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Is Religious Violence In Nigeria The Whole Story?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, just in time for Halloween, a new book for kids and tweens offers some fun facts and some frights about the great ghost stories of history. That's just ahead.

But, first, we take a look at the work of building education and fostering peace in Nigeria. You might have followed the stories about an anti-Western terrorist group called Boko Haram that had been blamed for a series of deadly bombings and other assaults mainly in Northern Nigeria.

Just this weekend, in fact, at least 10 people were killed and 140 wounded after a suicide bombing and related violence in an area where Boko Haram has struck in the past. But Nigeria also has a booming economy, which some experts say is positioned to become the largest on the continent in the next decade.

Recently, we spoke with a guest who lives both of those realities every day. Margee Ensign is president of the American University Nigeria. She's working to make that institution not just a hub of learning, but also a center for conflict resolution that she hopes will be of benefit to the country and to the continent and Margee Ensign was in Washington recently and she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome. Thank you for coming.

MARGEE ENSIGN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about the university, if you would. I think some of the international universities are very well known, but this one is very new. Right? It's only eight years old?

ENSIGN: We're a relatively new university started by a man who was the former vice president of Nigeria who was orphaned at about age eight near our community and it was at the dawn of Nigerian independence, so we had two types of teachers, British teachers, who he says slapped him on the hand and would say, repeat after me. And he had American Peace Corps teachers who asked him a very important question. They said, what do you think about the issue?

And fast-forward many decades. He decided to put most of his fortune into starting this American-style university in his hometown and our mission, I believe, is different from other universities. I believe we're the first on the continent whose goal is to be a development university. We have 11 projects in the community from the Adamawa Peace Council to a literacy training project that's using technology in very unusual ways to teach children and their parents how to read. So we have our own development projects that we monitor and evaluate and our students have to work on one of those.

MARTIN: We mentioned that you're located in the north and listeners to this program will be familiar with the group Boko Haram, which has been described as a kind of a radical Islamic group with a particular hostility toward Western-style institutions and I wanted to ask if that comports with your understanding of what's happening there. Can you talk a little bit about that?

ENSIGN: I think it's a really important question and I don't think we know exactly what Boko Haram's ideology is.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, for people who aren't exactly sure what we're talking about, Boko Haram has been described as meaning, in translation, Western education is forbidden, and so that's how it's been described to us.

ENSIGN: And I believe it's terribly inaccurate and we're in the north and we're not that far from where Boko Haram supposedly is headquartered and I have to believe, if they were really opposed to Western education, we would have known by now. I believe the roots of Boko Haram are much different from that and much deeper. I believe they're related to corruption and I think that what they are after - I certainly don't agree at all with their means - is to bring attention to the issues of corruption and poverty and unemployment.

I think it's unfortunate in the U.S. every time I see the word Islam, there's always another descriptive after it, whether it's extremist or whatever. And I think we need to be really careful the way we approach, also, looking at this whole religion.

MARTIN: Well, OK. I'm going to push back on you on that. I don't know that any one person can be fully acquainted with every description of Islam and the fact is that there are groups that are Islamic radicals, just like there have been Christian radicals and radicals in every religion and there has been violence, which has been perpetuated by some of these groups, so I think we're looking, really, to understand how it's affected you and your students and how you feel it's affecting the region.

Well, one thing you can clarify for us - you're saying you haven't been a target. Because we've been told that schools, particularly Western-style institutions of learning, have been targets of this group and you have not?

ENSIGN: We have not been a target, although, you know, I'll be very frank. We have a large security apparatus, but I guess one of the things that I would like to make sure we're aware of is that one of the stories that goes unreported everywhere in the world is that there are many, many examples throughout the north and in my community of Muslims protecting Christian and Catholic churches and Christians doing the same at mosques.

MARTIN: You were saying that you hope that American University Nigeria will become a leader in addressing the conflict. Can you give us some examples of how it might already be occurring?

ENSIGN: I think the Adamawa Peace Council is turning into a group that is getting a fair amount of attention for the work it's doing to prevent conflict. Just a few examples. We have a TV show once a week called "The Peacemakers" where we really discuss these issues. We've started a newspaper called The Peacemaker and we have an early warning system where we can get to people via their cell phones if we believe there's a threat to the community.

I believe and I hope and our premise is that this will be a positive force for beginning to solve all these structural problems that we see around us.

MARTIN: If you just joined us, I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Margee Ensign. She is president of American University Nigeria and we're talking with her about the institution and also talking about religious violence in that country.

Could I ask you, why were you drawn to this work?

ENSIGN: Well, I've worked on the continent for the past decade and, when I was offered this position, I looked at how important Nigeria already is and will increasingly become to the continent and the world and I felt this was a wonderful opportunity to try to make a difference with the young people who, no doubt, will be the leaders of this very big, important country.

MARTIN: But can you just talk a little bit more about being a head of a university, being a woman, being white because this stereotype that we now have is that there is just not a lot of interest in - well, you know, African solutions to African problems are the words that we often hear and one hears that there is not a lot of interest in having, you know, non-Africans in positions of leadership, you know, at the moment. And yet you were obviously, you know, recruited for this position. I'm just interested in whether the things that we hear are, in fact, the things that you live or is it completely different?

ENSIGN: Well, I'll be really honest. My biggest challenge - and it sounds silly - is being called sir. So, every morning when I walk into campus, I always hear, good morning, sir. And it took a while to figure out why people are calling me sir and the best answer I have received is because I'm doing a man's job. So I think calling me sir gives me and them a wonderful opportunity to talk about the issues of gender and some of the other challenges that exist in the country.

MARTIN: Is there something you would particularly want an American audience to know about Nigeria that they perhaps do not know? I think it seems to me that there was probably a wide range of knowledge about the country on the one hand. There are many people who will know Nigeria simply because it is a very large country. They'll know it as an oil-rich country. They'll know it as a country with rich culture. On the other hand, they'll know it as a center of banking fraud, for example. A lot of Americans have been connected to financial scams which are believed to come from Nigeria and, of course, there was this terrible incident of the young man who attempted to bomb the airliner on Christmas day a couple of years who was recently sentenced.

So I think you've got these two very different images of the country in people's minds.

ENSIGN: Right. I think we have those images of the whole continent and I think what's missing are those stories of growth and positive development and the inspiring stories that exist on the whole continent. And I hope all of us will take a breath and take time to look at the positive stories and not just the critical ones.

MARTIN: Margee Ensign is president of the American University Nigeria. She was kind enough to join us on a visit to Washington, D.C. She stopped by our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us, madam president.

ENSIGN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.