Maiduguri-based philanthropist, Zannah Mustapha, has won the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 2017 Nansen Refugees Award.
Notable for his humanitarian activities, including catering for hundreds of children orphaned by the nearly a decade long Boko Haram insurgency, Mustapha is the founder and Director of Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School.
The Nigerian laureate was unveiled today in Abuja and would be formally presented to the world later at an elaborate ceremony to be held in Geneva, Switzerland.
The award included a commonwealth medal and monetary prize of 100,000 dollars donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to begin a project in consultation with UNHCR.
UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugees Council said today that Mustapha was chosen as the winner of the award for his humanitarian works in championing the rights of children.
Mustapha was instrumental to the release of many of the over two hundred school girls abducted in Chibok, Borno State in 2014.
His foundation in Maiduguri remained a life-line for hundreds for pupils who had nowhere to turn to after the death of their fathers in the protracted Boko Haram crisis.
Mustapha's orphanage remained widely opened with pupils attending classes at a time when most schools in Borno and neighboring states were forced to remain closed because of the insurgency.
Over 100,000 people were killed, according to authorities and over two million others forced to vacate their homes since 2009.
The United Nations officials noted that Mustapha’s NGO not only provided education for children but also catered to the needs of orphans, widows and abandoned children affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, thereby bringing succour to them.
In a statement issued in Geneva today, Mr Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “Education is one of the most powerful tools for helping refugee children overcome the horrors of violence and forced displacement.
“It empowers young people, equips them with skills and works to counter exploitation and recruitment by armed groups.
“Conflict can leave children with physical and emotional scars that are deep and lasting as it forces them from their homes, exposes them to unspeakable atrocities and often rips apart their families.
“The work Mustapha and his team are doing is of the utmost importance, helping to foster peaceful coexistence and rebuild communities in North-Eastern Nigeria.
“With this award, we honour his vision and services,’’ Grandi said.
Mr Jose-Antonio Canhandula, UNHCR Representative to Nigeria, said that Mustapha was recognised for his efforts in championing the rights of children.
“In addition to his education work, Mustapha has demonstrated commitment to helping all parts of the society affected by the conflict which includes setting up cooperatives for widows and supporting nearly 600 women in Maiduguri.
“The UNHCR recognises his role as a mediator between the government and the insurgents for the release of the 82 chibok girls and the 21 young women held captive by Boko Haram for two years,’’ Canhandula said.
In a separate statement, the Secretary-general of Norwegian Refugees Council, Jan Egeland, said that the recognition of Mustapha’s brave works highlighted the importance of education for the future of Nigeria.
“Schools lie at the heart of a society and destroying them crushes the chance of Nigeria’s next generation succeeding,’’ Egeland said.
Speaking with our correspondent on phone, Mustapha said he was happy with award, saying it would emboldened his humanitarian initiatives.
He said at the time he established the foundation, the Boko Haram crisis was not there.
"I am therefore honoured to be listed among great icons in the world," and would not relent in my effort to see a world where everyone is treated fairly," he said.
He said that in just a decade since its inception, the school had recorded tremendous success, which gave him the assurance that peaceful reconciliation through education and integration was achievable.
The Future Prowess was founded in 2007 to provide free education, meals, uniforms and healthcare to children and orphans among others, in an effort to engender peace and reconciliation.
“We started with 36 students and have graduated more than 1,000 students; enrolled 626 in 2017, more than half of whom are girls, including 186 IDPs with 5,000 on the waiting list.
“These children include children from both the military and the Boko Haram and they have grown to see themselves as one.
“If it continues like this, then we are sure of peaceful reconciliation and an end to the insurgency,’’ Mustapha said.
The UNHCR Nansen Refugees award was established in 1954 and awarded annually to an individual, group or organization in recognition of outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced and stateless persons.