How we created ‘Believepedia’ to fight extremism — Nigerian Professor

Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob
Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob

In this Interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, a professor of Multimedia/Digital Journalism at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, speaks about his students’ social media campaign to combat extremism, the role of religion in bringing peace to the Northeast, and the dearth of research in Nigerian higher institutions.

PT: Tell us about what the School of Arts and Sciences has been up to in the past one year.

Jacob: There are three things I will talk about. First, let me start with the “Challenging Extremism” project. Last year, we participated in that competition. It’s funded by Facebook and the U.S. State Department. It’s a global university competition where students are challenged to develop digital campaigns to challenge extremism within their communities, so we won in Africa last year. Now we are competing for the global top prize and this time around, again, we’ve gathered a few set of students to develop campaigns, and the campaign that they’ve developed, this time they are focusing more on bringing the attention of the international community to the problem of girl suicide bombers. There’s a brief video that they created to bring attention to this problem and it’s a global campaign developed by students.

We are excited about the campaign, the number of followers on Facebook already getting to 10,000 and they are trying to get 10,000 women to be part of these women against violent extremism campaign. And let’s not forget that it is a class project in a course, the campaign was developed in a classroom as part of the course and this was also developed by students as part of that campaign. We hope to win, globally, we won in Africa last year so this time we hope to win globally. The course is called Public Diplomacy and Strategic Media Intervention.

That’s one, then two, the valedictorian is from petroleum chemistry, from the School of Arts and Sciences. What we try to focus on a lot in Arts and Sciences is what we call ‘research-led teaching,’ focusing on research, trying to get faculty and students to be involved in research. You asked a very important question, the reason for the decline in the standard of education in Nigeria, the way I look at it is basically because we’ve walked away from research. Research should be the central purpose of the university, obviously in addition to teaching, and teaching should be by research. Petroleum Chemistry department and a couple of other programmes we have we’ve really focused our attention on research. We started a programme, a small-grant programme for our faculty to be involved in research. A particular research that I’m really excited about right now, we’re exploring how we can get the plastic bags, the plastic bottles that are out there, mix in a few other particles and developing them to diesel, kerosene. If you drive round Yola you’ll see several of those plastic bags all over. So we’re getting almajiris involved in that project so that they can pick up plastic bags, plastic bottles and we pay them stipends based on what they are able to gather every day.

There’s another research on water purification, this time in the Natural and Environmental Sciences programme. The main objective of that particular research is for us to be able to work with local communities, be it those communities up north or in the Niger Delta region where water is contaminated by heavy metals. It’s basically a system of water purification that can be homegrown, using rice husk…. also including some nanoparticles so that water can be purified no matter how metallic the level of those water and it will be good enough for consumption.

The idea with that project is that we can deploy it anywhere be in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Somalia or wherever, it can be easily deployed it’s just about getting that technology right and having that level of purification. It’s attracting a lot of attention already. In fact, it was in a publication by Cambridge University Press, they’re quite interested in that research. The interesting thing about this research project is that it’s not fully conducted by faculty, we bring the students as our research assistants so that they work with us in this research and get involved.

The third research is one that our Department of International and Comparative Politics is undertaking. You know, the Boko Haram insurgency has affected people in many different ways but… it’s funny because we don’t have a register of atrocities committed or atrocities suffered by the IDPs. So, maybe two years, five years, ten years, 20 years from now there will be some kind of truth and reconciliation commission in this country or maybe somebody may have to face a war crimes court or have to face some judges in the International Criminal Court so it’s possible that may happen in the future, but by that time these people would have grown and they would have forgotten about whatever they suffered. So what we are doing in that project is actually talking to IDPs and having a register of atrocities, what they suffered, what they lost and so forth and so on so that we have that documentation, because it’s not been done, it’s not there. In most other countries around the world, this atrocity is committed not only by Boko haram but also by Nigerian soldiers and security officials, so we hope that one day there would be some truth and reconciliation commission and that those atrocities that somebody would someday account for, so those are the very specific projects that we are undertaking right now.

PT: Last year, you launched the IAmABeliever campaign to fight extremism, de-radicalisation of the youth, as well as bridge the gap between the Christians and the Muslims. To what extent has this campaign really affected the people here?

Jacob: Now, I have to say, for universities, what universities do is to develop models and anything we do is more of a pilot, like a proof of concept, to say this is workable, okay, there it is, go and deploy it. So our role while we do these things the intention is not… we must not forget that we are a university and our primary business is teaching and research, not to undertake a global, nationwide campaign to challenge extremism, so we developed that campaign and we undertook a research and we had that baseline research and an endline research to actually see how people that were exposed to that campaign would look at things after their exposure to that campaign.

What we found out is that those that were exposed to that campaign, there were certain questions we asked such as those that do not believe in my God they deserve whatever evil that befalls them, so statements like that we had to put to score based on the level with which they agree with such statements and we had about 51 of such statements, then we deployed the campaign and, endline, went back to undertake the same research and what we saw is that those that had extremists views it reduced by 25% and that’s significant when you look at a campaign that was undertaken for three to four months.

There’s a report that we have that contains all of our findings. And we at felt that a campaign of this nature that focuses not so much on challenging experiences but creating a common space for Christians and Muslims to come together, understand more about the religious views of the other, that can actually be a lot more effective than campaigns that seek to challenge religious views because extremism, the thing about valid extremism, is there is a religious justification for it. If i say I am a believer and you are an infidel and there are certain things that should befall an infidel because you are not a believer, so if I try to challenge that, I am challenging your religious view because these are deeply held religious views. So rather than seeking to challenge, I try to reverse it too that I am a believer, you are a believer I’m a believer too, so we created that Believepedia where we have the Bible and Quran in conversation series, where you can compare texts. So there can be a text, for example on love or kindness, and you see what the Bible says about kindness and what the Quran says about kindness. So it’s basically that shared space for different religious beliefs, so that they can understand what the faith of the religious order is about.

PT: How important do you think religion is in bringing peace to the Northeast?

Jacob: Religion, I think is extremely important. We are a very religious country and there’s no way we can deal with these issues without still bringing religion in. But at the same time, I should say this quickly based on the focus groups we conducted, it’s not only Muslims that are radicalized, there are also Christians who are equally radicalized, so there has to be the process of de-radicalisation, it’s not so much of change your religious opinion, but it’s mostly about considering the religious views of the other and I don’t know whether people have an understanding at all, I mean the Christians now, about what the Quran says about peace, about love, people don’t know that and we have to focus on creating that shared space, having a conversation between the Bible and the Quran, and if people get to understand more of what the Bible says about this and what the Quran says about that, I think that there would be that space for consideration of the views of the religious order. So religion is actually extremely important, if I’m to lead a campaign in the Northeast, if I’m to challenge extremism in the Northeast, I certainly would use religious leaders because they are very highly respected within their communities, so yes it is important to that extent.

PT: Has there been any kind of collaboration between AUN and other universities in this region to ensure the spread of this IAmABeliever campaign?

Jacob: Yes, we collaborated with… we actually took the campaign to MAUTECH: Modibbo Adama University of Technology (former Federal University of Technology Yola). Then we also took the campaign to the Adamawa State University in Mubi, they are gladly helping us to organize events there. So what we have developed for Beliepedia, it’s out there for the world to use, the website is there and people have been leaving comments there. So it’s our campaign gift to the world and it’s available for anybody to use. But again let’s not forget this, it’s a student’s campaign, it’s a course, so at the end of the course students of that course move on to do another course because it’s a class project. Like now there’s a totally different set of students in that same course but it’s the same competition that they’ve registered for, this time for the global so it’s a course and whatever they will develop like short videos like this and whole range of other things they are developing. I don’t know if you saw that #schoolgirlsnotsuicidebombers, so trying to see how we can get that to trend as well, so yes, the semester has come to an end although they are still working on this campaign, they’ll end the campaign middle of June. But at the end of the day they will be gone and a new set of students come in but then again these are proof of concerts…Facebook is particularly interested in our campaign this #schoolgirlsnotsuicidebombers school campaign and I’m optimistic that we may at the end of the day get their support even at the end of the competition to get this going on.

PT: It appears this course was built into the school curriculum year because of the location where you are operating?

Jacob: Well, the course Public Diplomacy and Strategic Media Intervention is one of the courses we have in CMD. It was introduced in 2015, one of the first things when I became Chair of Communications and Multimedia Design programme I looked at the curriculum and felt that we need to look at what the field is like in various parts of the world and make it more aligned with current challenges and the challenges of tthis region as well. It wasn’t created for the purpose of this competition but it’s one of the courses we have and it fits in really well with the competition.

PT: We spoke with two of the students that won in Accra, now that another set will be carrying on at the global level, those who won in Accra are they still around or they have graduated?

Jacob: A few of them are gone, a few of them have graduated, we have a totally new set now. The campaign has slightly changed from what it was before, before it was IAmABeliever, this time it’s IAmABeliever2, the two there is like the part two of IAmABeliever but it’s also like I am a believer also. The purpose of the other campaign was that in addition to being a believer, I’m also a father, mother, brother, an artisan and so on, so don’t look at me based only on my faith but look at me also as a fellow father in that sense, a fellow mother. This time it’s slightly changed, I am a believer also, I am not an infidel, I am also a believer in that sense, trying to make it a lot more assertive.

PT: I want to bring you back to the issue of research, you said one of the problems is basically because we walked away from research, now we know as a university what they do generally is to make this research and it’s expected that our government picks such research to solve societal issues. So how would you describe the attitude of our government towards the use of university research?

Jacob: I think the government can do more to support research, one of the very strong criticisms if I should say is the way the TETFUND is used. TETFUND should be primarily used for research, the money there should not be used for constructing buildings, it’s not really buildings that make a university. So I think there should be research councils in this country and we should support research because that is what would make this country great, that is how we can harness the energy of youth… There’s got to be government councils, research councils that form research not just government councils but organizations. I really think that one of the things this government can do is there should be a tax for research, there should be a tax for organizations, multinational organizations working in this country should pay some kind of tax to funding research in universities. A state of emergency should be declared in the educational sector in this country because I think we are letting the young men and women of this country down.

When you go to most public universities what you see there is an utter tragedy, then you see 1.7million applying for how many places in the university. So you admit 20 percent, even if u admit 50 percent, what happens to the remaining 50 percent? The 800,000 men and women? These are people who want to go to school. I think if we invest more in research, every university should have various research centres. One of the things I forgot to mention is, the School of Arts and Sciences, we created a research impact committee to, at least some of the projects we are doing to see how we can collaborate with the organizations out there to take them out and find ways to commission this project.

PT: When you look at government attitude to education, where do you see the country in the near future in terms of education?

Jacob: Well, we look at where we have come from and where we are now right now. Look at how universities were 20, 30 even 40 years ago, public universities in our days and if you look at where we are now… the glory days of Nigerian universities are gone, and the professors are not really motivating. Then, if current trends continues 20, 30 years from now it will still be a struggle, except there is a huge intervention, there’s got to be an intervention, there’s got to be there has to be a national emergency on education not just at the tertiary level. Because we have students that come into this university, try to come into this university and they cannot read well or write well, and you become very ashamed. I’ve had NYSC folks posted and before I accept them I ask them to write a little essay on anything they want to write about. And what I see is shameful. At the end of the day you just ask yourself… look, within a university you have only four years, how do you use four years to undo a damage that took 12 years to be done? So you look at secondary schools, I mean, we’ve let down our kids in secondary schools and in primary schools, so they go through primary school, secondary school, cannot read and write and you expect a miracle to happen in the university, it will never happen. So it’s a national emergency that has to…at the primary schools, secondary schools and the universities.

PT: Most stakeholders have been saying the quality of our graduates is very poor and recently in view of that the National University Commission decided to review our curriculum, do you think that is where the problem lies?

Jacob: You know you always have to review your curriculum, every university should periodically review its curriculum. But that’s routine, there’s nothing exciting about waking up in the morning and having a shower because it’s routine, so there’s nothing exciting about reviewing curriculum, there’s going to be deeper and broader intervention to it.


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  • thusspokez

    For goodness sake, the answers are too long. It is only in Nigeria that interviewers allows interviewees to give such marathon responses With an abundance of stuff to read online and a busy lifestyle of the modern man, who has the time to read the complete response?

    • 0racle

      I do.