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A modern, wired university grows in Nigeria

The American University of Nigeria provides a modern education right in the backyard of Boko Haram, Nigeria's homegrown terrorist group. One clue: The campus claims 55 percent of all the Internet traffic in Nigeria.

By Jack RodolicoLatitude News / August 6, 2012

Two students focus on their work in a laboratory on the campus of the American University of Nigeria.

Courtesy of American University of Nigeria

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It’s tough to get an Internet connection in northern Nigeria. That’s why Google was surprised to see – on their user map, where they track the locations of people Googling around the world – a big bright dot of activity in the Nigerian city of Yola, right on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.

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Nigeria has 170 million people, the most populous country in Africa and 7th largest in the world. But Yola has fewer than 100,000 people, and is close to the home of the Boko Haram terrorist group.

So when Google sent a team out to Nigeria last fall to figure out who was doing all that Googling, the California-based company was surprised to find a scene right out of an American college campus. In fact, they sort of did stumble on an American university – the American University of Nigeria (AUN).

RELATED: What is Nigeria's Boko Haram? 5 things to know

According to AUN’s president, American Margee Ensign, Google was pleasantly surprised to find the campus.

“Google told us we were 55 percent of their traffic in the whole country,” Ensign says.

Latitude News caught up with Ensign as she was traveling from California to Nigeria. During a brief layover in Belgium, Ensign talked about what it meant to be an “American-style” university in a country associated in many people’s minds with spammers and Boko Haram.

AUN is the youngest American-style university abroad. The American University of Beirut was founded when Andrew Johnson was president in 1866. The American University in Bulgaria was founded in 1991, shortly after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. These schools, along with their counterparts in Rome, Cairo and the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, offer a liberal arts education – easy to come by in the US, but not so in other parts of the world.
 

AUN does not have an explicit connection with these other universities, although it has received critical support from American University in Washington DC. The Nigerian school, which opened its doors to students in 2005, was the brainchild of Nigeria’s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who credits the Peace Corps for inspiring him to found the school.

As a child, Abubakar was orphaned in a town near Yola, right around the time Nigeria gained independence from Britain.

“[Abubakar] had American Peace Corps teachers and British teachers,” Ensign says. “He has said to me and others the British teachers slapped his hands and said, ‘Repeat after me,’ and the Peace Corps teachers actually asked his opinion.”

Ensign says Abubakar’s fortune ”is coming to the university.”

By Nigerian standards, the university is a hub for technology and infrastructure. Ensign says the campus is home to the largest building in northern Nigeria, and is the country’s only university with electricity around the clock. Students get laptops and have wireless, another unusual feature at a Nigerian university.

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