Zannah Mustapha, a quietly spoken 58-year-old lawyer has been named the 2017 winner of UNHCR’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, and it is a well-deserved honor.
Mustapha was the man who negotiated the release of some Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. But that’s not all he’s known for. He is the founder of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School – a school Mustapha set up for orphans and vulnerable children in the northeastern region of Nigeria in 2007. The school accepts children of all religions and background and it’s free.
“This is the place where every child matters, no matter what religion, background or culture… Our aim is make positive changes on their lives,” Mustapha explained in an interview with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The former barrister turned property developer set up the school because he was concerned by the growing numbers of children on the streets of the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri where so many people have been killed and a lot more displaced as a result of an insurgency.
He feared growing insecurity and the ensuing military crackdown was producing a generation of children with no education and that this would in turn create even more problems for one of the poorest regions of the country.
He said: “There were children everywhere, on the streets all alone… If they have no education what will happen to them… I kept wondering what would happen to my daughter if I died, who would pay for her education? I realized I had to act.”
“When I was a young man growing up you did not see this sort of thing. The family looked after orphans, but this has become more and more difficult,” he added
With the help and support of a small group of friends with whom he regularly used to play table tennis, his favourite hobby, he decided to create the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation to house a school and other charitable bodies to help the victims of all sides of the insurgency.
Pointing at a tree-covered corner of his large compound – the fruit of a successful property deal – he said: “That is where we used to play ping-pong, but I decided I did not need that much space. I replaced the tables with a small building for… children.”
From the seed of that building today has grown a school with 540 pupils, of whom 282 are girls. There is a waiting list of another 2,000. In the headmaster’s office, piles of applications are stacked together in one corner.
“We simply cannot keep up with demand,” says Suleiman Aliyu, who has been at the school since its creation.
“This place is protected because all sides of the conflict are represented here and we teach Islamic and so-called Western education. We teach Arabic, French, English, Maths – this is all Mustapha’s achievement. A child is a child to him whatever its background.
Mustapha’s philanthropy has won many admirers. Unlike senior politicians, he has no enemies and links to all sides of the conflict. This led to him becoming one of the chief mediators in efforts to obtain the release of the Chibok schoolgirls who gained worldwide attention when they were abducted by Boko Haram militants in April 2014.
276 girls were kidnapped in all from a school in Chibok. 57 managed to escape, but the rest were taken to Sambisa forest. Mustapha made contact with the abductors and, after a series of confidence-building measures, he was able to negotiate the release of 21 girls. Last May he had a major breakthrough, when another 82 girls were set free.