As President of the American University of Nigeria, I have been asked for my reflections on the occasion of the birthday of our university’s founder and benefactor, His Excellency Atiku Abubakar.
I know I speak for the entire University community when I say that our Founder’s generosity–which I daily experience first hand–has been astonishing and truly humbling. I am, therefore, very happy to have been given this opportunity to express our gratitude for all that he has done for AUN, for education in Nigeria, and even the rest of the world.
However, I have a problem. How do you begin to thank someone whose generosity has reached such truly epic proportions, proportions quite without precedent or parallel in Nigerian history?
How do you thank someone who, beginning with the distinguished ABTI (now AUN) Academy, has created the finest educational endeavor—from pre-school to the doctoral level—in all of Nigeria?
How do you thank someone who has financed the building of the entire AUN infrastructure? From power plants to student hostels, from computers to desks to security guard uniforms, from roads and classrooms to the greatest assembly hall in northern Nigeria, all were made possible by his largess. Just this fall, we finished the construction of our revolutionary new e-library, in a wonderful and elegant new building. That library has won international awards and global recognition. He built this award winning library.
How do you thank someone who has gone on to underwrite major scholarship aid for countless talented Nigerian students who would otherwise have lacked the means to attend the American University of Nigeria? Growing up a poor orphan himself in the Yola area, he has never forgotten those in need, nor the road out of poverty that education provided him.
One of the most influential educational experiences of his youth came from American Peace Corps teaching volunteers, young men who taught the boy Atiku to think for himself, and to believe in himself. The former Vice President of Nigeria, His Excellency is now paving the road out of poverty for other deserving young Nigerians, employing the same American pedagogy that helped to transform his life, and his future. AUN is the only American-style university south of the Sahara, and in only ten short years has established itself as one of the most important universities in West Africa.
Nor has his generosity been limited to the support of the schools and university that he himself has founded.
He has personally provided scholarships to thousands of young Nigerians, scholarships to fund their study both in Nigeria and abroad. He has built hundreds of schools throughout the country. He has even funded a Professorial Chair in African History at Oxford University, extending his educational philanthropy to the United Kingdom!
His exemplary record of public service and private philanthropy lead the American National Peace Corps Association to award him the Harris Woffard Award in 2012. The citation read in part: “No private businessman in Africa has worked harder for democracy or contributed more to higher education than Atiku Abubakar.”
On a more personal note, let me confess that I have often urged him to take greater public credit for his generosity. As a university president, I know that, in general, the way one rewards major donors is to provide “naming opportunities.” Donors like to see their names in prominent places, usually on sports facilities and other large buildings. Not His Excellency.
No, he said. Do not name the new Commencement hall in my honor. No, he said. Do not name the new Library in my honor.
But there was one project particularly close to his heart. On this one he relented.
Since its inception, our Founder had envisioned AUN to be not only an American-style university (and one with world-class standards and expectations) but also to be something quite new. It was to be Africa’s first “Development University.” It would have as its singular mission the fostering and supporting of research, teaching, and practice in how to bring sustainable development to the peoples of Africa; economic development, political development, educational development.
AUN would be fully involved in its community and its nation, not only training its students in information technology, public health, entrepreneurial skills, petroleum chemistry and the like, but sending those students out to learn first hand about their society and its problems and potential. They would learn about its environmental challenges, about its illiteracy, and the barriers to economic progress. But perhaps most importantly, they would learn about Nigeria’s people, so eager for a better life and the opportunity to build it for themselves and for their children.
Our various development efforts in peace-making, teaching, environmental restoration and poverty eradication have now been brought together in one place, located in the gleaming new Robert A. Pastor Library and e-Learning Center. And that Center now, with his permission, bears our founder’s name.
It is the “Atiku Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Development.”
Thus it is with boundless appreciation, respect and great affection–on behalf of everyone at the American University of Nigeria and the Atiku Center–that I send His Excellency Atiku Abubakar, our founder and patron, our very best wishes and prayers on the occasion of his birthday.