School a Beacon of Hope in Nigeria

At a university in Yola, graduates offer a glimpse of a promising future in a strife-torn region.

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Graduates at the May 11 commencement ceremony at the American University of Nigeria (Facebook)

(The Root) -- Whenever northern Nigeria has been in the news in recent months, the stories are usually about killings and kidnappings by Boko Haram -- a radical Islamist insurgency group that has killed some 2,000 people and kidnapped others in the region since its emergence in 2002. The slayings included several people killed during a bank robbery in Yola, a tiny village in the region.

The group's aim is to create an Islamic state. Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, has just declared a state of emergency there and in two other areas, and the Nigerian military has met violence with violence, drawing criticisms for what some see as unnecessary brutality. This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there were “credible allegations” of human-rights violations committed by Nigerian security forces.

Boko Haram means "Western education is sacrilege," so when I was invited to come to Yola to give the graduation address at the American University of Nigeria, or AUN, it was with some trepidation that I considered whether or not to accept, even though there have been no attacks on Westerners or Western interests, except for one suicide bombing of the United Nations compound in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Although I had been to Nigeria many times over the years on various reporting assignments, I had never heard of Yola or the American University. I had heard of Boko Haram.

Prepping Nigeria's Future Leaders

But the invitation came with a brief five-year history of the university and its goals: arming future leaders of Nigeria with the kind of education that will enable them to contribute to the development of the country. And it was the belief of the founder, Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy Nigerian who grew up in Yola, that the best preparation for achieving those goals was a Western-style education that grounded students in the liberal arts.

He has explained that his commitment to that kind of education arose from his own education under the British system at the dawn of Nigerian independence, when he had British teachers who always said, "Repeat after me" and slapped his hand when he didn't. Later he came in contact with U.S. Peace Corps teachers who asked his opinion and showed him the value of critical thinking. (The Peace Corps honored him in 2011 for starting AUN. The plaque says that he has done more than any other businessman to support higher education. He also just endowed a Peace Corps speakers series.)

The university board -- whose members come from the United States, Nigeria and other countries -- helps guide the institution and its three schools: Arts and Sciences, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Information Technology & Communications.

Community Service a Key Priority

In its five years of existence, AUN has graduated some 1,250 students from around the continent, most having been on some degree of financial aid, since many are from poor families and are the first in their families to go to college. Those under age 30 who graduate must do a year of community service.