The winner of this year’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award sees hope in bringing education to the children of Boko Haram, the militant group in northeastern Nigeria that with its very name opposes Western education. Zannah Mustapha has made it his mission to provide a better future through education for the children displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency.
Mustapha sees his role as that of an umpire arbitrating between competing forces. As a lawyer, he is considered well suited for this role and has successfully mediated between the Nigerian Government and Boko Haram for the release of 103 girls held hostage, including 82 of the so-called Chibok girls.
As an educator who has admitted children of Boko Haram widows into his school, he has gained the trust of the militant group. The irony of teaching the children of Boko Haram insurgents who with the very name of their group proclaim that "Western Education is Forbidden" is not lost on him. Despite the group’s brutality, he told VOA, Boko Haram is concerned about the welfare of its children.
Mustapha recalled how during a period when tensions were high he called some of the Boko Haram widows and said “… well, let us come and find a way - something that will say this is what we can do.”
Mustapha said he has accommodated Boko Haram’s religious precepts by agreeing to have girls wearing the hijab and knee-length dresses and by asking the mothers to spell out what they wanted for their children.
“Do you want to have futures for these children?” he asked. “How do you plan one? They said we should teach them the Koran. I said yes. We accepted Koran would be one and then English and Math.… I did not introduce anything to them. I made them to say it - that they want it.”
Mustapha opened a school in Maiduguri, Nigeria, for displaced and orphaned children back in 2007, two years before the insurgency began. These children now have completed secondary school and are preparing to go to university.
Zannah Mustapha sees his classrooms as a sign of the reconciliation he hopes to achieve in this war-torn region.