Using Education as a Tool to Raise Ethical Leaders in the Sahel

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Aug 24, 2020
by Mira Merchant
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Using Education as a Tool to Raise Ethical Leaders in the Sahel

Through his work with the African Development University, Salzburg Global Fellow Oyindamola Johnson hopes to change the higher education system of the Sahel Photo: Oyindamola Johnson

It has been said that education is the best way out of poverty. Nowhere is this maxim more applicable than the Sahel region of Africa, where 80 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.

The Sahel, a biogeographic zone separating the Sahara desert to the north and the tropical savannas to the south, is a region where opportunities and challenges equally abound. In past decades, issues from drought-induced famine to political instability have plagued the nearly 100 million people in the region.

Despite this, there is tremendous potential in the Sahel, particularly in the form of human resources. One Salzburg Global Fellow hopes to take advantage of this by educating the next generation of African leaders.

Since June 2020, Oyindamola Johnson has served as the chief operating officer (COO) of the African Development University (A.D.U.) in Niamey, Niger. As one of the first nonprofit universities in the Sahel, A.D.U. has been in operation since 2017, and is dedicated to “educating the most promising young people in the region.” As COO, Johnson oversees people, processes, and products.

“When we talk about people, we're talking about human capital. We're talking about our staff, the people that we work with, the people that make up A.D.U. … I also work with our students… In terms of process, it's pretty much… putting in place processes [and] structures to ensure that the university keeps running. The third is the product… [that] we are offering. We're offering learning to [our students, who] I see… as our customers.”

In his role, Johnson strives to create a holistic learning experience for A.D.U.’s students. A.D.U. goes beyond the classroom and provides students with extracurricular and professional development opportunities. Johnson hopes this will help students fulfill A.D.U.’s mission of educating promising young people in the region to become ethical leaders, who will then go on to shape the future of their nations.

Described as “the first institution to offer world-class education for young people from the Sahel region,” A.D.U. has been operating for the past three years under the supervision of the president and founder, Kader Kaneye.

Johnson says, “The idea for A.D.U. came… while [Kaneye] was studying in Harvard… [he] asked himself, ‘What exactly is stopping us from bringing this level of education back to Africa? Do we always need to travel to Harvard to get this kind of quality education?’”

Johnson describes the education system in Niger as ineffective but recognizes that not
every Nigerien can go all the way to Harvard to receive a quality education. So, A.D.U. hopes to bring Harvard-calibre education to the Sahel by modeling its learning after Harvard and other top universities in Africa and around the world.

Running a university is a herculean task, particularly in such an unstable region, but this has not stopped Johnson from setting lofty goals for A.D.U.’s future. In the coming years, he hopes to expand the physical campus, provide more resources to students, and position A.D.U. to serve in a mentorship capacity for other universities in Africa. A notable goal of his is to increase A.D.U.’s population from approximately 200 students today to 10,000 students in the next few years.

Johnson is especially passionate about his work because he has seen firsthand how education can provide youth with stability amidst conflict, as a means of improving their life. He says, “I have seen what the power of education can be... Irrespective of conflict that is happening, we still have young people trying to push for change and trying to advocate for change.”

Last year, Johnson was motivated to apply to take part in the Asia Peace Innovators Forum to share his experiences with education and conflict and to learn from others doing similar work. Having spent the last decade working across four continents, he was particularly interested to learn from the global perspectives of the fellowship, saying, “I am someone who believe[s] in global partnerships [and] global collaborations.”

“One thing that really, really made me connect to [the Salzburg Global Fellowship] was the quality of the people… They spanned across different generations. We have people far advanced in their careers; we have the younger ones and others. And they are all sharing experiences from different years.”

Johnson hopes to forge a similar wide-reaching network at A.D.U., which recently celebrated an exciting milestone: the graduation of its first-ever cohort. Despite the ceremony being cancelled due to COVID-19, Johnson has high hopes for the graduates’ futures.

“In the next five, 10 years, when you’re looking at some of the leading groups, leading institutions, leading corporations in Africa, I see A.D.U. graduates there playing a key role… That's really what we're preparing them for… [I see] the university being able to play a key role in developing human capital for the development of Africa.”

The United Nations has called the Sahel the “land of opportunity.” Oyindamola Johnson hopes to make this a reality for every student that passes through the doors of A.D.U. – and he is well on his way to doing so.


Oyindamola Johnson is a Salzburg Global Fellow who is currently taking part in the Asia Peace Innovators Forum, a program held in partnership with the Nippon Foundation. Sign up for our newsletter here to receive updates about this program.