"I am so very proud of my country and know it has a bright future," one of our alums Verse said to me today. "I don't have clean water, power is spotty and the roads are terrible," said one of our local workers employed at the university. Both statements are true.
Nigeria is still a developing country with high rates of poverty and unemployment, inadequate infrastructure, especially in rural areas, and high levels of child and maternal mortality. Its economy is still based primarily on oil, but with growth rates expected to reach 10% this year, venture capitalists are flocking to Lagos. It is a country known for high levels of corruption although it has peacefully passed power from one civilian government to another and faces a critical test of its democratic system with national, state and local elections scheduled for April 2010. It also is country beginning to realize its great promise, especially by those fortunate enough to have a university education
Fifty years after gaining independence from the British in 1960, Nigeria is in the middle of a transition from a poor developing country to what will be the fifth largest country in the world in 40 years. By 2050, Nigeria will rank only behind India (the largest country by 2050), China, Indonesia, and the United States. Whether Nigeria can solve its problems and join the world's global powers has great consequences for the world
I see Nigeria's great potential and promise reflected in its students. I am privileged to be president of one of Nigeria's newest universities and the only one based on an American model. Started five years ago in partnership with American University in Washington DC, we now have close to 1500 students and are growing very rapidly. I see Nigeria's future in these students.
Our Model United Nations (MUN) Team, one of the largest on campus with close to 100 members, attended one of the UN student-based global conferences in Malaysia last summer. Unfortunately almost all of their funds for the conference were stolen when they arrived. Somehow, they made it through the conference with almost no money. They did such a good job that leaders of the US based organization have asked them administer all of the secondary and university based Model UN programs in the country. I see these future Nigerian leaders as resilient, resourceful, and committed to solving problems.
Two of our computer science students ran the first electronic election in the country last year. While it was on a small scale, the whole process was transparent and efficient. The results were known within minutes. "We decided to undertake the project of e-balloting because it is highly needed today," said the two computer science majors who took four months to develop the web-based program. "We resolved to move to the next level in order to give Nigeria a credible, functional and transparent alternative that will stand the test of time, " said its then student government President Mansoor Mamman. I see in Nigeria's future leaders, a deep commitment to transparent processes and honest government.
The second largest club on campus is SIFE, (Students Interested in Free Enterprise,) which is focused more on social enterprises. These budding social entrepreneurs are training poor members of the community so they can generate their own income. All of the profits from their on-campus projects (including running their own "mini mart") are plowed back into their social programs. These business students like many around the world engaged in social entrepreneurial programs, are passionate about solving social problems using the knowledge and tools of business.
Are these students representative of the country? It is impossible to tell but as the children of many of the country's business and political leaders, they are likely to be among the future leaders of this country. In these students I see resilience, resourcefulness, social conscience and a deep desire for their country to be governed honestly and democratically.
Nigeria is not On the Brink, as the former US Ambassador John Campbell, has claimed in a recent book with this title. It is a very complex country, divided less by religion and ethnicity than by income and potential. From my limited vantage point this is a country very aware of its problems and just beginning to see its promise after 50 years of freedom.