Es­cape From Boko Haram

In north­ern Nige­ria, a brave Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tor has cre­ated a refuge for young women des­per­ate to evade the bar­baric ter­ror­ist group

Smithsonian Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY JOSHUA HAM­MER

In north­ern Nige­ria, a fear­less Cal­i­for­nia-born ed­u­ca­tor re­solves to res­cue and pro­vide sanc­tu­ary for the school girls who were able to flee the ter­ror­ists

Shortly be­fore six o’clock in the morn­ing

on Au­gust 30, 2014, Margee En­sign, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Nige­ria, met with her se­cu­rity chief in the large house that she oc­cu­pies on cam­pus, in Yola, near the na­tion’s eastern bor­der, in Adamawa State. The news was bad. The chief, Lionel Rawl­ins, had gone to get the half-dozen se­cu­rity guards that En­sign was count­ing on to help her with a dar­ing res­cue mis­sion, but the guards were asleep, or per­haps pre­tend­ing to be, and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be roused. “They were afraid,” Rawl­ins later re­called. Run­ning a col­lege doesn’t of­ten en­tail mak­ing split-sec­ond de­ci­sions about dare­devil for­ays into hos­tile ter­ri­tory, but as this Satur­day dawned for the en­er­getic five-foot Cal­i­for­nia na­tive with a doc­tor­ate in in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal econ­omy, it was gut-check time. “The pres­i­dent looked at me and I looked at her, and I knew what she was think­ing,” Rawl­ins said. “We’re go­ing,” En­sign said. So they headed north in two Toy­ota vans, a sud­denly mea­ger con­tin­gent—en­sign, Rawl­ins, a driver and one other se­cu­rity guard—dash­ing down the crum­bling twolane high­way through arid scrub­land, deeper into re­mote coun­try ter­ror­ized by the ruth­less, heav­ily armed mil­i­tant group called Boko Haram. Rawl­ins, a for­mer U.S. Marine, had con­tacts with vig­i­lante groups in north­ern Nige­ria, and thought he might be able to sum­mon them if the go­ing got tough. “All the way up there I’m play­ing war games in my mind,” he re­mem­bered. Af­ter three tense hours on the road, ex­pect­ing to be am­bushed by ter­ror­ists wield­ing au­to­matic ri­fles at any mo­ment, the lit­tle con­voy rounded a cor­ner and En­sign saw 11 girls and their fam­i­lies and friends wav­ing and yelling at the ve­hi­cles ap­proach­ing in clouds of dust. The girls had at­tended a board­ing school near Chi­bok, an ob­scure pro­vin­cial town that is now fa­mous be­cause of the at­tack on the school the pre­vi­ous

April. The as­ton­ish­ing crime at­tracted at­ten­tion world­wide, in­clud­ing the Twit­ter cam­paign #Bringback­ourgirls. On that night­mar­ish night of the April ab­duc­tion, 57 of the 276 kid­napped girls were able to jump off the trucks that were spir­it­ing them away, and flee into the bush. They even­tu­ally re­turned to their vil­lages to spend the broil­ing sum­mer with their fam­i­lies, fear­ing another kid­nap­ping mis­sion ev­ery night. One of those Chi­bok es­capees had a sis­ter at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Nige­ria, and it was she who ap­proached En­sign in her cam­pus of­fice, plead­ing, “What can you do to help?” En­sign re­solved to bring some of the girls who’d es­caped to the univer­sity, where they could live and com­plete their sec­ondary school­ing be­fore be­gin­ning col­lege course­work, all on full schol­ar­ship. The girls and their par­ents warmed to the idea, then risked ev­ery­thing to make the ex­tra­or­di­nary road­side ren­dezvous from their scat­tered small vil­lages in the bush with the univer­sity pres­i­dent her­self—an un­for­get­table en­counter. “They were so scared, so skinny,” En­sign said of the girls. “They had no money, no food, and they had all

their pos­ses­sions in lit­tle plas­tic bags.” As the van en­gines kept run­ning, En­sign leapt out, greeted the girls and their fam­i­lies and told them “with cool as­sur­ance” (Rawl­ins’ words) that all would be well. (“I didn’t get the fear gene,” En­sign later told me.) Quickly, about 200 lo­cals gath­ered. Rawl­ins cast a wary glance at a group of men on the edge of the crowd whom no­body seemed to rec­og­nize. “We knew Boko Haram was in the area,” Rawl­ins said. He turned to En­sign and the oth­ers. “We’ve got ten min­utes,” he told them. “Kiss ev­ery­body good­bye you want to kiss.” Then he be­gan a count­down for the 22 peo­ple, girls and par­ents alike, who would go to Yola. “Five min­utes. Three min­utes. Two min­utes. Get in the vans!”

Long be­fore she as­sumed her post in Nige­ria five years ago, En­sign was a citizen of the world. She was born and raised in af­flu­ent Wood­land Hills, Cal­i­for­nia, the youngest of five sib­lings, and be­gan trav­el­ing at an early age, from Sin­ga­pore to Tur­key to France. “Both my par­ents were air­line pioneers,” said En­sign. “My dad started load­ing bags at Western Air­lines in 1940 and went on to be­come an ex­ec­u­tive at Pan Am. My mom was a flight at­ten­dant at Western when you had to be a reg­is­tered nurse.” En­sign earned her PHD at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, and soon made a name for her­self as an ex­pert in eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, es­pe­cially in Africa, teach­ing at Columbia and Georgetown, run­ning a man­age­ment pro­gram for HIV/AIDS clin­i­cians in East Africa, re­search­ing the causes of the 1994 Rwan­dan geno­cide. In 2009, she was teach­ing and serv­ing as as­so­ciate provost at the Univer­sity of the Pa­cific when she was re­cruited to run the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Nige­ria. En­sign’s job in­ter­view in Nige­ria did not have an aus­pi­cious start. “I landed in Abuja, and no­body was there to pick me up,” she re­calls. “So I hopped in a taxi, went to a crummy ho­tel and some­body called me at 2 a.m. and said, ‘Have you been kid­napped?’ I said, ‘No, I’m in a ho­tel.’ He said, ‘We’ve been look­ing for you all night!’ ” Ea­ger for a new chal­lenge, she signed on, de­spite her Cal­i­for­nia physi­cian’s dire warn­ing that her se­vere peanut al­lergy would kill her—peanuts are a di­etary sta­ple in Nige­ria. (She has landed in the hos­pi­tal once, fol­low­ing a res­tau­rant din­ner in­volv­ing an un­de­clared peanut sauce.) She was joined in Yola at first by her daugh­ter, Kather­ine, then in her early 20s, who had grown up ad­ven­tur­ous, ac­com­pa­ny­ing her di­vorced mother to ru­ral Gu­atemala and far-flung corners of Africa. Af­ter their two-week visit, En­sign es­corted Kather­ine to Yola’s tiny air­port. As the jet tax­ied down the run­way and took off, En­sign be­gan sob­bing. “I turned around and there were hun­dreds of peo­ple stand­ing around the ter­mi­nal, watch­ing. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘They prob­a­bly think that a crazy per­son has moved to Yola.’ But as I walked to­ward the ter­mi­nal, peo­ple reached out their hands and grasped mine. I knew that I would be OK there.” On the cam­pus, En­sign set­tled into a four-bed­room villa (orig­i­nally built for a tra­di­tional leader and his four wives), then set about re­mak­ing the univer­sity. She fired teach­ers, re­vamped se­cu­rity, forced out crooked con­trac­tors who were skim­ming mil­lions of dol­lars. She com­mis­sioned build­ings, in­clud­ing a ho­tel and li­brary, started ex­tracur­ric­u­lar pro­grams, planted trees. And she re­quired that all stu­dents spend time work­ing di­rectly with the un­der­priv­i­leged in Yola—tu­tor­ing street kids and coach­ing them in sports, dis­tribut­ing food and cloth­ing in camps for peo­ple dis­placed by the fight­ing. The pro­grams, she be­lieves, serve as a strong coun­ter­weight to vi­o­lent Is­lamist ide­ol­ogy. “No­body knows any boys from Yola who joined Boko Haram,” she told me, sit­ting at a con­fer­ence ta­ble in her of­fice, a cheer­ful, sun­lit space dec­o­rated with a large wall map of Adamawa State and a panel of col­or­ful Nige­rian folk art.

Half a cen­tury ago, Nige­ria seemed poised for great­ness. Oil had been dis­cov­ered in the Niger Delta in 1956—four years be­fore in­de­pen­dence—promis­ing to shower the coun­try in riches and ease ten­sions be­tween the coun­try’s pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim north and its

Deep in­side me I felt that these peo­ple are not sol­diers, not res­cuers. . . . They were telling the girls to go and en­ter the car.”

Chris­tian south, a legacy of ar­bi­trary colo­nial bor­der-mak­ing. In­stead, a se­ries of ra­pa­cious regimes, both mil­i­tary and civil­ian, looted the oil riches—steal­ing some $400 bil­lion in the half cen­tury since in­de­pen­dence, ac­cord­ing to some sources—deep­ened the coun­try’s des­ti­tu­tion and fanned sec­tar­ian ha­treds. Ed­u­ca­tion in Nige­ria has suf­fered, too. The sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion model in­tro­duced by Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies never took hold in the north, where an es­ti­mated 9.5 mil­lion chil­dren at­tend al­ma­jiri, or Is­lamic schools. Over­all, of the na­tion’s 30 mil­lion school-age chil­dren, about 10 mil­lion re­ceive no in­struc­tion. Eighty per­cent of sec­ondary school stu­dents fail the fi­nal exam that per­mits ad­vance­ment to col­lege and the lit­er­acy rate is just 61 per­cent. There is a fed­eral and state col­lege sys­tem, but it is chron­i­cally un­der­funded; the qual­ity of teach­ers is gen­er­ally poor; and only about one-third of stu­dents are fe­male. En­sign saw a chance to counter the cor­rup­tion and dys­func­tion in Nige­ria, which has the con­ti­nent’s largest econ­omy, by ed­u­cat­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers schooled in Western val­ues of democ­racy, trans­parency and tol­er­ance. En­sign “has an in­cred­i­ble com­mit­ment to build­ing a nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment in which stu­dents can learn,” says Wil­liam Ber­trand, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional public health at Tu­lane and vice chair­man of the AUN board. “Her whole vi­sion of a ‘de­vel­op­ment univer­sity,’ which has evolved through­out her ca­reer, is ex­tra­or­di­nary.” In fact, the val­ues that En­sign holds dear­est—sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion and in­tel­lec­tual in­quiry—are anath­ema to Boko Haram. Boko Haram be­gan in 2002 in Maiduguri, the cap­i­tal of Borno State, the poor­est and least de­vel­oped cor­ner of Africa’s most pop­u­lous coun­try. Its founder, a self-taught, fun­da­men­tal­ist preacher, Mo­hammed Yusuf, who be­lieved that the world was flat and the the­ory of evo­lu­tion was a lie, in­veighed against Western ed­u­ca­tion. In 2009, fol­low­ing es­ca­lat­ing skir­mishes in Maiduguri be­tween his fol­low­ers and Nige­ria’s se­cu­rity forces, Yusuf was ar­rested and sum- mar­ily ex­e­cuted by Nige­rian po­lice. A year later his rad­i­cal­ized dis­ci­ples, who num­bered about 5,000, de­clared war on the gov­ern­ment. In a wave of atroc­i­ties across the north, 15,000 peo­ple have died at the rebels’ hands. The term “Boko Haram”— boko trans­lates as “Western ed­u­ca­tion” in the lo­cal Hausa lan­guage and haram as “for­bid­den” in Ara­bic—was con­ferred on the group by res­i­dents of Maiduguri and the lo­cal media. (Group mem­bers pre­fer to call them­selves Jama’atu Ah­lis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-ji­had, or Peo­ple Com­mit­ted to the Prop­a­ga­tion of the Prophet’s Teach­ings and Ji­had.) “Boko Haram” re­flects Yusuf ’s deep ha­tred of sec­u­lar learn­ing, which, he as­serted, had be­come an in­stru­ment for Nige­ria’s cor­rupt elite to plun­der re­sources. That the ter­ror­ists tar­get schools is no ac­ci­dent. At the all-fe­male Chi­bok Gov­ern­ment Sec­ondary School, a sprawl­ing com­pound of squat brown build­ings sur­rounded by a low wall deep in the bush of Borno State, nearly all the stu­dents were Chris­tians from poor farm­ing vil­lages nearby. For years, Boko Haram had been kid­nap­ping girls and young women across the state, forc­ing them to marry and work as slaves in its camps and safe houses. The cap­tors sub­jected the girls to re­peated rapes, and, in a grisly reprise of the atroc­i­ties vis­ited upon “child sol­diers” else­where on the con­ti­nent, forc­ing them to take part in mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. Less than two months ear­lier, Boko Haram in­sur­gents had killed 59 when they at­tacked a boys’ dor­mi­tory in neigh­bor­ing Yobe State, locked the doors, set the build­ing on fire and im­mo­lated the stu­dents. Those who tried to es­cape were shot or hacked to death. The gov­ern­ment had sub­se­quently shut down all public sec­ondary schools in Borno State. But in mid-april, the Chi­bok school re­opened for a brief pe­riod to al­low se­niors to com­plete col- lege-en­trance ex­ams. The state gov­ern­ment and the mil­i­tary had as­sured the girls and their par­ents that they would pro­vide full pro­tec­tion. In fact, a sin­gle watch­man stood guard at the gate on the April night that uni­formed Boko Haram fight­ers struck. Many girls as­sumed the men were Nige­rian sol­diers who had come to pro­tect the school. “But I saw peo­ple with­out shoes, with these caf­tans on their necks, and I started go­ing, ‘I’m not sure,’” one 19-year-old woman re­counted to En­sign in a video­taped in­ter­view. “Deep in­side me I felt that these peo­ple are not sol­diers, not res­cuers. . . . They were telling the girls to go and en­ter the car, and I jumped through the win­dow, I started run­ning. I heard voices call­ing from be­hind me, ‘Come, come.’ I just kept on run­ning. I was just in the bush [but] I knew I would find my way back home.” As the 19-year-old made her get­away, a dozen armed men charged into the dorm. One group guarded the girls. Another ran­sacked the school’s kitchen and loaded ve­hi­cles with bags of rice, corn and other food. A third group set fire to the build­ings. The at­tack­ers led the stu­dents out of the com­pound at gun­point and into ve­hi­cles. A hand­ful of young women had the

pres­ence of mind to grab tree branches and swing out of the truck beds to free­dom. Oth­ers fled dur­ing a stop to re­lieve them­selves in the bush. The girls ran through the path­less scrub­land, past stands of aca­cias and baobab trees, des­per­ately hun­gry and thirsty, driven by the fear of be­ing caught at any mo­ment. One by one, they stum­bled back through the fields to their fam­i­lies’ mud-brick houses. Since then, Boko Haram forces have been re­pelled here and there, but they have not re­lented and none of the 219 fe­male stu­dents held cap­tive have been re­leased. Last fall, fight­ers ad­vanced to within 50 miles of Yola, im­pos­ing sharia law in the towns they oc­cu­pied, burn­ing books, kid­nap­ping women, con­script­ing young men and ex­e­cut­ing those who re­sisted. Four hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple fled to Yola, dou­bling the city’s pop­u­la­tion. “Our em­ploy­ees were com­ing to us, say­ing ‘I have 20 peo­ple liv­ing at my house,’” En­sign re­calls. “We started giv­ing them rice, maize and beans... and ev­ery week the num­bers were get­ting big­ger.”

The Nige­rian mil­i­tary ad­vised Rawl­ins to close the cam­pus. “The par­ents, stu­dents and fac­ulty were pres­sur­ing her, say­ing, ‘You gotta leave,’” re­called Rawl­ins, who had heard that the rebels would not dare at­tack Yola be­cause they were spread too thin and the city was well de­fended. “She re­mained calm and said, ‘We will do what we have to do, in the best in­ter- ests of the stu­dents.’ She was vig­i­lant and stead­fast. She never wa­vered.” Weeks af­ter I vis­ited Yola, two Boko Haram sui­cide bombers at­tacked the city’s mar­ket and killed 29 peo­ple; an off-duty univer­sity se­cu­rity guard was badly in­jured. Still, En­sign re­mains un­de­terred. “I’m ex­tremely hope­ful,” she told me. “The [new] gov­ern­ment is mak­ing all the right moves.” The Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Nige­ria was es­tab­lished in 2003 with a $40 mil­lion in­vest­ment from Atiku Abubakar, a Nige­rian mul­ti­mil­lion­aire busi­ness­man and the na­tion’s vice pres­i­dent from 1999 to 2007. Or­phaned as a boy and ed­u­cated by U.S. Peace Corps vol­un­teers, Abubakar, who made his money in oil and real es­tate, re­mains some­thing of a con­tra­dic­tory fig­ure: Al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion have fol­lowed him through­out his ca­reer. At the same time, U.S. diplo­mats, ed­u­ca­tors and oth­ers say that Abubakar—known around the univer­sity as the Founder—has made a gen­uine com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing Nige­ria’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. “The man I’ve known for five years is de­voted to ed­u­ca­tion and to democ­racy,” En­sign told me. “I have never seen an inkling of any­thing that isn’t com­pletely trans­par­ent and fo­cused on try­ing to im­prove peo­ple’s lives.” Yola is a hard place—a sprawl of cor­ru­gated tin-roofed houses and diesel-choked streets, fiercely hot in the sum­mer, a sea of mud dur­ing the rainy sea­son—and En­sign works to con­jure a mod­icum of com­fort. She has sought to sur­round her­self with bits of home, even in­stalling in the arts and hu­man­i­ties build­ing a cof­fee bar called Crav­ings, com­plete with real Star­bucks pa­per cups. “It’s our lit­tle Amer­i­can is­land,” she said. She plays squash at the Univer­sity Club and jogs along the cam­pus roads. She con­sumes the Ital­ian de­tec­tive nov­els of Donna Leon and the Cana­dian de­tec­tive se­ries by Louise Penny, and some­times re­laxes with DVDS of “Madam Sec­re­tary” and “West Wing.” But the work is what keeps her go­ing. She be­gins her day writ­ing emails and dis­cussing se­cu­rity with Rawl­ins, meets with fac­ulty mem­bers and ad­min­is­tra­tors, and teaches an un­der­grad­u­ate course in in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment. There are weekly meet­ings with the Adamawa Peace Ini­tia­tive, a group of civic and re­li­gious lead­ers she first con­vened in 2012. She’s also de­voted to a “read and feed” pro­gram she started for home­less chil­dren who gather out­side the univer­sity gates. Twice a week, un­der a big tree

on cam­pus, univer­sity staff mem­bers serve meals and vol­un­teers read books aloud. “We’re up to 75 chil­dren,” she told me. “It helps to look in their faces and see that the lit­tle we’re do­ing is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence.” In April came a happy sur­prise. Over a crack­ling phone line in her of­fice, Robert Fred­er­ick Smith, the founder and CEO of Vista Eq­uity Part­ners, a U.s.-based pri­vate eq­uity firm with $14 bil­lion un­der its man­age­ment, said he would cover the tu­ition, room and board for all the Chi­bok girls who’d es­caped or evaded the ter­ror­ists—an of­fer worth more than a mil­lion dol­lars . (En­sign had brought ten ad­di­tional es­capees to the univer­sity, for a to­tal of 21.) “It was like win­ning a sweep­stakes,” she told me. “I started cry­ing.” Alan Fleis­chmann, who han­dles Smith’s phil­an­thropic ef­forts, said the in­vestor “was frus­trated that there was an enor­mous out­cry af­ter the kid­nap­pings and then it van­ished. The im­pres­sion was that they were dead or go­ing to die. Then he learned that some had es­caped, and said, ‘Oh my God, they are alive.’ ”

Thir­teen months af­ter their des­per­ate es­cape from the Boko Haram ma­raud­ers, three Chi­bok girls—i’ll call them Deb­o­rah, Bless­ing and Mary—sat along­side En­sign in a glass-pan­eled con­fer­ence room at the univer­sity’s new $11 mil­lion li­brary. En­sign had al­lowed me to in­ter­view the young women if I would agree not to di­vulge their names and not to ask about the night of the at­tack. The young women seemed poised and con­fi­dent, looked me forthrightly in the eye, dis­played a rea­son­able fa­cil­ity with English and showed flashes of hu­mor. They burst into laugh­ter re­call­ing how they gorged on a lunch of chicken and jollof (“one-pot”) rice, a Nige­rian spe­cialty, on their first day at the univer­sity—and then all be­came sick af­ter­ward. None had seen a com­puter be­fore; they talked ex­cit­edly about the lap­tops that En­sign had given each of them, and about lis­ten­ing to gospel mu­sic and watch­ing “Nol­ly­wood” movies (pro­duced by the Nige­rian film in­dus­try), In­dian films and “Tele­tub­bies” in their dor­mi­tory in the evenings. Bless­ing and Mary said they as­pired to be­come physi­cians, while Deb­o­rah en­vi­sioned a ca­reer in public health. Deb­o­rah, an an­i­mated 18-year-old with del­i­cate fea­tures, re­called the day last Au­gust when she walked for miles from her vil­lage to the ren­dezvous point, ac­com­pa­nied by her older brother. Ex­hausted af­ter hik­ing through the night, she was also deeply un­set­tled by the prospect of be­ing sep­a­rated from her fam­ily. “But my brother en­cour­aged me,” she said. Af­ter an emo­tional farewell, Deb­o­rah boarded the mini­van with the other girls for the drive back to Yola. That first af­ter­noon, En­sign hosted a lunch for the girls, and their par­ents, at the cafe­te­ria. The adults fired wor­ried ques­tions at En­sign. “How long will you

keep them?” “Do we need to pay any­thing?” En­sign as­sured them that the girls would stay only “as long as they wanted” and that they were on full schol­ar­ships. Later, she took the girls shop­ping, lead­ing them through Yola’s mar­ket as they ex­cit­edly chose clothes, toi­letries, Scrabble games, balls and ten­nis shoes. The girls ad­mired their new sneak­ers, then looked, em­bar­rassed, at En­sign. “Can you show us how to lace them up?” asked one. En­sign did. The cam­pus daz­zled the Chi­bok girls, but they strug­gled at first in class—par­tic­u­larly with English. (Their na­tive lan­guage is Hausa, spo­ken by most in Borno State.) In addi- tion to pro­vid­ing the lap­tops, En­sign ar­ranged for tu­tor­ing in English, math and science, and as­signed stu­dent men­tors who live with them in the dor­mi­tory and mon­i­tor their progress. They re­main tor­mented by thoughts of the Chi­bok stu­dents who re­main in cap­tiv­ity. Three weeks af­ter the ab­duc­tions at their school, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, re­leased a

pho­to­graphs by GLENNA GOR­DON

Be­long­ings left be­hind on the night of the Chi­bok ab­duc­tion are a tes­ta­ment to terror. Rebels car­ry­ing Kalash­nikovs forced girls into 20 pickup trucks.

In May, Nige­rian troops res­cued 275 women and chil­dren from Boko Haram (in­clud­ing this for­mer cap­tive, right)— but found no Chi­bok girls.

En­sign (at grad­u­a­tion in June) over­sees 1,500 stu­dents and fac­ulty from 30 na­tions. She de­scribes Nige­ria as “the big chal­lenge” of her life.

The cap­tives freed in May re­main in refugee camps in Yola. Some mal­nour­ished chil­dren were near death when Nige­rian troops fi­nally lo­cated them.

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