DRIVEN by his passion to help, Zanna Muhammed, a barrister-turned-property developer, literally staked his life to offer, using his personal means, education to children orphaned by the rampaging Boko Haram Islamic sect.
Boko Haram (whose adopted name loosely translates ‘western education is forbidden’) has been on a murderous crusade to destroy anything western education, with everyone that subscribes to it.
Its theatre of operation has been the northeastern part of Nigeria, where it has destroyed schools and killed over 20,000 people, Christians and Muslims alike, and displaced an estimated 2.3 million others in the past few years.
It, therefore, amounts to near suicide for a northern Muslim who has acquired western education to be the one providing the very thing the sect claims it abhors to children in the zone.
But this is what Zanna Muhammed has been doing, at the cost of his life.
His Future Prowess Islamic Foundation Schools, two of the remaining primary schools in Maiduguri, are providing oasis for children where they could once again have “hopes, dreams and a future.”
Efforts of Zanna Muhammed eventually caught the attention of the United Nations.
Zanna Muhammed on Monday became the first Nigerian recipient of the annual United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for 2017.
At a star-studded event on Monday October 2, 2017 at the Batiment des Forces Motrices, Geneva, the modest former barrister-turned-property developer joined the long line of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” to be conferred with the annual award.
Mustapha set up his school for the orphans and vulnerable children in 2007 after witnessing growing numbers of children on the streets of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.
While presenting the award, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, praised Zanna Muhammed, 58, as “a man of courage and a man of peace.”
Zanna Muhammed set up the school fearing that the growing insecurity and the resultant military crackdown in the region was producing a generation of children with no education, and would in turn cause even more problems for one of the poorest regions of the country.
He dedicated the award to the children, widows, teachers and his own family who, he said, had shown enormous courage in difficult times.
He said: “We have witnessed unprecedented destructions to human beings in north-east Nigeria. The level of devastation to children and women is unparalleled in the history of the region.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would see these children progressing in such a traumatic period in their lives. When I look at the children’s faces I see resilience and stability. I feel utter contentment when I walk through the school gates. I have a vision for peace in Nigeria; that one day, these children will heal the wounds that have been left behind by the insurgency.”
The event was hosted by British broadcaster, Anita Rani, herself the grand-daughter of refugees.
She introduced a host of performers, including Syrian violinist Mariela Shaker, Japanese rock star Miyavi, and Nigerian Afro-beat drummer, Tony Allen.
Previous winners of the award include Graça Machel, Luciano Pavarotti and Eleanor Roosevelt.
To a standing ovation, Mustapha concluded his speech: “Before I leave this ceremony I have an important message for you. We are not in a journey to be the same, but we are in a journey to understand our differences and overcome our adversity. That we can achieve with education.”
Mustapha, it would be recalled, negotiated the release of 82 of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram from Chibok in 2014.
He played a crucial role mediating between the Nigerian government and the Islamists for the release of the abducted schoolgirls.
More than 100 of the 276 girls are presumed to still be in the custody of the sect.
At Mustapha’s schools, volunteer teachers provide the pupils with free education, as well as free meals, uniforms and healthcare.
“We have the largest number of girls in school in the whole of the region,” Mustapha told the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Newsday programme.
According to him, children of a “senior member of the insurgents” are studying there.