WASHINGTON - In the year since Boko Haram terrorists abducted more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls, security has been an overriding concern for Margee Ensign.
She leads the American University of Nigeria, the African continent’s only Western-style educational institution, located in Adamawa state in the country’s besieged northeast. And she knows the extremist Islamist group, blamed for thousands of deaths in the region since 2009, opposes any Western influence – especially in education.
"Our primary responsibility is making sure the students and the community stay safe," Ensign told Vincent Makori, host of VOA’s “Africa 54,” during taping of the program Thursday in Washington.
Providing a foundation
Her university now is home to 21 of the schoolgirls who were kidnapped before dawn last April 15 from a secondary school in Chibok, a town in neighboring Borno state. Though 219 of them remain unaccounted for, and are believed to be Boko Haram captives, dozens escaped.
Ensign learned of some of the escaped girls’ continuing interest in education and established a foundation to provide scholarships. The current students aren’t yet in regular classes.
"They were taking their national exams the night they were kidnapped," she said, explaining they’re focused on preparing for those tests.
The Boko Haram violence – abductions, assaults and suicide bombings – has sent tens of thousands fleeing Borno state. Many displaced people also have sought refuge in and near Yoba, Adamawa’s state capital and the university’s home. The university launched its Adamawa Peace Initiative in 2012 to "foster peace through education, empowerment and community development."
Outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan last spring ordered troops into Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states after the government imposed a state of emergency. Just before last month’s presidential election, in which voters chose former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, the government claimed it had driven the miitants out of Adamawa and expected to do so in the other states.
Scenes of destruction
Ensign, the peace initiative’s director, told Makori she’d "just returned from a trip up north, where damage is horrible."
In her latest blog dispatch for The Huffington Post, for which she periodically chronicles Nigerian developments, she described countless scenes of destruction: of homes, churches, mosques, health centers and communications facilities.
She reported that in one town, for instance, "Most of the public buildings had been shelled or burned. … No farms were being cleared and prepared for the rainy season."
Nongovernmental organizations "have been quite slow" to respond to the region’s overwhelming humanitarian needs, Ensign contended. She acknowledged that now the Nigerian Red Cross and other groups are providing aid.
But "over 200,000 young children are not in school," Ensign said, adding she’d like to set up "mobile education" training centers to address academic gaps.
The university already has established a literacy program that aims "to reach as many young people – boys and girls" – as possible. Ensign said it’s a misperception that Nigerian parents don’t want education for their girls. They simply lack access and resources.
The peace initiative also aims to stabilize the region through education and economic growth. It draws upon religious, business and other community leaders in reaching out to young, often poor Nigerians who might be vulnerable to jihadist messages, said Ensign.
Outside the VOA studio, Ensign said she was optimistic that security conditions would improve after Buhari takes office in May.
A scholar of international development and of conflict resolution, the California native has taught at several U.S. universities – including Columbia in New York, Tulane in Louisiana, and at Maryland’s flagship campus – and she advised the governments of Uganda and Rwanda.
Ensign is a co-editor of, and contributor to, Confronting Genocide in Rwanda, a book published last year that’s being reissued this month.
She was visiting Washington this week to speak at a commemoration for victims of the 1994 Rwandan massacre.