AUN: An Oasis of Hope, By Louis Okoroma

There is no doubt that given the way and manner the University is marching on, it will surely realise and advance on the vision of its founder as a development university successfully finding solutions to the developmental challenges of North-East Nigeria, in particular, and the rest of Africa, in general.

The word ‘oasis’ and what it is associated with brings to mind a desert or wasteland of sand, unending sand and extreme heat in the day and chilling cold at night. A desert is unfriendly and uninhabitable, with the oasis coming in to provide some succour. In the well-known deserts of the world, if the oasis is big enough, some semblance of life usually springs up around it because essentially the oasis is an isolated body of water and sparse vegetation, in a vast wasteland of sand.

The North-East region of Nigeria in the view of development experts and economists, is among the backward parts of West Africa and indeed the world because of the poor statistics on human development. Before now, like other parts of the North of Nigeria, the North-East region was characterised by high levels of illiteracy, poor educational facilities, high numbers of young people – including children who are out of school or who would not complete school, high unemployment, high maternal and infant mortality due to poor health services, low industrialisation and prevalence of subsistence agriculture and the threat of desertification!

Today, however, insecurity and the activities of the dreaded Boko Haram terrorists have further dealt a devastating blow to the developmental aspirations of the people, with the result being the United Nations estimate that about two million of the population of the area have been displaced due to the activities of the terrorists.

Before the government of President Muhammadu Buhari degraded the Boko Haram from a fighting force that appropriated large swathes of the country’s territory in the North-East, insecurity had uprooted most of the population in the region notably in the States of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Today, the UN estimates that millions of Nigerians in this region face starvation because agriculture and food production, as well as a ordered life, as we know it, have been dislocated by the activities of the Boko Haram before the coming of Buhari’s government.

However, it is in this desert of despair that a son of one of the struggling states, Atiku Abubakar, who is a former vice president of Nigeria, from Adamawa State; a home boy in spirit but cosmopolitan in outlook and a leading entrepreneur, established an institution of higher learning, the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in his home town of Yola, capital of Adamawa State. He conceived of AUN as a development university that would combine the normal liberal studies for which tertiary institutions are known, with the practical endeavour of community development and service, and thereby transform and impact on the people and environment where it is located.

Since 2004, when this model development university started to admit students, the AUN has grown like into an oak and not only is it transforming and impacting on Adamawa State and its neighbours, it is also providing the much-needed and desired succour and hope, like the oasis, for souls lost or about to be lost in the desert.

The AUN held its 2017 commencement or graduation ceremony from May 11, 2017 to the May 13, 2017. One thing that stands out about the young University is that it has continued to make progress, while impacting and transforming the North-East region, in keeping with the vision of its founder. Also, its international character is growing and consolidating as students’ and faculty from different parts of the World keep knocking on its gate to gain entrance.

Being a development university means that students are exposed to the real challenges in the country and the community and gain the knowledge and skills to develop sustainable solutions to these. Most American universities wrestle with how best to design programmes of study that address global problems and engage their students in community work. It is the same at AUN. Using the North-East region and its problems as a model, the management, staff and students of the university are encouraged and assisted to find solutions to problems confronting developing communities in Africa.

In its thirteen (13) years of existence, the AUN has been confronted with a number of challenges that tasked its reputation as a development university, and like the oasis of hope that it is, it has not disappointed.

The first of these problems are poverty, unemployment and hunger among the majority of the population of Adamawa State and its environs. The school has dealt with this problem by providing employment to hundreds of Adamawa State indigenes and those from neighbouring states in different cadres. It is hard to see any family in Adamawa State without one of its members in the employment of the University! Likewise, Nigerians of all nationalities have found employment and means of livelihood working in the University. The AUN has also combatted hunger through its community programmes. It has supported agriculture among the indigenes and those displaced by terrorist activity by making seedlings and farming spaces available, in collaboration with local authorities, while its staff and students have volunteered to teach modern farming and cooperatives to the people. In alliance with international donors and NGOs, it distributes food on a regular basis to refugees who fled the Boko Haram and organises, on a regular basis, skill acquisition programmes for women and youth in the region.

To further consolidate its position as a development university, the AUN has made it a duty to teach its students and the hundreds of people in the North-East who knock at its gates daily, how to fish so that they can be independent and self-reliant. Towards this end, this model university teaches, encourages, supports and invests in entrepreneurship and job creation schemes. Entrepreneurship in theory and practice is an important subject of study in the university. As attested to by many speakers and students at the just concluded 2017 commencement ceremony of the school, many of its graduates are already CEOs of their own businesses, creating jobs and hitting the million naira mark in profits!

Another serious problem with consequences for the development aspirations of the North-East region is the high level of illiteracy in the region and the inability of many men, women and children, as well as the almajiri population of young boys, to read. The illiteracy rate in the region is about 77 percent!

The University designed and implemented development courses teaching reading. With the help of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), AUN is implementing Technology Enhanced Learning for All (TELA), an educational project to teach over 22, 000 vulnerable children in the immediate community, basic literacy and numeracy skills. Using mobile apps in the local languages developed by its Computer Science students and faculty, and radio programmes written and produced by its multimedia students, and pedagogy designed by one of its professors in education, hundreds of students and five faculty of the University are teaching thousands of children to read and count.

In the case of the almajiri boys, the launch of the building where they are fed and taught to read was one of the highlights of the 2017 commencement ceremony of the University. The launch was performed on behalf of the AUN founder, Atiku Abubakar by the interim president of the University, Professor Le Gene Quesenberry on May 11, 2017. During interaction with some of the almajiri boys on the programme, I was struck by the eagerness of the boys to learn and be different and was further impressed by the proud way the boys displayed what they had already learnt in reading, spelling and counting! These were boys who when they came to the centre, practically knew nothing and were shy, according to their instructors.

The programme to teach reading to the almajiri boys, was launched in early 2015 under the Feed and Read for Boys. This programme was later expanded to include boys displaced and orphaned by the Boko Haram insurgency, who appeared at the gates of the University looking forlorn and despondent and in need of help. In late 2015, a Feed and Read Programme for Girls was started with a grant from the Irish government. This programme took away young orphan girls displaced by Boko Haram who were begging from the streets of Yola.

A third problem is the conflict inspired by religious differences and suspicion, which often led to clashes and violence between communities and people of different faiths.

The AUN took up the challenge, especially during the stewardship of its immediate past president, Professor Margee Ensign. The AUN reached out to Christian and Islamic religious leaders, community leaders and traditional rulers and created a platform for conflict resolution and dialogue, known as the Adamawa Peace Initiative (API).

Under the watch of the AUN-API, Adamawa State has enjoyed peace and stability, as issues capable of causing violence among the people are discussed in the API and amicable settlement is reached.

Indeed, the AUN, the oasis of hope in the development-starved North-East of Nigeria has been providing the much-needed water to quench the thirst of the people through its community development and entrepreneurship programmes. The vision of a restless, practical and productive mind, the University was founded to promote progress and human dignity and to give meaning to the belief of the founder that, “an individual’s success is deemed to be of little value if it does not lead to the success of others in the family, clan or community.”

There is no doubt that given the way and manner the University is marching on, it will surely realise and advance on the vision of its founder as a development university successfully finding solutions to the developmental challenges of North-East Nigeria, in particular, and the rest of Africa, in general.

Louis Okoroma, a public affairs analyst was recently in Yola, Adamawa State.