will scale them up to the North-east and then they can go anywhere in the country.

The needed approvals may have legal implications. Do you have synergy with representatives of the people in the National Assembly who can help to push for the approvals?
I do and the Senate asked me to put together a document and I think the Senate hearing will be in a few weeks’ time.

What is your dream for AUN in the nearest future?
My dream is that our students who have learnt begin to solve problems on a grander scale. I hope that we can take on lack of educational access in other states. I also hope that we get more external funding to expand our work. When our School of Law opens in August, it will be the first in Nigeria to be focused on gender, environment and humanitarian law. Those students will go out from our legal clinic and provide legal advice to prisoners, to those who have been charged, to those who don’t have any legal recourse. I just see us growing and expanding and my hope and dream is for us to have a medical school.

What are some of the challenges you face?
We don’t look on them as challenges. I have to say that when I looked out of the door in 2014 and this city doubled in population and we had so many hungry people at the gate, we had employees saying 20 people were living with them and a driver even had up to 50 people. It was at the help of His Excellency who said, do not let anyone in Yola go hungry because the truth is, the international communities were not here then. No one was here, and people started coming to AUN. That was a moment to take a very deep breath and say, how can we feed these people. We came together with community leaders, religious leaders, women and we raised money.

The founder gave us money, the US gave us a little hope and we were able to feed those people for 18 months because once we began, we could not stop. They didn’t go to the camps; they stayed in the university community, which is what kept them alive. We were very poor but we still kept those people alive for 18 months. It was a scary few months and as time got closer, we kept this university going because I felt as long as we could do it, then it wasn’t a threat and we will not walk out the door because if we do, then they (insurgents) will win and then we will shut down the major university. I am really proud of everybody who is here. Also, we learned a lot and we really transformed from this process and our students are the best reflection of AUN.