Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer in Borno State who negotiated the release of Chibok girls from Boko Haram captivity, has won $150, 000 UN prize for providing an education to children caught up in conflict in the northeast part of the country.
The Nansen Refugee Award, which is bestowed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), has been won in the past by Eleanor Roosevelt and Luciano Pavarotti, and the winner receives $150,000 to fund a project complementing their existing work.
Mustapha is the founder of two schools offering free education, meals and healthcare to its pupils, and even enrol children born to Boko Haram fighters to learn alongside those orphaned by the Islamist group’s eight-year insurgency.
“I am exceedingly happy and motivated to do more … I will scale up my efforts,” Mustapha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.
“Some of the students that started in my school have graduated, and they are now going into university — I can use this money to help them complete the cycle,” Mustapha added.
Speaking with the UNHCR about the school, he said: “This is the place where every child matters, no matter what religion, background or culture… Our aim is make positive changes on their lives.”
A former barrister turned property developer, Mustapha set up the school for orphans and vulnerable children in 2007.
He was concerned by the growing numbers of children on the streets of Maiduguri – the heart of an insurgency that has killed an estimated 20,000 people and displaced some 2.3 million others.
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.
“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,” he added.
“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.”
His first venture, Future Prowess, opened a decade ago and was the only school in Borno State to remain open when Boko Haram began its brutal campaign to carve out an Islamic state in 2009.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi hailed Mustapha for helping to foster peace and rebuild communities devastated by violence.
“Education is one of the most powerful tools for helping refugee children overcome the horrors of violence and forced displacement,” Grandi said in a statement.
It empowers young people, equips them with skills and works to counter exploitation and recruitment by armed groups.”
Mustapha’s work also includes helping to negotiate the release of more than 100 of the 220-odd girls snatched from their school in Chibok in April 2014.
The return of 82 of the girls in May marked the second group release of the Chibok girls by the militants — with both deals brokered by Switzerland and the Red Cross and mediated by Mustapha — after a group of 21 were freed in October last year.
A few others have escaped or been rescued but it is believed that about 113 of the girls are still held captive by Boko Haram.
Mustapha will be presented with his award in Geneva early next month.