YOLA, Nigeria–Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President of Nigeria and founder of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), deliberately built his school in Yola, one of the country’s poorest towns, to foster growth and development.
As part of a new project for peace, AUN volunteers present locals with opportunities for growth in an effort to counteract extremism in Nigeria, particularly in the northeast.
Abubakar built his university on the contentious soil in order to address the fallout of Boko Haram aggression. He was inspired to bring AUN to Yola after noticing the glaring lack of opportunity presented to people fleeing conflict in cities like Bama and Maiduguri.
The goal of this community outreach program is to position AUN as a development university. The basic tenets of its AUN-Adawama Peace Initiative (AUN-API) address extremism from the ground up. Participants aim to promote peace by prioritizing food security and giving young people access to education and employment.
As AUN President Margee Ensign explained in a piece for BBC News, “Our goals are simple: educate and feed as many people as possible.” The latter issue was addressed by transforming local Muslim and Catholic centers into feeding stations.
By the beginning of 2016, these stations had already fed upwards of 300 thousand people in Yola. The effort sprung from a place of profound need.
A report by Action Against Hunger states that 617 thousand children in northeastern Nigeria suffer from acute malnutrition. The relationship between poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and unemployment is very much cyclical.
According to Unite for Sight, “It has been shown that damage from malnourishment in early life…disadvantages individuals in their adult years.”
When those escaping extremism in Nigeria are met with full plates, they are afforded the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. Along with staggering malnutrition rates, however, there is the issue of primary school enrollment.
According to UNICEF, 4.7 million children of primary school age are not enrolled. As is the case with hunger, lack of access to primary education is particularly problematic in northeastern Nigeria.
It is this lack of growth and development that AUN-API aims to stop in its tracks. Volunteers offer a non-militarized, education-based alternative that approaches extremism in Nigeria as being a symptom of poverty.
To better understand the motivation behind this approach, it is important to consider how ordinary people become perpetrators of extraordinary violence.
According to the Journal of Moral Education, psychologist Albert Bandura said, “People do not operate as autonomous moral agents, impervious to the social realities in which they are enmeshed.” Extremism does not exist in a vacuum of violence.
It grows where poverty, abuse and disproportionate power are unchecked by hope, he added. That is the reality with which Nigerians have been confronted in recent years in light of Boko Haram occupation.
Although they face oppression under such regimes, young people — and particularly young men — often gravitate toward extremist groups in a last-ditch effort to find stability in unstable nations.
“It requires conducive social conditions, rather than monstrous people, to produce atrocious deeds,” Bandura writes. By remedying the social conditions that perpetuate extremism in Nigeria, AUN-API breaks the cycle of violence that springs from poverty and hopelessness.
By bringing together educators, students, religious leaders and young people fleeing violence, representatives present people with the tools they need not only to survive but to find an option other than an atrocity. Program leaders hear from participants time and time again that their work is the last line of defense against extremism in Nigeria. Young men struggling to find their place in an unstable region flock to AUN to avoid terror’s trap.
“It is either you or Boko Haram,” is a common sentiment among participants.
Because leaders have kept meticulous records of all participants, they can say with certainty that no young people with whom they have worked have joined terror organizations.
This nation continues to fight an uphill battle. The presence of extremism in Nigeria still lingers overhead, feeding off the cycle of poverty that keeps so many children hungry and uneducated.
For that reason, AUN-API has the potential to lay important groundwork for similar programs nationwide. While the impact of extremism is often swift and devastating, reciprocity may not be the wisest approach to counterterrorism.
Abubakar and his team are now working with 500 young people in Yola, and they hope to enroll 2,000 more by 2017. Incremental changes put forth by institutions like AUN chip away at the foundation of extremism instead of simply blowing off the roof.
– Madeline Distasio