The faded sign outside the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School declares: “The school where every child matters”.
That is the mantra of its founder Zannah Mustapha, a quietly spoken 58-year-old lawyer who has been named the 2017 winner of UNHCR’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award.
“This is the place where every child matters, no matter what religion, background or culture… Our aim is make positive changes on their lives,” he explained in an interview with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
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 the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri – the heart of an insurgency which has killed an estimated 20,000 people and displaced some 2.3 million others.
"If they have no education what will happen to them."
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.”
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 6,000 square-metre 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.”
In keeping with Mustapha’s deep belief in inclusivity, those at the school come from both Christian and Muslim families and from both sides of the conflict. They pay no fees, the main barrier to thousands of poor Nigerians receiving basic education.
“Those affected by the insurgency must be given a lifeline to carry on, they must be encouraged in life,” he said animatedly over a lunch of roasted meat, spices and bread. Dressed in a traditional dark blue robe, he spoke of the importance of providing “lifelines” so people displaced by the conflict can lead self-sustaining lives.
In addition to school, his foundation has created an association for widows and given land to other displaced people to farm.
Many of the children at the school are orphans, but they are mixed in with the children of teachers, security guards, and some of the younger children of Mustapha himself. Some had parents who were with Boko Haram, others in the security forces that fought them.
“Here, we are all one… and that is what matters,” Mustapha said. “The message I want to send is that we are caught in an inseparable net of mutuality. As humanity we are bounded by one nation, so we need to be our brother’s keeper… We have to be one – and not only be one but seen to be one.”
"This man has changed the life of so many people here."
Such is demand that Mustapha’s Foundation has now set up a second school, situated on the banks of River Gadabul. This school currently has 88 pupils, but will in time be much larger and have its own sleeping quarters.
Near the school, Mustapha had made available some 16 hectares of land, which is farmed by displaced people living in nearby shelters, provided by UNHCR and its partners.
“This man has changed the life of so many people here. He has provided free farmland, free education, he even gave us seeds at the start and planted his own crop to show us what could be done,” said Sharif Abubakar, who fled his home after it was overrun by Boko Haram two years ago and is now the head of the foundation’s farm project.
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.
Altogether 276 girls were kidnapped. In the confusion immediately after the kidnapping, 57 managed to escape, but the rest were driven far into the 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.
“They were brought to a pre-arranged place not far from the border with Cameroon and one by one they came forward and identified themselves… As they realized what was happening they were very excited and happy,” he recalled with a broad smile. “I am sure more will come out soon.”