Despite being at the centre of the country’s most impoverished region, Africa’s first development university is a testament to the power of vision in making a dent in the global arena, writes Solomon Elusoji
On May 13, the American University of Nigeria (AUN) conferred undergraduate degrees on the 102 students from its Class of 2017. The ceremony, which was held inside the school’s Lamido Aliyu Musdafa Commencement Hall, a commodious space that doubles as an indoor sports centre, was graced by hundreds of visitors from across the world.
AUN, which is located in Yola, a city 800 kilometres North-east of Abuja, is Africa’s first development university and tasks itself with producing students who are capable of solving the problems of the continent. Its new set of graduates come from different countries in Africa, including South Africa, Cameroon and Uganda.
A highlight of the commencement was the story of the class valedictorian: Ms. Immaculata Onuigbo, an indigene of Ngwo in Enugu-North Local Government Area of Enugu State who was admitted into the school in the Fall of 2012, majoring in Petroleum Chemistry.
Immaculata was a precocious kid. Immediately after her primary school, she won a Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation scholarship to study at the AUN Academy, where she spent the next six years. “I had great teachers who made learning easy,” she said. “I am very proud to have graduated from the AUN Academy.”
Upon her graduation, she was offered another scholarship to study at AUN and she took it with aplomb, graduating with a CGPA of 3.98 on a scale of four. “I was lucky to have chosen something that I enjoy doing,” she said of her success, “studying is hard, so what makes it easier is if you enjoy what you are studying. That was actually what helped me to keep the passion burning.”
But, for a while, she didn’t know what she wanted to do after leaving the university. However, her involvement in AUN’s Honour Society, an association of academically outstanding students who serve both as role models and academic tutors, helped her discover her love for teaching. “It gives me a special kind of happiness when I teach people,” she told THISDAY. Now, she dreams of becoming a university professor.
Two days before May 13, commencement festivities had been kicked off with a Honour Society Awards Banquet, which was held on the lush lawn of the AUN Hotel, in honour of graduating Honour Society members, including Immaculata. In her speech, the outgoing president of the Society, who was also graduating, Ms. Comfort Afolabi, shared her gratitude and joy for having gone through AUN and being a part of the prestigious group. “Our quest for excellence has taken us to uncharted territories,” she said.
The next day, it was time to inaugurate a Solar Energy project and a new administration building named after one of the earliest believers in the AUN project, Dr. Jamilah Abubakar. The unique feature of the two facilities to be inaugurated was the consideration given to an environmental friendly design. This, a culture of respect for the environment, is one of the cornerstones on which AUN is built. The university’s Founder, former Nigerian Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, was on hand to personally perform the inauguration of both projects.
The Solar Energy project is a 120KVA (97.2KWp) solar panel system, built in the form of a car park, to power the university’s Akin Kekere-Ekun Administration Building. Built by Protergia Nigeria Limited, a leading renewable energy company, the system is set to reduce the university’s diesel consumption by 72,000 litres per annum, and carbon emission by 190,000kg. The project is the first of its kind in a Nigerian university and the third largest in the country. “AUN might be a young institution, but it is certainly leading Nigeria in innovation and sustainable ideas in higher education,” the university’s interim president, Professor LeGene Quesenberry, said.
Meanwhile, the second administration building, which is titled ‘Dr. Jennifer Jamila Douglas Abubakar Administration Building’ features highly efficient aluminium roof panels with PU foam insulation, exterior cladding in local mud on polystyrene board, high volume low speed fans for air circulation, 100 per cent LED lighting, state-of-the-art fireproofing, and acoustic panels made from recycled materials by local women trained and empowered at AUN’s Atiku Abubakar Centre for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Development.
In the absence of Jamila, Atiku, who also doubles as her husband, gave a short speech before the ribbons were cut. He recalled how Jamila aided his dream of starting an American-styled university in the early 2000s.
“At that time, Jamila was a doctoral student at the American University in Washington DC,” he said. “Her main project supervisor was Jim Goodman. Then, I told her, ‘I want to set up an American-styled university in Nigeria, how can you help?’ She invited Jim Goodman to dinner in our home in Washington and introduced the project to him. He was excited and took it up with the authorities of the American University, Washington.
“Thereafter, a committee was set up to visit Yola, under the leadership of the then Vice President of the American University of International Affairs, late Robert Pastor.
“While visiting Yola for the first time, he asked, ‘where is the university?’ And I pointed to the bush and he asked, ‘how will you do this?’ I said, ‘this is why I brought you here’; from there, we started work and here we are today. It is a reality, it is a dream I dreamt about 15 years ago. It continues to unfold and make history not only in Nigeria but in Africa.”
True, AUN has a penchant for history-making, trailblazing in educational standards. In 2012, Google described the university as one of the world’s leading centres of excellence. Its library, which is the first full digital library in Nigeria, has been ranked by the American Library Association as one of the top three in the world, in terms of digital holdings, ahead of Oxford and Cambridge.
After the inauguration, there was a Graduation Awards Ceremony, where students were rewarded for excellence in academics and leadership. Immaculata, the star of the night, went home with a total of seven awards, more than any other student. But she wasn’t alone; 21 other students were also rewarded. Among them was Murna Mamman, an indigene of Kaduna State who was admitted into AUN in the spring semester of 2013, majoring in Accounting. On Commencement Day, she was one of the two class speakers who thrilled the crowd with a narration of their AUN experiences. “I know that I am leaving the university stronger, wiser, and better than I was when I came in,” she said.
Mamman is an embodiment of AUN’s entrepreneurship and community service philosophy. She is a winner of the Nigerian Government’s YouWin Business grant, as Chief Executive Officer of Delish Food Processing, a business designed to process and market excellent, hygienic, dehydrated, delicious meat and vegetables for local consumption and export. The Accounting major said she was inspired to venture into business after enjoying the ENT 201 class at AUN, where she learned how to write a business plan, found confidence required of entrepreneurs, and sailed through all the four stages of YouWin.
From representing Nigeria in the Global Change Makers Worldwide – a British Council programme – to organising a peace programme for the youths, women, and children who witnessed the Jos religious crisis, Mamman is also a committed community service advocate. During her time in AUN, she paid the fees of over a hundred primary and secondary school students in the Yola metropolis. She has also footed bills of cancer patients, expanded the delivery room of Wuro Hausa Clinic and built a water system toilet attached to the labour room.
“I never knew what was community service before I came to AUN,” Mamman told THISDAY, “but from the first week of resumption, we were directed to paint a school in town. From there, I started to realise that community service was about showing love. It is an opportunity to touch lives.”
And touching lives is exactly the kind of university AUN has been designed as. From almost single-handedly leading peace talks in Adamawa during the Boko Haram crises to providing out of school children with literacy opportunities through its Feed and Read programme, it is quietly changing the complexion of Yola, a quiet city at the edges of the Sahara.
A university legend has it that when Atiku decided to establish an American-styled school in his hometown, he consulted experts and they bluntly told him that such a project was doomed to fail. Mauritius, they said, was the ideal place for Atiku to bring his dream to life. But the former Vice-President paid no heed to ‘educated’ wisdom and went ahead with his plans. At the ninth commencement ceremony, donning the red graduation robes, Atiku had a smile on his face as the students received their certificates. That could as well have been a gesture of triumph.