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.

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

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.

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.

“We’re an entirely eBook community, all on iPads,” Ensign says, “and we’re introducing that same technology to a very poor community.”

“I would like to show the world that this technology can be used anywhere and can really allow people to leapfrog the challenges of poverty and illiteracy,” she adds.

AUN’s infrastructure is utilized by young Nigerians (and, increasingly, Rwandans, Ugandans, and Cameroonians) who are eager to pursue a liberal arts education. Like most American universities, undergraduate students study a diverse range of courses for two years, then focus on one field for their remaining two years. The campus is also home to a graduate program and a K-12 school – and a small army.

“When I was recruited for this position, like many, I was quite skeptical and worried about coming to Nigeria,” says Ensign.

Even though she feels at home now, Ensign says she faces constant, atypical challenges. Last week, there was a boa constrictor on campus.

“We had to deal with the local snake charmer,” Ensign says. She adds that in northern Nigeria, a big snake is a small challenge compared with “a terrorist organization about 100 miles from the university.”

The charmer got rid of the snake. A 350-person security force is there for the rest.

The security force, one-third of whom are women, are there to protect the 1,400 students and 90 or so faculty from Boko Haram, an Islamist group labeled as a terrorist group by the US government.

Ensign wouldn’t speak to specific threats from Boko Haram, instead saying the security force is there as a precautionary measure. She says students do not live under the constant threat of violence.

The international press, including Latitude News, has widely reported that Boko Haram literally means, “Western education is forbidden.” But Ensign claims even locals who speak the language don’t know what the phrase means.

“It’s much more complicated than it’s been portrayed in the West,” she says. “Everyone from the BBC to Al Jazeera has gotten it wrong.”

As Latitude News has reported, Boko Haram’s rise is the result of complex ethnic, social, and political causes. In 2012, the group’s attacks have grown bolder, and the Nigerian government has had little success in thwarting the movement. In July of this year, the militant Islamist group took the lives of five people.

The State Department recently issued a travel ban that prevents its diplomats in Nigeria from visiting the north where the university is located.

Boko Haram’s existence, Ensign says, means her No. 1 goal is to keep students and faculty safe. Those students seem to have good prospects once they graduate – with an economic growth rate of about7  percent, fueled by oil exports, Nigeria was the fifth fastest-growing economy in sub-Saharan African in 2011, according to the World Bank’s most recent Global Economic Prospects Report.

As Nigeria’s economy booms, the fortified campus will keep Google’s map glowing.

This article originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world.

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