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Northern Nigeria University On Edge After Violence


We turn now to northern Nigeria where more than 50 teachers and students have been killed in terrorist attacks just in the last month. The group known as Boko Haram, which loosely means Western education is forbidden, is allegedly responsible for these, as well as previous attacks on churches and government institutions. The leader of the extremist Islamist sect has said he fully supports the attacks and has called for more targeting of schools.

The government has declared a state of emergency in three states in northern Nigeria. We wanted to learn more about how educators in this area are dealing with this threat, as well as the challenges of operating in a state of emergency. So we were lucky to reach Margee Ensign.

She's president of the American University of Nigeria. And we caught up with her on a visit to Washington. She's with us now. Welcome back, I should say, 'cause you've been with us before to talk about these issues. Thank you for joining us once again.

PRESIDENT MARGEE ENSIGN: Thanks so much for having me back.

MARTIN: How are educators reacting to this? I mean, this was a horrific experience. I mean, we understand that more than 20 students at one school were shot and burned alive. So how are educators reacting to this? Are you all talking to each other about this?

ENSIGN: We're talking as much as we can. The communication blackout that has just been lifted has made it extremely difficult to talk to anyone.

MARTIN: A video released last weekend showed the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, saying that they will kill teachers who teach Western education. Have you heard those threats communicated in that way before, in quite so blunt a fashion before?

ENSIGN: I saw the video, and no, to be honest, that is the first time that I have seen him and any representative of Boko Haram be quite that direct about their goals. As we've talked about before, it's a really amorphous organization without a clear structure, with obviously not a clear understanding as - you know, who these people are, and we've all had some questions about their ideology and goals.

MARTIN: 'Cause when you were last with this and we asked about this, you said that you did not believe that the translation that many of us have been using - Western education is forbidden, is quite accurate. I mean...

ENSIGN: ...I still don't think that's a completely accurate translation, but clearly the group is beginning to identify more with that ideology and approach. And while there has been some confusion as to who did burn that school down, it seems from this last communique from him, that they were directly involved.

MARTIN: What do you understand - or have they ever communicated with the educators in the area about exactly what their objections are?

ENSIGN: No, none of us, fortunately, have received direct communication from them. And I think it's probably difficult for people in the West to really have a clear understanding of what's going on. Of course, when the state of emergency was announced on May 14th, it made everything much more difficult. 'Cause it wasn't just a curfew that was put into place. They cut cell service. And for three days we lost Internet service at the university, which meant we were completely cut off. That's been, you know, restored.

And last weekend, at least for now, we have cell service again. Of course, we do have very strong security services, and the head of my security at the university is in constant touch with the military, who've take over the state, essentially, as well as the police. But we have a constant dialogue with the military, so we probably have a better understanding of the current events than others. That doesn't mean that we have a clear understanding of Boko Haram. And as I said, it's a diffused group - no clear chain of command, so it's really difficult to understand who they are and what they're after.

MARTIN: Could you talk about what it's like though to function in a state of emergency as an educator - not just responsible for running a school but for ensuring the safety of the students who you're charged with? I mean, the students live there, don't they, by in large...

ENSIGN: ...Absolutely...

MARTIN: ...It's a boarding environment...

ENSIGN: ...We've got about total...

MARTIN: ...Is school in session, by the way?

ENSIGN: ...We're in our second summer session, so at the moment we're in our slowest period. But when we're in full session we've got about 2,800 people associated with the university, including our primary school and our secondary school. This didn't just happen overnight, there's been a slow gradual build up to it. So checkpoints have been in place for over a year. So you begin to get used to an environment where you drive a little bit and you're stopped.

The improvement, with the state of emergency, is the military is more professional than the local police. The local police tend to harass folks and ask for bribes, and so - and the military's quite professional. So I wouldn't say at all it's become easier with the state of emergency. What was particularly difficult is when they first announced it, and I admit we were completely surprised. May 11th, we had a graduation with over 4,000 people, four ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador, who wouldn't travel anywhere if security was an issue. Three days later, they announced the state of emergency. The state I'm in, Adamawa, has had a history of being a place of great peace and harmony.

We're one of the few places in the North, especially the city we're in, in Yola, that's half Christian and half Muslim. And you and I have talked about the Adamawa Peace Counsel that represents all those communities. So we were all very surprised that we were on the list. The official explanation was that the two states to the north of us, that are also in the state of emergency, once the military began pushing Boko Haram out of those states, there was a concern they'd come in to Adamawa.

That said, it was a huge challenge at the beginning, 'cause the curfew at the beginning started at 5 p.m. And how many 16, 17, and 18-year-olds can you keep on a campus from 5 p.m. on? So we did, in first week, had students who just didn't take it very seriously and were ready to be arrested. And either my security head or I would get a call, we've got one of your students, you know, come get him before we put him in jail. So the university, since it is such a major actor in the area, was able to continue to function at emergency levels and that's where we are now.

MARTIN: How can I ask about this - I think that sometimes there's an impression, particularly at this distance, you hear about these numbers, it becomes kind of background noise and people forget. I mean, I think - you know, I think, even though you were not living here at the time, how traumatic the shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut was in December.

I mean, it was a national trauma. I don't think I'm overstating the case. Fifty students and teachers killed on the course of a month, in one of a series of attacks. I mean, I think the impression that people may have is - are people getting used to this? Or is this as traumatic as it seems from a distance?

ENSIGN: No, it's horrifying. It's horrifying. And that's how people are reacting. There's great fear now as to whether or not the state can control this. I think we're almost at that point. But let's put it in context, let's agree it's a horrifying series of events and completely unacceptable. Any reasonable person agrees with that. But Nigeria is a huge country - 36 states, and three are in this state of emergency, so I wouldn't say that all of Nigeria is in a crisis.

But this crisis has raised, you know, very great concerns about governance, about the ability of the state to provide security, which is the most basic provision that a state can provide. So part of the challenge in this environment, and what Boko Haram originally was responding to in 2000, 2001, when it was formed, was a political crisis and a crisis of poverty. So we continue to try to respond in a way where we're making a positive contribution to development, and through the peace council, to keeping our area safe.

MARTIN: Speaking of the peace council - in the time that we have left, I think that you were telling us that they recently had a town hall meeting to talk about the current crisis. How did that go?

ENSIGN: It was really pretty extraordinary. We have a television station associated more and more with the university in our town. And working with them, we brought all the community leaders, about 50 people, to campus. And did what was apparently, for the north, the first town hall TV show. It went for two-and-a-half hours. And we had different panels - people talking about what the state of emergency meant to them. And some things you forget when you're so worried.

You forget that small business people are being put out of business when there's a curfew at five or six in the evening. How difficult it is when people have health crises. So it was really a wonderful opportunity to hear from community leaders, not just the concerns, but what, again, the peace council could do to begin to, you know, easing some of the challenges that people are facing.

MARTIN: Were there concerns that surprised you, of which you had been unaware? That you would want to bring people's attention to?

ENSIGN: I think it was really the economic ones. Because when you're so focused on peace and security, you forget people have to make a living. And if they can't, then this breeds and feeds into the whole crisis that we're facing.

And just the difficulty that people had - you know, one woman who was there was getting ready to deliver a baby. And she was so worried about - what's going to happen if I don't make it to the hospital. So sometimes you forget the individual challenges that people have when you're faced with a more regional-wide challenge.

MARTIN: Margee Ensign is the president of the American University of Nigeria, which is in Adamawa state. And we caught up with her on a visit to Washington, D.C. Madame President, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

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