In April 2014, the Boko Haram terrorist group abducted 234 school girls from the North eastern Nigerian town of Chibok. This tragic episode captured the attention of the international media, with UK prime minister David Cameron, United States First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel-prize winning school girl Malala Yousafzai joining a host of other celebrities in the international campaign to “Bring Back our Girls”. As at the time of writing, the whereabouts of the girl is still unknown.

The Boko Haram insurgency had started well before 2014. The group, originally known as Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’AwatiWal Jihad (Arabic for ‘People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad’) was formed in 2002 by radical cleric, Mohammed Yusuf. Over the years it came to be known by its core teaching that “western education is forbidden”. Yusuf was extra-judicially executed by security forces in July 2009, and the group became more violent. The bombing in August 2011 of the United Nations Building in the capital city of Abuja confirmed a new dimension of Boko Haram tactic of targeting international buildings, government property and crowded places in series of suicide bombings. Over the years, these attacks have left scores of thousands dead, and millions of people displaced. Internal Displacement Monitoring Group (IDMC) estimates that 3.3 million people have been internally displaced due to conflicts in Nigeria. Of this, 800,000 children have been displaced by Boko Haram violence alone.

The rank of Boko Haram group is filled with the army of uneducated, unemployed and impoverished youth. They have become disillusioned with government, disaffected with the political elite, and are prime targets for Boko Haram recruitment drive. This is the background to the intervention launched in 2011 by the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership (CAEL), University of Wolverhampton, UK.

Presenting a counter narrative to the Boko Haram propaganda that “western education is forbidden”, CAEL’s project was based around the core idea that entrepreneurship education is the means by which unemployed youths can acquire critical skills to plan and develop their businesses. With these skills, it is hoped that these new ventures could grow and expand to become employers of labour, in the process contributing to national strategy to reduce unemployment and alleviate poverty.

In 2012, CAEL launched its pilot project in partnership with the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (CEED), University of Maiduguri. 190 people were given intensive entrepreneurship training. At the end of the training, a Business Plan competition was launched, and forty trainees with the best Business Plans were given grants for new start-ups. Four years after, the owners of these enterprises were interviewed to assess the impact of the training provided.

The participants were all emphatic in their assessment that the training contributed significantly to their improved knowledge and skills about business planning, record keeping, innovative advertising and improved approach to customer retention and customer service. Mohammed, one of the participants in the training, commented that:

The training helped me a lot as I gained a lot of knowledge about business strategy. Before the training at the University of Maiduguri I did not have much knowledge about the business. I know better now how to plan, invest my money, and motivate our customers. After the training I know better how to deal with companies who supply our goods. Before then I did not have much knowledge about how to control and manage the business. My business was growing quite well until the insurgency grew worse… The training helped me to advertise my business differently. So I went to the small hamlets and villages to get people to sell and buy my goods. Sometimes I give them my complimentary cards, encouraging them to call me. I also offer discounts for the retailers, to encourage them.

One of the women participants, Christiana, highlighted another crucial aspect of the intervention: the training of trainers who can then go on to others, often in the more remote areas. She thinks more investment is needed in this area, especially for women entrepreneurs who have been compelled into micro-enterprise by the necessity of poverty and violence, and are desperately I need of training:

I think we need more women who can train others. It is not enough to just give them money for subsistence. I think women should be given equipment and other support in kind, rather than cash, because if you just give them money, they might be tempted to purchase other things other than what they need for the business.

For these participants, entrepreneurship education is as important as military strategy, if not more so, to stem the tide of terrorists’ recruitment and violence. Mohammed observed that “the reason why Boko Haram has gained a lot of followers is because some people are jobless and others are illiterate.” Another participant, Modu, asserted that “entrepreneurship can help eradicate poverty” by focusing attention on skill training for young people “so that they can do something for themselves”. He, however, suggested that for this to work government need to show more commitment, for example by providing young entrepreneurs with tools and start-up funds, in addition to adequate training. He says it is important to make young people understand that “government cannot employ everybody. If people are made to realise that it is not through government that you must eat. You must do something with your hands. You must do something to sustain your life, and even help sustain the lives of other people.”

The trainees spoke of their struggles and triumphs, and their high ambitions to grow and expand their business, even in the volatile environment of insurgency violence. There is no sense of resignation, or desire to seek quick easy escape from their violent ridden community. They are motivated by the prospect and hope of becoming successful entrepreneurs, not the fear or desire to become refugees. Christina recently won an international award for her fashion design business, and her clothing lines are now being advertised in Malta and Amsterdam. Mohammed speaks of his plans “to expand to other locations where there is good demand for my goods. I want to have new branches in Kano, in Yobe (because Yobe is near Maiduguri). I will have another in maybe Bauchi, which is also near. I hope to employ like 50 people in the next four years.” Modu says that: “For now I have only one branch. I want to have like five branches within my locality. If possible I also want to expand my business to other states within Nigeria. I also want to employ more people. We are currently doing electrical work. We also want to incorporate building and carpentry work. We are hoping that in the future if government for example want to build an estate, we’ll be the one to handle such. By doing this we will be able to employ more workers.”

This intervention has demonstrated that, given the right support in terms of training and tools, people in conflict ridden environment are capable of making things happen in spite of destructive violence unleashed by terrorists.

In a recent interview, The Vice Chancellor of the University of Maiduguri, Professor Ibrahim Njodi singled out the University of Wolverhampton for special praise for their vision and courage to partner with the university at a time other foreign institutions and organisations were scared away because of the insurgency. In one of the earlier visits, Njodi said, the partners from Wolverhampton “…spent about 23 days with us working on Centre for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development which is now… coming up so strongly”. Professor Geoff Layer, Vice Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said: “we are actively engaged in communities and societies around the world. This is why we have our Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership, a new centre that we have set up to focus specifically on developments around needs within Africa, around entrepreneurship, how we bring some of our experiences, some of our learning, and share with organisations.”

The University of Wolverhampton through the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership is currently embarking on a new phase of intervention with the partners at the University of Maiduguri. In addition to Maiduguri, there is an ongoing partnership with the Entrepreneurship Centre at Bayero University, in the Northwest city of Kano, another city affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. The progress has been encouraging, but there is still a lot to be done.

The Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership(CAEL), University of Wolverhampton, will be formally launched on Monday, November 30 2015 at The Lord Swraj Paul Building, City Campus Molineux (North), Wolverhampton For more about this visit CAEL’s news page .

 

Dr Seun Kolade is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Centre for African Entrepreneurship and Leadership, University of Wolverhampton